The Indian Subcontinent’s First Melting Pot

Published: August 11, 2015 - 12:53

Lucknow has always been a smart city.  Even though somewhere along the way the city lost its sheen and was reduced to a shameful shabbiness, the latest figures released by the Union Tourism Ministry reveal that visitors still love Lucknow.

Last year, Uttar Pradesh, of which Lucknow is the capital, received 2.91 million visitors, which is higher than Delhi’s 2.32 million. It’s safe to assume that a majority of visitors to UP went to the state in order to see Lucknow.

The city has always fascinated visitors. In the 18th century, Europeans gasped at its bustling commercial life and architecture. At the time, Lucknow was already a world-class city and had surpassed Delhi as the most fabulous court city on the subcontinent. In 1856, its population was about a million, and it remained the largest city in India after Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, until about 1870. Lucknow was larger than any city in America and about half the size of London, which was then the largest city in the world.

In 1700, the Mughal court began to decline, but Lucknow’s territorial and cultural integrity remained intact for long.

In 1775, it became the capital of Awadh province that was ruled by the very urbane Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula. Under his leadership, Lucknow emerged as a cosmopolitan blend of world civilisations, glimpses of which can still be found scattered around the city. In particular, a rich artistic and architectural heritage can be seen, intact, in some places. An Edwardian verandah in a local house, a square, Hindu-temple door-frame, a Japanese pagoda atop a manor and Persian motifs etched into numerous mosques: these are just some of the delights a visitor stumbles upon.

In the 18th century, many of the city’s wealthier denizens hired women and men from France as teachers and tailors. Local industries and the economy were protected by a tariff wall, instituted in 1773, to guard against the East India Company’s expansions. Lucknow’s literati contributed entire genres to Hindustani and Urdu, shaping the development of north Indian literature. And the city’s courtly elite included people who followed a variety of religious beliefs.

Going back in time, it’s apparent that the love for Lucknow is tied to its location, which is in the heart of the lush, fertile plains of the Ganga river valley. The saying goes that if you spit anywhere on this side of the Ganga, something delicious is bound to sprout there before you have even blinked.

The earliest populations were cultivators, after which the demographic changed to include warriors and traders, and eventually a variety of artists.

Most of the people who settled here would have been forced to practise a more inclusive lifestyle so they could fully enjoy the rich produce of the earth and be part of the lush landscape. The result: a more friendly, inclusive approach to life was always practised, which, over time, became a strategy of governance. To this day, Lucknow’s people remain culturally and socially flexible.

Stories are still told about travellers who had found the lands surrounding Lucknow so uncivilised that they could not move to a cultured Lucknow soon enough.

This way of life has come to define a unique cultural system in which citizens’ lives and destinies are meshed with each other. The latest issue of the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal is devoted to social science research on South Asia with focus on modern Lucknow. It’s aptly titled:  Contemporary Lucknow: Life with ‘Too Much History.

In a fascinating series of essays, historians lay out what makes Lucknow special. Certain kinds of alliances were consciously fostered, the essays say. For example, it’s said that alliances between the Shia Muslims and the Kayasth Hindus were encouraged in the past by those in power, so as to assure smooth functioning of the city’s executive and financial institutions. Similarly, Sunni Muslims and Baniya Hindus were allowed to dominate the economic life of the city while the rest of the citizenry freely participated in the very public devotional practices of different religious communities.

Emma Roberts, a British observer, commented in 1835 that a very large proportion of Hindus went into mourning during the 10 days of Moharram, an Islamic observance. Hindus clothed themselves in green garments and assumed the guise of fakirs, just like the Muslims did. Similarly, Muslims participated in Hindu observances as well. Such practices fostered Lucknow’s pride in its cultural inclusiveness.

It is this inclusiveness, and the public participation by citizens in one another’s everyday agony and ecstasy, that make Lucknow arguably the most amazing city in the world.

This story is from print issue of HardNews