Delving into the history... of Lucknow

| April 20, 2018

With stiff competition from other northern Indian cities, it is understandable that Lucknow can often be overshadowed. I knew little of the city before I arrived, but it quickly became one of the highlights of my recent tour of northern India. Arriving fresh off a five-hour train journey from Varanasi, the first thing that hit me was the stark contrast from the bustling chaos of cities that I had been accustomed to – the traffic was orderly, streets were less crowded, and the city was quiet. The second thing I noticed was that Lucknow is a beautiful city, echoed by Rudyard Kipling’s quote from Kim: ‘there is no city – except Bombay, the queen of all – more beautiful in her garish style than Lucknow’.

La Martiniere, Lucknow

Before visiting Lucknow, I had always naively assumed that nawabs were kings who lived during the same period as the Mughals but were completely unassociated. The term nawab, however, literally translates from the Persian to mean ‘deputy’ and the title was given by the Mughals to their deputies across northern India. The imbambaras of the nawabs are therefore not to be considered palaces but extravagant halls where religious ceremonies and congregations were held. Under the rule of the nawabs in the 18th century and the British Raj in later years, Lucknow is a melting pot of cultures, which has subsequently led to a blend of architectural styles. Alluring Islamic buildings sit next to fine colonial monuments, but it was often the smaller, subtle differences that were the most interesting. For example, my tour guide was often pointing out discreet markings on houses, which would reveal the faith, culture and lifestyle of its inhabitants.  

Streets of Lucknow

Streets of Lucknow

Of Lucknow’s several imbambaras, the Bara Imambara is by far the most extravagant. It is best appreciated from the top of the adjacent building, known as ‘the maze’. Reaching the top of the maze was an experience in its own right and my guide gave me the task of reaching the top via the labyrinth of passages and staircases. After a series of ‘I’m sure I’ve been here before’ moments and reaching yet another dead end, I finally conceded that I needed assistance. My guide chuckled and effortlessly led me to the top, where we were rewarded a spectacular panoramic view of the city and of the imambara.

Asfi Mosque

Bara Imambara

After the mutiny of 1857, the nawabs and their domains went into decline and their power dissolved. You can still find nawabs in Lucknow today, albeit with little power or influence. It was this mutiny that Lucknow is perhaps best known for, as the city held a significant position in the rebellion. Dissatisfaction at the suppression of Indian customs and religions by the British military exploded into an open rebellion throughout northern Indian and a six-month siege of the Lucknow Residency followed. Walking through the open campus was incredibly fascinating; you can still clearly see bullet and cannon ball holes and the museum does an excellent job at conveying the causes of the mutiny as well as the subsequent actions.

Canon ball hole

A cannon ball hole in the Lucknow Residency

Another of Lucknow’s key sights is the La Martinière College, which also played a key role in the rebellion when students and teachers successfully fought off several attacks from mutineers before evacuating to safety. Today, the college remains the only school in the world to have been awarded royal battle honours. I walked through the college during term time and was able to see classes taking place; it was very difficult to imagine the horrors that took place here all those years ago.

La Martiniere

La Martinière

Considered one of the gastronomical capitals of India, Lucknow’s nawabi heritage has been kept alive by its exquisite Awadhi cuisine, renowned for its scientific and complex techniques. When my colleagues found out I would be travelling to Lucknow, it was the food more than anything that they were excited to tell me about and recommended local dishes for me to try. I managed to try all of the suggestions on a culinary walk of the city, exploring the traditional roadside eateries that are inundated with Lucknowites for almost 24 hours a day. Dum style of cooking over a low heat was invented in the city and is accompanied by an elaborate menu, consisting of: kebabs, kormas, roomali roti, warqi roti, zardi, biryanis and much more. The kebabs were by far my favourite though; once exclusively made for the nawabs of Lucknow, Galawati, Tunday and Boti kebabs eventually filtered down to the general population and became a city favourite.


Lucknow from above

It is not just the food that is culturally native to Lucknow; there are many crafts and art forms that originated in the city. A walk through the city’s many chowks, lanes and bylanes will give you a fantastic insight into the heritage of the city. Chikan embroidery is one of the city’s most successful exports and on a heritage walk of the city you will see many people deeply engrossed in the delicate and intricate hand-made production process.

Chikan silver

Chikan embroidery

Cox & Kings' India: Taj, Tigers & Trains escorted tour spends two days in Lucknow. Alternatively, you can speak to one of our India experts to organise a tailor-made trip to Lucknow.

Silver making

Embellishing silver

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