It took me almost three decades to enter into the building I continued to watch as a passer by during my school and college days in Lucknow in 80s and 90s. Riding past this building complex in the heart of city in normal days, to me it was a magnificently built premier scientific institution of India known as Central Drug Research Institute or CDRI in short. It dawned upon me a little late that this drug research institute was actually set up in this almost 150 years old building after independence in February 1951 by the first Prime Minister of India, J L Nehru himself. My inquisitiveness finally was satiated only recently when as a part of my official duties i got a chance to see the building complex and a few of almost 200 rooms and halls built on the right bank of river Gomati.
Designed by General Claude Martin(1735-1800), the construction of Indo-Italian styled Chhatar Manzil was started by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan (1798-1814) around 1800 A.D., in the memory of his mother Chhatar Kunwar and hence the name, Chhatar Manzil. It got completed during the reigns of her son Nawab Ghazi-ud-din Haider(1814-1827) and was further improved by Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider(1827-1837). In fact there were two Chhatar Manzils, big one or Badi Chhatar Manzil and smaller one or Chhoti Chhatar Manzil within the same complex. These two were in fact preceded by the Kothi Farhat Bux(pleasure-giving) built by General Claude Martin as Martin Villa for his own use in 1781. It was purchased by Nawab Asif-ud-daula (1775-1795) but was used by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan (1798-1814) for recuperation after an illness. Nawab Wazid Ali Shah too lived here and even after shifting to Kothi Kaiserbagh, many members of the royal family continued to live here till the mutiny or first war of Indian Independence in 1857.
At its peak it was a four storied building with two underground basements. The basements so close to the river Gomati were done to provide relief to the Nawabs from heat during summers. It was also characterized by a dome, crowned by a golden pinnacle, followed up as a style subsequently by many later constructions. The building had square designs in Gothic style and had a pillared balcony for panoramic views of river Gomati and around. Its front doors and windows faced river Gomati and its terraced gardens touched the river. There was a walking pathway also called as thandi sadak or cool path between the complex and the river. The underground chambers and the front portions were extended up to the river edge. It had large terrace on the upper floor with the chamber having a cupola or Gumbad, at the corner of which rose a pair of octagonal turrets with conical heads. Lakhori bricks with Lime Surakhi(plaster) were used as the building material in tune with the times. The rooms were richly furnished with imported persian carpets, silk curtains, chandeliers and mirrors. The halls like Durbar hall had walls and ceilings with beautiful paintings. The complex had a beautiful garden too which was enclosed with a boundary wall for privacy and safety. It was known as of the most opulent and modern architecture building of the times.
The decline of this building started during the turbulent times of first war of independence in 1857. Its boundary wall was demolished by General Havelock and almost all precious artifacts were virtually plundered and the British who had annexed the Oudh kingdom quoting questionable grounds, used it as the premises of United Services Club. There was a library too now. The Chhoti Chhatar Manzil was demolished in 1917 A.D. The building after independence was used for setting up CDRI under the aegis of CSIR. It was declared as a protected monument in 1968, but CDRI did a lot of modifications in the entire structure to suit its purpose including installing a lift ! The complex now had new blocks built in modern style. Adjacent to an impressively huge banyan tree an area was segregated to house many animals including monkeys and rabbits etc, used for experimentation. What a contrast it was ! From the sound of music and thumari and bhairavi to the noises of lab experiments and sometimes even shrieks of animals on whom experiments for drugs would been tried. This out of the original purpose usage continued till 2013 when it was formally handed over to U P State Archaeology Department in a really dilapidated condition.
The future of the building now lies in the hands of the department of archaeology of U.P., which in right earnest has proceeded to involve INTACH in restoration and reuse of this magnificent and strategically located building complex. The INTACH is in the process of developing a detailed project report in next 4 months to chalk out a detailed plan to restore its glory. The restoration of almost 244 years old building would be a mammoth task. The plan is then to use it a showcase of Awadhi culture in its full glory. The tentative plans include creation of a museum depicting the nuances of Oudh culture through the music, dance style(kathak), calligraphy, cuisines and handicrafts like Chikan work and even social events like pigeon and kite flying. There may be much more to show about Oudh and Lucknow and its unique Tehzeeb(culture)right from ancient times to Lakhanpura to medieval and to the times of Nawabs upto 1857 and beyond and upto 1947. These efforts, implemented properly on the ground level along with the beautification of banks of river Gomati may give back to Lucknowites, what they deserve to inherit actually. It will perhaps also give a relief to the spirit of General Claude Martin and to the souls of Nawabs of Oudh. I may also cherish more this heritage hinged to my memories.
(This article draws from the write up on the topic by the department of archaeology of Govt. of Uttar Pradesh. Its Director, Mr P K Singh was a rich and authentic source of knowledge on the subject. My own spot visits and participation in few discussions were of immense help too.)