The screaming traffic and occasionally gridlocked vehicles beneath it make for an awfully discordant backdrop for something so exquisite. But even the chaos of the 21st century cannot eclipse Lucknow’s most breathtaking monument – the Rumi Darwaza.
Standing 60 feet tall in the heart of Lucknow, the Rumi Darwaza is a monumental gateway built in the 18th century by the fourth Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-daula (r. 1775-1797). It is one of many grand monuments constructed by successive Nawabs in the former capital of Awadh. But none is perhaps quite as outstanding as this Gate of Glory.
This lofty gateway along with the magnificent Bara Imambara and other splendid buildings were built by Asaf-ud-daula to define his new capital after he shifted the seat of the Nawabs of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow, 130 km away, in 1775 CE.
Asaf-ud-daula was just 26 years old when he became Nawab on the death of his father in 1775 CE. Young and extravagant, he wanted to move away from the influence of his mother and grandmother, the famous ‘Begums of Awadh’, who were known for their financial acumen and astute administrative skills. He refused to rule in their shadow.
Until then, Lucknow was just a small provincial town and Asaf-ud-daula, a great patron of the arts and culture, was determined to build a grand capital that would rival the other capitals of the Islamic world. The Rumi Darwaza was a part of his plan to turn Lucknow into an architectural marvel.
This arresting gateway, commissioned by the Nawab in 1784 CE, was meant to outshine the Bab-i-Humayun (Sublime Porte) of the Ottoman Sultans in Istanbul, Turkey. It took the name ‘Rumi’, which means ‘relating to Rome’, as Istanbul was once the capital of Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire. This is perhaps why it is also referred to as the ‘Turkish Gate’.
The Rumi Darwaza serves as a gateway to the Old City of Lucknow and to the complex that comprises another of the Nawab’s monumental creations, the Bara Imambara. The Nawabs of Awadh were Shias, and the imambara or congregation hall was used by them for azhari, the mourning of Muharram.
Both these monuments were built by Asaf-ud-daula when a great famine struck the region in 1784-1786 CE. Instead of putting his plans on hold, the Nawab launched a food-for-work programme, which generated employment during these hard times while also allowing him to continue to build his brand new capital city.
There was a famous saying in Awadh at that time, about the Nawab’s generosity:
“Jisko na de maula, usko de Asaf-ud-daula"
“To whom even God does not give, Asaf-ud-daula gives."
Asaf-ud-daula’s generosity was matched by an eye for aesthetics and he entrusted the design of the Rumi Darwaza to a Persian architect named Kifayatullah. It was designed in typical Nawabi or Awadhi, not Mughal, style. It is also a testament to the ability of the craftsmen to adapt low-cost materials to such stupendous effect: balusters were fashioned from iron-baked clay and pottery was used in ornamentation on the walls.
To keep construction costs low while not compromising on the monument’s beauty, brick and lime were used instead of stone and marble. This also allowed local masons to cleverly use brick to create amazingly fine details on the surfaces of the walls and columns. For instance, the stucco ornamentation (gajkari) that decorates the gateway gives the monument a profound relief effect. Artisans also used mother-of-pearl and shells collected from lake beds in the stucco ornamentation, to create a sheen richer than that of even marble.
The uppermost part of the Rumi Darwaza consists of an octagonal chhatri (umbrella) and a domed rooftop pavilion that can be accessed by staircases. However, these are not open to the public. The arch itself is decorated with intricately carved flowers and designs that also contain traces of Roman architecture. It is said that a lantern used to be placed under the chhatri to illuminate the gateway at night, lighting up jets of water that streamed out of beautifully carved flower buds embedded in the sides of the arch. The effect was hypnotic and intended to make the arch look like a ‘Gateway to Paradise’.
In 1856 CE, the British East India Company deposed the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, and annexed his kingdom. The following year saw the Revolt of 1857, in which a number of Lucknow’s Nawabi monuments were extensively damaged or destroyed. Thankfully, Rumi Darwaza emerged unscathed.
Even today, the Rumi Darwaza is acting as the main gateway to the old Lucknow city. But a few years ago there were cracks seen at Rumi Darwaza, and due to the heavy traffic passing through it, the Archaeological Survey of India, responsible for its maintenance, has not been able to get it repaired till date. Many heritage enthusiasts say that the biggest threat to the gate is from the moving traffic passing through it.
Today, this glorious gateway continues to serve as the main thoroughfare to Lucknow’s Old City. But it is much more than a stunning example of Nawabi architecture. It is a metaphor for Lucknow city.