The Nawabi Transformation of Lucknow
Under the nawabs, Lucknow became the Realm of the Shi‘ah (Dar ash-Shi‘ah). There, artisans and laborers who newly adopted the faith of the Twelvers inventively honored the Imams. The nawabs' administrative and architectural transformation of the city formed a crucial prerequisite for this development. Nawab Asafu'd-Dawlah (1775-97) moved the Shi‘i nawabi court from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. Already more than a small town then—indeed, a major textile-producing center—it had often served as the region's administrative capital. Nevertheless, the 1775 move marked the beginning of a new era.
When the nawabs lived primarily in Delhi they could change the provincial capital according to their perception of military and security needs. From the last quarter of the eighteenth century, however, they found themselves increasingly boxed in by the British. Unchanging territorial boundaries after 1801 and a stabilization of revenue collection within them brought into existence a fixed capital wherein the service elite congregated. For several decades Faizabad, with its begams, large landholders, and tax-farmers, continued to compete with Lucknow. But the capital soon grew so large that it constituted the only true metropolis in Awadh and one of the great cities of the subcontinent.
The huge expenditures by the notables based in the capital supported tens of thousands of artisans and attracted merchants "of large property" from all over India. The substantial textile and horse trade between Kashmir and
Bengal passed through Lucknow, and the town increased rapidly in extent and population. In 1799 Tennant put the city's population at half a million (probably an exaggeration) and marveled at the wide-ranging architectural works undertaken under Asafu'd-Dawlah. "There are," he wrote, "perhaps no buildings in Britain equally brilliant in external appearance as the palaces of Lucknow." But he also remarked on the city's great poverty, filth, and vice, and on the large number of idle workers and artisans.
Asafu'd-Dawlah implemented an extensive building program, tearing down old buildings to landscape spacious gardens in the Persian style. Indeed, the city grew so fast in the 1770s and 1780s that Azfari found it "unbalanced" (na-mawzun ). The: building program was given added impetus by the drought years of 1784-85, when, even in Awadh, no rain fell for an entire year. The areas to the west were even more badly hit, causing a great influx of refugees into Lucknow. Laborers and peasants suffered terribly, many being sold as slaves, and the price of wheat in the capital went up to an astronomical nine or ten sers to the rupee. Sayyid ‘Abbas Ardistani's grandfather could remember the drought and told him that people were reduced to eating animal dung.
Asafu'd-Dawlah, Hasan Riza Khan, and Tikait Ray, in response to this crisis, initiated construction projects on an almost pharaonic scale as a means of absorbing the influx of laborers thrown off the land and of avoiding urban food riots. In 1785 several large works began, including a market, Tikaitganj; a huge gate, the Rumi Darvazah; and the Great Imambarah. Thousands of workers labored day and night on these projects for several years. Tradition has it that even men of respectable family worked incognito at night to earn food. The nawab-vizier spent a million rupees a year on buildings, and his many projects fueled a spiraling inflation rate as construction materials and food soared in price.
Lucknow's population may have increased in the period 1775-1800 from two hundred to three hundred thousand. In about 1805 Shirvani estimated that the city had 100,000 dwellings, 30,000 shops, 2,000 taverns, and 1,000 mosques. The expansion was spurred not only by government-sponsored employment and markets and the famine but also by a spurt in the growth of
the textile trade with Calcutta. The resulting influx of uprooted Muslim and Hindu laborers and artisans into the city created new social networks and cultural traditions. Because of the pervasive influence of the Shi‘i ruling class in the capital, they often adopted some Imami practices even where they retained a formal adherence to Sunnism or Hinduism. Urban immigrants held Shi‘i-style mourning sessions for the Imam Husayn, and Muharram processions, organizing them on a neighborhood basis.