After watching the Gulabo Sitabo movie on Amazon Prime it instantly reminded of the wonderful short-lived time in “Lucknow” – the city of culture (Tehzeeb ka Shahar). The characters were so well written and the acting of all the cast created nostalgia. Especially the accent, hospitality, the Urdu slangs used in Old Lucknow (Gongha, Khandani Paikhana, Chusi Gutli, Ulool Jhulool), and on top of it the incessant sarcastic humor present in the “aam junta” of Lucknow.
I was fortunate to have visited this fabulous place before COVID and in this blog have covered some interesting tales and insights from the experience.
On 19th Feb 2020 evening at 4pm, I arrived at Lucknow airport excited to explore this heritage city as well as to relish the amazing Nawabi Non-Vegetarian cuisine which is famous all around the world.
I am part of the tourism industry and have never tried any other accommodation then the regular hostel & hotel. I had unique intentions to try out the emerging ‘Couchsurfing’ experience. Hence had sent requests to many hosts on the Couchsurfing Travel application. They are basically homeowners willing to share their residence and experience with tourists. This concept totally intrigued me! There is some basic guidance given by the host and it is recommended to adhere to the same, though these can vary from one to another couch surfer. Hence after scanning through the list of couch surfers, I found Mr. Biren Thapar’s profile which had maximum positive references as well as some amazing experiences shared by the past visitors.
Hence sent a request for a 1-night stay as I had planned a short getaway to compress both Heritage city (Lucknow) & Spiritual city (Varanasi) experience in 3 days in total.
Surprisingly Mr. Thapar sent a reply stating that such a short stay would not be acceptable as according to him it gave an impression that the guest was more keen to get a free stay rather than doing some serious couch surfing .
He politely suggested that a minimum of 3 days was necessary to get under the skin of this historic city; to explore the inherent charm and unique culture (Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb: Peaceful co-existence between different community and the blending of traditions) of Lucknow.
Since the plan was short plus specific, a lot of gentle persuasion was required before Mr. Thapar relented and accepted my request with a pinch of salt and agreed to finally host me. In the initial discussion he even politely reprimanded me (reminded of my mom) as I didn’t agree to his sound advice.
It was all amusing but now my eagerness to stay with him rose to the height of “Burj Khalifa”! I was not disappointed as after getting to experience Mr. Thapar’s wit & knowledge in addition to his beautiful heritage mansion were like a cherry on top of a delicious cake!!!
As I am a Mumbaikar, every time I turn up at a new place, seeking local train or metro is a habit. This led me to Hazratganj Metro station from Airport. The metro experience gave me an overview of some parts of this heritage city.
From there took a cycle rickshaw and the person asked – “kaha se ho?” (Where are you from) and he was amazed to find that I am from “Bambai” (Mumbai) as in India movies play a large role in people’s life. I had the best narration of some interesting tales of Govinda & Amitabh Bachchan by the rickshaw guy and didn’t realize listening to him that how time passed away. It was easy for me to reach and access the location which is in the middle of the bustling city of Lucknow as Mr. Thapar provided all the specific details like maps and photos of the surroundings with directions drawn on it.
The Heritage Haveli Experience
Upon arriving, I was warmly greeted by Netram ji (one of the support staff). As I entered the main door, I stumbled upon something beautiful and unexpected (felt like I had entered in the 18th century – British era). I could spot high ceiling, spiral staircase, worn down walls (we say that walls have ears and there are ample of interesting tales hidden inside them – diwaro ke bhi kaan hote hai – aur inhone toh 18th century se bohot kuch suna hoga), and high arches above doors.
After keeping my luggage in the guest room, I went upstairs to meet Biren ji in the drawing room of the Huge mansion (Haveli). He was watching TV and I gathered some courage (feared the earlier scolding) to speak to him and there came a warm hug and welcome which felt like I was at home.
Park Road was initially meant to be the British Governor’s house and was built in the late 1800s on a 10-acre plot.
The drawing-room was huge and expansive with a lot of priceless artifacts and paintings. It had a huge breathtaking Belgian glass chandelier which created an attractive play of light in conjunction with the multitude of lamps in the drawing-room.
I also noticed beautiful roses and gladioli in the vases which were only adding to the beauty of this lovely room. Biren ji informed me that the walls were 2.5ft thick and the height of the ceiling was 16ft and it was impossible to put a nail in the walls . The walls were adorned with beautiful paintings which later on Biren ji mentioned were mostly done by him. I was completely taken aback by this piece of knowledge .A summer lounge would open into the drawing room which led to the dining room surrounded by the kitchen.
After a few exchanges of pleasantries, he advised me to visit some specific food joints in the city. In Chowk, I was specifically advised to try 4 Bulawayo kebabs @ Bade Miyan, Rahim ki Nalli Nihari – 1 plate and Pandit Raja ki Thandai.
Thus at 5pm, I stepped out to relish those non veg delicacies and returned after 2 hrs with plenty resting in my stomach. Then Biren ji offered some beers and we had lots of discussion about each other’s life. I came to know about his South Mumbai connection as he had cherished the Marine Drive vibe. He fondly remembers the coastal parts, soothing waves and the liberal culture of Mumbai. He became sentimental when he talked about Goa specifically Calangute where he ran a very successful 100 seater Indian restaurant “Summervine “ for nearly 15 years, and highlighted the fact that these were the best years of his life.. Finally it was time for dinner . I am looking forward to this part of the night as I am a total foodie .
The dinner was truly special and while writing this I still fondly remember the lovely experience of tasting the vivid variety of ‘Awadhi’ cuisine which my stomach was craving for such a long time .It was surely a very sumptuous meal prepared by Anju ji (cook and support staff). It was a mix of Veg and Non veg dishes which introduced me to Lucknow’s famous cuisine. In veg – there was Bhindi (ladyfinger) sabji, Rajma (beans), Aloo (potato) fry, Achar (pickle) and Phulkas (rotis).
The Magic of the Heritage City – Lucknow
One thing that stayed in my mind so strongly even after 3 months and will be forever was the aromatic delicious food of this Nawabi city. There was grandeur as well as celebration in serving the cuisine.
Through the next morning fog, I landed at the famous Sharma Ji Ki Chai ki Dukaan (Tea Stall). “Kullad wali chai aur gol samose kha ke mann trupt ko gaya. Subah ki shuruwat lajawab hui”. The round samosas reminded me of home (Mumbai’s Vada) and this stall has been fulfilling taste buds since 62 years. There was also an option of Bun maska which I didn’t try.
Then I resumed exploring Lucknow sightseeing places. The most important part of Lucknow – “Imambara” – a place where Shia muslims gather to pray as well as for conducting religious ceremonies, mainly Muharram observances. It is not a mosque exactly and in some imambaras Friday prayers might not take place.
Bada Imambara – I had to take Guide’s help to understand its rich history and to successfully pass through “Bhul Bhulaiya” (Incredible Maze). It was built in 1784 by the Nawab of Awadh – Asaf Ud Daula. There is a popular saying in Lucknow – “Jisko na de Moula, usko de Asaf-ud-Doula”. It is said that Nawab employed 20,000 people in building this grand prayer hall during the 11 year famine which affected rich and poor alike. The poor labourers used to build the structure during the day and the elite nobles used to destroy it at night. This led the construction ongoing for a long time and thus the generous Nawab paid everyone through this project.
While touring Bada Imambara, I met a Delhi girl – Radhika, who was here for a friend’s marriage and was solo exploring this city. We decided to explore the sightseeing together. Being an architect, she could not resist sharing some beautiful insights about the marvelous architecture. There was a Persian influence visible in the intricate design and latticework since the Nawab were basically from Naishapur in Iran.
We were mesmerized by the Grand Rumi Darwaza (60 ft tall) which is modeled after the Sublime Porte (Magnificent Gateway) in Istanbul. It stands in between Bada and Chota Imambara, also it was once an entrance to the Old Lucknow City. Then we hired a rickshaw to cover remaining places.
Rumi Darwaza Image Courtesy – Prabhat Singh
Chota Imambara – It is 2 kms from the Bada Imambara and there are rickshaws, buses, and Oyo/Uber Motorbikes for the transfer. This comparatively smaller shrine was built by the 3rd Nawab of Awadh – Mohammad Ali Shah in 1838. Other than the Chota Imambara this complex has the Tomb of Princess Zinat Algiya, Husainabad Mosque, Satkhanda (watch tower) and Naubat Khana (ceremonial gateway). It’s USP – exotic Belgian chandeliers and glass lamps that adorn the halls of Chota Imambara.
Satkhanda (Clock Tower) – Originally planned as a 7 floor structure but was incomplete after 3 floors were constructed as rulers considered it jinxed. It has a combination of french and italian architecture. It was also created with the intention of watching the moon during the holy month of Ramzan.
After spending some time here, we headed to the shop for the famous and unique embroidery style called Chikan, a flowered muslin textile that began as a white on white design.
Introduced in the seventeenth century by Noor Jahan, reportedly the eighteenth and the most beloved wife of Mughal emperor Jahangir, today it is one of the fabric styles most desired by fashionistas around the world.
Chikankari is a highly labor-intensive process and provides employment to literally thousands of artisans. I personally did not buy anything from those shops, however, Radhika got few kurtas for herself.
Amidst this shopping and touring, Radhika missed her Delhi bus and she decided to join me for Varanasi as she wanted to experience the Mahashivratri festival (I will cover all this in Varanasi Blog). Due to all this chaos, I reached Idris Hotel late and could not have their famous authentic Awadh Biryani. Later I had to relish Lucknowi Mutton Biryani at Dastarkhwan (it was crowded). The taste was totally amazing and different from the Hyderabadi version. It was less spicy and the mutton was soft but delicious.
In the evening we had the famous Basket chat at the Royal Cafe in Hazratganj. The basket is filled with Aloo Tikki, topped with a layer of curd, spices and chutneys.
Unfortunately, time did not allow us to explore Ambedkar Memorial Park, The Residency, Zoological Garden and the famous Tunday Kebabs. Picture toh abhi baki hai mere dost! I will visit again and will stay for more than 2 days to properly explore the charm of this Heritage City!