Lucknow – An Ode To Urbanity

Let’s face it, we are not the most considerate or well mannered of people.

If there is a rule to be broken, a line to be cut, or a traffic light to be jumped, you will likely find an Indian elbowing his way to pole position. Any indignant readers quick to rush to the defense of fellow citizens, are either too privileged to have had their toes crushed at supermarket checkout lines, or are most likely ABCD’s (‘American born confused desis’)! Just so you know, acronyms are another obsession of ours, apart from the breaking of rules that is. Our ruling Bollywood idol is SRK, its aging supremo, BigB, our new prime minister: NaMo, and our blockbuster movie titles no doubt chosen with abbreviations in mind……just try Googling QSQT or DDLJ or YJHD!

But I digress.

This post is about one of few cities in India that has historically belied that norm and is synonymous with refinement and graciousness. Its ‘pehle aap’ tehzeeb (‘thou first’ culture) best epitomized in the story of two local Nawabs, who miss their train in their insistence that the other get on first!

The capital of the most populous state in India, and situated 40 miles West of Ayodhya, the birth place of the Hindu God Ram,  Lucknow is said to have been a gift from Ram himself, to his loyal brother Lakshman. Hence the name Lakhanpur (later Lucknau and the British Lucknow). But any recorded history of importance only dates back to the (14th century) Delhi Sultanate.

The Asafi mosque is the first of the grand building constructed by the Nawabs when the capital of Awadh was permanently transferred from Faizabad to Lucknow by Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah in 1775
The Asafi mosque is the first of the grand building constructed by the Nawabs when the capital of Awadh was permanently transferred from Faizabad to Lucknow by Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah in 1775. In the far center is the rear of the Rumi Darwaza (the gate featured in the thumbnail)

It was the period movie Umrao Jaan, based on the real life experiences of a sophisticated Tawaif (courtesan trained in the arts), that piqued my early interest. That lingering memory of a visual feast said to convey “a flavour of all that was Lucknow – its language, its poetry and music, and the way of life of its citizens“*, influenced our choice for a stopover on the long drive from Agra to Varanasi despite our friends’ skeptical “Lucknow???”

The reality is vastly different from that thirty three year old screen rendering of course. The streets are filthier, the monuments not as spiffy, and the once impeccable zubaan (speech) vastly diluted, at least on the streets. Still, the courtesies are evident in the respectful greetings of ‘adaab‘ and the genuine amity between Hindus and Muslims. This is supposed to be one of few places that has resisted inter-religious strife, and where both communities celebrate Id and Diwali with equal fervour!

I was surprised to learn that Urdu, the lyrical language that the locals hold dear, wasn’t an Islamic import at all, but a highly refined, home grown hybrid of pre-Islamic Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Hindustani dialects that embodied the composite culture of the region. And that its best scholars were Hindu! It eventually replaced Persian as the official language in 1837 (along with English). But partition sadly destroyed its communal nature, permanently associating (Persianised) Urdu with Pakistan and its Sanskritised form – Hindi – with India.

Gate to the Qaiserbagh Palace complex that housed the royal harem. The palaces wee demolished by the British after the rebellion.
Gate to the Qaiserbagh Palace complex that housed the royal harem. (‘Bagh’ is garden, and Lucknow boasted many landscaped parks) The palaces within Qaiserbagh were destroyed by the British after the rebellion, and roads cut through it.

The romance of that urbane speech lingers. Fueled by immortal poetry and music (and Bollywood of course!) that extol the cultural togetherness of a gentler time. And Lucknow is one of the last bastions of that pure spoken word, as well as the harmony. The latter under serious threat from politically induced violence in the towns surrounding it.

Lucknow’s other claim to fame, is the prolonged siege of the British residency during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Some of the fiercest battles of the rebellion were fought here, as proved by the 18 Victoria Crosses awarded to the officers of the Company for action in one single day, and 28 for one single action. A sad record that still holds. A lone memorial commemorates the sacrifice of thousands of rebel lives. The forlorn shell of the abandoned residency houses a small memorial museum.

The murder of the last king – Nawab Siraj ud Daulah – at the end of the war, tolled the death knell for the leisurely Nawabi lifestyle of Awadh, or Oudh as the region was known then. Successive uninspired regional leadership leading up to the present, ensured it never regained its past glory. And the fact that several Prime Ministers hailed from the state made no difference whatsoever.

Lucknow Labyrinth
The Bhool Bhulaiya – labyrinth – on the roof of the Bara Imambara (pronounced ‘Bada Imambara’ meaning Big Shrine)

We had one full day to experience as much of the history of this laid back city as we could. And with the help of Sri. Naved Zia, we set ourselves a comfortable pace including a walk in the old ‘chowk‘ area and some sampling of legendary local fare.

Our first hotel, uncharacteristically chosen on the advice of a local travel agent, turned out to be dire. So we shifted to the nouveau Nawabi environs of the Taj Vivanta. Still haven’t made up my mind which made the dent in R’s wallet more bearable: their tehzeeb or their gilawati kababs.

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  • Kushwant Singh and M.A. Husseini in an introduction to the “The Courtesan Of Lucknow”

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

97 thoughts on “Lucknow – An Ode To Urbanity

  1. Another insightful post πŸ™‚ What I find most impressing is the amount of great shots you come up with every time.

    1. Thank you Sumitra. Look forward to reading your account, and the photos if dad is in tow πŸ™‚

  2. This is brilliant, you are attaching impressive information, history, culture and facts. This is one of the best practical way to share, Thank you

  3. You are amazing Madhu. I live in Delhi but have never been to Lucknow. And now after reading your post I so wish to visit this place! Your prose is beautiful and so are the photos.

    1. Always happens Uday. We put off visiting places close to us, precisely because they are so close! πŸ™‚ I have yet to visit Tanjavur for example or Hampi or even Sri Lanka! Thank you for the appreciative comment.

    1. Our walk through the Chowk was indeed delightful MJF. You should try and plan a visist. Do you come to India often?

  4. I never get tired of looking at your travel photos.. They leave a song in my heart and a quiet urge to go somewhere again. Do you not do the photo challenges?

    1. Thank you Eliz. Such a pleasure to see you here πŸ™‚
      I only participate in the WP Friday challenge. Have been struggling with time constraints even with my relatively diminished schedule.

  5. I sank at the sight of those architectures. Oh good heavens, fly me to India now! Loved reading your opener, Madhu. I know it’s serious, and in line with what you’re trying to get to, but I laughed at the missed train. πŸ™‚

    1. The missed train is a true story Rommel, and an antithesis of the present national culture of ‘I, me, myself’! Not trying to scare you off, but you should be prepared for that frenzied scramble when you do come! Everywhere, but most commonly on our roads πŸ˜€

    1. Thanks Sally. The labyrinth seemed innocuous enough, but the tourist board advises not exploring it alone for fear of
      getting lost and of dropping off steep precipices designed to finish off an interloper! πŸ™‚

  6. I simply love the historical snippets you provide, Madhu. I know I’ve said this before, but this is what draws me to your posts, as much as your photogtaphy. Marvellous. I didn’t know the name came from the Ramayana – added to my limited knowledge of India. Yes, I’m familiar with the Sepoy Mutiny – as you know, we had a similar mutiny by sepoys in Singapore.

    All good wishes,
    Eric

    1. Was unaware of the Singapore Mutiny Eric! And surprised to learn that the movement took birth in the US!! Now we are quits πŸ™‚ Appreciate your ever generous and thoughtful feedback.

  7. Lucknow looks and sounds so dreamy, Madhu! The faded glory really comes across in the photos, and as usual, I really enjoyed your fabulous text on the history and the cultural nuances of the city. How sad that Partition divided one shared language into two; if it hadn’t happened perhaps foreign language students would be flocking to Lucknow to learn Urdu!

    1. Thank you James. The splitting of a communal language was a minor sacrifice at the altar of nationalistic fervour at the time. The city lost a whole lot more in the immigration of its upper classes and with the influx of outsiders.
      The depth and complexity of the history of Oudh is hard to fit into a short blog post. If you ever visit, do make it a point to read up on the Nawabs and on the Sepoy Mutiny. It is beyond fascinating and brings these spaces alive.

  8. Madhu, I always enjoy your posts about your India. You always make understandable the patchwork of history, cultures, and religions that is India. Makes me want to return yet again.

    1. Thank you very much Ron. Simplifying, and more importantly limiting, our complex history to the length of a blog post requires some effort. So your appreciation is particularly gratifying.

  9. Thank you for taking me on a tour of a place I will never visit now. Is green a common colour for decoration in India? Your view from the balcony is only one of many delights in your collection of photos.

    1. Thank you for reading Meg. Green is commonly used in Islamic structures, especially on the domes of mosques.

  10. Such an incredibly beautiful place, Madhu. The corbel detail is exquisite, and what a great shot through that archway. Stunning post. πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you Sylvia. The corbel detailing is a curious mixture of Indian and European elements….I was surprised by how well it works!.

  11. The pictures, the history and the current here and now and great, giving a glimpse into a world most of us will never have the opportunity to experience. I always am grateful for my visits here, reminding me the world is large and I am small within it.

    1. Happy that you enjoy traveling with me Valentine. It is my pleasure to have you come along πŸ™‚

    1. Imambara is a shrine, usually used as a gathering place where sermons are delivered during festivals. The small one was exquisite! It is newer as well.

    1. Thank you. And I hope you do make it there soon. You will not be disappointed πŸ™‚

  12. A visit to a place that historically epitomizes refinement and graciousness sounds like a little bit of heaven. Your photos, descriptions and the food are inviting. Love this, Madhu. πŸ˜‰

    1. Delighted that you do Judy! Lucknow had a special vibe, different from all the other Indian cities I have visited.

  13. What a gorgeous introduction to this beautiful and historic city, one I knew nothing about before! Now I am intrigued! Thanks for all of the wonderful places you share with us through your lovely posts and beautiful photography!
    Cheers,
    Kathryn

    1. Those motifs are further proof of the liberal attitude of the Nawabs of Oudh Jo. Mosques are generally not allowed to portray living beings.

  14. Brilliant coverage on Lucknow a place which now most of us take for granted. Great to read of its awesome heritage going back to Ram and Lakshman. Many thanks dear Madhu for this treat.
    Kind regards πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you very much for your appreciation Dilip. I think it is sad that we take such a culturally rich heritage for granted.

    1. Happy you enjoyed it Frank. Our history is too complex and diverse even for us πŸ™‚

  15. Your words have extra tenderness and a touch of sadness in this post, Madhu. The pictures are fabulous, and hint at the grace of a forgotten era, or the pathos of soft filigree textures in a new and alien time.

    Lucknow is all the more amazing for its ordinary people. They live ordinary lives, but with a shadowy remembrance of their regal legacy. Whenever I visit my sister there, I observe their courtesy, old-world gestures, that timeless wafer of a bow as they say ‘adaab’, and it almost breaks my heart… truly, I know then what it is to I feel like ‘a bull in a china shop’.

    Take care! It’s a beautiful post, straight from the heart. πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you Meenakshi, means a lot, especially from a UPite! πŸ™‚ The sadness automatically seeps into my India posts, brought on mainly by the neglected possibilities of our heritage sites. Not just in terms of preservation and appreciation, but as employment opportunities as well.

  16. It looks like time stood still Madhu. Stunning captures! πŸ˜€

    1. Yes Sonel, but in a forlorn kind of way. You can almost hear the tinkle of anklets if you listen hard enough πŸ™‚ Thank you for your lovely comment.

  17. Loved Lucknow when I visited last. Though I had been to only the British quarter, I was awed by its beautiful structures. Well written post, Madhu.

    1. Thanks Niranjan. I can’t imagine why the UP government hasn’t worked towards putting Lucknow on the tourist map. Or perhaps I do πŸ˜‰

    1. You are most welcome Cornelia. I am happy you enjoyed this. I hope you are able to visit India someday soon.

  18. Ah, but there’s still some semblance of that past glory, and Urdu will always hold a special place in the hearts of the people there. Kipling certainly lavished his literary talents on the Urdu speaking north.

    1. I agree Ian, Kipling is possibly responsible for the incorporation of more Urdu/Hindustani words into the Queens language than any single person! πŸ™‚

  19. In my younger days, we would usually bypass it on our road trips, and my only visit to Lucknow was to the IIM campus… so it was great to experience the real city through your beautiful words and photographs. I do remember the awesome gilawati kebabs, and of course the delicious motichoor laddoos, which relatives staying in the city would always carry along on their visits to Delhi. Hope you got a chance to try those!

    1. Sadly no, there was a limit to the amount of food we could consume in a single day. The gilawati kababs (I realised I didn’t spell it the UP way! Have edited it πŸ™‚ ) we ordered every chance we got! they were matchless in taste and texture.

      PS: Are you a high funda IIM alumna? πŸ™‚

      1. I am almost afraid to admit to being one, after you prefaced it with that adjective πŸ™‚

  20. You’ve educated me yet again on some wonderful history. Your first paragraph made me smile, and also think of how similar Indians and Mexicans seem to be.

    1. Good to know we aren’t alone in our quirks Angeline! Bama, above, says the Indonesians are similar too πŸ™‚

  21. Madhu, your first paragraph really struck me, in a good way, as how you describe Indians are like how I would describe Indonesians. That reminds me of the article I shared with you a few weeks ago. Some people here say rules are made to be broken, sounds familiar? πŸ™‚ About the acronyms, James was actually quite amazed (and probably bewildered) when he found out that Indonesians have penchant for acronyms. We call our current president SBY and the president-elect JokoWi, the airport at Jakarta Soetta (from Soekarno and Hatta), and our celebrities names like KD, NickSap, and JuPe. And, believe it or not, my full name is also an acronym!

    Speaking of Lucknow, it’s a city that first picked my attention many years after I learned about Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. I don’t find a lot of coverage on the city from travel bloggers or news media, so this post of yours definitely quenched my thirst. Not only that, your photos and description assured me that it’s a part of India that should be high on my wishlist. And to learn that Urdu originated from Lucknow really blew me away!

    1. Bama, I am not surprised at all!! your article is doing the rounds of my family and friends and they are all amazed by how culturally similar we are! As for Lucknow, you would love its vibe, even though there isn’t an awful lot to see. But you would need a few months to include all of the places on your India list πŸ™‚

  22. What an interesting post Madhu. I smiled when you told us about the acronyms – not something I knew about.

    1. Thank you Drake. Relieved to know all the unfamiliar historical details don’t bore you πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you very much Grover. Lucknow, being less touristy, is a naturally less frenzied and relaxing destination. I think you should include it if you plan to visit Agra and Varanasi.

  23. Hey!!
    Did you try the Tundey Kababi at Chowk….? They are pretty great (better than all those sub-branches). And did you try our chaat (paani ke batashe)…? I bet you are not going to find better chaat in the whole world. What about ban makhan…ban samosa…lucknow’s deshehri mangoes….??? Lucknow is the hub of awesome food. πŸ™‚
    P.S. I know the roads are filthy, but still they are a lot better than before. Take the Gomti Nagar area for example, it is pretty neat and clean. Bottom line, we are still developing and after few years Lucknow might be compared to Mumbai or Delhi… πŸ˜› πŸ™‚

    1. Saksham, there was no way we could have sampled all of your city’s culinary treats in such a short time!! I did try the chat, but we just didn’t have place that morning for theTundey kababs between the Kulcha Nahari and the Biriyani. I do have the ubiquitous photo though πŸ™‚ I shall just have to return shan’t I? πŸ™‚

      Your streets weren’t all that bad actually…in fact I thought the Chowk area was way cleaner than Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Possibly because of the sprucing up in 2010? Have reserved photos from our walk for another post. I do hope the development plans come through. Lucknow certainly deserves a break.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      1. Yes, you sure need to return and gollop all the food that can find. πŸ˜›

        Am eager to see those photos. πŸ™‚ Lucknow truly deserves a break! Hope you find Lucknow better next time… πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  24. It may not be like its glorious past but at least its courtesies remain. I hope the religious and political strife don’t rob this lovely old place of what makes it unique. Knowing how well you research a place beforehand, it is nice to know you were in for some surprises, too, especially with the language. Your move to a different hotel looks like it was the best of all splurges as well as the delicious cuisine. I feel I must see more of India and Lucknow would be included. Your personal thoughts and accompanying photography is a draw.

    1. Thanks Lynne. Lucknow was a delightful destination. A relaxing interlude between the monument overload of Agra and the overwhelming vibe of Varanasi. I know you would love it πŸ™‚

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