MEHRU JAFFER | 8 JUNE, 2017
Bonding Through History In The City of Heritage
Lucknow does not resemble the ancient city of Constantinople, or Moscow any more. The city lost its breathtaking skyline to some ugly constructions and to neglect a long time ago. Yet this former imperial capital remains a photographer's paradise and a writer's delight to this day.
For every brick, every blade of grass has a story to tell to anyone interested in listening, and in pausing to admire an image. The latest camera to zoom in on the constantly decaying city walls here belongs to Ajaish Jaiswal, a local hotelier and passionate photographer.
Ajaish has been photographing and publishing different corners of the 18th century Asafi Imambara since 2012. Now friend Vipul Varshney, well known architect and heritage walk curator has roped in Ajaish to photograph the city all over again for illustrating the numerous stories Vipul has strung together in a book titled Lucknow The City of Heritage and Culture.
Sub titled A Walk through History, both the photographs and stories give life to many a forgotten tale from far back in time.
My favourite stories in the book are those that talk of the conscious effort made over centuries by both Hindus and Muslims to appreciate each other's way of life and to populate numerous neighbourhoods in the city white washed in love, peace and harmony. It is this genteel attitude of people here that makes Lucknow a glowing example of human beings who believe in living, and letting others live without fear or rebuke by the other.
Meet the local old woman who lived on land close to where the great Imambara or a place of congregation for Shia Muslims was being built by Asafudaulah, ruler of Lucknow in 1784. The lady's land was needed for the construction of the Imambara and she agreed to sell it. But she also made a request. She wanted that a tazia, an artiste's replica in coloured tissue paper of the tomb of Husain should be placed in her name in the Imambara alongside the royal tazia.
The ruler agreed to the request of the lady and built a special corner on the grand premises to fulfill her wish. The author is not sure whether the story from so long ago is true. But she points out that to this day a tazia in the name of an unknown elderly lady is brought into the Imambara every Muharram, the month that annually mourns the martyrdom of Husain, grandson of Muhammad, Prophet of Islam and other members of his family killed at Karbala in modern day Iraq more than a millennium ago.
Such is the lasting impact on collective behaviour of every good, or bad example set even a very long time ago.
Both the text and photographs of Lucknow's Suraj Kund are stunning. This is one of the places here that traces its history to pre historic times to Suryavansh rulers of the Sun Dynasty. The dynasty had built several catchments stepping into the river for pilgrims to take a medicinal dip into the once sulphur rich waters. The place remained sacrosanct to even non Hindu rulers who sat on the throne of Lucknow later in time. During his reign Asafudaulah added more catchments along the river bank, and on the eastern flank had a gaughat carved out for the convinience of cows, and other animals that routinely came to quench their thirst on the banks of the river.
The gaughat still exists except that cows these days prefer to quench their thirst by licking left over cans and bottles of modern day drinks like Thumbs Up and Limca found in plenty in the city's countless garbage dumps.
Then there is the large domed Padain ki Masjid where the prayer hall continues to be packed with visitors irrespective of religion, gender and economic status.
How come the city's most visited temple in worship of Hanuman has Aliganj as its address, you may rightly ask?
This is because once Begum Rabiya had dreamt that a rare statue of Hanuman lay buried in a garden nearby. Rabiya requested her husband king Nawab Mohammed Ali Shah in the mid 19th century that if he allowed the statue to be found, she was told in her dream that they would be blessed with a child. The king agreed to his queen's request and ordered the garden to be raked. To the surprise of the city the statue was eventually discovered in a ditch wrapped in dirt.
The royal couple had the statue cleaned and wanted it to be placed in a temple near the mosque and Imambara built earlier by Asafudaulah, ancestor of the royal couple. The statue was placed on the strongest elephant in town and the exercise was to transport it from one end of the city to the other. However on the way the elephant decided to sit down in a place from where he refused to go any further. The crowd tried to persuade the animal to please move. Everyone sweated and wondered what to do when a sage appeared on the scene to say that he had read the writing on the wall and it is Hanuman who has chosen the place for the temple to be built exactly on the spot where the elephant had decided to rest!
A son was born soon after to the queen and the temple in honour of Hanuman was built in Aliganj. It is here that the tradition of celebrating Bada Mangal, or the big Tuesday was started by Begum Rabiya. Ever since the city turns festive around this time of the year when kiosks spring up in different neighbourhoods to distribute free meals and water every Tuesday for a month.
The Vishambharnath Temple on the Lucknow-Kakori road is home to a statue of Shiva that was brought here by Baba Kalyangiri who came to Lucknow from Haridwar during the reign of Asafudaulah. The king saw the Baba place a statute of Shiva under the sacred fig tree while he sat in the shade of the tree of the very sour star fruit. On distribution by the Baba as devotional offering, each piece of the sour fruit had tasted sweeter than sugar. The king paid his respects to the Baba and placed the Shiva statue on a platform that eventually blossomed into a temple.
The book warms the heart with similar stories that are important to know and to repeat in present times when misunderstanding between citizens belonging to different walks of life are deliberately spread to increase hate and violence amongst human beings.
Towards the end of the book there is a map and a list of at least 18 heritage walks to choose from for all those who would like to check out this fascinating city that has been home to a diverse group of citizens since pre historic times. Although the list of the walks is a tad too tiny and a magnifying glass is needed to study it.
All the informative text and breathtaking photographs are accompanied by plans of buildings included in the book that outline the foundation, different floors and elevations. This is showcased in precise graphic drawings so essential to architects and now made available to you and to me as well.
Lucknow The City of Heritage and Culture by Vipul B.Varshney is published by Niyogi Books, 2017.