Anita Rao Kashi is mesmerised with the city’s old world charm and well-mannered residents
The first impression of Lucknow, especially driving in from the airport, is a bit of a dampener. Not because it is unsightly or chaotic or humdrum. Just the opposite in fact. The roads are wide, there are high-rises and a large ring road efficiently whisks you into town. So much different from the anticipated images of old world charm, beautiful Islamic architecture and a general air of genteelness characterised by adab (refinement) and tehzeeb (cultured behaviour).
Also Read: Japan-land of rising sun
But the disappointment is short-lived and as the roads get narrower, the traffic gets chaotic but not unruly, the buildings gets older and there’s the unmistakable buzz of a city that has been living forever. And therein lays Lucknow’s allure. For, this former capital of the Awadh empire effortlessly and seamlessly juxtaposes Mughal culture and cuisine with a contemporary outlook.
As you head towards the older part of the city, crossing and recrossing the river Gomti which gives Lucknow part of its identity, it quickly becomes evident that Lucknow’s heart undoubtedly lies here. The years fall away and it feels like being ushered back in time to an era of romanticism and cultural richness, evoking images of rich Mughal culture and heritage, of music and poetry, of delicious cuisine and delicate craft such as chikankaari and zardozi. And above all its famous ancient buildings.
Lucknow’s history has mythical beginnings and is believed to have been the area gifted to Lakshman by Rama after returning from exile. It was therefore called Lakshmanpura and Lucknow was a derivative of that name. However, it is only in the mid 18th century that it gained importance as the capital of Awadh and later the British empire.
One of the most elegant and evocative symbols of Lucknow’s Nawabi history is the Bada Imambara which towers and dominates over everything else, both literally and metaphorically. Also called the Asifi Imambara because it was ordered to be built by Nawab Asif-ud-Daula during a severe famine as a means of providing work for his subjects, it is a complex actually. Accessed by an impressive arched entrance, a massive domed building stands opposite the entrance and is a shrine for mourning during Muharram. Adjacent to it is the Asifi Mosque with beautiful minarets and domes. However, the more intriguing part of the complex is the Bhool Bhulaiya or labyrinth which is located in the roof of the Imambara.
An intricate maze of passageways and tunnels with steps going up and down and snaking all over the building. Parts of its are completely dark and a bit disorienting but there are enough people so there’s no danger of getting lost. The maze also opens into a narrow balcony which looks down into the main hall of the Imambara from the inside. About a kilometre down the road from this is the Chota Imambara, a stunning white building with a lovely dome and turrets full of inlay work built as a tribute to Mohammad Ali Shah. Inside is a fantastic collection of chandeliers collected from all over the world.
In contrast to this is the sprawling Residency complex which is full of ruins of various buildings except for one which has been converted into a museum. Once the seat of the British power in Lucknow, the complex is full of majestic arched buildings, towers, mosque, hospital, barracks and other sundry buildings all in glorious ruins. This was the scene of a pitched battle during the 1857 mutiny for independence and cannon ball and bullet marks are still visible. The complex was neither restored nor used again after that a melancholic air hangs around the place.
Also Read: Coorg- The coffee plantation haven
Lucknow has many more monuments and heritage sites, including newer ones. One such landmark is a fabulous museum to Jayaprakash Narayan which has a fabulous telling of his life story and innovative sound and moving sculptures.
However, the true sense of Lucknow also lies in its busy markets and old areas such Aminabad, Hazratganj and Old Chowk. It is here that you can feast on biryanis, sheermal (a kind of sweet bread) and an array kebabs such as gilawati, kakori and shami. Don’t miss having a meal at the iconic Tunday Kababi, a Lucknow institution that has been around for almost a century and dishes up the most soft gilawati kabab. Tate also the malai (soft cream), lassi, thandai (a milk drink with ground nuts and other ingredients) which can be laced with bhang (cannabis). In the little lanes and bylanes of Chowk and Hazratganj you can also find artisans working away on chikan work garments and zardozi embroidery. In between you will also find tiny establishments which specialise in perfumes, known as ittar locally.
Lucknow is the capital of Uttar Pradesh
How to reach: Almost all carriers have direct or hopping flights to Lucknow from all metros. It can also be reached by train from various cities.
Where to stay: There are many accommodation options across budgets but opt for a place near the river such as Gomtinagar which is quieter which has such choices as Renaissance Hotel (www.marriott.com, +91 522 405 5555) and Vivanta by Taj (http://www.vivantabytaj.com; +91 522 671 1000).
Best time: October to March, especially during Navaratri and Diwali.