Awadh Archives in Ayodhya

An Indo-Islamic Cultural Centre, comprising a museum, library and community kitchen centred on Awadh’s heritage, is proposed at the 5-acre ‘masjid complex’ in Ayodhya. Curator Pushpesh Pant writes about the project that symbolises the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb

Awadh Archives in Ayodhya

Rumi darwaza in Lucknow

The region of Awadh joined Agra in 1902 to form the United Provinces of Oudh and Agra. Agra had served as capital of the Mughal Empire and was considered so strategically important by the British that it established a cantonment there. It took nearly half a century after the First War of Independence in 1857 for the British to feel secure and they moved the centre of power from Agra to Allahabad. The high court and university were established in Allahabad and the capital and administrative offices of the United Provinces were moved from Agra to Lucknow. It was then that the heartland of Awadh regained its old glory.

Ghats on the banks of Ayodhya’s Saryu river, the beloved river of Awadh. ISTOCK

Awadh (mispronounced as Oudh by the British) derives from Ayodhya, seat of an ancient kingdom that dates back to the age of 16 Great Janapadas, four to five centuries before the birth of Christ. Lord Ram of Ayodhya is the divine hero of the epic Ramayana. And this, at times, distracts attention from the other sub-regions of Awadh.

The Mughal architecture is evident in the
labyrinths within the Bada Imambara

Faizabad was the capital from where the nawabs of Awadh governed their principality till it was shifted to Lucknow. Its location allowed it to act as a confluence of diverse cultural streams — culinary and artistic. It reached its zenith when Wajid Ali Shah held court here and generously patronised arts and crafts. The city has always taken pride in its refined language, manners and hospitality, its learned scholars and talented poets. It has been described as the Paris of the Orient. What is today referred to as the syncretic Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb — shared heritage of composite culture — is the priceless legacy of Awadh.

The rich tapestry of Indo-Islamic culture in Awadh is woven with multi-hued strands. Kashmiri Pandits, Punjabi Khatris, Kayasthas and prabasi Bengalis, soldiers of fortune and members of nobility despatched from Delhi to govern — all have contributed to its mesmerising pattern.

 The Awadh Archives will draw from a rich
repertoire of arts.
Photo courtesy: Niyogi Books

The fabulous culinary gems of Awadh, exotic and aromatic delicacies, have dazzled the world but few realise that the cuisine of this region is inseparable from the fairs and festivals celebrated according to the cycle of seasons. These unveil the rich crafts tradition of the tract, stretching from Rohilkhand — encompassing Rampur, Amroha, Sambhal, Budaun, Shahjahanpur — to Kannauj, famed for its ittr, and along the banks of Yamuna through Farrukhabad, Firozabad and Agra. The footprint of Awadh is really large. And the beloved Ganga river, after embracing the Yamuna at Allahabad, moves on to Varanasi via Chunar and Mirzapur.

 Crafts like Lucknow’s chikankari work and blue pottery from Chinhat. ISTOCK

When one talks of the Awadh Archives, it envisions documenting, cataloguing and drawing from a rich repertoire of arts and crafts — chikankari and zardozi, pottery and perfumes, illustrated/illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy; from glassware in Firozabad to ittar ka karkhana (perfumeries) and handmade carpets in Mirzapur.

Nihari Muradabadi.

Photos courtesy: Osama Jalali

Kofte chui mui ke.
Photos courtesy: Osama Jalali

In cities and towns of Awadh, there has been a long tradition of cultivating language and literature, practising and patronising calligraphy.

Moving on

It is a matter of great satisfaction that the UP Sunni Waqf Board has decided to ‘move on’ and embark on the path of reconciliation. Only this mindset can ensure that sores are not allowed to fester dangerously. The land made available to it is around 5 acres, where a mosque will be built. The board has decided to set up an Indo-Islamic Cultural Centre on the premises that will house the Awadh Archives.

Perhaps, there is a need to remove some cobwebs. A mosque is primarily a place to offer ritual worship where the community congregates. But it is also a place that, like a temple, performs other functions such as providing education and doing charity. Madrasa and kharati dawakhana are also proposed to be built, along with the mosque.

One more thing. The archives and digital museum may be prefixed with Awadh but the domain of Indo-Islamic culture extends over all of India. Deccan had created its own Ganga-Jamuni heritage even before the establishment of the Mughal Empire. Hyderabad, under Quli Qutab Shah, illustrates this shared, cosmopolitan fusion of Persian, Turkic, Arab and Abyssinian influences. It was Dekhni-Hindavi that enriched Urdu with the passage of time.

Food and architecture, crafts and literature, all flourished under the Nizams and Sultans of Bidar, Bijapur and Ahmednagar, who asserted their sovereignty after the dissolution of the Bahmani Empire. What can’t be forgotten is the Deccan’s Awadhi connection. The Nizam sent from Delhi was, before this, a Subedar in Awadh. He carried with him memories of Faizabad and more. But let us not digress.

Discovering lost riches

Time to return to Awadh, not just Lucknow and its legendary taluqas — Mehmudabad, Jehagirabad, Kotwara, Balrampur and many more. They take justifiable pride in nurturing and protecting the ‘sajha virasat’ but it’s time we turned our gaze to the countryside — that is where the master chefs and craftspersons came from, bringing with them the flavours and fragrances of their beloved villages. The element of folk and provencal in Awadh has never been less remarkable than the haute in the courts.

What can be more satisfying than discovering the lost riches — objects of art such as brassware from Moradabad, made-to-measure sherwani and achhakan from Aligarh, blue pottery from Chinhat, juxtaposed with carafes, chandeliers from Firozabad — and share the agony and ecstasy of their making with visitors to the archives.

True, the space will be limited, and there may be paucity of funds. This is where digital technology offers unprecedented creative opportunities. From calligraphy to abstract designs to 3D virtual tours of the majestic mosques in India — Sunheri and Atala Masjid in Jaunpur, Taj ul Masjid (Bhopal) and the ancient wooden mosque in Kerala will help the pilgrims and tourists to appreciate the evolution of mosque architecture in India. Its essential features — minaret and dome(s), open courtyard with a pulpit — will be interestingly explained. The arches and domes were incorporated in other religious and secular buildings with passage of time — in the gurdwaras in Punjab and palaces and cenotaphs in Rajasthan and Bundelkhand.

Awadh Archives, in short, will strive to provide a portal to view the gallery of Indo-Islamic culture. The digital displays will facilitate the visitor to appreciate much better the processes of carpet weaving, glassware manufacture and gold embroidery. Handicrafts on the verge of extinction such as beating tiny sheets of silver and gold into wafer-thin foil/leaves and handmade pottery will also get a fresh lease of life.

From the kitchen shelf

Most people have naturally asked enough questions about the food that will be available in the community cafeteria. It is not conceived as langar in a Sufi dargah or in a gurdwara. The objective is to provide hygienic, nutritious, pocket-friendly light meals and snacks representing the variety of popular dishes — many forgotten — from different sub-regions of Awadh.

The Waqf Board being a charitable non-profit organisation will hopefully try to keep the prices low, but it’s unreasonable to expect subsidised meals. For the project to be viable, the kitchen must recover food and other fixed costs. The province is renowned for master chefs and what is proposed is to conduct training classes in basic kitchen craft under their supervision to create livelihood and self-employment for young adults and school dropouts in Faizabad and adjacent areas. It may be possible to take advantages of synergies provided by Hunar Se Rozgar Tak or Kaushal schemes of the government and attract some support under the Corporate Social Responsibility programme.

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