My last stop in India, before returning to Delhi, was Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh. It was also my last couchsurfing experience: I stayed with Alex, a former artillery officer turned property investor, with an interest in colonial history. We got on well.
Lucknow was one of the key locations in the 1857 Indian Mutiny (which I wrote about previously in the Jhansi and Gwalior post). It was the capital of Awadh (or Oudh to the British), formerly a Mughal province, later a quasi-autonomous kingdom ruled by a Nawab. It was the British overthrow of the Nawab and annexation of Oudh which was one of the causes of the Mutiny. The British garrison in Lucknow were besieged in the Residency complex (the official home of the Resident, the East India Company‘s equivalent of an ambassador to a native state) and held out for six months of intense fighting until relieved. Afterwards, the scarred but still standing Residency building became one of the symbols of British tenacity. I imagine that in India, it was equally powerful as a symbol of continuing oppression.
The Residency is now a protected site under the administration of the Archaeological Survey of India. Several sources, including the Rough Guide and Wikipedia, state that the buildings are preserved in almost the exact condition they were in at the end of the siege. That’s utter rubbish. The evidence which disproves that is on clear display inside the museum at the Residency site: drawings done immediately after the siege show the building still basically intact, with the plaster pockmarked with shell and bullet holes.
The Residency now is a set of barely-standing, crumbling bare-brick ruins. The upper storeys, and all roofs and floors have disappeared; for the most part (with the tower as the main exception), only ground floor walls survive, and then only partially. It’s an atmospheric site and when I first arrived (and still believed the “as at the end of the siege” story) I was quite moved by the pathos of the blasted remains. But its current condition is quite clearly a significant deterioration from that of 1858.
My historian girlfriend has pointed out to me that I shouldn’t accept the 1858 drawings as necessarily accurate: the artist may have had an incentive to represent the Residency as having survived better than it did, to reinforce the idea of British invincibility.
Alex, my host, told me later that most of the damage was done in the decades following Indian independence, by people vandalising this and other sites as a way of venting their anger at their former rulers. However, some photographs from the very early 20th century show the Residency in an already dilapidated state, close to how it is now. It seems that most of the decay happened between 1858 and 1900, presumably due to time and neglect. Further malicious damage may well have been done after 1947 but only added to an already far-gone process of ruination.
The story that its condition is preserved as it was in 1858 has been perpetuated despite being false. I wonder why this should have happened. Does it feed Indian pride to think the Mutineers managed to inflict much more damage on it than they did? Does it ease their consciences to overlook the vandalism and believe that they’ve preserved heritage while actually neglecting it – even though most of the damage was actually done on the British watch? Or is it just lazy assumptions and sloppy reporting, going uncorrected because, basically, very few people care?
I was chatted to twice at the Residency. Once was by a gang of teens who were taking photos of each other on the graves in the cemetery, and wanted me to join them (I refused). The other time was by a young man who told me he’d studied commerce but his real passion was singing and dancing, and asked me if I had any advice about how to build a career in show business (I didn’t). He also asked me if I thought Brad Pitt was good looking (Yes, fairly good looking).
Lucknow has a lot of Islamic history, being under the rule of the Delhi Sultans, the Mughals and then their own Muslim Nawabs. It contains a number of Muslim tombs called Imambaras. There’s the Bara (“big”) Imambara, the Chhota (“small”) Imambara and another one at the other end of the city called the Shah Najaf Imambara. They all share a similar aesthetic, which I will describe as “acid trip in a faded seaside ballroom”. Or possibly “care home for the mentally disabled, decorated by its residents for a 1920s themed Christmas party” although that’s less catchy.
The main elements are strings of multicoloured lights, chandeliers and glass light fittings, and towers made from shiny foil wrapping paper, along with mirrors, pictures and other decorations. At Shah Najaf Imambara they’re all crammed in as densely as possible. It was a little overwhelming when I first went in.
At the Bara Imambara it’s a bit more subdued. All the mad decorations are still there, but spaced out a lot more in a much bigger chamber. But it makes up for the relatively spartan decor with an even more mental feature: the Labyrinth. There’s a gallery running around the ceiling in the main chamber, and little balconied doorways dotted around the top of the side chambers, but no way up to them from the inside. To reach them, you have to go back out, and up a staircase around the side, to enter a maze of crumbling, unlit tunnels which riddle the upper levels. Some routes bring you out onto the top of the roof, and great views over the Imambara compound and the city; others take you down into pitch black dead ends; a few emerge on to the gallery and balconies I mentioned before.
La Martinière College is a historic independent school in Lucknow. The original one is a boys’ school, and there’s a girls’ school now too. Here are several reasons I was interested to see it:
- It was founded by Major General Claude Martin, a French officer who served in the British East India Company. As well as founding the school, he stipulated that he should be buried in a crypt beneath it when it died, which makes it also a European equivalent to all the extravagant Mughal and Muslim tombs.
- It played a significant role in the Mutiny. The school buildings were abandoned to the rebels, but the schoolboys were evacuated to the Residency where they fought valiantly throughout the siege. It’s the only school to have been awarded battle honours by the British.
- The main building is an outstanding piece of colonial architecture.
- It’s the basis for the fictional St. Xavier’s School in Kipling‘s Kim.
The following is not a reason that I wanted to visit it:
- I’m a paedophile.
However, coming from the UK which has been in the grip of Paedogeddon for last 15 years, I couldn’t help worrying that as a random man with no connections to the school, turning up and trying to gain entry, I might be suspected of dodgy motives. India hasn’t experienced the same level of paedo paranoia as we have, but even when Alex assured me that I should be able to get into the school to have a look around if I just explained at the gate that I was a tourist, I was still sceptical. I tried anyway. I thought I might, at best, be able to persuade the guard to let me stand by the gate and take a photo of the school building.
- Me: I’m visiting from England. Is it possible to come in and have a look around?
- Guard: Walking around?
- Me: … yes.
- Guard: Looking?
- Me: … yes.
- Guard: Go.
At first I assumed he was telling me to go away, but then I noticed he was gesturing inwards and was actually saying I was free to enter and wander around as I liked. I walked between some newer bits towards where I could see the old building, and found this:
I thought it was quite impressive. I admired it for a bit, and read a couple of plaques. I thought going inside would be pushing my luck, so I headed back towards the gate. On the way, I spotted a memorial to William Hodson and was just having a quick look at that, when someone came up and asked what I was doing. When I explained, he asked if I’d seen the school building yet. I pointed out where I’d just come from and he said, “That’s the back. Come with me, I’ll show you the front.” I hopped on the back of his scooter and he took me round the other side to see this:
Some boys were hanging around outside, and the man (who was a teacher) called a couple over and said, “This is Mr Tom, he’s visiting from England. I want you to show him all around the school.” This must have been the most interesting thing that had ever happened in recent school history, as the boys, Shivanj and Archit, were practically breathless with excitement as they, and a gang of about ten other boys who tagged along, gave me a guided tour: the library, the chapel, the crypt with Martin’s tomb, the cannons on the front lawn, the monumental column opposite… they got a bit carried away and, following their orders to the letter, continued showing me less interesting places like the badminton courts and the new assembly hall which was being prepared for the Christmas play. By the time I left, I’d learned almost everything there was to know about La Martinière, and they insisted on walking me to the gate and waving goodbye.
I’d been posed the Bombay/Delhi question as if only Bombay could rival the capital, but even places like Lucknow are preferable to Delhi, in my opinion. Take the central area of Lucknow, Hazratganj, around the GPO: it’s just like Connaught Place in Delhi. Except that it’s only like one version of CP, the one where Indians go to do their upmarket shopping; and not at all like the other version of CP, which is superimposed on the first, where tourists go to be harassed and scammed by dozens of fake tourist information offices.
I expected Lucknow, as the state capital of Uttar Pradesh – with its terrible roads and infrastructure, overcrowding and poverty – to be a bit of a dump. But I actually enjoyed it a lot. That’s partly due to the excellent hosting from Alex, as well as the boys at La Martinière, and all the interesting places to see there. But it was also just a generally quite nice city. Maybe a lot of the state’s money is concentrated there. Maybe it was more relaxing for me because it’s got facilities, but it’s not a big tourist destination. Maybe I was just lucky because I stayed in a wealthy enclave with a property investor and never saw any of the slums which must surround the city. My experience was probably extremely unrepresentative, but it’s all I’ve got to go on. I liked Lucknow.