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Lucknow – the land of tehzeeb

I went to Lucknow in April 2018 with Anjali and Annie (also on this group). I enjoy travelling alone, but there are some places I prefer to have company. So when Anjali said that they are going to meet relatives in Lucknow, I told her that I would tag along. This narrative is from my perspective. I am sure AnA will add theirs later.

Day 1 – 19/Apr/2018

The flight first took me to Delhi and then on to Lucknow. From polite Goa I was plunged into the heartland of aggression for an hour and then hopefully into the land of tehzeeb – the byword for politeness in India.

I got out of the airport to be hit by NOISE and heat. Everyone was honking!

I took an Ola cab to the Cafe Frangipani which had received good reviews on AirBnB. Thanks to technology, I could relax while the phone propped up next to the driver showed the way. The map showed that we were on NH27. It appeared to be an elevated expressway that went around the city – so it was a long time before we took an exit and finally saw some people.

AnA were waiting and we were all hungry. Google maps showed us a promising place called “Desi Lounge” less than a kilometre away. As we walked, delicious food smells wafted out of the many houses. Anjali suggested that we just walk into any house and ask to be fed; given how hospitable people are here, we would probably get a hearty meal.

We went into Desi Lounge and were stunned speechless. There was a birthday party in full swing for a screaming four-year old boy. The music system was on full volume wishing him a happy birthday through a Bollywood number. The cake was just about to be cut. On one side were a few women who were draped in gorgeous saris – heavy with zari work. On the other side a few men; I can’t seem to recall anything about them! Luckily, once the cake was cut and the song ended (after playing thrice at least), the group subsided around a table. Other than the piercing screams of the boy, we were not disturbed any more.

The food when it came was superb; my mouth is watering as I type this the next morning. We had ordered Mutton Biriyani, Aloo dum Lucknowi (apparently the Banarsi is the spicier version!) and two chapatis. The waiter brought four instead. When I pointed that out, he smiled very sweetly and said, “They are hot, why don’t you enjoy them?” I fell in love with Lucknow at that point. I don’t know what I am going to find but this was a brilliant start. We ended the meal with gulab jamuns – they were so sweet and so delicious and so big, that we had to leave them unfinished.

Coming back, we decided to take an electric vehicle home. The driver was clearly stoned and made for interesting conversation. The vehicle was apparently Chinese and could do 110 km after being charged for 3 hours. He pointed out that we Indians can’t do such innovations since we are so stuck in our family loops that we do no work. He told us that his hobby was “maarpeet” – violence. And when a dog barked insistently at the gate of Cafe Frangipani, asked us if he should eliminate it. We said a hurried no to him and went inside laughing.

Tomorrow the plan is to go in search of the famous Tunday’s kababs and some sightseeing.

Day 2 – 20/Apr/2018

A lot of this trip was about food. Annie had planned it based on recommendations from others – to include sightseeing and eating.

Breakfast was a super aloo parata with pickle and curd.

We finally left the guest house at 3.30 pm in an Ola cab we hired for 4 hours and 40 km. The taxi driver was a taciturn chap called Nafiz who spoke only when spoken to and then reluctantly, in monosyllables.

Our destination – Chowk – but first food!

Our first stop was Idrees Biriyani. When we got there, close to 4 pm, they were washing up the haandis. Ever optimistic, we asked them if there was even a little bit of biriyani left. No such luck.

Next stop Tunday kababs – we confirmed on Google that this was the original one and walked in to some amazing smells. It is tucked away in some narrow streets, but very worth the search.

All they served was kababs and parathas and a lurid orange shirmal and heaps of chopped onions.

Anjali kindly asked on my behalf if they had anything vegetarian. Several heads turned in shock at that. The waiter, Dilawar, was quite flummoxed as well. I just shook my head in embarrassment and insisted it was ok. Dilawar lowered his voice and told us that the kababs were made of, you know, beef. We all shook our heads vigorously and agreed that we definitely wanted it.

In a couple of minutes we were served with 3 plates of steaming hot beef kababs. I tentatively put a small piece in my mouth. Such a flavour of tastes burst onto my tongue, I was delighted.

We had made good progress with the kababs before the parathas arrived. They were served hot and melted along with the kababs in the mouth.

We then ordered a shirmal and I didn’t quite take to it.

Sated, we stepped out and noticed that we were in the middle of a market selling clothes, perfumes and jewellery. Too happy to need to do shopping, we moved on to the Bada Imambara.

Indian jugaad in the market – hand operated mixer.

On the way we stopped at the Rumi Darwaza or the Turkish gate. Annie knew all about it and explained that Rumi here was not the quotable quotes guy, but it referred to Rome!!!

Fascinating to listen to and think about how in 17something, there was a link between Istanbul and Lucknow and how they exchanged ideas, including that of architecture. This gate was modelled on the Sublime Porte or Bab-i-Humayun in Istanbul. It is the Western entrance to the Bara Imambara and was built in 1784.

It is a massive structure as you can see from how small the people in front of it are.

The Bara Imambara was built by the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daula between 1784 and 1791. Inside the complex are the Asfi mosque, a Bhul-bhulaiya or maze and a Bawli or step-well. All this is laid out on well-maintained lawns. There were several families relaxing as it had been a hot day and this was an open area.

It was built as part of drought relief work and serves as the tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula. It has an arched roof with no beams to support it. The Maze which is above, is what supports the roof.

The step well

Inside the Bada Imambara

The Asfi mosque

We were too tired after this to walk any more. So we just drove past the clock tower and the Chota imambara. We could have spent much more time there though!

Entertainment for kids at the base of the clock tower

A quick photo of the Chota Imambara

An interesting structure – the observatory

Tomorrow, destination Aminabad

While we had eaten a lot, I was yet to do any shopping. Next stop – Sanatkada. This is a lovely store that has some of the best craft picks from around India.

Nagma and Nasreen manage the store and if you want, explain each product – where it is from, how it is made, etc. I loved it! Each hand-crafted or woven piece has a story – and it is made more special by that story.

I picked a simple black and white Banarasi woven fabric.

The restaurant at Lebua had a particularly superb collection of blocks displayed. The door handles at the main entrance were made of these blocks as well.

I had assumed that these were used for printing as in Rajasthan or Gujarat. So I asked Nagma and she explained that these are used to print on the fabric before chikan embroidery is done. The dye used is washable; so once the work is done, the print disappears and all one is left with is the beautiful shadow work embroidery.

Here is the final result:

The NGO arm of Sanatkada is the Sadhbhavna Trust. They work with women who have been through domestic violence. One of their team, Meena, came out to talk to us. She herself had had acid poured on her face.

Sanatkada also stocks some beautiful books about Lucknow and its culture. It includes a set of posters on feminists of Lucknow, a book of the same and a set of coasters.

I borrowed this from Annie’s Facebook posts.

I could have spent the whole day there, but food beckoned!

Next stop – Aminabad

The area was full of shops, covering much of the road – so it was a good idea to walk; if only it were not the second half of April and the temperature was not 40oC!

Google Maps showed Pandit Chaat to be about 650 m away. We followed the Map till we faced a row of shops where a street was supposed to be! Then we went back to the simple method of asking someone where Pandit Chaat was. We had overshot the place and so had to turn around.

In doing that we realised that the shop we were standing at was simply called Laal Khamb – meaning Red Pillars – and sure enough the pillars were painted red. It was a haberdashery selling a bewildering range of laces and borders. Our tummies growled and we couldn’t browse there any longer.

Pandit Chaat was just setting up for the day. So we went in search of Prakash Kulfi – the choices were simple – on a stick or in a plate or with sugarfree. I had half a kulfi on a plate while Anjali had the same but with falooda. That was a bilious yellow noodly substance.

The kulfi came out of this pot – now I can’t believe we ate it!

We came out quite happy, to a push-cart selling chikan work!!! I bought a kurta here at the same price I had bought a hankie in Sanatkada – but what a difference in quality of work! The push-cart owner opened out everything he had despite our pleas to stop. Finally we just walked away rudely while he kept up his spiel.

Panditji was waiting for us – we started with golguppe. The flavour was light, tangy and tart altogether and we had several plates before ordering a plate of tikkis. I noticed that people had literally sprung up all around and the tikkis were vanishing fast. The surroundings were filthy with dozens of flies, but no one seemed to mind. We shared a plate of tikkis, licked out the leaf bowl it was served in and carried on. We were looking for Wahid’s Biriyani next. However, the heat got to us finally and in about 100m we decided to just go rest. I slept for 3 hours straight!

In the evening I went looking for Buttercup Bungalow and Tea Room. It was right next to my hotel.

It sounded so quaint and lovely. I should have know better. I had some dry Red Velvet cake and a disgusting Kahwa tea before wandering out again.

Though it was just evening, the streets were quite deserted. As I walked, I saw Mayawati’s house and the immense security around it. That explained why no one was walking. I stopped being brave and took a rickshaw to go Ganjing!

There is a street called, of course, MG Road, in Hazratganj. And loitering around there in the evening is called Ganjing.

And it is THE thing to do in Lucknow. Apparently.

The street reminded me of Brigade Road in Bangalore only about six times as wide.

Unfortunately, the metro work was going on and the entire street was being dug up.

There were the big shops

and there was also this

Again I noticed that there were no single women walking around. There were a few women walking in pairs, but for the most part there was at least one man in each group. I was a bit scared, but didn’t want to go back to the hotel. So I attached myself to random women through the rest of the evening.

First some golguppe.

Then I went to Ram Asrey and had another plate of tikki – this was even better than Panditji’s. I think there was peas masala added to it.

And I took the rickshaw back to my hotel – I met with a lot of stares and realised that actually there were not even many two-wheelers on the road. I got a bit stressed and was quite relieved to reach the hotel. I would really suggest that when you visit Lucknow, you have at least one other person with you.

Tomorrow, the last day in Lucknow, more sightseeing, shopping and food.

The last day of my stay in Lucknow – I took an e-vehicle to Ganj. I wandered around window shopping – though it was immensely hot.

Then I went into Royal Cafe to have basket chaat. The chaat was massive and delicious. I think I need to use the thesaurus to find alternatives to delicious. And very filling! I hadn’t made much progress when I realised I couldn’t eat any more.

AnA joined me after some time and I offered them the chaat when they reached. Between them, they couldn’t finish it either!

We were supposed to go buy itr or perfume, but the shop we had on our list was closed. Google Maps was again showing us roads that didn’t exist and the shops were marked in the wrong locations. It was just too hot to bother.

Final food stop was Moti Mahal for imarti and rabri. We ordered one plate – we were very full, but had the eat this. The waiter tried hard to convince us to order at least have a piece each since a plate would only have two pieces. I am glad we refused resolutely – the imartis were very large and very very sweet. The rabri took the edge off, but it was still too much.

We left something for our next trip – bedami puri.

Next stop Sewa Chikan. The Self Employed Women’s Association in Lucknow is one of the oldest NGOs working with women, in India. So it was of interest to me whether I bought anything or not (ha ha!). The Map showed it in one place, the auto driver took us to another place. Neither was the original. After searching on Google a lot more, I found that the outlet would be closed on a Sunday. So we abandoned all hopes of shopping and went to see the Residency and its Museum.

The Residency was built by the Nawab of Oudh in the 1700s and then given to the British. When the first war of independence took place in 1857, it was attacked and destroyed. Around 3000 English people had gathered there for protection – not pleasant to think about what happened to them. So many of the buildings are in ruins – which adds to the beauty and poignancy of the place.

There is a Museum which has lithographs from the late 1800s which show a different Lucknow – very detailed etchings. They brought the era alive for me. I was comparing those etchings with the photographs I had taken – very interesting.

An etching of the Rumi Darwaza.

Some of the main characters in the history of Lucknow


We sat for a while on one of the benches and watched the scene. We could imagine its splendour during its peak. And the sack that happened in 1857. In a way it reflects what happened to Lucknow itself.

The museum on the left.

On our way back, the taxi driver took a few “wrong” turns and we got a rapid Lucknow tour. Parts of it are like Lutyen’s Delhi with wide avenues and graceful buildings. Even the newly constructed Government buildings blend in and are definitely not chrome and glass.

The traffic is noisy with everyone honking, weaving in and out and trying to go first. There are very few people on two-wheelers or walking. I didn’t see too many public buses.

There is a metro that everyone is proud of since it is seen as a sign of “development” and “progress”, not a waste of money for a city this size.

Then there are cycle rickshaws, e-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, and taxis through Ola and Uber. All the rickshaws rip you off since you are a tourist.

The Residency and Museum are accessible to wheelchair users. The other places we visited need you to be quite agile.

April is definitely not the right time to visit. I would recommend after Deepavali and before Holi – the time that the weather is supposed to be pleasant.

4 to 6 days can be easily spent in Lucknow itself. From what I understood, Annie made a list of what to see and what to eat based on recommendations from family, friends and the internet. This was then grouped into locations for logistical ease.

That’s it of my visit to Lucknow. Thank you for reading!


shared her visit to Lucknow – the land of tehzeeb on the Let’s Travel whatsapp group on 15th June 2020.
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