Over 100 years of rule by the Shiite Nawabs of Awadh evolved a distinct culture and architecture in Lucknow. The Nawabs (provincial heads) who ruled this region after the decline of the Mughals were great admirers of dance, music and culinary art. Today, all these are collectively identified as Lucknowi Tahzeeb — a culture unique to this city — that can still be found in soft-spoken inhabitants, in their courteous manners, and in finest gastronomic delights that are served in small eateries on narrow by-lanes in old city.
I had been to Lucknow many a time times before, but sadly, never got an opportunity to explore the city. So in my last trip I made sure to keep a day reserved—to go places, to give special treats to my taste buds, and shop in Chowk and Aminabad. Considering the limited time I had, it seemed an ambitious project! I started quite early and at half past six in the morning, arrived at the enormous courtyard of Bara Imambara.
The rise of Lucknow was characteristically marked with the declining power of the Mughals in the early 17th Century. In one of their several disastrous moves, Mughal Emperors after Aurangzeb started appointing Nawabs in provinces for smoother functioning of the administration. In the process, one of them appointed Amir Saadat Khan of Persian origin the Nawab of Awadh with Faizabad as his capital. In 1775, the fourth Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daula shifted the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow. He contributed immensely to the growth of the province and constructed several palaces, gardens, and mosques in the city.
Right in front of me was standing tall and proud, Bara Imambara; on my right in a distance was Asfi Mosque; and on the left a little less visible was Royal Well. Legend has it that Asaf-ud-Daula constructed Bara Imambara to provide employment to the people of famine stricken Awadh. Perhaps he was the first to implement Keynesian Theory of Employment even before it was postulated by John Maynard Keynes!
I did a good thing. I hired a guide. Visiting Bara Imambara without a guide is futile as you will not be able to see one of its major attractions – Bhulbhulaiyya – a massive labyrinth built on the roof to support ceilings of different heights constructed underneath. Bara Imambara looked ordinary until he started pointing at its each highlight. This 800 square meter building has no beams to support the ceiling. And it is one of the largest such arched constructions in the world. The main vaulted central chamber has the tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula; and right beside him lay buried the chief architect of the building— Kifayatullah. After its every detailing we moved to upper three-dimensional chambers, popularly known as Bhulbhulaiyya, through a narrow staircase. It is believed to be the only maze structure in India. I must say its 489 identical doorways are enough to keep you moving in its narrow and claustrophobic alleyways all the day.
Towards the west of Bara Imambara, 18 meter tall Rumi Darwaza embellished with lavish decorations also testifies the architectural zeal of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula.
It was already 9:00 am. I took a cycle rickshaw to Chhota Imambara. It is only one-and-half km away from Bara Imambara (Bara means Big and Chhota means Small). On my way I also stopped by to give a look at the Clock Tower of Lucknow – the tallest clock tower in India.
In the autumn sun, gold plated large and smaller domes can easily draw the attention of most ignorant eyes even. It will not be exaggeration if I say Chhota Imambara is one of the most beautiful historical buildings in India. At the very entrance, palm emblems mounted on the gate signify the holy five of the Prophet Mohammed’s family. Explicitly decorated with imported chandeliers and crystal glass lamp-stands, the Azakhana is the main hall in this building. Its magnificence is further added by a collection of tughra (calligraphic specimens in design form) depicting Quranic verses and prayers in different shapes hanging in the hall. But, its outer walls are even more beautiful, thanks to the large calligraphic panels in stucco that are fashioned in white against a contrasting dark backgrounds.
After four-and-half hours of stroll along the portals of architectural marvels, it was time to treat myself and explore the finest cuisines that came out from the Royal kitchens of Nawabs and became popular. Again, I hired a cycle rickshaw. Firstly, I was trying to reduce my carbon footprints and secondly this is the most preferred mode of transportation in the old city. I asked the pilot to take me to Akbari Gate – the address of famous Rahim’s— one of the best eateries in Lucknow. If you are a non-vegetarian, you will certainly love this place, not because of its ambience, but for sheer taste. I chose Rahim’s specialty – Gosht Nihari with Kulcha. Here I would like to add that Nihari is a spicy mutton dish cooked overnight over low heat and served early morning. Always try to be at Rahim’s between 7 am and 8 am. However, Nihari is an all day affair at this eatery and you may relish it anytime of the day. Flaky, crisp on the top and soft from inside – Kulchas are to die for. It has been over a year but I still remember its taste! There are several other fantastic eating out options in and around Akbari Gate area of Chowk which also houses the legendary Tunday Kebab—a great place for lunch, dinner and breakfast.
About an hour’s sojourn at Rahim’s was enough to keep me walking for the rest of the day. Since I was in the main (and old as well) shopping area of the city, I chose to check out some shops for souvenirs.
Lucknow is also famous for three things—Chikan (do not get confused with Chicken!), Zardosi, and Jadau work in Jewelry. Chikan work or Chikankari arrived in India with artisans from Persia (Iran) during early 17th century. Mughal Empress Noor Jahan patronized these artisans and popularized this craft form. She was the chief consort of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Traditionally, the Chikan work was done on pure, un-dyed white cotton sourced from Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh. According to Rehana Begum, one of the famed names of Chikan work in Lucknow, “Chikankari is ‘white on white’ embroidery.” It is an extremely intricate work, and takes around 2 years to complete the embroidery work on a 6.5 meter long sari with an average of 8 hours of work daily. Designs and motifs are usually inspired from the Mughal architecture. Like Chikan work, Zardozi is an elaborate style and perhaps one of the oldest forms of hand embroidery. Earlier, gold and silver metal threads were used in creating motifs on silk and satin, but now its many alterations are found, and it has become part of high fashion.
The entire shopping area of 160 year old Aminabad market has innumerable cloth and textile shops, but identifying and finding a genuine piece of work is quite difficult as a lot of shops nowadays try to pass off machine done embroidery as handmade Zardozi. Buy only when you are sure what you are buying is handmade Zardozi. Finally I moved on to the market’s another area—Gadbadjhala, which is known for its jewelry shops, especially the Jadau work. But to shop and find a thing you are looking for is quite a task here; the market is nothing less than a chaos. From morning to late evening, roads remain packed with people, rickshaw, and hand-carts selling everything—food, fruits, plastic toys, readymade garments and cloths, utensils, shoes…believe me the list is just endless! And everything comes at unbelievably reduced rates.
I had been walking continuously for a while with short breaks at shops. Even though I was not hungry I walked down to Tunday Kebab in Aminabad. I would rather say the legendary name pulled me up to it. And secondly, I was not sure if I would ever be back in the city again? From there, I resumed my culinary journey again. Kebabs were soft, HOT, and melted in mouth. I am not sure but it is said over 160 spices are used in Tunday Kebabs. It is definitely like giving a treat to your taste buds. Another Tunday Kebab is located in Chowk. You may also try Bismillah Ki Biryani, which is just left to Tunday Kebab.
By then it was 4 pm and I still had two and half hours to go. This was not enough to cover the rest of places in Lucknow but sufficient to witness the evidences of the First War of India’s Independence. Located around half kilometer from the heart of Lucknow – Hazratganj – the British Residency offers glimpses of the demise of East India Company Rule. Its scarred walls narrate the story of fierce battle between the freedom fighters and the Company’s Army. The Residence is spread over 33 acres and consists of several buildings and structures used by over 3000 British who lived here. I also stop by at Janpath Market in Hazratganj to buy pure essence oil from over 100 years old shop Sugandhco. I bid adieu to a wonderful day for another fascinating one awaiting me in the Walled City.
How to Reach
Lucknow is well connected to all major cities of India. There are direct flights from New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Agra, Varanasi, and Khajuraho. You may also take train from New Delhi. Swarn Shatabdi and Lucknow Mails are better options.
Where to Stay
Lucknow is the capital of India’s most populated state – Uttar Pradesh, and there is no dearth of places to stay in every price band. Budget hotels are easily available near Charbagh Railway Station (Main Railway Station of Lucknow). Vivanta by Taj in Gomti Nagar, Clarks Avadh, and Arif Castles are some good options.