Lucknow had still not fully woken up as I took a rickshaw from my hotel in the chaos surrounding the railway station to classical Chattar Manzil built by Frenchman Claude Martin, hidden behind the wide leafy avenues of Qaiser Bagh. “We start at 7:30 am,” the guide at Uttar Pradesh Tourism had informed me over the phone.
I was the only person on the walk which revealed a Lucknow far removed from its iconic Nawabi heritage precinct—a side of Lucknow brimming with lesser recounted stories and unsullied beauty. From this one walk, further stemmed, a series of explorations to equally lesser known parts of the city, spanning a few centuries and a few geographies.
The sum of all these detours was an affirmation that there are two parts to every place’s lure. One, those that get touted, and have travellers and tourists alike clambering to check them off their list. These are the ones which make it to backdrops of selfies, travel guides, and blogs galore. And then there is the other part. The ones which often remain forgotten in the pages of history or are so embedded in local life they remain hidden from the casual outside eye.
This post is about those hidden gems and travel experiences in Lucknow. The Lucknow beyond its obvious attractions. Read on and you’ll know why they made it to this list. 😊
1. Discover Qaiser Bagh and the story of the last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, and his first wife Begum Hazrat Mahal on a heritage walk
A 19th Century engraved drawing of Qaiser Bagh with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah accompanied by his entourage.
General Kothi or Jarnail Kothi gets its name from the General [during Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s reign] who used to live here.
The centrepiece of the lesser known Lucknow is Kaiser Bagh or Qaiser Bagh—a palace complex comprising several buildings and gardens constructed under the orders of the 11th and last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah (1847 – 56). He envisioned it as a paradise.
Paintings and photographs of Qaiser Bagh taken before 1857 indicate two identical entry-exit gates known as Lakhi gates, because the cost of each was one lakh Rupees, and a charbagh-styled garden in its centre. The enclosed area was called Paree Khana or Place of Fairies where the queens of Wajid Ali Shah lived and he, enamoured by the Hindu god Krishna, enacted the Ras Leela in Kathak dance with 365 young girls.
When Wajid Ali Shah was exiled in 1856 by the British East India Company, followed by the annexure of the city, his first wife Begum Hazrat Mahal took over control of the royal family. Of particular historical importance is her leadership of India’s first War of Independence [also referred to as the Indian Mutiny] in 1857 in Lucknow. On regaining power, the Company was quick to order the demolition of Qaiser Bagh as it was the stronghold of the uprising in the city. Before 1857 there were 94 palaces inside the walls of Qaiser Bagh. Now there are merely 8-10.
Wajid Ali Shah was an artist more than a ruler, and perhaps that is why it was easy for the British to bloodlessly remove him from power. Dance, music, poetry, and the arts appealed way more to him than politics and strategy. The very revival of Kathak as a classical dance form is credited to him.
Most of the palaces have changed names and purpose over the past 150 years since its demise. But the stories are still there. As much a part of Lucknow as its grander tales.
Where is it? The area is best discovered through a heritage walk run by Uttar Pradesh Tourism.
Left: The 11th and last Nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, who built Qaiser Bagh; Right: One of the two Lakhi gates which lead into the complex.
Left: Sufaid Baradari, now a banquet hall, used to be a place of mourning during Muharram in Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s time; Right: Begum Hazrat Mahal, the Nawab’s first wife who led the 1857 Indian First Independence War against the British in Lucknow.
Tomb of Khurshid Zadi, wife of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan (1798 – 1814) forms part of the twin tombs in which she and her husband lie interred.
2. Reflect on India’s First Independence War in 1857 and the alliance between Lucknow’s Nawabs and the British East India Company at Dilkusha Kothi
Three elegant homes of Europeans in India line the left bank of the Gomti river in Lucknow, synonymous with colonial rule and all it stood for. That they formed the primary target of the Indian First Independence War’s line of attack in 1857 is, thus, no surprise. For the native Indians the three homes symbolised all they wanted to purge India of—of foreign occupation permitted by the Nawabs of Awadh who ruled from Lucknow.
Whilst The Residency was the largest, and housed the most powerful officers of the British East India Company in the city, the others represented colonial power, albeit indirectly. One was a mansion called Dilkusha Kothi built by the 6th Nawab Saadat Ali Khan, and the second, La Martiniere Boys College, a private elite school.
Dilkusha in Urdu means “my heart is happy.” An appropriate name as its high-ceilinged English Baroque edifice, initially intended to be a hunting lodge, was the site of grand balls and decadent parties hosted by the Nawabs for their English friends.
The multi-storied residence, completed in 1805, was designed by British resident Major-Commander Gore Ouseley on the lines of Seaton Delaval Hall in England. All that remains of the site are a handful of crumbling towers and external walls surrounded by emerald green lawns. But understand Dilkusha Kothi deeper and it is where Lucknow’s Nawabs and India’s colonial rulers celebrated their alliance.
Where is it? Dilkusha Kothi is in Dilkusha, a residential area 2 kilometres away from Hazratganj in Central Lucknow.
3. Be charmed by Frenchman Major-General Claude Martin’s fairy-tale palatial home in Lucknow, La Constantia, now La Martiniere College
One of India’s most fascinating connections with France is through an 18th Century Frenchman called Claude Martin. Born to a casket maker and butcher’s daughter in Lyon in 1735, Martin was a soldier, architect, builder, collector, connoisseur, hot air balloonist, banker, businessman, self-surgeon, philanthropist, and educator all rolled into one, living the life of a Nawab in Lucknow.
Self-made and self-educated, Martin rose in power and ranking as an employee of the British East India Company and the Nawabs of Awadh. By the time he died he had amassed a large amount of wealth which he decided to will to the establishment of three learning institutions in Lucknow, Calcutta, and his home town Lyon in France.
His personal home, La Constantia, hence became La Martiniere Boys College in 1845. It is a fairy-tale mansion filled with turrets and gargoyles piled atop Georgian columns in a mélange of Italian, Hindu, and Mughal architectural styles. Martin’s tomb lies in the basement. La Martiniere Girls College was added to the campus in 1869.
During India’s First Independence War in 1857 the elitist school, along with the neighbouring Residency and Dilkusha Kothi, became prime targets. The students are said to have fought hard and brave to protect Company-ruled Lucknow; their valour eventually rewarded with the Royal Battle Honours. La Martiniere Boys College is the only school in the world to receive this award.
Where is it? La Martiniere College is in Martin Purva, next to Dilkusha Kothi.
4. Step back in time into the British Raj at Christ Church built in honour of the British soldiers who died during the 1857 Indian Mutiny
A towering spire perched atop a belfry sears the sky with a mounted cross. Jewel-coloured stained-glass windows tell stories of Christ and the Bible to the 130-faithful gathered inside. Marble tablets and polished brass plaques line the walls eulogising the British army offices, civilians, and clergy who died during conflict with the “natives.”
Christ Church is a sight borrowed straight out of Victorian England and placed in the British Raj’s Jewel of the Crown—India.
Completed in 1860 and designed by General Hutchinson, the Gothic-styled church topped with 20 steeples, is a memorial to the valiant British who died during the Indian Mutiny in 1857. The Mutiny was indigenous India’s first large-scale revolt against the British who came under the guise of trade and ended up ruling the sub-continent using a “divide and rule” strategy.
In Christ Church the heroes and heroines celebrated in the 5-month massacre are from the British camp. The adversity overcome is the Indians’ demand for freedom. Every coin has two sides. Every event two perspectives. Christ Church is the British Raj’s version of the Indian Mutiny and their response to it.
Where is it? Christ Church is inside Christ Church College on Mahatma Gandhi Marg, Hazratganj.
5. Dig into Lucknow’s most mouth-watering kababs at Tunday Kababi made from one-handed [tunday] Haji Murad Ali’s 1905 secret recipe
A visit to Lucknow and not had its kababs? The two are almost synonymous with each other, said in the same breath by many a food connoisseur. Of all the places you could have this famed dish, one stands out head and shoulders above the rest. It is Tunday Kababi. Better known for its buffalo meat galouti kababs [still served in its first outlet deep in the chowk (market)], the chicken, mutton, and vegetarian kababs now on the menu at its Aminabad branch are no less spectacular.
What adds to the magic of Tunday Kababi is its story—a story of the softest, most succulent kabab and the man who came up with the recipe way back in 1905, Haji Murad Ali, who had lost his left hand while flying a kite on his terrace. “Tunday” in Urdu means one who has a hand disability.
It all started with a contest set by a Nawab from the ruling family who loved kababs but was toothless. The prize? The one who made the “softest, most succulent kababs would enjoy royal patronage henceforth.” Haji Murad Ali won the contest with a secret recipe using a combination of 160 spices. This recipe has stayed within his family since, passing down 110 years and three generations.
There could be no better way of putting a cherry on the cake, sorry, a Lucknawi kabab on your plate, during your stay in the city, wouldn’t you agree? ❤
Where is it? The original Tunday Kababi is still in Lucknow’s Chowk. An updated version is in Aminabad.