It is the mango orchards that I see first when I arrive in the village of Saidanpur on a morning of May. At 8 am the temperature is 36 degrees. But it is the open countryside and it does not feel hot. We have driven down from Lucknow with Jyotsna, whose family, the Habibullahs own mango orchards and a haveli in the village.
Saidanpur lies in the district of Barabanki, 54 kilometres from Lucknow. It lies on the route to Faizabad, which was originally the capital of the nawabs before they moved it to Lucknow. There is extensive cultivation of marigold flowers, mangoes and licit opium in the region.
Although I have grown up in Uttar Pradesh, I am now surprised that I have been to an orchard such as this only twice. The first, of which I have hazy memories, was a visit to my mother’s maasi’s orchards in Maslandpur in West Bengal and the second was when my father organised an ‘Indian village experience’ for a couple of American Field Exchange students, one of who came to stay with us. Turned out, since we had never visited an Indian village before, not counting our farm in Naini, it was as much of a village experience for my siblings and I. This ‘village experience’ visit also included a mango orchard where we were given donkey and camel rides while the entire village came to watch the ‘gori mems.’ Later we all sat around buckets of desi mangoes and feasted on them.
It is a treat to be in an orchard. The thick tree trunks start branching out very near the ground. They make a perfect place to sit on and I spot a couple of children perched on them. Branches spread all around, reaching skywards. Looking up from under the trees you can hardly see the sky or feel the heat from the sun already blazing. Many of these branches hold the luscious fruit, some green, others tinged with yellow, indicating they are ready to be picked. A few women sit on the cool, beaten earth sorting a large pile of mangoes which will be later packed into plastic crates to be sold in the wholesale market.
We drive up a kilometre or so to the village nearby. It lies in an open area, meandering to my left. Most of its houses have mud walls with thatched roofs. It is neat and surprisingly quiet. You see, I have just arrived from the cacophony of the city of Lucknow and cannot quite remember quietness. I enjoy it.
Ahead of us , set away from the village, telling us stories of the past, lies an old boundary wall and beyond it arches in ruins. Further ahead with a fresh coat of white paint lies the wall of the haveli with a large wooden doorway set in the centre.
Jyotsna’s father-in-law Wajahat’s ancestors had settled in this area, he says, around the 12th or 13th century, during the reign of Muhammad Ghori. They were made taluqdars of Saidanpur by the nawab of Awadh. Later, Wajahat’s grandfather Sheikh Mohmmad, an anglophile, was given ownership of 13 villages and formally made taluqdar by then British government. Wajahat Habibullah is not sure when the buildings that now lie in ruins were built but the first floor of the haveli, in its present form, was built by Wajahat’s great grandfather, Sheikh Inayat in the late 19th century. Although Sheikh Mohammad spent most of his time in Lucknow he rarely visited his village and haveli .
His son, the eminent General Enaith Habibullah and Wajahat’s father, set up a stud farm in the village in the later years of his life. The orchards and haveli were looked after by his wife, Begum Hamida.
In the style of havelis , the large outer gateway leads to a small covered space that, in turn, leads to an inner doorway that creaks open. And in here lies a large courtyard surrounded by rooms. Beyond the rooms, now padlocked, was the zenanakhana, the part of the house where women lived.
A large door to the left opens to a staircase which leads to the upper floor. We arrive at an open verandah. To the left it opens on to a beautiful, large terrace with rooms on one side. The caretaker and his family live there now. A grass roof covers a verandah on one side. The fact that it is perhaps periodically remade is heartening . Which means craftspeople in the village still know how to make them! It is quiet, and, with open skies above, we are in a private, secluded space.
The verandah we had stepped into leads into a lobby. An elegant table stands against the facing wall. It has casual chairs on either side. Photographs of family members are arranged on it, almost as if they lived there still.
There is a large western style drawing room beyond the lobby with chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and a melange of elegant sofas and chairs arranged in a large circle, left alone, exactly as they had been placed perhaps by Sheikh Mohammad.
To one side of the drawing room is a bedroom that opens onto a breezy balcony and, on the other, is a room which was used by Haji Waris Ali Shah(1819-1905), the Sufi mystic, whose famous tomb, Dewa Sharif, in the district of Barabanki, near Saidanpur, is well-known and revered by both Hindus and Muslims from across India. Sheikh Mohammad’s father was a devotee and friend of the mystic who frequently visited the haveli and stayed in this room. It lies untouched from that time. The haveli was also named ‘Waris Manzil’ after the mystic.
The caretaker, Wasi, who lives with his family in a part of the house, serves us hot, puffed puris, aloo rassa, mango pickle and chutney on a table laid out in the front verandah.
Jyotsna, a woman of many talents, takes active interest in the village of Saidanpur. She has organised various training camps for the women and is taking their tradition of weaving forward by marketing gamchas or cotton towels woven in the village. Her visits to the village are frequent as are her stopovers at the old haveli.
No doubt, the Habibullahs’ ancestors, wherever they are, are happy that the beautiful building stands in good shape, well preserved and looked after.
I have written about the mud-walled, traditional houses in the village of Saidanpur in an earlier post. Read about them here.
The discovery of houses such as this always amazes me. In the middle of the Indian countryside, in villages placed away from arterial roads and highways lie buildings of immense beauty, interest and importance – historical and architectural. And very few people know about them. Think a mapping is greatly needed !
Do keep reading these posts and spreading the word about these gems. Visit them ,if you can. I will be happy to help -write to me on my email or in the’Comments’ section !
Until next time….