In the dense by-lanes of Lucknow’s Chowk area, as you make your way to a hole-in-the-wall biryani and kebab joint, look around the old buildings and worn-down walls. These walls hide history and stories that date back to 16th century. Artist and blogger Adity Chakravarti’s coffee-table book Rehaish–At Home In Lucknow peers beyond these walls, into the homes that are witness to this nawabi city’s affluence.

In 1723, when Nawab Saadat Khan Burhan-ul-Mulk, the founder of the Nawabi dynasty, came to Lucknow, the city was limited to the area around Chowk. The fortified palace of Machchi Bhawan stood near River Gomti. The city started growing after Asaf-ud-Daula, the Nawab wazir of Oudh, moved his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow. By the time of the Uprising in 1857, Lucknow had grown until it reached Charbagh.

Ruled by Muslim rulers from the 16th century, the architecture was predominantly Islamic. After Asaf-Ud-Daula’s death, the British invited his brother Saadat Ali Khan to become the next ruler. It was he who took a keen interest in the beautification of the city. The majority of Lucknow’s kothis, along with Hazratganj, were built during his time. After the exile of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Lucknow, these houses were sold or allotted to individuals by the British. Some of these magnificent houses have kept their glory intact.

A locked room in Salempur House.

Homes and history

Chakravarti’s book mentions Khayaliganj, the oldest home in Lucknow built by French General and architect Claude Martin. The house was renamed Kakori Kothi by the present owner’s ancestors, who belonged to Kakori, a small town near Lucknow. Located near Qaiserbagh, the kothi houses a circular room, supported by a ring of columns, that is the most magnificent section of the house. The gol kamra was where Martin organised cock fights, according to historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones.

Chakravarti categorises Lucknow’s old houses into four types – havelis, kothis, bungalows and houses in bazaars. The story of every house is supported with beautiful pictures that give the readers a glimpse into what is hidden in those unassuming streets. One such haveli, a typical house that stood behind huge walls, is located on Victoria Street close to the famous Idris biryani.

Built in 1901, the house has a large open courtyard paved with rust-coloured bricks and framed by 22 arches. The guestroom of the house, with six doors, has kept its past glory intact. The arches above the doors have coloured glasses, Belgian glass chandeliers hang in the room creating a beautiful play of light during sunset.

The drawing room in Itaunja House.

The rooms in the havelis were not created keeping a specific function in mind. There was little or no sense of privacy except for clear demarcations for janana and mardana sections – separate sections for women and men – because of the purdah system. Most of the day was spent in the courtyard where the family would get together for a meal, children would play in the evening or women would sit around for an afternoon siesta.

Another house, where history has been preserved, is located near the Charbagh railway station. Khajurgaon Palace, named after its groves of date palms, was owned by Raja Beni Madho Singh, the commander-in-chief of the rebel Indian soldiers during the uprising of 1857. His descendants still live in the palace. The house is built in kothi-style – a solid block of masonry without an inner courtyard.

Gol Kamra at Kakori Kothi.

The rooms in a kothi had specific functions. A veranda would open up into the drawing room which led to the dining room surrounded by the kitchen. Kothis were more equipped to host European guests and also maintained a somewhat similar lifestyle. In Khajurgaon Palace, the veranda is decorated with painted stucco work which leads to the stunning Durbar Hall.

The wall facing the main door has a fireplace decorated with an elaborate crest of the British crown in painted plaster work. The narrow balcony on the first floor gives a lovely perspective of the Durbar Hall. The women of the house would sit behind these grilled balconies to watch the dance and music performances in the room below.

Guestroom at Azim Ali Ki Kothi

A love for aesthetics

There are stories in these homes that take you straight back to history. One such story is about the locked room in Salempur House, a part of the large Qaiserbagh Palace built by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The room, formerly a billiard room, is still in its original form. The walls have cusped arches with columns where mirrors or portraits must have hung. The room is painted in intricate green and white flowers, leaves and vines on pink background, the motifs covering the walls and ceiling entirely.

A wall in Salempur House.

Chakravarti developed a love for this historic architecture while living in Dublin where her husband was posted. “The architectural society in Dublin used to organise something called Open House Dublin, where once a year people would throw their homes open to the public,” she said. “It made people want to preserve their heritage.”

Chakravarti started documenting her visits to these houses in a blog. The interest kept growing once she moved back to India, to her in-laws’ post-Independence bungalow in Lucknow, also the last house mentioned in the book. The blog eventually grew into an idea for a book and nine months of research, visiting every house and talking to the current owners shaped Rehaish, which was published by Sanatkada – an NGO in Lucknow that works towards promoting the crafts and culture of the city.