What does one do in Lucknow?

As a tourist in a new town you want to do four things: see what there is to see, eat what is special to the place, shop local, and watch what people do in that place. Our aim in Lucknow is no different. So what do we do?

What there is to see

The tourism posters have just a few things to show off. The Rumi Darwaza is a gateway to heaven, they promise. Romantic tourists write informative but breathless posts about the Bara Imambara, the Chhota Imambara, Shahzadi ka Maqbara and the Dewa Sharif. I came across a very informative blog post with lots of photos and a long list, with descriptions, of places to see in Lucknow; this is by far the best link I’ve found till now.

The Bara Imambara has a lovely genesis story attached to it. The blogs about it talk of the Asafi mosque and the maze called the bhool bhulaiya. I discover that there is a baoli (step well) inside the Imambara. I remember a childhood story of my aunt and mother being startled by a conversation heard inside the whispering gallery, carried right around it by the unusual acoustics of the place. This story stayed with me through school when I studied acoustics.

The Chhota Imambara is often only mentioned in passing. But a photoblog showed lovely photos of the hamaam (baths) in it. Others mention the chandeliers, and the tombs of its builder, Mohammad Ali Shah, his mother, and daughter, Zeenat Asiya.

What there is to eat

Awadhi cuisine is legendary. I cannot believe a food blog which counts Shahi Tukra with Pineapples among Nawabi Lucknow’s cuisine. This lapse makes me believe that the same blog is also wrong in counting chicken curry among the traditional Nawabi recipes.

The roadside eatery known as Tunday ka kabab has become famous in the last decade. It must be good, but it is certainly less than a century old, and I’ve not read a convincing article which connects it to the old cuisine. In fact an interesting blog connects Tunday with Bhopal. I have great memories of a shami kabab in Bhopal, so I can well imagine that Tunday’s kababs will be good.

Rahim seems to be the noor in this taj. We will not be able to taste the winter specialty of Nihari at Rahim’s, but certainly we plan to stop by to taste their other kababs and Pasande. The description we read made us think that Rahim would deliver on the true Awadhi cuisine. Descriptions of the food in this city take me back to childhood memories of baqar khani and shirmal rotis, chaat and Lakhnawi biriyani.

Life in the city

Is Lucknow really the second happiest town in India? Which is the happiest? Patna? [Surprise! It is Chandigarh.] No matter, people watching will be fun, if there are people out during the monsoon.

Little is said any more of the courtesans of Lucknow, whose time passed long ago. Their music, thumri, and their dance, kathak, has now been absorbed into mainstream culture. Bollywood has won, and Lucknow has its share of multiplexes. Is there other entertainment? Theatre everywhere seems to wilt under the shadow of Bollywood; but, delightfully, there is an attempt to nurture theatre in Lucknow.

Uttar Pradesh has about one sixth of India’s population. So it is not a surprise that in Lucknow, its capital, construction is booming. One construction company’s website tells me that Lucknow is a hot-spot of job creation. This could be the reason for the mall boom, at a time when they are going bust in Mumbai.

UP gets a bad press for crime, although for years statistics have shown that per capita there is more violent, and sexually violent, crime in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. But there are some new developments in Lucknow which leave me cold. Apparently Lucknow is India’s most surveilled city. Also, Lucknow police has acquired pepper spraying drones to control mobs.

Shopping

We are unlikely to wander into the malls of Lucknow. I guess quite a bit of our shopping will be devoted to chikankari. Around the main tourist spots, ie, the two Imambaras, the chowk, and Aminabad, I’m told that there are jungles of small shops selling cheap chikan and minakari. These are probably interesting places to soak in the atmosphere, although in the monsoon one will probably soak in a lot of less savoury material. But maybe the quality of work is better in Hazratganj and in SEWA outlets. Of course, we can be surprised, and we will definitely keep our eyes peeled for pleasant surprises. Then there are the boutique shops which are whispered about in the grapevine which The Family’s whatsapp is tuned to.

The next long weekend

Three weeks from now we have a four-day weekend starting on Independence Day. Just the right time to start thinking about where to go. I thought maybe Madurai, deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu. The Family suggests Amritsar, culturally the other end of India. We might compromise with Lucknow, with its faded memory of culture and extreme politeness.

Some reading is clearly in order. Lucknow brings to mind the Bara Imambara, chikankari work, dussheri mangoes, and galawati kabab. There’s more. Lucknow also brings to mind stories of the Sultan Wajid Ali Shah, lost in songs and courtly manners, arrested by the East India Company, the subsequent failed siege during the war of 1857, the creation of the dance form Kathak and the story of the courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada, steeped in the formality and melancholy of a city which flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries. I look for books on Lucknow. There are many, but they are not available as e-books.

Amritsar is different. It has the golden temple, and the brilliant rustic food of Punjab. One remembers also the turbulent recent history, the siege of the golden temple, and the subsequent separatist terror. But before that there was the symbol of imperial oppression, the massacre of unarmed civilians in the Jalianwala Bagh. Between these events was the partition, symbolized by the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan just outside Amritsar. It seems that the long and dazzling history of the Punjab has been completely erased in our minds by the bloody history of the 20th century.

And Madurai? What does it have apart from the Meenakshi temple? One knows of the colleges and a medical school, an underground neutrino observatory being built nearby, but precious little else. Taking quick look at blogs, I find photos of an impressive palace of the Nayaks, forts outside town, and a zany drink called, quite unbelievably, jigarthanda. There are other large temples, some mosques, and multiple palaces. It is also possible to take a long day’s trip to Kanyakumari. Part of the reason I find it hard to locate books about Madurai is because most of the literature is in Tamil. It is, after all, the real heart of Tamil culture.