It is surprising that despite being completely landlocked, the city of Lucknow chose the twin fish as its defining motif. You can see this piscine symbol everywhere; on gates and doorways, precious memorabilia and beautifully designed artefacts. The story goes that when Sheikh Abdur Rahim, the Governor of Avadh was returning to Lucknow, he crossed the river Ganga where two fish leapt into his lap. He considered this good omen and decided it would become the crowning motif of his city. The fish motifs scattered across Lucknow are said to have been derived from the ‘Mahi-Maratib’, a Mughal military honour that originated in Persia. It was a fierce looking double fish head mounted on a staff and carried in war behind the king or commander. The fish then became the royal insignia in 1819 AD when court artist Robert Home incorporated them into the design of a royal insignia for Nawab Ghaziudddin Haider Shah’s coronation as the first King of Awadh. They also turned into a seal with beautiful twin mermaids or ‘Jal Pari’ carved on the gates of Qaiser Bagh during the rule of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and found their way to Machi Bhawan, an ancient building that was destroyed in 1857. 

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Lucknow then adopted the stylised Acanthus Leaf, another motif that you will notice quite frequently when wandering through Lucknow’s graceful heritage buildings. This ornamental motif inspired by a plant from the Mediterranean pops up in the most unexpected places across the city. It is usually seen on Corinthian and Composite capitals.Sometimes, you can also see it in a frieze or on decorative panels.  The Acanthus Leaf in the picture below has been used all over the facade of the Chota Imambara. Keep a look out for it when you are there.

The Acanthus Leaf on the arches of the Chota Imambara.
Look out for the Acanthus Leaf on the arches of the Chota Imambara.

Acanthus leaves were used in western art as early as the seventh century BC on Corinthian capitals and were also found extensively across South Asia.The Mughals too used both the full and split acanthus as a design element.The split acanthus leaf motif seen on many buildings across Lucknow city is borrowed from a European decorative style that featured lush floral imagery like stylized irises, lilies, poppies and roses as well as foliated vines and creepers on both decorative and utilitarian objects. 

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