Chhatar Manzil : Past, Present and Future

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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.

Darshan Bilas and Chota Chattar Manzil - Lucknow 1860's

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.

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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.

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(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.)

The Hudhud and I

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Sitting at a safe distance of 1399 kms from Vishakhapatnam, few in Lucknow would have taken the cyclone Hudhud seriously beyond their general concerns for the natives of just truncated Andhra Pradesh. I too in last few days had watched it with the quest of my general awareness. The first question that came to the mind was, why this name Hudhud ? What it was after all ? I googled and came to know that the Indian Meteorological Department which by its precise forecasts in India has earned decent respect, issues cyclone advisories  not only for India but for seven other countries too viz. Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Oman, Sri lanka and Thailand. Under a standard practice supervised by the World Meteorological Organisation, it is customary that for cyclones arising in the northern Indian Ocean around these countries, every country gets a chance on rotation to name these out of a stock of names/titles pooled in 2004.  The title ‘Hudhud’ was suggested by Oman this time. That this catastrophe is named after the national bird of Israel (chosen after a  national survey there in 2008), can be a coincidence, but one has to be naive to believe that. The conservationists would certainly not be enjoying this unwarranted negative publicity. The extant bird Hudhud characterized by a crown of feathers is the Arabic name of the bird and is commonly known as Hoopoe. It is found in Europe, Asia including India and in north Africa. The poor bird in fact would not be even knowing that why it is being looked with so much disgust now in Andhra or even in whole of India.

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So beyond this G.K. quest of a person selected through the competitive exams, loaded even more now in favor of these KBC questions, i was not expecting a real face off with the Hudhud. But I was wrong. The impact of Hudhud in its kinder avatar though, was gutsy enough to travel full 1399 kms sideways to be in the City of Nawabs. The onslaught started on 13th night itself after about 32 hours since hitting Andhra coast on 12th noon. It started with strong winds swaying everything it could including trees and electricity lines. Then the rains followed, initially slowly but unceasingly. This consistency was still on while i was keying in this article almost after 24 hours since it started last night. The drizzle slow and fast like the recent LOC firings was still on. The first visible casualty of this consistency was something which i fear most. The morning tea without the daily dose of newspaper ! Unfortuanately this was the fourth ugly break in the newspaper chain in the first fortnight of this month alone. Lucknowites had already missed the newspapers on 3rd, 4th and 7th Oct. due to  Gandhi Jayanti, Dussehera and Valmiki Jayanti respectively. But now this Hudhud Jayanti too ! It was not fair. I waited and looked down from my first floor balcony many a times hoping against hope that the my otherwise brave hawker would somehow emerge from behind the corners of the streets. The Hamletian choice of to be or not to be, kept me on looking for the elusive newspaper. Actually this disturbance caused in the morning and that too repetitively in this fortnight has left many like me out of focus often, as who would have not enjoyed the rains from the balconies  sitting in a  cane wood chair with a newspaper in the left hand and a hot ginger laced tea in the right hand. It would have been a bliss. But that was not to be finally and i cursed Hudhud for the first time in my life. I don’t know if Oman would be happy to know that !

The next big question was that whether the children would be or should be going to school or not ? The reactions of the kids on a rainy day is linked directly to their comfort in attending classes in these cut throat competitive schools. The reactions of my son and daughter were different therefore. While one was too eager to resign to the imminent fate of not going to school the competitive one tried all tricks to leave for schools. What a contrast it was ? The calls were made. The opinions were sought. The pros and cons were weighed. The previous examples of calculations gone right and wrong were quoted. The debate took place. Finally the call was, O.K. no school for today. The announcement was made finally and the Hudhud claimed its second casualty of the day in Lucknow.

The first thing the kids do after an unplanned school break is to open the tiffin quickly and finish it off faster than the morning prayers. Actually seldom do they get their tiffins hot to relish the food. Normally they eat it at recess but by then the food gets colder and bland. So today they were in no mood to miss this chance. Immediately as a father, i sensed the opportunity to give the kids tasks to do on a rainy day. But before i could announce anything, the kids had different plans. They decided to utilize the Hudhud inflicted sabbatical to complete their quota of morning sleep. It is a fact that the kids overloaded with homework and with slow dinners in front of t v sets showing soap operas like historically twisted but popular Jodha Akbar, do compromise on their sleep. So my kids latched on this opportunity  to replenish their sleep quotas. The kids with their uniforms still on minus only shoes, huddled themselves in pillows and comforters and as father i watched the proceedings with a smile. I would have done the same perhaps. I did not curse the Hudhud this time.

After these unscheduled take offs and landings, i finished my daily routine of some exercise and a had a glassful of  lukewarm lemon water and went on to get ready for my official duties of the day. Being in the  city administration i was aware that there were few planned dharanas or agitations today. I left for the office on time despite the drizzle andseeing outside  felt really good from inside the comforts of a car. The traffic due to rain was on lighter side but got slower. The agitationists of many issues in true democratic traditions swarm Lucknow everyday. Led by their senior union leaders they intend to remind everybody of the unfulfilled promises made by the political leaders. But today they were also not prepared for the Hudhud rains. Still they were more in numbers than our rain discounted official calculations. They took their time in doing agitation before  a rather easy dispersal. But the groups of Chowkidars proved more battle hardened and did not mind getting drenched by rains too. Along with senior police officers i had to go in the afternoon on the action scene in the heart of city and had to use all of my persuading skills to communicate to this red turbaned gathering. It was raining. I convinced them finally but not before getting showered somewhat in the process despite some decent umbrella support by my staff. The Hudhud too helped and we convinced them to go back to their native districts on the promise of facilitating their talks on subsequent Hudhud free bright and sunny days in Lucknow. I thanked Hudhud now for the first time in the day as without its support it would have been an even more tough task to convince this motivated and rather bigger gathering.

So now seeing all the shades of the Hudhud i decided to take a break and came back to change my clothes. I had a steaming cup of hot tea to ward off the rain effect. I realized that nature had its own way of balancing out the things. By late evening the impact of Hudhud was on decline. The Hudhud after showing its color in state capital was moving away to the western part of Uttar Pradesh. I took a deep breath. Finally, it was a Hudhud day in all its glory.

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The Kitchens and Nawabs of Oudh

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The princely state of Oudh set up in 1722 by Mughals came onto its own in 1818 after the weakening of the Mughal empire and subsequent declaration of independence from Delhi by Nawabs. The princely state in its zenith till its annexation by British in 1856 was known as the lavish patron not only of art and culture but also of rich culinary tradition. It was enriched even further by the migration of fine chefs from the Delhi Durbar  after the decline of the Mughal empire. The Shiite Nawabs, originally from Persia in rather peaceful circumstances of the time had few distractions and patronized the  good food tradition by their lavish praises and rather heavy culinary expenses. In fact the chefs gained so much personal access to the Nawabs and to the politics of the times that two of them went on to become the Prime Minister of Oudh ! One was the Hassan Raza Khan, originally the Khansaama of Nawab Shujauddaula who became the prime minister in the reign of Asifuddaula. The other one was Agha Mir, the khansaama of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan turning  into the prime minister of 7th ruler, Nawab Ghaziuddin Haider.

The direct royal patronage gave to Khansaama the liberty to experiment with the food leading to creation of humongous folklore surrounding the kitchen and the chefs. The softest Kebabs of Lucknow prepared by adding ingredients like raw papaya were made so soft to help the Nawabs who had rather fragile teeth. The story of thirty seer ghee used for making just Nawab favourite paranthas every day for Nawab Ghaziuddin is no less interesting. The prime minister of the Nawab shocked by the extravagance of almost 28 kg of desi ghee daily just for one dish for the king alone objected to the chef and asked him to be reasonable. The chef responded by preparing most ordinary and dry paranthas knowing well that the Nawab would himself enquire about it one day. So when Nawab asked about the poor quality of Paranthas the chef had the opportunity of airing his grievances, leading almost to the loss of the job for the poor Prime Minister. The Prime Minister saved himself by apologizing profusely to the Nawab and Chef both.The Ghee flowed again rather liberally !

One more popular story is of a egoistic chef who charged Rs 500 ( a huge sum almost 200 years ago) as salary in those days and cooked only Urad Dal or black lentils. It could be cooked only on the advance notice of 24 hours and had to be eaten immediately after its preparation. Once Nawab got late on dinner time and the chef  felt so much hurt that risking his life he poured all of it in the roots of a dry tree nearby and left his job that night itself. The folklore says that that dried up tree greened within a week ! The culinary tradition in fact was patronized by few of the Queens or Begums also. Quddisia Begum married to Nawab Nasiruddin used to spent Rs 1400 per day on her kitchen alone and had hired a specialty chef Pir Ali for cooking only Samosas for her. Author Ravi Bhatt in his book The life and times of the Nawabs of Lucknow writes that every day the food for the Nawab and his umpteen Queens and consorts was cooked in 6 different kitchens at the monthly cost of Rs 60000 excluding the salary of the cooks. The kings were so fond of their cuisines that Nawab Wajid Ali Shah after being deposed from Oudh in 1856 and forced to settle at Matia Burz in Kolkata with a pension of only Rs 12 lacs per annum,  did not forget to carry with him favorite Khansaamas along to settle with him in Kolkata. He was thus really serious about the saying, ” The Army marches on it stomach” !

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This top of the world patronage off course yielded results in the shape of some truly mouth watering irresistible delicacies. The tradition of Dum Pukht or slow and sealed simmering though originated from Persia, the native place of Nawabs of Lucknow but came on its own in Oudh in 18th century. In it the deg cooking the dishes were sealed with dough after putting inside the key ingredients and then allowing it to cook or simmer on wooden fuel. Holly Shaffer wiring about Nababs and Kebabs mentions that Nawab Asafuddaula during famines got this method to feed for the scores of laborers working for sort of food for work programe during famines in 1780s. The recipes were further strengthened by few other smaller but well known states like of Mahmoodabad in bordering district of Sitapur. The Raja there were known to employ an army of around 300 cooks just to cook for himself. The Kakori Kebabs made with delicate meats became popular from a dargah kitchen at Kakori, a small town close to Lucknow. Given as a sort of Tabarruk or Prasad the kebabs were given with rotis at dargah to pilgrims. Soon the recipe became a part of royal kitchen. The Biriyani of Oudh too became popular for its fine ingredient cooked in the dum pukht manner. Like wise many other recipes like Shami Kebabs, Nahari, Shab Deg, Zamin Doj Machili, Nargisi Kofta, Sheermaal, Kulcha, Zarada, Phirini became the prized recipes of royal kitchens and in fact continue still to enthrall the foodies around the world.

Thus the Royal kitchens of Oudh became one of the finest landmarks in the culinary traditions of India and they competed with the best of Mughal cuisines and the cuisines of Deccan particularly of Hyderabad which like Oudh provided valuable patronage to the chefs in that part of India. The recipes and the rich tradition fortunately have survived to great extent and in fact those outstanding recipes are now available to much wider group of connoisseurs than were available at the time of Nawabs. After all who would not relish Tundey’s kebabs in Lucknow said to be a carry over of secret recipes of the royal chefs.

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( This blog is sourced with liberal help from Ravi Bahatt’s book The Life and Times of Nawabs of Lucknow, the article of Holly Shaffer sourced from web, http://www.india-seminar.com/2007/575/575_holly_shaffer.htm and various other sources including anecdotes and stories heard by author since his own birth in the capital city, Lucknow.)