An image from a postcard of the Kaiserbagh Palace in the late 19th century published by D. Macropolo & Company.
Photo Courtesy: Zeno Archives.

The Kaiserbagh was the work of Wajid Ali Shah. It was begun in 1848 and completed in 1850 at a cost of Rs 80 lakhs.

Lucknow is a city of gardens and there were many walled gardens in the suburbs of this Nawabi city, especially developed for animal fights, as orchards, or with small villas for hunting. They had baradaris (large pavilions) and sometimes even mosques located within. Even small residences had gardens known as ‘Payin Bagh’ (private garden). The most glorious gardens were the ones located within the palace complexes of the Nawabs with fruit trees, flowing water fountains, and fragrant flowers, as was the case with Kaiserbagh Palace complex.

Wajid Ali Shah (1847-1856), the last Nawab of Lucknow, visualized a palace complex, Kaiserbagh, which amalgamated all the intricacies of a paradise garden. The English word ‘paradise’ is simply a transliteration of the Persian word Pairidaeza referring to a walled garden. The ‘paradise’ promised in the Holy Quran is a beautiful garden, with shade and water as its ideal elements.

The Persian concept of the paradise garden was brought to India by the Mughal Emperor Babur, and developed extensively by the later Mughals. Most of the tombs, like the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s tomb were set within elaborate charbagh gardens (four-cornered) while others had palaces built around them.

A study of paintings and photographs of the Kaiserbagh gardens taken before 1857 indicate that the main quadrangle, which was the heart of the palace complex, had an elaborate charbagh. It was entered and exited through two identical gates known as Lakhi gates. It was known as the ‘Paree (Angel) Khana’ (area) where the queens of the King lived and it is this part that remains intact today.

The residential quarters of the royal ladies, surrounding the main garden, were houses with large courtyards, two stories high, and no windows on the exterior. Also within the Kaiserbagh complex were two markets, Meena Bazaar and Kaptan Bazaar, exclusively for the use by the royal women.

After the first war of Independence in 1857, the British ordered the demolition of Kaiserbagh, as it was the stronghold of the Nawabs under the leadership of Begum Hazrat Mahal, who had assumed leadership after her husband, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who was exiled in 1856.

Kaiserbagh was slowly demolished and had wide streets passing through its main courtyards. No other building complex of Lucknow was as splendid as Kaiserbagh and no other historical monument was so completely destroyed. Today it requires considerable imagination to recreate the vision of the palace complex as only a few structures of the Kaiserbagh palace remain.

The impregnable complex of yesteryear today stands fragmented. The tombs, imposing in their solitude, have neatly laid out lawns where frolicking kids roll down their grassy embankments. The internationally famous Bhatkhande College of Music stands on the remnants of the palace structures, which, during the time of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, patron entertainer and music connoisseur, echoed with ghazals, thumris, and dadra.

The Sufed Baradari, other than its royal occupants, stands unchanged in the midst of the complex. Graceful, with flowing contours in marble, it is witness to various events and thousands of marriages solemnized under its majestic marbled opulence. It continues to be one of the best-preserved edifices from the complex created by the Nawab.

The two Lakhi gates are today but a shadow of their magnificent past. From dominating the entry into the palace complex, they appear humbled by the volume of traffic, rumbling under their aged portals. Aware of the cultural importance and heritage of the Kaiserbagh complex, the Government of Uttar Pradesh in close co-operation with the Archeological Survey of India has an ambitious plan to revitalize the area.

NOTEBOOK: The stately tombs of Saadat Ali Khan and his begum (wife) are close to the remnants of Kaiserbagh Palace. The spirit of the nawabs returns during the Lucknow Mahotsava between late November and early December. During the 10-day festival of nostalgia there are plays, kathak dance performances, ghazal and sitar recitals, kite flying and tonga races.