Glory of La Martiniere College

Of all the buildings of old Lucknow, surely none has a stranger or more romantic history than that of La Martiniere. Kipling described it in Kim as the school where his young hero was a reluctant pupil for a term, although he called it St. Xavier’s. Satyajit Ray filmed part of Shatranj ke Khilari in its grounds. The Indian writer Allan Sealy set his first novel Trotter-nama in the old house, and he renamed it Sans Souci, which means care-free. It has featured in several short stories too. But let us leave aside, for the moment, fantasy and fiction, and learn something of the real building that has inspired so many.

La Martiniere was built at the end of the 18th century by the Frenchman Major General Martin who gave it his name. Martin was an extraordinary man who arrived at Pondicherry in 1751 as a penniless common soldier, and by a mixture of skill, luck and hard work, became a richest European in Lucknow, so rich that he was able to lend $250,000 to the Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula. La Martiniere was originally known as Constantia. Historians say that this was from Martin’s motto Labore-et-Constantia (Toil and Fidelity), which is engraved over a first floor balcony. But romantic people believe it was named after Constance, who was Martin’s first love, the young girl that he left behind in France when he came to India to seek his fortune. If the story is true, and certainly his family in present day Lyon seem to think so, then a more remarkable monument to a woman in India does exist, apart from the Taj Mahal in Agra.

La Martiniere was a tomb that became a palace. It is both the finest and largest, example of a European funerary monument in the subcontinent. It has been described as a wedding-cake in brick, a Gothic castle and a baroque folly. When Martin decided, in the mid 1790s, that the building should house the living, as well as the dead, he began to furnish it in the most elaborate style. Huge crystal chandeliers from England lit the main rooms, and their flickering candles were reflected in mirrors, ten feet tall, that hung round the walls. There were paintings by Johann Zoffani, the German artist who was a friend of Martin’s, and imported inlaid marble tables stood on fine French carpets, together with many busts and statues. Outside were twelve ‘large street lamps’.

Martin obviously loved marble. He had planned to line some of his rooms with it, and on his death, thousands of slabs from Jaipur, and even China were found. Plaster plaques with Grecian figures decorated the walls and ceilings, so similar to English Wedgwood, that for years people thought they were authentic. Only when orders for tons of imported Plaster of Paris were discovered recently in Martin’s letters, was it proved that all the decorations were, in fact, carried out by skilled Indian craftsmen, working from one or two original models. On the parapets and pavilions outside stood dozens of statues. Martin had taught local people how to build up cement figures over an iron frame. There were French shepherdesses, lions (a visual pun on Martin’s birthplace of Lyon), pairs of lovers, Roman goddesses, Egyptians, sphinx and Chinese mandarins, whose heads nodded in the breeze.

Four great octagonal towers, from basement to roof, from the frame-work of La Martiniere. Many of the rooms are built between these towers, giving them a curious, lopsided appearance from inside. But they remain pleasant even during the hottest months, because the hollow towers draw up cool air from the ground which disperses through vents into the rooms. It was a kind of early air-conditioning, where hot air is expelled, in this case, from the roof.

During the turbulent 18th century, no-one was really safe from surprise, attacks, and no-one was more aware of this than Claude Martin. He designed his buildings like miniature forts, with cannons on the parapets and thick iron doors that sealed off spiral staircases and archways. The hinges on which these great doors hung ca which these great doors hung can still be seen today, and there are ‘secret’ chambers on the first floor where cannon balls could be stored. The whole building was described as ‘bomb proof’ and surrounded by a deep ditch, fortified on the outer side by stockades-sufficiently protected to resist the attacks of the ‘Asiatic power’. The lion statues on the parapet were designed to hold flaming torches inside their open mouths. The sight of these illuminated beasts, belching out fire and smoke on a dark night must have been a terrifying one for would be intruders. The two cannons which stand on the terrace today are also a reminder of less peaceful days.

One was actually cast by Martin in his Lucknow Arsenal, and named Cornwallis after the Governor-General. The other was captured at Seringapatam, when Martin accompanied Cornwallis as his aide-de-camp (The huge bronze bell came from the arsenal too.) Hanging over the mantelpiece in the Blue Room of La Martiniere is a small, gilt framed painting of a young Indian woman and a European boy. Both are dressed in 18th century Indian costume, and the woman is holding a fishing rod. Her name was Boulone and she was Claude Martin’s mistress, although 30 years younger than him. Like James Zulphikar, the little boy in the picture, she had been adopted as a child by Martin. According to him they lived happily enough together, but there must have been bitter arguments when he introduced other, and younger, mistresses into the household. Nevertheless, he made sure that Boulone would be well provided for after his death, and he thoughtfully built a little Muslim tomb for her in the grounds of La Martiniere. It is here that a few rupees are given out once a month to poor people in Lucknow, as Martin had provided in his will.

A stranger request was that his own body should be ‘put into spirits’ (alcohol) after his death, and buried in two coffins, the first of lead and the second of wood. His tomb was, naturally to be made of the finest marble, and is rested in one of the little basement rooms, surrounded by life-size models of four sepoys, their rifles reversed as a sign of mourning. In the octagon room above stands a fine, marble bust of Martin, carved five years or so before his death in 1800. It was thought to be an excellent likeness of the old Frenchman, with his hawk-like nose, broad forehead, and powdered wig. He was always portrayed in regimental uniform, lavishly decorated with gold braid, frogging and epaulettes, for he was immensely proud of the title of Major General which the East India Company had given him (after he had dropped some heavy hints that he deserved it!) all the furnishings and treasures of La Martiniere, as well as those from Martin’s first Lucknow house, the Farhad Buksh, were auctioned on his death, as he had requested. The great chandeliers were bought for the Government House (now Raj Bhawan) in Calcutta, where they still hang, but the majority of his collection was dispersed to private buyers. Martin had willed that his palace-tomb should become a school for boys of any religion, and he also left money to start school in Calcutta and Lyon, all to be called La Martiniere.

The Lucknow school opened in 1840, and was flourishing when the terrible uprising of 1857 swept across northern India. The principal, Mr. George Schilling was advised by Sir Henry Lawrence to evacuate the building, but at first he decided against this, La Martiniere had been constructed, after all, to withstand just such an emergency. Schilling stockpiled provisions and stored massive quantities of water in large chatties which occasionally burst, ‘the resulting midnight shower baths being the first taste the boys below had of the suffering they were to endure during the rigours of the siege’. He armed the bigger boys and installed them as sentries on top of the building during the day. At night the masters took over the watch. ‘Bridges connecting the main building with the wings of the Martiniere were destroyed-the numerous doors in front of the building barricaded – those behind built up with kucha walls five feet high and of the same thickness-all the staircases built up and also the doors leading to the staircase’.

Battle Honours !

While all this is going on, classes were suspended, and the boys must have enjoyed their surprise vacation, surely the strangest reason ever for a school holiday! But on June 18, the order came to abandon La Martiniere and the masters and boys left to seek shelter in the Residency. The school had its own flock of sheep, and these had to be left behind, although for some weeks the boys made perilous journeys back to La Martiniere to collect provisions. Sixty-five boys were, assigned to military and domestic duties as the British-held Residency came under siege. They were housed there in a building belonging to the Lucknow banker Shah Behari Lal, which was renamed ‘La Martiniere Post’. The civil surgeon at the Residency paid tribute to them, writing that ‘no class of individuals has survived the Residency siege in a better state of health or in a more efficient state of discipline than the Martiniere boys’. But what happened to La Martiniere itself ? Shortly after its evacuation, Indian soldiers their supporters who were fighting against the British, took it over and unfortunately vandalized it, destroying many of the fine statues. They even prized open the marble tomb of Claude Martin, in a vain search for hidden treasure. After the British capture of Lucknow in 1858 La Martiniere was extensively renovated and the boys and masters were able to move back again. But there was to be an odd, belated post script. In 1932, nearly a hundred years after the uprising, the British Government decided to present the school with battle Honours . Nowhere else in the world has a school been similarly honoured. Some English schools have Regimental Colours, but La Martiniere, Lucknow stands unique as the only one with Battle Honours.

Today the school is a popular English medium institution, where admission is eagerly sought. Many of its boys have gone on to gain high positions in India and abroad. There are echoes of the past all around you in Lucknow, yet none perhaps more strong than those of the proud La Martiniere.


(With inputs from Dr.Rosie Llewellyn Jones & Other available material)