I’ve always wondered about that thing called serendipity. When you’ve been thinking about something or someplace, and suddenly all kinds of events and names and places associated with it start making popping sounds in your brain, all at once? Well, now I know. And it happened in the unlikeliest of places, in the town of Kakori, on the outskirts of Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh’s legendary ‘mango belt’ of Malihabad.
I had been invited to experience what Renaissance Hotels calls their ‘Global Day of Discovery’, which they celebrate at Renaissance Hotels across the world. I’m at the spanking new Renaissance Marriott Hotel in Lucknow. And I’m looking forward to a traditional Lakhnavi ‘mango party’ as a chaser to gourmet indulgences of the legendary, eponymous kakori kebabs on home soil.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What had been on my mind were mangoes. The edible kind, of course. But also the ‘Mango Murders’–the recent gruesome crime committed in Kakori for the neighbours’ bumper crop of Dussehri mangoes. And now I’m actually in the heart of it all, at the site of the bizarre crime. Historically minded folks will know, though, that conspiracies, big money, violence and murder are no strangers to this small town, which has reserved its place in history for a rather more noble cause–that of India’s freedom struggle. More about this shortly.
We leave behind the modern expanses of Lucknow, and set off on a smooth run to the outskirts, from where a turn-off bumpily led us into Kakori’s pastoral setting, interspersed with great stands of mango groves. I recall debating with friends the finer points of the popular Hindi film Rang de Basanti. Now I was on my way to the site where the daredevilry had actually unfolded.
Kakori is just 30km away from present-day Lucknow, with its noisome malls and modern hotels. But the serene Kakori Memorial–also known as Shaheed Smarak–swiftly transports you to the momentous days of India’s freedom struggle. The famous ‘Kakori Kand’–the Kakori ‘revolution’ or conspiracy aka ‘Great Train Robbery’–sent out widening ripples in the dark waters of the British administration in the early 1920s. The railway line snaking out of Kakori station is the setting of the Kand, when rebel freedom fighters, the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), looted the government treasury from the Number 8 down train.
I stand before the board that recounts the tale of the train robbery and read: ‘Wo jism bhi kya jism hai jismein na ho khoon-e-junoon, Kya lade toofaanon se jo kashti-e-saahil mein hai. Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai, Dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e-qatil mein hai.’ These are the words of Ram Prasad Bismil, who masterminded the heist. The looting of the train–scheduled for August 9, 1925–was to be executed by Ashfaqullah Khan, Ram Prasad Bismil, Chandrashekhar Azad and other rebels.
Kakori town was in sighta pulled chainthe train grinding to a haltthe swift overpowering of the guardthe breaking open of the guard van. The speedy and faultless execution of the heist sent the British administration into shock. However, the long arm of British wrath was inexorable. Khan, Bismil, Thakur Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri were caught and in a trumped-up hearing at Lucknow’s Ring Theatre at Hazratganj (where ‘Dogs and Indians’ were not permitted entry), were sentenced to be hanged. Today the same Ring Theatre serves as the GPO.
The memorial building is studded with the busts of the martyrs of the Kand. Across the wall of the complex is the exact spot (km 1085/4-7 railway milestone) on the railway line where the train was stopped and looted.
Hunger pangs make intermittent reproofs as our party now moves to one of Kakori’s legendary mango orchards. Passing through a screen of heavily laden trees, we are led to a vast open space where an excellent bandobast had been made with low-set divans, a long table setting and a scattering of craftsmen.
The Renaissance team had done themselves proud with the fabulous spread, served al fresco. While the chef kept us happily busy with melt-in-the-mouth kakori kebabs, the tandoor kept the rotis flowing. Stuffed to the gills with fragrant biryani and alu dum, we were shocked to find we had room for Kakori’s Dussehri mangoes–and oh, how divine they were! Malihabad’s mango belt is also known for its Safeda, Langda, Chausa, Tukmi, Khaas-ul-Khaas, Lakhnawwa and scores of hybrid mango varieties.
It was at just such a ‘mango party’ in the 1800s that a British official is said to have passed a snide remark about the texture of the kebabs. The incensed host, Nawab Syed Mohammad Haider Kazmi, summoned his kitchen staff to make him the finest kebabs this side of the Suez. This latest version of the seekh kebab featured a combination of the minced tendon of the leg-o-mutton, khoya, white pepper and some secret spices. When the official was invited again for a meal, he was left speechless.
While the others were lolling around recovering from these gourmet indulgences, I roped in Hasan Alvi, who runs a travel agency, to show us a bit of his hometown. I had recently returned from a tour of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, so it turned out to be a most pleasant coincidence (serendipity again!) to be introduced at the mango party to members of Kakori’s leading families, hailing from the two Arab branches of the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh Tribe: the Alavi (Moulvi Zadigan), who trace their lineage to Hazrat Ali (the fourth Caliph and Prophet Mohammad’s cousin and his son-in-law), and the other, the Abbasi, who claim their lineage to Al-Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet Mohammad. Qazi Shaikh Klan Abbasi had settled in Kakori after his appointment as the first Qazi of Kakori by the Royal Court of Delhi in 1490.
Kakori has always been home to a large Muslim populace which nourished the kasbah culture. Partition got in the way of this tradition. Many Muslims fled Kakori for Pakistan. Driving through the bazaar’s streets, Hasan points out the ruined havelis, once owned by Kakori’s leading families. Kakori Kothi, earlier known as Martin House, was built by Major General Claude Martin. A momentous occasion in its history was the signing of the Lucknow Pact, between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress.
Our drive leads us into a vast green open space, dominated by an ancient banyan tree, an ageing beauty of 250 years. Rising from this verdant spot are twin marble structures–the tombs of Shah Kazim Qalandar and Shah Ali Anwer Qalandar of the famous Takiya Shareef Kazmiya shrine, which has a huge following, drawing murids (spiritually mentored devotees) from all over.
During the Urs, Kakori’s tombs are decorated with fairy lights and new chadars and fresh flowers are put upon the graves. The sama sessions (spiritual concerts) attract huge crowds.
The shrine appealed to all communities, including Hindus. Centuries ago, Maharaja Tikait Rai was deeply attached to this shrine. Today, a descendant of a local resident, Lala Beniram, a devotee of Shah Kazim Qalandar, lights the first candle of the annual Urs.
Kakori, I learn, was not just a very important Sufi hub, it was also a great centre for scholars, poetry, art and craft. Several Urdu poets have their roots here–including Mohsin Kakorvi, Noorul Hasan Naiyyer and Ghulam Ahmed Alavi ‘Furqat Kakorvi’.
Returning to the mango party, we find people up and about and gathered around the craftspeople who are showcasing zardozi and chikankari work. I learn that even Mumbai designer duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla have set up their production centre at Kakori. The party wraps up with a qawwali session and as we wander out to the waiting coaches the faint strains of ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalandar’ induce nostalgic pangs, of my mother singing it to me during my childhood and how I loved it as an adult living in the tea gardens. Beautiful, serendipitous world
Where To Stay
Spread over 14 floors, the 96 guestrooms and 16 suites, at Marriott’s Renaissance Lucknow Hotel offer expansive views of the landscaped Gomti riverfront and the humongous Ambedkar Memorial Park. The terrace Sky Bar is an exceptional dining experience. The food is varied and just as delicious as it should be. renaissancelucknow.com).