Lucknow: A feast for the eyes and the palate

At the pinnacle of the Bara Imambara, one can enjoy panoramic views of the Rumi Darwaza, the Chota Imambara and the rest of Lucknow's old world wonders.
PHOTO: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

To the West, it is "the Constantinople of the East". To the rest of India, it is "the City of Nawabs". But to its loyal denizens, Lucknow is "the city of many splendours". If I were to choose the most appropriate of these three epithets, I'd hedge my bets on the last one.

Celebrated author Amir Hasan writes in his seminal treatise Vanishing Culture Of Lucknow: "No other city can perhaps claim to have won a larger measure of love and loyalty from its citizens."

The undisputed cultural stronghold of India, Lucknow - today the state capital of Uttar Pradesh - is the venerable sum of its ancient parts. Each is embellished with the patina of time and history. Its brilliance shines through just as brightly today, as it did during the time of the Nawabs. Thus giving first-time visitors like myself a vicarious sense of the pomp and grandeur of a bygone era, all in a couple of days.

Past perfect

Taking over after the decline of the Mughals by controlling the northern-central region of India called Avadh - with Lucknow as its new capital - the Nawabi era from 1775 to 1856 gave birth to a typical Lucknowi ethos of sophistication, elegance, an etiquette code called tehzeeb and the language of Urdu that is a mellifluous melange of Persian and Arabic.

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

Though smaller than the Bara Imambara, the Chota Imambara is considered more spectacular and ornate of the two imambaras with its inlayed walls and brass dome.

But this was also an epochal time for Lucknow's unique Indo-Saracenic architectural renaissance, so to speak. One of the best examples is the jaw-droppingly beautiful Bara Imambara - Lucknow's pride and joy, as it were.

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

Built in the 1780s by the Nawab of Avadh, Asaf-ud-Daula, this monument also houses the Nawab's tomb as well as the incredible Bhul Bhulaiya. This fascinating (and confusing) labyrinth on the upper floor of the monument leads one up to the roof that affords panoramic views over the city that seem straight out of a Mughal miniature painting, even today.

Opting for a horse-drawn carriage instead of an air-conditioned car, I headed through the Rumi Darwaza (gate) towards my next pit stop, the Chota Imambara, 500m away.

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

The Rumi Darwaza is believed to be a replica of an entrance gate in Istanbul - then called Constantinople - hence the comparison of the two cities. Smaller than the Bara Imambara, the Chota Imambara - also called the Hussainabad Imambara - built in 1842 by Nawab Mohd Ali Shah, is luxuriously ornate in design with a lot of its glass chandeliers and colourful light fixtures having been brought in centuries ago from places as far as China and Belgium.

The best place to revisit history is by visiting the Residency. It was built as a residential complex for the British who annexed Avadh in 1856 and exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, famously known as "the last Nawab". This sprawling complex, with manicured gardens, is also an important site for the events that took place during the first War of Independence in 1857. There's also a museum within, showcasing relics and photographs of the great uprising.

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

Another Lucknow institution that shouldn't be missed is the La Martiniere School. Once the palatial home of the rather eccentric Major General Claude Martin, today it is counted among India's top 10 schools for its academic excellence.

Strangely, it also holds the distinction of being the only school in the world to be awarded British Battle Honours, as 50 of its students took part in the defence of the Residency during the aforementioned war.

Gastronomical beginnings

I sincerely believe that, to feel the pulse of any city, one must visit its markets.

And one of the best examples is the chaotic Chowk neighbourhood where you can get everything from chilled milk, almond and fennel seed drink called thandai at Pandit Raja Thandai near the Gol Darwaza to an array of kebabs like the melt-in-the-mouth galouti and tunday specimens from street side stalls. It was here that I was enlightened about the wonderfully secular Lucknowi greeting called the adaab. Apparently, in order to create a non-religious medium via which a Hindu could greet a Muslim and vice versa, the term adaab - which means "respect" or "you are respectable" - was coined.

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

Saving the best for last, a plate of the famous Idris Ki Biryani was something I had to try. Started by Mohammad Idris, this hole-in-the-wall eatery opposite the Chowk Police Station has been wowing diners with its succulent morsels of fragrant mutton biryani since 1968. I was told that it takes three hours to prepare a copper degh (pot) of biryani and that a total of 16 to 18 deghs are served in a day.

The cooking is done on a makeshift stove called a bhatti, using pathar ka koyla (charcoal). The secret to Idris Ki Biryani is that it is cooked on dum which is a slow steam method of cooking. Besides milk and malai (heavy cream), a mind-boggling array of herbs and light spices including saffron are used in its preparation; this lends the biryani its fragrant deliciousness. Served with a qorma (thick gravy) and onions specially dipped in vinegar, this was one dish that had me totally floored and ready for a second helping!

I finished my foodie innings for the day with a sweet paan (betel leaf digestive) at Jamuna Prasad Paan. 

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

Day two started with something I do best - eat! A veritable Lucknow breakfast institution, Ratilal's on Hewitt Road has been dishing out its famous Rastogi breakfast for decades. Traditionally the cuisine of the Hindu moneylender community in Lucknow, my repast of khasta, a crisp, fried bread, with aloo-chana (a spicy potato and chick pea stew) was simply divine.

It was all washed down by a yummy albeit luridly coloured almond milk that did its best to soothe the pungency of the raw green chillies that I happily munched on.

For lunch, I was whisked off to the cool comfort of The Mughal's Dastarkhwan restaurant in the Lalbagh neighbourhood of Lucknow for a fragrant plate of creamy butter chicken accompanied by the softest of milk and saffron-infused Sheermal roti (flatbread) and chicken malai kebabs.

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

For dessert, a drone (leaf bowl) of the creamiest, hand-churned kulfi (a dense Indian-style ice-cream) at Laddoo Chanakya, also in Lalbagh. And I'm glad I paid heed to that suggestion as the pistachio-almond speckled one I had that sultry afternoon was the yummiest I've ever tried.

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism

The embroidered art of Chickankari is another art form Lucknow has every right to boast about.

This unique embroidery technique is a delicate and intricately done hand embroidery composed of tiny stitches applied to a variety of fabrics like muslin, silk, chiffon, organza and net. And the Sewa Chikan centre on Sitapur Road that I visited is an example of how art can be both beautiful and empowering at the same time, and why preserving culture and heritage is so vital. Co-established by Runa Banerji, a 2005 Nobel Prize nominee and Sehba Hussain, Sewa not only provides training to lower income group women and girls in the art of Chickankari, but also empowers them by helping them earn a living by making and selling clothes though the centre where they share in the ensuing profits.

For me, Lucknow is a place that has a magical charm all its own.

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