India Backpacking 2017-18


9 Nov. Lucknow
I set the alarm early to get up for the 6:10 a.m. departure of LJN Swran Shatabdi Train 12004 to Lucknow. But when the alarm sounded, I then noticed a text message that the train had been delayed until 7 a.m., so reset the alarm. I walked down the now quiet main street of Paharganj to the train station, then climbed over the walkway to Track 9 and waited. Departure turned out to be delayed by another 50 minutes, probably due to poor visibility from the air pollution. I felt relieved to finally get onboard and underway and out of New Delhi. The 1245-rupee ticket included a morning tea, light breakfast, then a snack of dal and rice. The eastward journey of 511 kilometers should have put me in at 12:40 p.m., but additional phone texts reported increasing delays and the train didn’t pull into Lucknow until early evening.
Nothing really stood out when I looked through listings for Lucknow hotels, but yesterday morning I made a reservation for three nights at Mangalam Inn at 800 rupees/night. I tried walking there from the train station as it is only 1.5 kilometers away, but crowded streets, noise, and dust made that impractical, so I hopped on an electric autorickshaw to the hotel on Station Road. All the rooms that I was shown had maintenance problems, though staff tried to please. In the end I got a room at the end of the hall two floors up, relatively far from the traffic honking and the construction for a new metro. I managed to cross the busy intersection to the vegetarian restaurant Chaupati for a malai kofta dinner with tomato soup and pullao rice plus a couple sweets. Lucknow is very famous for its Mughlai cuisine, but that’s mainly kebabs and other meat dishes, so not of interest for me. But this being India, I have plenty of vegetarian choices.
The Nawabs of Avadh turned Lucknow into a cultural center beginning in the late 1700s, but the good times ended when the British East India Company intervened to overthrow the last nawab. That triggered the 1857 First War of Independence or, as the British called it, the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Much of the war’s drama took place at the Residency during the 147-day Siege of Lucknow in which thousands died before relief arrived. Amazingly the ruins of the Residency still stand as a historical monument, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve come here. The other big attractions are the immense Shiite tombs Bara Imambara and Chota Imambara along with associated structures.
11 Nov. Lucknow
The morning paper announced that the air pollution index here was nearly as bad as in New Delhi! After a leisurely morning in my room, I headed out. With some difficulty due to language—English is far less used once one heads across the plains east of New Delhi—I managed to get an autorickshaw toward the Residency. A traffic jam about half way made both forward progress and retreat impossible, then walking became the only option. Lucknow can be a difficult city, and I noticed that foreign tourists are a rare sight.
The Residency opened for business in 1800, with other residences and halls added later. The strategic high ground proved its worth in 1857 when the British held out during the long siege. I entered through a gate on the south and paid the 200-rupee entry, then strolled into the park-like grounds. Monumental buildings show extensive pockmarks from cannon balls and bullets, and nearly all had lost their roofs. I first explored the colonnaded Treasury House, built in 1851 and converted into an ordinance factory during the fighting six years later. Across the street stands the imposing Dr. Fayrer’s House, named for the resident surgeon during the siege of 1857. The Banqueting Hall, grandest of all, once glittered with chandeliers, mirrors, and luxurious furnishings during gatherings in honor of the nawab. Surprisingly the delicate marble inlays of a fountain on the north side survive intact. An old mosque to the west seems still in use, and ruins beyond include what looks like a hamman (traditional bath). The entire compound takes its name from the large three-story building used by the British Resident. Today an Indian flag flies from a battered tower. The annex on the building’s other end now houses a museum, but it was closed today (Friday). Lastly I wandered among the tombstones that surround the ruins of the St. Mary Church, built with a Gothic style in 1810. Now only the lower walls survive. Graves include the Residency commander, with the inscription “Here lies Henry Lawrence who tried to do his duty. May the Lord have mercy on his Soul.”
Another autorickshaw journey, again made difficult by language and traffic, took me east on MG Road to Moti Mahal Restaurant, a vegetarian place recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The long menu offers North and South Indian cuisines along with some Chinese and Italian items. I went with the North Indian deluxe thali, which was very good, followed by butterscotch ice cream.
12 Nov. Lucknow
Breakfast options are sparse in these parts—yesterday I had the hotel’s omelet and this morning I went across the intersection for an alu parantha (savory fried potato pancake). Air quality improved greatly due to a breeze, and blue sky reappeared above. Traffic also got better, though riding in an autorickshaw in this city seems to be going from one near miss to the next. My driver was able to go northwest across town relatively unimpeded to the famous tomb complex of Bara Imambara (Bara means big, Imambara is a shrine built by Sufi Muslims). A wide and towering gate leads to the first courtyard, and curiously there’s similar structure—without the gateways—on the other side of the road that seems to serve no purpose other than symmetry. My 500-rupee entrance ticket was a whopping ten times what Indians pay, but that’s the way things are done at India’s archaeological sites; the ticket did cover two tombs plus a separate Picture Gallery.
At the end of the first verdant courtyard I entered another huge gate to the upper courtyard with the large tomb building ahead, built by a nawab of Oudh in 1784, a half-hidden step well to the left, and Asfi Mosque on the right. The grave markers in the center of the tomb building are just pieces of cloth on the floor and surrounded by a fence. Models called ‘tazias’ depict Imam Hussain’s tomb in Karbala (Iraq) are parked in large niches and used in processions. The building has several other large chambers that are now empty.
A small side entrance labeled ‘Labyrinth’ climbs up the Bhulbhulaiya, maze-like passageways on several levels atop the tomb building. Indian tourists and school children had a great time exploring. Some passages are dark and lead to little ‘pulpits’ high in the dome of a chamber. I also walked out to rooftop platforms with good views of the tomb compound below, the dazzling white 1680 Tila Wali Mosque to the north, the massive highly decorated Rumi Darwaza gate to the northwest, and the 1880s clock tower beyond that rises 67 meters.
Next I walked over to Asfi Mosque, a cool and quiet place that seems mainly used for prayers. The baori (step-well) on the other side of the courtyard has a long flight of steps leading down to a barely wet square pool; dark passageways lead to a multi-story structure that encloses a now-dry circular pool.
I walked northwest to Chota Imambara, stopping on the way at Hussainabad Picture Gallery in an 1842 building once used as a royal summer palace and now displaying large portraits of the rulers along with smaller photos of princes and other notables. (No photos permitted inside, though.) I would have liked to climb the nearby clock tower, but its door was locked.
Chota Imambara dates from 1832 and has a single grand entry gate to a single courtyard. After entering the courtyard garden I detoured left into the marble-tiled Shahi Hammam (bath house) and its now-dry pools. Two white tombs, very roughly modeled after the Taj Mahal, stand on each side of the courtyard. The inside of the main tomb could easily be mistaken for a chandelier museum because there must be dozens of them plus a pair of huge candelabra and lots of colored glass orbs attached to the ceiling. Graves in the center, like at Bara Imambara, are simply pieces of cloth on the floor enclosed by fencing. Other royal details include tazias (tomb models), a silver-covered throne, and a faded crown of red fabric.
A long autorickshaw ride took me east to Moti Mahal Restaurant, where I started with a tomato soup (Indians almost always do these well.), then a main course of palak kofta (dumplings in a spicy spinach sauce) and a decadent Kashmir pulao (fried rice with fruit, cashew nuts, and green peas). Afterward I couldn’t resist a butterscotch ice cream dish. On the way back to my hotel, the autorickshaw driver was confident of its location, but took me to a different Mangalam Hotel instead of my Mangalam Inn Hotel.

On to Allahabad

Back to the beginning