MEHRU JAFFER | 3 DECEMBER, 2019
During the 1857 war against the British, the castle received a knocking
The 150 year celebrations of Lucknow’s prestigious La Martiniere Girls College include the publication of Khursheed Manzil, The Mansion of the Sun. The magnificent book gets its title from a castle from 1818 which has been the home of the school for nearly 150 years.
Although the school opened in 1869, it moved into Khursheed Manzil castle only two years later in 1871.
A castle that students were always sure is haunted. Nobody believed the students when they talked of the clank, clank sound of chains heard in the dark of the night on the staircase landing next to the dormitory. The stories told by students were dismissed as a figment of their youthful imagination. They scoffed at the boarders who said they did not like to go alone to the toilet in the turret across the terrace for fear of bumping into the Victorian lady in blue who floats down from the heavens occasionally in search of her wedding ring.
Now all these legends and myths whispered to each other on the school campus for over a century have been immortalised in the book:
Straight out of John William Polidori’s writing, there is the Victorian Lady in grey or blue haunting the dormitories on dark, moonless nights; the unseen ‘thing’ clanking its chains up the stairs. Certainly even today, many students will not go to the bathroom in the turret at the far end of the terrace alone at night for fear of running into The Blue Lady. Everyone believes that there is safety in numbers!
The most famous myth in the school is about a secret tunnel that is said to extend from the moat of the Khursheed Manzil to Constantia, home of La Martiniere Boys College. In the girls school it is always the dream of the love struck teenager to traverse the dark subterranean passage to meet with her inamorato.
The foundation of the castle was laid by Saadat Ali Khan II, sixth ruler of Lucknow for his queen Khursheed Zadi. It was completed by his son Ghaziuddin Haider. Captain Duncan McLeod of the British East India Company designed Khursheed Manzil with hexagonal towers, battlements, a 12 foot wide moat and a drawbridge in imitation of an English Lord’s castle. McLeod was hired in 1813 on a salary of Rs 1500 per month with free furnished accommodation and a string of servants as perk.
The castle is crowned with turrets and stands on elevated land that once had the Chiraiya Jheel, a lake of birds kissing its feet. The lake has long dried up.
Many ancient edifices are found on the premises of the historic Khursheed Manzil, like the walled well, connected through a channel to the River Gomti. There is a grave close to the well that is tended by the support staff in belief that the spirit of the one buried there keeps a watchful eye on the college. But no one knows who the grave belongs to.
Ghaziuddin Haider used Khursheed Manzil as a guest house for foreign visitors and to entertain European friends in the 19th century. The castle lost its lustre once the monarchy was abolished. The British East India Company officials annexed Lucknow in 1856 and converted Khursheed Manzil into a mess for officers of the 32nd Battalion of the Britsh Regiment.
During the 1857 war against the British, the castle received a knocking. The gardens, fields and orchards were turned into a battlefield, and were home to numerous cannons, swords and guns. After a fierce fight, the British finally recaptured Khursheed Manzil from Indian freedom fighters in the winter of 1857.
The story on the campus is that a group of soldiers led by General Colin Campbell arrived by boat from Kolkata. They landed on the shores of the city to help the British who were under siege in Lucknow. Campbell and his battalion of soldiers was welcomed at the British Army Mess at Khursheed Manzil by General Henry Havelock and General James Outram. According to an inscription on a pillar found on the campus, the British Generals met at Khursheed Manzil to shake hands and to celebrate their victory over the Indians. The moment marks the beginning of colonial rule.
In 1873, it was felt that the staff of four governesses and one matron for 41 children was too large and expensive, and the standard of education at the school too high. Today the number of students has increased to 2800. There was a pupil who also taught on a monthly salary of Rs 5 in 1876. Extensive repairs and whitewash of the interior of Khursheed Manzil had cost Rs 190 in 1883. In 1885 straw hats were part of the school uniform and in 1887, the most looked forward to treat for students was a monthly moonlight picnic.
When her excellency the countess of Minto visited Khursheed Manzil in 1908, the servants were given a baksheesh, a tip of four annas each. In 1912 the principal of Boys La Martiniere said in a speech that once there was the impression that the girls’ school is a mere excrescence of the boys’ school. But that old idea is exploded. The two institutions exist side by side on terms of equality to their mutual benefit.
In 1915 a tonga was used to transport students to and back from school. In 1916 when the lady prncipal asked for a telephone to be installed it was considered an unneccessary luxury by the school committee.
The story of the La Martiniere schools in Kolkata, Lucknow and Lyons begins with Major General Claude Martin. Born in 1735 in Lyon, Martin joined the French army and arrived in India in 1752 to fight the British. Witness to the end of French ambitions in India, he made friends with the British and got a job in the British East India Company offices in Kolkata.
He was sent to Uttar Pradesh to survey the region and to prepare a scientific map. While here, he became confidant to Asafudaula, ruler of Lucknow. He advised the British and the Lucknow rulers on financial and political matters.
In the 25 years that Martin spent in the city he was the richest European in Lucknow. A self taught architect, Martin designed several buildings that still stand like Bibiapur Kothi and Chattar Manzil apart from Constantia.