Quite like the eccentric owner it once had, Chhatar Manzil or the ‘Umbrella Palace’ has a curious history. It started life as the town house or kothi of Claude Martin (1735-1800), the famous French adventurer, general and architect in the court of the Lucknow Nawabs, and it hasn’t stopped surprising us since.
A few years ago, construction workers strengthening the foundation of the palace found an entire storey buried beneath ground. Pillars, brackets, doors and windows emerged, suggesting that the underground storey was meant to be occupied. Before that, two underground ‘tunnels’ were discovered and, in May 2019, a gondola or a 200-year-old pleasure boat that was 42 feet long was unearthed as a conservation project dug a couple of meters down.
The story of the palace goes back to Martin (founder of the famous La Martiniere Schools in Lucknow and Kolkata), who moved to Lucknow in 1776 CE, a year after Nawab Asaf-ud-daula shifted the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow. His architectural skills and closeness to Asaf-ud-daula gave him a unique opportunity to participate in the development of Nawabi Lucknow. Together, they created some of the most iconic buildings of the city.
Chhatar Manzil was one of them. Built in stages, the original structure was Martin’s grand home on the Gomti riverfront. It was unusual, to say the least. Called Farhat Baksh, the kothi was completed in 1781 CE and Martin lived there till his death in 1800.
Claude Martin’s Kothi
The kothi was a peculiar building. It had two floors below ground level, which were visible only when the river was at its lowest level. They flooded when the river swelled during the monsoon and had to be abandoned, only to be re-occupied when the water level dropped once again. The basements were linked to two towers, whose air cooled and ventilated the rest of the kothi.
Above the basement was a large hall, which was partially built on stilts and supported by arches as a section of it extended over the river. The house also had elevated pavilions and two telescopes, brought from England and installed on the roof for astronomical observations. Martin had separate quarters or a zenana built for his mistresses alongside the house.
The building’s main hall served as Martin's library and a museum of sorts. He had a collection of almost 4,000 books in both French and English, in addition to 500 handwritten volumes in Persian. On display was an odd but fantastic assortment of items, which included mirrors, china and glassware, a room full of fireworks, Chinese toys, puppet theatre accessories, a human skeleton, watches, magic lanterns (a glass-slide projector) and an impressive collection of paintings.
Martin also dug a moat around the house and built as the entrance a high, arched gateway with a draw-bridge!
After Martin died, his Spanish business partner, Joseph Queiros, bought the kothi, after outbidding Awadh's reigning Nawab, Saadat Ali Khan. The Nawab later stayed in the house during a prolonged illness for a change of air. After he recovered, he convinced Queiros to sell the building to him and it served as a residential palace for Awadh's Nawabs until the last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah (1847-1856), moved the royal residence to Qaiser Bagh.
From Town House To Palace
Saadat Ali Khan added the LaL Baradari and a Cheena Bazaar near Farhat Bakhsh. Some say he named the complex in memory of his Hindu mother ‘Chhatar Kunwar’. His son Ghazi-ud-Din Haider added a garden lined with statues and named it ‘Gulistan-e-lram’ (Paradise Garden). Opposite the garden, he built a kothi called Darshan Bilas.
Ghazi-ud-Din Haider also built another similar but smaller structure, which was called ‘Chhoti Chhatar Manzil’, while the main one was called Bari Chhatar Manzil. They took their names from the golden umbrellas, or chhatar, on top of their domes.
The complex was a residential palace for the Lucknow royal family till 1856, when Awadh’s last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, was exiled and the kingdom annexed by the British. The following year, in 1857, Awadh rose in revolt against the British under the leadership of Begum Hazrat Mahal. But, after heavy fighting, Lucknow fell to British forces in 1858.
To prevent any chance of a second revolt, the British demolished vast palace complexes in Lucknow and Chhatar Manzil was altered beyond recognition. Except for the two Chhatar Manzil structures and a part of the Lal Baradari, the British demolished the main portion of the Farhat Bakhsh complex, along with the adjacent Qaiser Bagh houses.
The larger Chhatar Manzil came to house an exclusive English bar, where meetings, celebrations, dances and other community engagements were held. After Independence in 1947, Chhatar Manzii housed the government’s Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI). The smaller Chhatar Manzil, which was used as a state government office, collapsed in the 1960s.
A few years ago, the CDRI vacated the palace complex, making way for its restoration and conservation. The Nawabs are long gone but the more we dig, the more we learn about their beautiful built legacy.
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