The best travel tales are an outcome of discoveries you make when you least expect them. A recent trip to Lucknow brought me with the story of an unsung hero of the City of Nawabs. By Shikha Pushpan

 

The downside of being a frequent flier is that it takes away the small joys of travelling— boarding a plane becomes a dull routine, fancy hotel rooms fail to impress, and exploring a new city is often restricted to following set itineraries. During my recent trip to Lucknow, I found myself drowning in this whirlwind of thoughts when I chanced upon a colourful graffiti that said, “Muskuraiye, aap Lucknow mein hain! (Smile, you’re in Lucknow!)” And just like that, I found myself grinning ear to ear. This is the thing with the City of Nawabs—it surprises you at the least likely of moments.

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The new Hyatt Regency Lucknow in Gomti Nagar was my home for the next two days as I went about the city looking for stories. Located in the heart of Vibhuti Khand, the Hyatt outpost is among the fresh crop of five-star hotels that are reshaping the city into a luxury destination. My den, the Regency Executive Suite, looked out to a fast-evolving cityscape of Gomti Nagar, a place that is increasingly being compared to Gurugram for its swanky roads and mushrooming corporate houses.

About 10 kilometres away unfolds the legacy of one of Lucknow’s prominent architects, Major General Claude Martin. “A multi-faceted personality, Martin was one of the most colourful characters in 18th-century India, but strangely one of the least known,” said my guide, Mohammad Saddam, as we took an (unofficial) detour to explore a recently discovered underground tunnel and waterway at the twin heritage structures—Chattar Manzil and Kothi Farhat Baksh—in Old Lucknow. After a quick drive past the imposing façade of Rumi Darwaza, the Residency, and a couple of other city landmarks, we arrived at the Chattar Manzil palace complex, where vine-covered walls were the last standing testimony to the opulent past of its former residents.

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Designed and built by Major General Martin, the two buildings are among the finest specimens of Indo- European architecture in Lucknow. These heritage structures had faded into oblivion until recently when a team of conservationists unearthed an extensive network of tunnels and corridors in their basement, exposing a previously unknown aspect of the lives of the Nawabs who called it home, including Saadat Ali Khan and Wajid Ali Khan. It is believed that these waterways connected the palace to a structure on the River Gomti that was destroyed in floods. This is probably where the rulers spent leisure time, reading and chalking out strategies for their kingdom. “I witnessed the [discovery of] water myself when these excavations took place in 2015. The house chanelled water from River Gomti to cool its rooms. There were boats parked in the basement, and no one knew about it all these years. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and state tourism board are hoping to find more chambers when they carry out further digging,” Saddam said, adding that it was likely the tunnels were connected to other 18th- and 19th-century buildings in the city.

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At the heart of this architectural marvel is the genius of Major General Claude Martin. Half polymath and half adventurer, Martin has as many admirers as detractors. He started off as a porter in Paris, before joining the French army as a soldier, and later, the East India Company’s force in India. The switch in loyalty happened after the siege of Pondicherry.

He rose through the ranks in India to eventually command the cavalry of the Nawabs of Awadh. Born in Lyon, France, Martin was considered a man of wide interests and exceptional abilities. He introduced French architecture in Lucknow and quickly became the blue-eyed boy of the Nawabs. His proximity to the rulers got him contracts to build structures that are prominent landmarks today, like the Governor House (Raj Bhavan) and Constantia. “He used to live the life of a Muslim prince, but with interests of and tastes matching a Renaissance man. Among other things, Major General Martin was a botanist, indigo farmer, surveyor, hot air balloonist, and ace gambler. He turned his life around from being a porter to become the richest European in Lucknow at the time,” said Saddam, almost reverentially. The Frenchman’s ailment and death, too, weren’t devoid of adventure. Martin was diagnosed with bladder stones and chose to operate upon himself based on references from medical journals. Though the surgery seemed successful initially, he died a few years later in 1800. His life is set to be celebrated at a proposed museum in the Chattar Manzil complex, where, at present, workers go about the task of restoring the heritage structure to its previous glory, oblivious to the trove of stories ensconced within its walls.

Back at the hotel, I was greeted with a generous spa ritual, Shila Abhyanga, which worked wonders on my tired feet after all the walking through silt and grime. Relaxed and rejuvenated, I was up for another bout of adventure; however, this time within the walls of LukJin, the hotel’s speciality restaurant. And boy, was it a revelation! The hotel staff insisted that I try the Blooming or Flowering Tea—an offering that’s quickly become the talk of the town. I watched in awe as a green tea bud, the size of a golf ball, bloomed into a fist- sized jasmine flower when put in warm water. While you’re still captivated by the visual treat before you, be assured, the tea tastes as good as it looks. Like I said, the City of Nawabs throws a surprise at you just when you think you’ve seen it all.

 

THE DETAILS

GETTING THERE

Lucknow is connected to major Indian cities by many airlines. The Chaudhary Charan Singh International Airport is 20 minutes from Hyatt Regency Lucknow.

STAY

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The recently launched Hyatt Regency Lucknow enjoys a sweet spot in the Vibhuti Khund area of Gomti Nagar. Its proximity to the High Court, multiple government buildings, and city attractions makes it a good bet for both, business and leisure travellers. It offers 206 rooms including 19 suites. The Regency Club rooms and suites come with access to the Regency Club that serves complimentary breakfast, hors d’oeuvres, and cocktails. From
Rs 5,500 in August.

SEE

Lucknow falls on the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Heritage Arc with Agra and Varanasi. The state tourism board (uptourism.gov.in) organises heritage walks through Old Lucknow, covering major city attractions like Bara Imambara, Kaiserbagh, Rumi Darwaza, Husainabad Clock Tower, Gol Darwaza, Chowk Bazaar, Phool Wali Gali, Akbari Darwaza, Lal Pul, etc. If you’re staying at the Hyatt Regency Lucknow, a concierge can arrange a tour with a certified guide.

EXPERIENCE

Get a first-hand account of Lucknow royalty in a conversation with Jaffar Mir Abdullah. Though his connection with the erstwhile royal family of Awadh has been contested, guests can get an inside account of the city’s history and learn a thing or two about Lucknawi tehzeeb over tea with Abdullah at his modest home, adorned with vintage artefacts.

SHOP

Street shopping is the lay of the land in Lucknow. The Chowk Area is a vibrant market place selling everything from chikan textiles to attar. Sugandhco (D4- GF, Janpath Market) even customises the attar as per the customer’s preference; a 500 ml bottle can cost anywhere between Rs500 and Rs12,000. Hazratgang Market is a good place to pick up chikan apparel. You can also visit Nakhas Market to buy zardozi creations and exquisite silver jewellery. A good souvenir is the paan-daan, an ornate box used to serve paan in earlier times.

FEAST

Basket chaat at Royal Cafe (9/7, Shahnajaf Road) in Hazratganj Market is an absolute must-have. A generous assortment of 25 ingredients, the street-side dish is a riot of flavours. If you’re looking for fine dining options, LukJin at Hyatt Regency Lucknow is a good bet for Thai and Chinese dishes. The lounge bar, UP’s, serves some of the best cocktails in town.