Lucknow – An Ode To Urbanity

Let’s face it, we are not the most considerate or well mannered of people.

If there is a rule to be broken, a line to be cut, or a traffic light to be jumped, you will likely find an Indian elbowing his way to pole position. Any indignant readers quick to rush to the defense of fellow citizens, are either too privileged to have had their toes crushed at supermarket checkout lines, or are most likely ABCD’s (‘American born confused desis’)! Just so you know, acronyms are another obsession of ours, apart from the breaking of rules that is. Our ruling Bollywood idol is SRK, its aging supremo, BigB, our new prime minister: NaMo, and our blockbuster movie titles no doubt chosen with abbreviations in mind……just try Googling QSQT or DDLJ or YJHD!

But I digress.

This post is about one of few cities in India that has historically belied that norm and is synonymous with refinement and graciousness. Its ‘pehle aap’ tehzeeb (‘thou first’ culture) best epitomized in the story of two local Nawabs, who miss their train in their insistence that the other get on first!

The capital of the most populous state in India, and situated 40 miles West of Ayodhya, the birth place of the Hindu God Ram,  Lucknow is said to have been a gift from Ram himself, to his loyal brother Lakshman. Hence the name Lakhanpur (later Lucknau and the British Lucknow). But any recorded history of importance only dates back to the (14th century) Delhi Sultanate.

The Asafi mosque is the first of the grand building constructed by the Nawabs when the capital of Awadh was permanently transferred from Faizabad to Lucknow by Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah in 1775

The Asafi mosque is the first of the grand building constructed by the Nawabs when the capital of Awadh was permanently transferred from Faizabad to Lucknow by Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah in 1775. In the far center is the rear of the Rumi Darwaza (the gate featured in the thumbnail)

It was the period movie Umrao Jaan, based on the real life experiences of a sophisticated Tawaif (courtesan trained in the arts), that piqued my early interest. That lingering memory of a visual feast said to convey “a flavour of all that was Lucknow – its language, its poetry and music, and the way of life of its citizens“*, influenced our choice for a stopover on the long drive from Agra to Varanasi despite our friends’ skeptical “Lucknow???”

The reality is vastly different from that thirty three year old screen rendering of course. The streets are filthier, the monuments not as spiffy, and the once impeccable zubaan (speech) vastly diluted, at least on the streets. Still, the courtesies are evident in the respectful greetings of ‘adaab‘ and the genuine amity between Hindus and Muslims. This is supposed to be one of few places that has resisted inter-religious strife, and where both communities celebrate Id and Diwali with equal fervour!

I was surprised to learn that Urdu, the lyrical language that the locals hold dear, wasn’t an Islamic import at all, but a highly refined, home grown hybrid of pre-Islamic Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Hindustani dialects that embodied the composite culture of the region. And that its best scholars were Hindu! It eventually replaced Persian as the official language in 1837 (along with English). But partition sadly destroyed its communal nature, permanently associating (Persianised) Urdu with Pakistan and its Sanskritised form – Hindi – with India.

Gate to the Qaiserbagh Palace complex that housed the royal harem. The palaces wee demolished by the British after the rebellion.

Gate to the Qaiserbagh Palace complex that housed the royal harem. (‘Bagh’ is garden, and Lucknow boasted many landscaped parks) The palaces within Qaiserbagh were destroyed by the British after the rebellion, and roads cut through it.

The romance of that urbane speech lingers. Fueled by immortal poetry and music (and Bollywood of course!) that extol the cultural togetherness of a gentler time. And Lucknow is one of the last bastions of that pure spoken word, as well as the harmony. The latter under serious threat from politically induced violence in the towns surrounding it.

Lucknow’s other claim to fame, is the prolonged siege of the British residency during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Some of the fiercest battles of the rebellion were fought here, as proved by the 18 Victoria Crosses awarded to the officers of the Company for action in one single day, and 28 for one single action. A sad record that still holds. A lone memorial commemorates the sacrifice of thousands of rebel lives. The forlorn shell of the abandoned residency houses a small memorial museum.

The murder of the last king – Nawab Siraj ud Daulah – at the end of the war, tolled the death knell for the leisurely Nawabi lifestyle of Awadh, or Oudh as the region was known then. Successive uninspired regional leadership leading up to the present, ensured it never regained its past glory. And the fact that several Prime Ministers hailed from the state made no difference whatsoever.

Lucknow Labyrinth

The Bhool Bhulaiya – labyrinth – on the roof of the Bara Imambara (pronounced ‘Bada Imambara’ meaning Big Shrine)

We had one full day to experience as much of the history of this laid back city as we could. And with the help of Sri. Naved Zia, we set ourselves a comfortable pace including a walk in the old ‘chowk‘ area and some sampling of legendary local fare.

Our first hotel, uncharacteristically chosen on the advice of a local travel agent, turned out to be dire. So we shifted to the nouveau Nawabi environs of the Taj Vivanta. Still haven’t made up my mind which made the dent in R’s wallet more bearable: their tehzeeb or their gilawati kababs.

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* Kushwant Singh and M.A. Husseini in an introduction to the “The Courtesan Of Lucknow”