This biography of Lucknow dwells on its past to tell stories perilously close to being forgotten

Today Lucknow is a pale shadow of its former glory but practices from the nineteenth century have deep roots. This has made it possible for contemporary citizens to occasionally glimpse bits and pieces left over from that golden age, whether it is in the kiss of the purvaiya, the gentle easterly breeze at sunset, in a morsel of biryani, or in the surprise repartee of a blue-blooded resident of Lucknow.

Before the nineteenth century, Lucknow was little more than a bustling bazaar, just another trading post on the banks of the Gomti. Trade boats ferrying goods between the coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal and the agriculturally rich heartland of the Indian subcontinent had made this place a hub of enviable commercial activity.

Lucknow was always rich in trade. However, the place was rustic in appearance. Most of the land around Lucknow was split into small fiefdoms owned by many, often warring, landlords. After he chose Lucknow as his capital in 1775, Asaf-ud-Daula, the city’s first monarch, infused aesthetics into the hectic agricultural activities of the grain market, transforming it into a sophisticated seat of government. Soon, Lucknow’s eminence as the home of an increasingly urbane population spread far and wide.

Asaf-ud-Daula had inherited a lone fort on one of the many hillocks along the banks of the river. Known as Macchi Bhawan, Asaf-ud-Daula’s great-grandfather had captured the fort in 1722 from the sheikhzadas, a family of local landlords.

The common ancestor of the sheikhzadas was Sheikh Abdur Rahim, who built the fort in the sixteenth century, having received Lucknow and the lush fields surrounding it as a gift from the Mughal emperor Akbar. Below the fort was a crowded market and the area was congested with the houses of wealthy merchants and poor peasants.

Neither Asaf-ud-Daula nor his descendants lived in the fort. It was used as an armoury. During the 1857 War of Independence, the fort was blown up by the British, destroying all the ammunition and firearms stored there. For nearly half a century, the hillock lay covered in thick Lakhnawi dust. In the early twentieth century, local landlords raised funds to clear the debris and to build the King George Medical University and Hospital on the ruins of Macchi Bhawan.

Today, the hill is bustling with thousands of medical students and even more patients from all over the country. The imposing façade of the medical university from 1911 is designed in the Indo-Saracenic style and painted a glistening white, as if forever washed in moonlight. The campus has been immortalised on screen by director Mira Nair as Brahmpur University from Vikram Seth’s novel, A Suitable Boy. Nair spent the entire autumn of 2019 in Lucknow, filming the award-winning novel for the BBC.

Asaf-ud-Daula was the fourth in a line of eleven rulers over eight decades. The patriarch of the Nawabi dynasty was an economic migrant who found employment in Delhi as a soldier in the eighteenth century. He was born in Nishapur, Khorasan, in modern-day Iran and was given charge of the Mughal emperor’s territory in a region which had Faizabad as its capital. This was two decades before the birth of Asaf-ud-Daula in 1748.

Asaf-ud-Daula’s love for poetry was a gift from his ancestors. He married his passion for classical Persian poetry with folk music and the language spoken by those living in and around Lucknow.

Asaf-ud-Daula was born in Faizabad. He never travelled to Iran but learnt to appreciate Persian poets like Nizami and Saadi. The Persians were so passionate about poetry that even scientific treatises were often penned in verse in medieval times.

Dr Mostafa Vaziri, Iranian physician and anthropologist, told me that the eleventh century polymath Ibn Sina wrote a metrical treatise on medicine. Nasir Khusraw, from the same century, poetised the human anatomy in his writing. Asaf-ud-Daula studied the Khorasani style of lyricism of Manuchehri, the eleventh century court poet from Persia. The verses of Persian poet Hafiz Shirazi put him in touch with his emotions, and he loved the mysticism in the verses of Sufi poets like Fariduddin Attar.

At the age of twenty-six, Asaf-ud-Daula was a reluctant heir. He seemed unprepared to take on the responsibilities of a ruler. He would have preferred to travel and study poetry. Since the responsibility of governance was forced on him, Asaf-ud-Daula decided to govern poetically. He imagined Lucknow not merely as another dot on earth but as a poem.

Asaf-ud-Daula peopled his city with those belonging to different breeds and creeds, making it a tiny mirror image of life itself that thrives on diversity.

He wanted his court to be more gorgeous than any other. He gave the architects around him free rein to transcend the grandeur of the buildings in Delhi, and to make each creation memorable. While his father had lived in a temporary tent city in Faizabad, Asaf-ud-Daula built Daulat Khana, a permanent residence for himself in Lucknow. Most parts of the Daulat Khana have now crumbled but the Bada Imambara, Asafi Mosque, royal water tank and bath, and the Rumi Gate remain the pride of the city and are great tourist attractions.

A confidante of Asaf-ud-Daula was Claude Martin, a French officer whose grand mansion is one of the best preserved buildings from the nineteenth century. In 1840, this mansion was converted into a school – La Martinière College. It ranks as one of the top schools in the country today.

Art collector and engineer Colonel Antoine-Louis Henri de Polier was a friend of Shuja-ud-Daula, father of Asaf-ud-Daula. Polier also worked for Asaf-ud-Daula. He was fluent in Hindustani and Farsi and his interest in Indo-Persian culture led him to put together numerous manuscripts and works of art. Polier was friends with British painters William Hodges and Johann Zoffany.

He discovered local artists in the many by-lanes of Chowk Bazaar, the congested marketplace of the late eighteenth century. He dived into the hustle of the narrow lanes of the main Chowk Bazaar, in step to the sound of silver being beaten into thin wraps for sweetmeats. Behind embroidered shirts and waistcoats, hookahs and shoes, and perfume and silver jewellery, he found artists sitting and painting in the midst of spices and the aroma of fresh jasmine.

Excerpted with permission from A Shadow of the Past: A Short Biography of Lucknow, Mehru Jaffer, Aleph Book House.

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