Lucknow by boat

The Gomti river which runs through Lucknow, is the city’s most visible and yet most undervalued asset. Broad, indeed almost majestic, after the monsoon. It is a river that has been ignored for many years, in this it Is not unlike many of the city’s buildings, at whose brick foundations its waters lap. But while restoration of important sites Is now taking place, the Gomti goes quietly about its business, hardly troubled at all by the people of Lucknow.

Not until last year (year 2000) did the first commercial river trips begin, started by Shivgarh Resort Ltd. with a single 40-seater cruiser. Before that the only way to get on to the river was to persuade a fisherman to go out in his flat-bottomed punt for a fee that could only, mysteriously, be revealed once the boat was in midstream.

Last September I hired the cruiser for Rs. 400 for an hour’s run on the river. I had the grand idea of sailing down the river from the ruined palace of Barowen (Musa Bagh) right through the city to the Dilkusha and La Martiniere. After all, this was what the old Nawabs of Awadh enjoyed, especially on a summer evening, after the enervating heat of the day. But this was to be an unrealised dream. With the building of the Gomti barrage, it is no longer possible to travel from the eastern to the western palaces. Today the boat leaves from the grassy banks below the Shah Najaf, and heads resolutely up-stream beyond Husainabad before looping round to return to its mooring place.

Yet this is a ride well worth taking, not just to escape the noise and heat of the city, but more importantly, to recapture something of its grandeur, the sense of spaciousness that is almost impossible to imagine today in the congested streets. Once out on the river, the topography of Lucknow becomes clearer, particularly the relationship between the Bara Imambara and the Rumi Darwaza, and between those two ancient rivals, the British Residency and the Nawabs’ Macchi Bhawan palace, where King George’s Medical University stands today. The foreign artists who flocked to Lucknow in the late 18th Century loved to paint the Gomti, with the Macchi Bhawan’s shimmering white buildings and gold domes reflected in its tranquil water. William and Thomas Daniell, Ozias Humphry, William Hodges and Robert Home sketched and painted this river, from its banks, and from boats moored on it.

The riverine entrances to the old buildings are no longer visible. The Farhat Baksh (formerly the town house of Major General Claude Martin) was actually built into the river, on brick-piles, Twenty years ago the arched entrances to the basements could still be seen, with the date of construction, 1782, Inscribed above.  Now they have been lost by the raising of the bund. The British Residency, built on a hill, had a water-gate, now hidden somewhere behind the Shaheed Smarak, the graceful obelisk to the martyrs of 1947 (and not as most people will tell you, to the townspeople killed In 1857).

Today’s boat has to negotiate a series of bridges – the Lal Pul or Hardinge Bridge, the Daliganj Bridge, the railway bridge, and the Hanuman Bridge. At sunset these bridges become dark silhouettes against the fading sky, busy with people, bicycles, cars, carts, rickshaws, trucks and buses all crossing and re-crossing, a linear, moving strip of life from one bank to another. In the old days, there was only one bridge, the Stone Bridge, which was, like most of Lucknow’s buildings, really made of brick, covered with chunam.

The smell of hops from the Mohan Meakin Brewery is overtaken, as we travel up the river, by the acrid smoke from the busti’s, and further up by the smoke of mango wood from the cremation ghats. The sounds from the shores are magnified by the water – the temple bells struck by worshipers, the azan from the mosques, the alarm cries of the mynah birds, a distant hooting and buzz of traffic. But behind all this, the ear catches other sounds, ghostly sounds from the past, when the river was a place of celebration and partying.

Here the Nawabs and their courtiers would drift up and down in their ceremonial barges, the filcharrah or elephant-prowed boat, the peacock-headed punt, and the swan boat, designed by Robert Home, the Court artist. Even stranger were the steam-powered ‘fish’ boats, complete with wicker fins and scales of silver. These were not of course, for catching fish, but were a whimsy of the Nawabs, who literally plastered the city with ornamental fish, still seen on many gateways. But the grandest and largest boat on the Gomti was called the “The Sultan of Oude”. It was a three-masted schooner, brought up from Calcutta and fitted up in the most lavish fashion, with yards of velvet, teak planking and gold brocade, for Nawab Nasir-ud-Din Haider.

There are echoes of the tunes played by European bandsmen standing on the river banks before the palaces and the crackle of fireworks, an essential part of any celebration. Small punts laden with showers of fireworks would be moored in the river to add the general merriment and echo the enormous fireworks set off on the banks.

How far away all this seems today. As the boat turns to start its homeward journey, all is silent in the dusk. Only the clumps of pampas grass and the banana trees are visible on the flat plains below Musa Bagh.

The journey eastwards, towards the Gomti barrage, has to be completed the next day by car. It is the barrage that controls the width of the river today, not a good or bad monsoon. The artificial barrier ensures a river depth of 20 feet or so, enough for the pumping station at Gao-ghat to draw off the water needed. Below the barrage the Gomti reverts to its original size now that the river is partly controlled, there is debate on whether the 1970s bund is still needed as a flood prevention measure. Certainly its removal could restore the riverbank buildings and their water gates to their original state. But we will have to wait a long time for the Gomti to regain its old role in city life, the place of pleasure, leisure and entertainment that it used to be so many years ago.

Rosie Llewellyn-Jones originally wrote this article for The Hindu and was published on 1st July 2001, The writer is an authority on the history of Lucknow, and the author of several books on the city which she visits each year since 1970s.