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Published in the 1-15 Aug 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Lucknow is Gomti

By Rizvi Syed Haider Abbas

‘...Imagine Lucknow and one hears sounds of carefree laughter. An unveiled beloved darts across an open courtyard to rest on the ramparts of a balcony. Gilded crowns and ornamented pediments embellish the roof like precious jewels dangling in the sky. Evening descends on the shores of the Gomti below and a soft wind blows along its banks, the orangish hue of its water dissolving into a dusky shade of purple in the late hours. The scenario unfolds; evening calm, a soft but steady breeze, the quite ripple of the Gomti, domes, arches, the grey Moorish backdrop, the red ‘French’ haze-and the beloved’ (Amaresh Mishra, Lucknow: The Fire of Grace, Harper Collins,1998, p 2).

Lucknow's Chota Imambara

Lucknow’s Chota Imambara

Yes, the Gomti is to Lucknow what the Thames is to London, Gomti is a colloquial derivation from Ghomti i.e. which turns. The Gomti had an unsurpassable attraction which could entice Nawabs from the banks of Saryu. The Gomti is as if — just another synonym for the conventional amalgamation of Islamic-Turkish-Afghan-Mughal traditions with Arthashatrian-Mauryan-Gupta etymology. The waters of the Gomti are a synthesis of Indo-Persian-Italian-French-Egyptian-Turkish-Chinese-Anglican etiquette. The Gomti, in fact, is the only witness to the Constantinople of Asaf-ud-Daula, Kremlin of Saadat Ali Khan, Alexandria of Ghazi-ud-Din Haider, Babylon of Mohammad Ali Shah, Paris of Amjad Ali Shah and Sheraz of Wajid Ali Shah.

The pre- Mughal settlements on the banks of Gomti were Shah Mina, Nadan Mahal, Peer Bukhara, Banjari Tola and Gaughat to name a few... Colonisation of Lucknow in the real sense started under Akbar when his revenue minister Raja Todar Mal made Lucknow the capital of Avadh, with Sheikh Abdul Rehman becoming its first governor. The Sheikzada continued to rule until the Delhi throne sent Saadat Khan (Burhan-ul-Mulk) to cross over from the north of the Gomti to launch a frontal attack on Machchli Bhawan. 

Asafi Imambara Mosque

Asafi Imambara Mosque

The undulating ground (Lucknow) beside the river Gomti was ‘an irregular dirty town’ until around 1780 when it became a metropolis. The first three Nawabs preferred to stay either in the corridors of power in Delhi or in the healthier air of Faizabad until Asaf-ud-Daula (1775-97) made Lucknow his capital. Safdar Jung built on the citadel beside the Gomti a modern Fort Machchli Bhawan (Fish House). It is in fact derived from Machchli Bawan as there were 52 fishes engraved on it. How did ‘fish’become a symbol of Avadh?-it is either derived from the fish which was the vehicle of Khawaja Khizr, the Prophet, who, according to Islamic legend drank off and presided over the well of immortality sought by Alexander the Great or it is from the order of Mahi-e-Maratib instituted in pre-Islamic times by Khusru Pervez-the King of Persia and was bestowed as a high honour by the Mughal emperors. ‘The fish motif was ubiquitous throughout Lucknow and appeared on the flag of the Qaiser Bagh Palace gateways, on the silver coins stuck by the Nawabs, on their coat of arms, their thrones and their boats’. [Rosie Llewellyn Jones,Engaging Scoundrels,Oxford University Press, Dehli, 2000, p.18]

Asaf-ud-Daula took Lucknow by storm, he would spent a million rupees a year in ‘building paradise’. He built for himself a palace Daulat Khana (‘House of Prosperity) on the banks of the Gomti — just to the west of Machchli Bhawan. Kissing the shores of the Gomti Asaf-ud-Daula built Bara (Great) Imambara, known as Imambargah in Pakistan. It's hall is 50 ft. high, 162 ft. long and 53 ft. wide. The building has the biggest roof in the world which stands on no pillars and the labyrinth stairs over this hall are still a mystery to unravel! He bulit a 'stone' bridge over Gomti so as to resemble- as if one is crossing the river Seine in Paris. The most exquisite triumphal arch of brick and coloured stucco built beside the Gomti by Asaf-ud Daula is Roomi Darwaza. The Roman/Turkish gate is supposed to be an imitation of a doorway of Constantinople.

Under his successors the town proceeded towards the east. Farhat Baksh(‘Pleasure-giving’) palace, Chattar Manzil (‘Umbrella Palace’) Shah Najaf (a replica of Hazrat Ali’s tomb, Iraq) Dilaram(heart-resting), Dilkusha Palace, La Martineer, Moti Mahal (Palace of pearls), Nadwatul- Uloom, Noor Baksh Kothi (Now Deputy Commissioner’s house), Banarsi Bagh ( now Zoo) and finally Qaiser Bagh (King of Gardens) were built. All on the banks of the Gomti...

In 1812, Saadat Ali Khan placed an order for a steam engine from Birmingham so that the steam engine would raise water to a height of 24ft from Gomti in order to water his roads during dry seasons. But unfortunately the steam engine did not arrive until after his death in 1814. His dream for a permanent bridge got completed in 1843 when an iron bridge of three arches, 200 paces in length was built by his nephew, Amjad Ali Shah. He also got three ‘water temples’ built between Farhat Baksh and Dilaram Kothi where he used to sit… in the cool of the evening and fish [Darogha Haji Ali, The Lucknow Album,1874, plate 47] Such was his undying attraction for the Gomti.

The topography of Lucknow would have been different had the most ambitious engineering project of Nasir-ud-Din Haider been successful. He conceived a canal designed to make Lucknow accessible by water from Ganges linking it with the river Gomti! The line of the canal was marked out and partly excavated-to a depth of 40ft. in some places — but the basic surveying had been faulty and as planned — the canal would have been incapable of carrying the water of Ganges(sic), which lay higher than those of Gomti, any further east then16 miles’ [John Pemble, The Raj, The Indian Mutiny And The Kingdom Of Oudh, 1801-1859, p 12].

The canal now works as nullah near Charbagh. It is known as Ghazi-ud-Din Haider canal presumably because Nasir-ud-Din Haider intended it as a memorial to his father. Nasir-ud-Din Haider was very secular in his approach. This can be proved by a portrait (in Picture Gallery) showing him sitting in yellow clothes on a three-storeyed bajra viewing the Basant Mela on the banks of Gomti.

The arrival of the steam engine did increase the water supply but it also added, yet another dimension to Sham-e-Avadh. The Nawabs on the steam powered boats, with European bands being played in the background were to be found on eventful evenings. ‘The river exhibited a scene of uncommon activity, traffic boats, small barges and fishing boats, were roving backwards and forwards; the kings gondola adorned the forepart with two horses leaping from the jaws of the fish was steering to the Dilkusha park, in case it might be His Majesty’s pleasure to come back by water. [The Asiatic Journal in Monthly Register, p. 578]

The smoke puffing engines of yesteryears should not let us forget Moar Pankhee. It was Asaf-ud-Daula's barge, an unheard-of creation, perhaps the most ingenious-poetical handiwork of city's craftsmen. The 'roving boat' had a prow of elephantine gilded peacocks.

But the most exquisite of all in the series was 'Fish-boat', Ghazi-ud-Din Haider's court artist Robert Home modeled a boat exactly in a figure of a fish-37 ft. long without its tail, and 2 ft. broad. Home also designed a boat in the shape of swan which he intended to give as a gift to His Excellency. In 1818 both the boats were launched...

Alas! that autumn should come to such a garden said Mirza Ghalib. The regalia continued until the catastrophe, of Feb., 12, 1856 when the state of Oudh was officially merged with the British Empire. The last king Wajid Ali Shah was deposed and exiled to Calcutta (only to be later prisoned at Fort William, Calcutta for 16 months).

The king on reaching Calcutta found Hoogly as complimentary as Gomti- was for him in Lucknow. He built almost a replica of Lucknow on its banks-which later on went on to be known as Venice of the East! called as Garden Reach [Matiya Burj] It was a collection of exquisite pieces of architecture where building like Sultan Khana, Asad Manzil, Shah Manzil, Badami-Aasmani-Tahniyat Manzil, Tareefh Baksh….. were built. ‘The township was called a second Lucknow, and ‘Garden of Eden on earth’ which both Indian and European would visit and Marvel at’ [Sukanta Choudhary, Calcutta: The Living City Vol II, Dehli, OUP, p 136].

The water of Gomti and Hoogly bear testimony to the flow of life. ‘For men may come and men may go. But I go on forever’…

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