Lucknow is a city seeped deep into history and a walk in the old quarters of the city can reveal secrets which can surprise even someone who lives in the city. I have been visiting Lucknow right from the time I was a kid but if there is one walk I can recommend, then it would certainly be the heritage walk in the city. Whether you do the Lucknow walk by yourself, or with a guide, the experience is bound to be enriching. I hope this would be a useful guide to travellers who love doing things by themselves :)
I was staying with my friend Pawan and he was terribly busy dousing a fire at his office even on a weekend. It was warm but still the last thing I wanted to do was sit at home and see him pacing the house with deep creases on his forehead. I decided to ditch him in the afternoon and do something by myself. I have always been fascinated by the old city right from my childhood days and was now quite keen to explore it as an adult too. Ideally I would have done it all by myself, but I had little time to research so decided to do it with Tornos, a name that cropped up while I browsed the web on my phone. I immediately called and within five minutes my walk was confirmed and I packed my bag and left home, while Pawan continued pacing the house in his tattered shorts, happy that I was finally going to enjoy myself!
I took an auto and came to Gol Chowk and waited for my guide Ravi. Very soon he was there with a bag and a water bottle, and I liked him immediately. He smiled almost all the time and the Heritage Walk which was meant to take three hours took more then five as I had so many questions for him and he had the patience to answer them all.
So the walk actually started with some food tasting, and it was something sweet. I am a big fan of sweets, especially Indian mithai, so was quite surprised when he offered me something called Nimish which I had never even heard of! Nimish is basically a dish from the era of Nawabs and every bit of it is royal. I thanked them a lot while the street vendors selling Nimish simply smiled at me rather curiously.
Why is Gol Darwaza called so?
Before Ravi could take me ahead, my questions had already started so he had to deviate a little from his original plan for the walk. I was at the Gol Darwaza and I could barely see anything round and wanted to know the story. Ravi said nothing and asked me follow him to the top of the Darwaza, passing though some of the oldest shops of Lucknow on the way. From top, I could actually see my answer - the Darwaza was actually a half circle from the top and that’s what gave it the name.
Over the next few hours we saw and discussed many different things and I saw Lucknow like never before. I spoke to many people and interviewed them for my project ‘Tell me your Dream’ and you can read these stories in detail here. During the walk as well many things stood out and I think it much relevant to talk about those in a little bit more detail.
Nawabs were great patrons of art and promoted it across Avadh. When the capital shifted to Lucknow, the city was patronised for art and Chowk became the hub. Small karkhanas dot the entire street and also a fe by-lanes, and a quick peek will also expose the traveller to some work in progress. Some of the traditional crafts that can still be seen here include Zardozi work (gold embroidery), Chikan work (especially block-printing the designs), Kites making and some iconic ittar shops.
A key reason for so many ittar shops in the area is attributed to the presence of Kothas on this lane. When women in the kothas danced, they sweated a lot and ittar was how they hid the smell from all the Nawabs who visited them.
Unani school of medicine came to India with Islam when the religion came to India and was promptly accepted and assimilated in the culture. Unani dawakhanas (dispensaries) were as popular as Ayurveda centres, and both used herbs and traditional medicines for treatment. The Unani dawakhana here is quite old but still functional. The Hakim sits here everyday and sees patients for a nominal fee. However, the tradition is dying out and the dawakhana might get engulfed with time.
To me the most interesting part of the walk was the discovery of Tolas. Somehow I had never even heard of this kind of community living in the city and I am sure many visitors to Lucknow still go back without taking a walk in one of these traditional housing societies. A Tola is basically a community specific housing area which has one entry and only one exit.
One Tola is connected to another told - so the exit of one Tola becomes the entry of another Tola. This was done for security reasons in the past. If you are new to a Tola, its really easy to get lost as its tough to remember all the entry and exit points. Its a maze way more complicated than Bhul Bhulaiya, and unfortunately much less famous also.
When you hear the name of Lucknow, one name always comes to mind - Umrao Jaan, the famous courtesan front the Nawab ear. Her life story also echoes the story of rise and fall of the city, and when she disappeared in oblivion after the mutiny of 1857, Lucknow also lost it's status as the key north Indian city.
Now some call kothas as simply glorified brothels, but in reality they were much different. They were places where the nawabs of Lucknow and other rich men went to learn Lucknow's famous tehzeeb, and also get familiar with the opposite gender. These rich men were also patrons of art and dance, and so kathak flourished in these kothas and became the most famous classical dance form from north. The kothas did turn into brothels after the nawabs were disposed of, and primarily served the British men in the area.
When it comes to perfumes, for ittar as it's locally known, Unnao is the place to be! But Lucknow being the capital of Awadh, there is a vibrant perfume industry here as well. Interestingly the history of perfumes is closely liked to the history of the kothas in the city.
The kathak dancers would dance for hours altogether, and in the hot and moist weather the beautiful women would sweat a lot. Of course, a courtesan who stinks of sweat was considered unacceptable, so these perfumes became their best friends. Many of these perfume shops were located just below the kothas and were available right when they were needed.
The perfumes were also much loved by the nawabs though now they are far more accessible to the common man as well.
Back in the days of Aurangzeb the Mahal (palace) was the place where the European traders lived and that’s how the palace got it’s name. Mughals had good trade relations already with Europe and many kings hosted them, including the Mughals. Later this was converted into a centre of Islamic studies and became a prominent centre of learning, often compared to Oxford and Cambridge in England.
With time, it’s prominence came down and now it’s known only to the Chowk residents and some history enthusiasts. As you walk through the few areas accessible to the public, you can still see the addresses which remind you of the past.
When it comes to food, there is nothing that beats the food of Lucknow in India, and I am very serious about it! Most famous for the non-vegetarian food, the city has much more to offer to vegetarians like me as well. Plus, the sweets are simply to die for.
The heritage walk of Lucknow is incomplete without the food that must try in the chowk area. The most famous shop here is Tunday ke kebab. The exotic halwa shops are also a must-try.
By the time the walk ended, it was already dark. I invited Ravi for a dinner as I had more questions and I also wanted to take some notes at a more peaceful place. We came back to the newer part of town, had a Lucknawi meal and shared many travel stories.
As I walked back home later in the night, I could simply not stop thinking about the era of the Nawabs and what life must be like. It’s not all that difficult to imagine as even now the relics of past survive and many stories and legends can help fill all the gaps in knowledge. Of course, most of it was simply fiction, I still loved dreaming about it.
I guess this is what Lucknow does to you - it takes you back in time and lets you live it as well. I am sure I peeled just one layer of the city’s past and much more still needs to be discovered. But these few hours certainly inspired me to come back to the city again, for many more days with the sole aim of exploration.