The city is the capital of India’s most popular and important state, Uttar Pradesh. The state has been monumental in Indian history, religion and politics, meaning its capital doesn’t disappoint. The geographical location and proximity to India’s new and old power centres, Delhi and Ayodhya respectively, played a key role in the making of Lucknow as we know it today.
The city still has the ability to influence national politics and remains a seat of power. However, it is not the political might of this Indian jewel that entices me, but the very culture and history that is so etched into the fabric of the city.
There have been tales detailing Lucknow’s classical dialect and some classical linguists absolutely eroticise about it. The moment you enter the city, the local rickshaw-wallahs, the taxi-drivers or even the tea-stall and small hotel owners will immediately live up to the linguistic hype. They address and converse with you in the sweetest of Indian dialects, Urdu. Many contemporary and classical stalwarts of Indian literature and poetry have had connections with Urdu or Lucknow. Today, Lucknow is seen as the last bastion of Urdu in these times of chat-lingo. You simply cannot miss a mushaira (live concert of Urdu poetry) if you’re in Lucknow, although you’ll need to have your eyes and ears open to find them as they are now few and far between. Urdu, being a language that is a sort of middle ground of Persian and Hindi, is so befitting that it is directly associated with Lucknow. There are few cities that can claim a more metropolitan past and present than Lucknow. The Nawabs who ruled the city were great patrons of art and poetry. The lofty minarets, grand domes and sweetness of the local tongue bears testimony to that. Some parts of the old city, from the Chota (small) Imambara to the Bara (big) Imambara, will make you feel like a time-traveller when lit up at night.
Talking about Persian and Indian concoctions, the unique Lucknowi food takes that to a whole new level. The city is an absolute treat for foodies. As a wise man once told me: “To understand a culture, you need to look closely at their cuisine – it has the power to tell you the untold story of every culture.” I took that advice a little too far, but I am glad I did. There are some modern and upmarket restaurants, but the essence of Lucknow lies in its street food and old, small-time hotels situated in the bazaars. One of the secrets of the resounding success of the local food has been its link with the past. The recipes and cooking styles have not deviated much from how they used to be in the Nawabi era (when aristocrats ruled Lucknow). This makes me believe that the Nawabs surely knew their food.
Now, it will be considered criminal of me to not mention the legendary Tunday kebabs and talk about the delightful Lucknowi food. Tunday kebabs have been sold in Lucknow for more than a hundred years in the bustling marketplace of Aminabad. However, the tradition of kebabs stretches a few centuries before that in Lucknow. Today, travellers missing out on Tunday kebabs are as unfortunate or foolish as being in Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. These kebabs also resonate with the lives of the people of Lucknow. You can eat the kebab in multiple ways, using bread or paratha, or just plain. And boy, these things last for more than three to four days, if you store them well. Their versatile, jack of all trades nature defines the people of Lucknow, and their durability goes with the endurance of heritage that has been preserved by the locals for centuries. A piece of advice: there are several not so authentic Tunday kebab stalls, so please stick to the one in old bazaar of Aminabad.
However, it’s not just the kebabs that fly the flag of Lucknowi cuisine, it is also the biryani. The biryani is not only famous in Lucknow, but also in Hyderabad and other old Nawabi towns. However, the Awadhi (traditional regional cuisine) influence on the biryani makes the biryani of Lucknow different from the rest. There is one more secret hidden away in the bazaars of old Lucknow, Kulcha Nihari. This dish is a live example of sinful gluttony while remaining a breakfast dish! It’s a rich beef curry that’s cooked in the early hours of the morning and served until around 11am. This dish is also served in other Nawabi towns like the biryani, but again the Kulcha (circular bread used to eat the curry) takes the biscuit vis-à-vis its other counterparts.
There are vegetarian delights that complete the food palate of a traveller, dishes such as Kachori, Litthi Chowkha, Papri chaat and Aloo (potato) chaat. Once you are done with these delicacies, the city has some sumptuous desserts on offer. The Kulfi (traditional Indian ice-cream) and Makhaan-Malai (butter and cream) found on the streets of Lucknow are one of a kind. Especially the latter, which is made using saffron and milk and is absurdly cheap – one bowl costs 20 rupees (20p).
After street- and bazaar-hopping, once you find time for actually sight-seeing the city, you will find a fusion of the British Raj and oriental Nawabi all around the city. The bazaars of Chowk (Indian for square) and Aminabad still have the oriental facelift as a part of their identity. The narrow streets, filled with people, small shops sticking to each other and hawkers screaming away to sell their products. But, at the other end of the spectrum, a modern Lucknow is being shaped.
For the history buffs visiting, Lucknow won’t disappoint. A whole host of monuments such as the Bara and Chota Imambarahs (Shiite places of worship), the Rumi (Roman) Gate (which has no connection with Rome), the Hussainabad Gallery and handful of old Mosques highlighting the Moghul rule will give you enough cannon fodder for a history lecture. While the Chota Imambarah is a neatly kept work of art and worship, the Bara Imambara is a more enticing proposition. Among other things, the Bara Imambara boasts a bhool bhulaiiya (labyrinth), jal mahal (water palace) and a full scale view of old town Lucknow. The labyrinth particularly intrigues people. It seems like a daunting task, but it turns out to be not as complex as it’s hyped up to be. But, nonetheless, a stroll in the labyrinth is worth every penny.
Another striking cultural aspect of Lucknow that has trickled through the ages is the visible peaceful co-existence of the Shia and Sunni Muslims in Lucknow. These two sects are usually at odds with each other, but here such tensions seem non-existent. The Lucknow watchtower neighbouring the Hussainabad Gallery is an overarching figure of the Lucknow skyline, which is not overcrowded by high-rise constructions. On the contrary, the Lucknow skyline has a fair few minarets, domes, temple arches and the newly added Buddhist Stupas. These Buddhist stupas and large elephant statues are unmissable if you are going towards the airport. They were constructed by the previous ruling party to stamp their authority in the façade of making Lucknow prettier. It failed to do that, but it did pave a way for top-notch highways.
Just like architecture and food, the city takes no half measures when it comes to its festivals. I happened to be there on Christmas Eve and the city didn’t disappoint. The city was all lit up and people were on the streets in a joyous mood for Christmas. There was one another thing on 24 December, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Lucknow is known for its elaborate, carnivalesque celebration of this day and it was just that. The town was buzzing on Christmas Eve, celebrating two of the world’s greatest religions and commemorating the birth of the most followed role models on the globe. This in itself showed us that peace is out there as people were harmonious and in a festive mood of celebration and joy. The St. Joseph Cathedral in Hazratganj (a posh locale in Lucknow) was aflush with Muslims, Hindus and Christians alike and there was only happiness in the lovely chilly air of Lucknow.
Speaking of the British Raj, the Hazratganj area, which was primarily set up during that time, remains one of the prime addresses in Lucknow. The bustling marketplace boasts some of the world’s most popular brands. The metropolitan market stands out and blends in with the remaining vintage part of the city. But there is something about Hazratganj that is more striking than that. Every shopping outlet needs to have their advertising hoarding in white and black. This was the colour code stipulated by the former government, and it makes Hazratganj stand out.
Regarding the transportation in the city, the roads have improved tremendously and the rail and connectivity is better than most cities of the Indian subcontinent. If you are an unfortunate, strapped for time person and decide to fly to Lucknow, you will miss the beautiful Charbagh station, and will rather get a glimpse of the modern Lucknow. Deep down you will realise that these modern constructions look slightly obnoxious as they don’t blend in with the city. You will feel that the alluring historical city of Lucknow is not meant to be carved out like any modern city and the soul of it lies in its culture and heritage. Only by making this identity a focal point can the city can move onwards and upwards.
WORDS: AAMIR SIDDIQUI
Like Aamir’s writing? Here’s his celebration of the Royal Enfield motorbike.