Examining the history of Lucknow, Veena Talwar Oldenburg shows how the results of its transformation after the Mutiny of 1857 continue to pervade the city even today.
Originally published in 1984.
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The Making of Colonial Lucknow 1856-1877
By Veena Talwar Oldenburg
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The City as Battlefield
"A madness ate into all the Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil, but not past remedy if they had then held their hands. But they chose to kill the Sahibs' wives and children. Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called them to most strict account."
"Some such rumour, I believe, reached me once long ago. They called it the Black Year, as I remember."
"What manner of life hast thou led, not to know The Year? A rumour indeed! All the earth knew, and trembled."
"Our earth never shook but once — upon the day that the Excellent One [the Buddha] received Enlightenment."
— Dialogue between a retired soldier and the lama, in Kim
The urban panorama of mid-nineteenth-century upper India had as its centerpiece the gracious, feudal court-city, Lucknow, the capital of the nawabs of Oudh. It was, at that point in history, the largest and most prosperous existing precolonial city in the subcontinent. In contrast, Delhi, Lahore, and Agra, the once great Mughal capitals, were greatly diminished centers of a progressively enfeebled Mughal authority, not quite equal to half the population or the commerce of Lucknow. As the capital of Oudh it commanded the richest hinterland, since Oudh was the wealthiest and most coveted province of Mughal India. Only the three colonial port cities of Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay exceeded it in size or affluence.
In the eighteenth century Lucknow shared the changing fortunes of several indigenous inland cities in the subcontinent. The weakened authority of the Mughals had enticed the governors of imperial provinces such as Oudh to assume de facto sovereignty. Cities like Murshidabad in Bengal, Lucknow in Oudh, Hyderabad in the Nizam's territories, and Poona in the Maratha confederacy blossomed into important administrative and commercial centers for their own hinterlands. The growth and vitality of these cities were closely tied to the fortunes and policies of local rulers. Dacca, for example, lost its position as an important commercial center when the nawab of Bengal shifted his administrative center to Murshidabad. Lucknow too expanded dramatically in response to a similar nawabi whim. Asaf ud Dowlah (ruled: 1775-1797) moved the capital of Oudh from Faizabad-Ayodhya to Lucknow in 1775 in order to escape his domineering and politically influential mother. For eight splendid decades it remained an unsurpassed regional capital. It declined after its annexation by the British, and the deposed king tried in vain to re-create a city in Matiya Burj, near Calcutta, where he was forced to live with his courtiers in exile.
The principal city in a kingdom in the Muslim era was therefore the embodiment of the court, with the king at its head. Political exigencies often induced the king to move the court, so the center of power was frequently relocated, deserting the city that had grown up around it and inspiring a new city to bloom. The best known and documented examples of such abrupt transfers of the capital and court are from the reigns of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, Akbar, and Aurangzeb. The case of Lucknow after 1856, as we shall discover in the course of the following chapters, is interesting because its king was forced into exile with a limited entourage, too large to leave Lucknow unaffected and too small and powerless to will another city into existence. Lucknow was truncated and pruned while the new masters, whose needs inspired a differently built environment, grafted onto it a new urban species to create a hybrid city that was both peculiar to and typical of the colonial era.
Oudh, comprised roughly of the broad, flat, fertile plain between the Himalaya and the Ganga River, had been a defined political region for two millennia before it was absorbed into the British Empire. Its distinctive dialect is Oudhi, a form of Hindi, which developed over the centuries and is still the speech of the countryside within the physical boundaries of what was once Oudh. After the Muslim invasion, Persian, and later Urdu, became the language of the court and the city of Lucknow, while Oudhi held strong in the rural areas. Successive Hindu dynasties ruled it from Vedic times until it was conquered by the Muslim Sultanate of Delhi between 1206 and 1526. The Emperor Akbar formally incorporated it into the Mughal Empire as one of its twelve constituent provinces and there it remained until 1819 when the nawab of Oudh declared it to be an independent kingdom.
Lucknow, too, like most riverine cities of the north Indian plain, has traceable Hindu origins couched in myth and fable. The city has an ancient past. Its founder was said to be Lakshman, the brother of the hero of the Ramayana, Rama Chandra of Ayodhya, and was named Lakshmanpur, but was more popularly called Lakhanpur or Lachmanpur. Lucknow is located on the south bank of the Gomati (now Gomti), a tributary of the Ganga, some three hundred miles east-southeast of Delhi and six hundred miles northeast of Calcutta. The town's most prominent landmark was a hillock called Lakshman Tila. Upon this rise once stood a cave shrine that had been associated since the dim past with the worship of Sheshnaga, the serpent with a thousand heads forming the couch upon which the god Vishnu rests between creations. The earliest settlement was a colony of brahmins and kayasths located around this shrine. Over the centuries, waves of Rajput invaders and a steady flow of immigrants from the countryside — ahirs (cowherds), pasis (toddy palm tappers), kurmis (cultivators), and koris (weavers) — made Lucknow a sizable township and a large center for trade in grain.
Lucknow was already a flourishing town by the sixteenth century when the fleeing Mughal emperor, Humayun, sought refuge there for four brief hours and received from the sympathetic townsfolk a sum of ten thousand rupees and fifty horses. Its political importance was underscored by the fact that when Emperor Akbar reorganized his vast empire, which included nearly all of the subcontinent, Lucknow was chosen to be the seat of the governor of the key suba of Oudh in 1590. Akbar liked the city and built several mohallas or neighborhoods south of the Chowk or the main bazaar of the city. His son, Jehangir, built the very ornate Akbari gate, which still adorns the south entrance of the Chowk, and the Mirza market, which was destroyed after the mutiny. A very small but sustained trickle of immigrant Shaikhs and Pathans refurbished the noble families in the city, the former being the dominant group who were closely linked to the court in Delhi. Lucknow continued to grow, gaining in palaces, gardens, and markets founded by and named after the principal noblemen.
In the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707), the last and most controversial of the great Mughals, Lucknow acquired added significance as a notable Sunni theological center. Aurangzeb visited the city and built a mosque upon its famous hillock to erase any lingering signs of Hindu sanctity. He also ordered the transfer of the confiscated property of a wealthy French trader — a complex of four buildings called "Firangi Mahal" — to Mullah Nizam ud Din Sehalvi. The learned mullah founded the famous Sunni theological school, which produced several important scholars. The original building and the school survive to this day, and the mullah's descendants continue to be a widely respected font of religious and moral authority for their community in India.
The history of the Oudh dynasty of Shia nawabs of Irani lineage based in Lucknow was as tortured as it was brief. A very complicated series of stratagems of successive governors general and residents (the envoys of the East India Company to the court of Oudh) employed against the nawabs of Oudh marked their troubled eighty-year-long relationship and culminated in the outright takeover of the province. Briefly, Oudh was rich and extensive, and the British longed to control its revenues. They eagerly sought alliances with the strong and able early nawabs, and their ambitions in this region were whetted by the regular morsels received from the nawabs in the shape of military subsidies and loans.
In the eighteenth century the British, while using Oudh as a buffer against the hostile northwest, steadily nibbled away at its territory and revenues. Several treaties were signed between the nawabs and the British to legitimize the erosion: in 1775 the nawab ceded the Benares region and the revenues of Ghazipur; in 1797 the British absorbed Allahabad and the surrounding region; and in 1801 the nawab formally ceded Lower Doab, Gorakhpur, and Rohilkhand. While Oudh shrank in size, the powers of the British resident grew in inverse proportion. He extended his jurisdiction beyond matters of defense and intelligence into the politics of the court. He disbursed the interest payments on the loans taken by the East India Company from the nawabs to members of the royal family as wasiqas or pensions. He gradually arrogated to himself the right to hold a darbar or court (which had been so far the exclusive prerogative of the nawab) and assumed the de facto guardianship of the wasiqadars or pensioners against the nawab himself.
In 1819 nawab Ghaziuddin Hyder (ruled: 1817-1827) was persuaded to break the frayed ties between the nearly defunct Mughal Empire and Oudh and declare it an independent state. He was now called king, but for all formal and ceremonial purposes the resident was deemed his equal. In absolute terms the resident even had an edge over the king; as a representative of a company that enjoyed the backing of the most formidable imperial power in the world he could threaten and bully while the king could only sulk and occasionally protest. The remaining kings of Oudh were indeed not as capable as their predecessors, but their ability to rule was considerably undermined by the competing power structure created by the East India Company and its large-scale interference in the economic affairs of the province. The situation progressively sapped the authority and purpose of the Oudh government.
The aggressiveness of the resident found its complement in the grasping policies of Lord Dalhousie, the governor general of India from 1848 to 1852. He annexed several Indian states and waited for an opportunity to absorb Oudh as well. "The King of Oude," he wrote, "seems disposed to be bumptious. I wish he would be. To swallow him before I go would give me satisfaction." Pursuing the metaphor, he alluded to Oudh as the luscious "cherry that will drop into our mouth one day," especially if the British continued "shaking the tree to help it down." On 13 February 1856, after weighing other alternatives, the British annexed Oudh on the self-righteous ground that "the British Government would be guilty in the sight of God and man, if it were any longer to aid in sustaining by its countenance an administration fraught with evil to millions."
British Images of Nawabi Lucknow
Lucknow was fortunate to have among her sons Abdul Haleem Sharar, a chronicler and storyteller par excellence, who drew as intimate and detailed a portrait of the life and times of the Oudh court as one could wish. His writings also provoked European chroniclers — officials and visitors alike — to comment on the city at length. I will therefore use a series of British perceptions of the city and contrast them with the perceptions of the court elite in order to provide some small sense of the former's understanding of the character and ethos of the entity that is referred to as nawabi Lucknow. This brief, impressionistic sketch of Lucknow will serve as a necessary point of reference and contrast when viewing the two decades of urban change that followed. After sorting and sifting the observations of Europeans about Lucknow in the first half of the nineteenth century, the picture that emerges is one of an exotic, rich, populous, and hostile city.
To Western observers the architecture of some of its principal buildings gave Lucknow an unduly "exotic" appearance. An Englishwoman who married a Lucknow nobleman and lived there for twelve years was frequently "reminded in these scenes of the visionary castles conjured to the imagination, whilst reading 'The Arabian Nights' Entertainments.'" W. H. Russell's first view of the city from the rooftop of the Dilkusha palace recorded as a diary entry in March 1858, excels anything written about Lucknow in this genre:
A vision of palaces, minars, domes azure and golden, cupolas, colonnades, long facades of fair perspective in pillar and column, terraced roofs — all rising up amid a calm still ocean of the brightest verdure. Look for miles and miles away, and still the ocean spreads, and the towers of the fairy-city gleam in its midst. Spires of gold glitter in the sun. Turrets and gilded spheres shine like constellations. ... Is this a city in Oudh? Is this the capital of a semibarbarous race, erected by a corrupt, effete, and degraded dynasty? I confess I felt inclined to rub my eyes again and again.
Close up the view was less enchanting:
When visited in detail, the gorgeousness of the picture is obscured by the more than ordinary degree of dirt, filth, and squalid poverty, which are placed in juxta-position with its grandest feature: the lanes leading from the principal avenues are ancle-deep [sic] in mud and of the many hovels, which afford an insufficient shelter to a swarming population, are the most wretched habitations the imagination can conceive.
These incredible extremes of wealth and poverty were typical of the feudal or preindustrial civilized city that was "dominated by a small, privileged upper stratum" where the sovereign personage, his numerous dependents, and the administrative elite bask in "comfort, splendor and luxury."
The quarters closer to the royal palaces, the mosques and imambaras (sacred buildings commemorating the Shia imams or high priests) and the seat of government, are consistently described as "splendid," "fairy-like," "luxurious," but the stately ruins that dot present-day Lucknow confirm that these buildings did not equal the marble and sandstone splendors of Agra and Delhi. Even the best buildings in Lucknow were built of brick and plaster in the whimsical architectural styles introduced by European favorites at the Oudh court.
The nawabi city of Lucknow formed the administrative and cultural core of vast, rich hinterland and the center of its voluminous grain trade. The court city thrived on revenues from the Oudh countryside that supported its lavish consumption of goods and services. Workshops of artisans, craftsmen, jewelers, bankers, and tradesmen sprang up around the court to supply its needs, and Lucknow became the locus for the largest complex of luxury industries in northern India. Approximately a crore of rupees (one million pounds sterling) was spent by the nawab and his nobles in the city of Lucknow in legendary prodigality on luxury goods and the patronage of urban culture, while the artisans, who made up two-thirds of the population, lived on a subsistence wage in the mud and thatch huts observed by Russell.
For the native elite the nawabi city represented the special environment of the Indo-Mughal cultural epoch. The court was the hub of city life, and the city was the center of administrative, commercial, and military existence. When the court of Oudh moved from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775, it was as if the kernel of the court shed its old husk and acquired a new one and the city largely grew in and around the existing town to accommodate the influx of the court. The nawab constructed the large palace-garden complexes, the major mosques and gateways, the imambaras, the Chowk (literally square; the main bazaar for luxury goods), and a dozen major markets to form the core of the royal quarter of the city.
A digression might be useful here since there were several terms for "market" and "street" in Lucknow (and other Indo-Muslim cities of the north), and the historical meanings imbedded in the terms are indicative of the various phases of town building. Bazaar was the most general term for market, but it was a word introduced by the Muslims and was, therefore, also associated with foreign trade: for instance, the Kandahari Bazaar and Chini Bazaar in Lucknow were so named because they were at one time centers of the Afghan and China trade, respectively. The Sanskrit word gunj, also in common use, was generally confined to a grain market, though several gunjes expanded into retail centers for a variety of goods. Since the bulk of the trade in India was in grain and raw produce it was not surprising that the word occurred in so many place names, either as names of streets or quarters in big cities or the names of new centers of the grain trade that grew into towns. The name or the title of the founder was usually prefixed to the word to create names of markets such as Hazratgunj, Nawabgunj, Wazirgunj, and finally Victoriagunj. Mandi, or wholesale market, was usually the word associated with bulky articles of low value, such as vegetables, timber, grass, or coal. The name katra was given to a bazaar that sold small, cheap goods, but it originally denoted the quarter or suburb dominated by artisans of a particular trade; small towns would only have one katra where all the artisans lived, manufactured their wares, and sold them. Finally, the artisans of different trades and crafts tended to form caste guilds and gravitated into distinct and local groups, giving rise to streets and quarters named after the guilds. Such a quarter would be called a tola if it arose before Persian words became fashionable and mohalla if it did so later. Thus we have in Lucknow a Rastogi Tola and a Kashmiri Mohalla although both were preeminently Hindu neighborhoods built at different times. This rough schema will serve as a fair guide to interpreting and explaining not only place names but to some extent also the distribution of the working population of the city and the stages of its growth.
Excerpted from The Making of Colonial Lucknow 1856-1877 by Veena Talwar Oldenburg. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. iii
- CONTENTS, pg. vii
- LIST OF FIGURES AND TABLES, pg. ix
- LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS USED IN FOOTNOTES, pg. xi
- PREFACE, pg. xiii
- ACKNOWLEDGMENTS, pg. xxiii
- ONE. THE CITY AS BATTLEFIELD, pg. 1
- TWO. THE CITY MUST BE SAFE, pg. 27
- THREE. THE CITY MUST BE ORDERLY, pg. 62
- FOUR. THE CITY MUST BE CLEAN, pg. 96
- FIVE. THE CITY MUST PAY, pg. 145
- SIX. THE CITY MUST BE LOYAL, pg. 181
- SEVEN. EPILOGUE, pg. 261
- BIBLIOGRAPHY, pg. 267
- INDEX, pg. 281