Lucknow in the 19th century – Vintage Pictures

By Somali K Chakrabarti

Lucknow, the city of Nawabs, was also once the city of adab and tehzeeb (etiquette and manners).

Refined speech, manners, art, literature, poetry and “Nawabi” style cuisines once marked the culture of the city.

The capital city of Uttar Pradesh, on the bank of River Gomati, has a cultural legacy shared by Hindus and Muslims, with a strong influence of Persian court culture. The nobility consisted mainly of Shiite Muslims, who traced back their ancestry to Persia.

Peppered with Persian vocabulary and idioms, Udru language spoken in Lucknow was known for its elegance, expressiveness and extreme politeness. Lucknow Urdu played a key role in the city’s cultural milieu.

Street scene , Lucknow, 1800
Street scene in Lucknow, with shops and traders and a horseman

Lucknow first attained prominence in the 15th century under the sultans of Jaunpur. Later it was ruled by Mughal governors. By the 17th century, Lucknow was a prosperous commercial centre, and continued to flourish till 1856 as the capital of the independent Nawabs of Avadh (originally governors under the Mughals).

The city’s culture evolved under the patronage of the Nawabs and Lucknow became a flourishing centre for the art, literature, poetry (ghazals , sher-o-shayari), music (qawwali, thumri) and dance (kathak).

Courtesans were frequent performers at the palaces of the Nawabs. These influential elite women actively shaped the developments in music and dance styles.

Here is a collection of vintage pictures of some of the hallmark structures of the city.


Bara Imambara, ca 1860

Bara Imambara
Lithograph View of Imambara and the Rumi Durwaza, from Moosah Bagh end of the city, ca 1860

Imambaras were important religious buildings in Lucknow, in which the ceremony of Muharram was conducted. The most important Imambara in Lucknow is the Asafi or the Bara (Big) Imambara, a colossal edifice constructed in 1784, at a cost of two million rupees during the reign of Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah.


Rumi Darwaza, ca 1824

Rumi Darwaza
The Great Imambra through the Rumi Darwaza, ca 1824
Rumi Darwaza
The Rumi Darwaza from the north-west

Rumi Darwaza was an imposing gateway, built by Asaf–ud–daula in 1784. The huge elaborate gate, erected just beside the Bara Imambara, is said to be modelled on one of the original gateways to Constantinople.


Dilkhusha Garden

Dilkhusha Palace, Lucknow
Photograph of the Dilkhusha Palace in Lucknow by Felice Beato in ca 1858

The Dilkusha Palace in an Indianised European style was built by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan (ruled 1798-1814), as a hunting retreat, set in extensive grounds. The house is said to be modelled on Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval in Northumberland.


Moti Mahal, ca 1860

Moti Mahal
Coloured lithograph of the Moti Mahal, ca 1860
Moti Mahal, Lucknow, 1874
Moti Mahal, Photograph taken in ca 1874

Moti Mahal (or Pearl Palace) of Lucknow was named after its pearl-shaped dome. It is is located along the Gomti river and was commissioned by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan (r. 1798-1814). It appears to have been built for purposes of defence, or to keep a check on the advance of an enemy.


Chattar Manzil

Chattar Manzil
Chattar Manzil, from Gomti, ca 1862

The Chattar Manzil or Umbrella Palaces (1820s) were ‘so named for their distinctive, triple umbrella pavilaions or chatris which ornament the domes. It served as the palace for the rulers of Awadh and their wives. The larger or Greater Chattar Manzil had three storeys with tehkhanas or suites of underground rooms. The Lesser Chattar Manzil comprises of government offices. Both are impressive architectural hybrids.


Chota Imambara

Hosenabad Imamabara
The principal building of the Hussainabad Imambara, ca 1874

The Chhota Imanbara is also known as the Husainabad Imambara or Palace of Lights. It was built between 1837 and 1842 by Muhammed Ali Shah to serve as a mausoleum. The complex consists of a forecourt and main court. The imambara is located within the main court and has two tombs on either side. A gilded dome dominates the building and is covered with minarets, small domes, arches and a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal.


Kaiserbagh Baradari, ca 1880

Kaiserbagh, Lucknow
View of the principal gateway into the Kaiserbagh, Lucknow. 1858

The Kaiserbagh complex was built by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (ruled 1847-56), and was much damaged and looted in 1858. A baradari (a house twelve-doors) was an elegant nawabi-style pavilion, which together with gardens was an essential feature of much secular architecture in Lucknow. The Kaiserbagh Baradari, square in plan, stood in the middle of the palace complex, and contained a number of collonnaded halls of varying sizes.



Residency Lucknow
Watercolour of the Residency in Lucknow, ca 1814

Lucknow suffered the devastation and ruin of a British onslaught aimed at crushing the revolt during the Indian Sepoy Mutiny in 1857.

The Residency Building, built in c.1800 for the British Resident in Lucknow, was a key site of the Siege of Lucknow during the Uprising of 1857. It was sieged twice then recaptured in March 1858 by British forces under Sir Colin Campbell. Approximately 3000 British inhabitants took refuge within the complex. The surviving ruins of the Residency convey the grandeur of the original structure and provide an insight to the events of 1857.

Looting and ransacking of the palaces by the British troops followed by dynamiting of large tracts of the city, were devastating blows from which Lucknow never quite recovered. Few buildings that survived the events of 1858, were restored and maintained, yet even many of these structures lie in a neglected and decrepit state.

The succeeding years saw the fading away of rich traditions and practices and the decline of Lucknow from a center of cultural excellence into a city struggling to preserve its heritage.


 Pictures  Source : The British Library

References :

The Tabla of Lucknow, James Kippen

Online British Library

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24 thoughts on “Lucknow in the 19th century – Vintage Pictures

      1. Do you have any information about British Military Hospital established in 1859.
        It is the present day Command Hospital in Cantonment in Lucknow


  1. Somali , the pictures are very beautiful . I am very proud of my place of birth, my beautiful city Lucknow. I love to read any article ,write up or news item about Lucknow. I must say , this article is informative and beautifully written. Thank you Somali.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Lovely post. I loved the Imambaras when I visited Lucknow as a child. They have a wonderful quality of seeming to be sitting in the present and past. Your post evoked fond memories of that visit.
    I am interested in the vintage pictures and wanted to check with you on the source for it if possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. very nice and informative, though less information, i am selfish as i wish to know more and more about Lucknow, my birth place… keep updating us…. anything on Kathak and temples or anything Pre-Nawab era??

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I had met many at Bhatkhande school and Kathak Kendra, Lucknow, Smt Kapila, Kum kum Dhar, Smt Damyanti Joshi but never could learn there, as i was living in IITKanpur. But now i wish to write something thus, thought that if you could read my outpourings, as i am just novice in this field.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have visited this place and very recently too in 2017 and I can say that , this city and its monuments were more beautiful in 19th century as they looks today .


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