I pressed my ear firmly against the wall and tried hard to focus. Amid multiple echoing voices, I tried to make out the one taking my name. My guide, Taqi Mirza, a resident of Awadh; as he likes to call it, had assured me that he would whisper my name against the wall on one end and I’ll hear it from the other. Despite several noisy tourist groups adding to the cacophony, I remained undeterred. After all, I had spent half a day getting drenched in Lucknow’s torrential rains to make it to the famed Bara Imambara. I heard a whisper finally. But much to my dismay, it wasn’t my name. As I walked through the labyrinth, trying to figure my way out, Mirza popped up. And upon asking, he blamed the motley crowd and, rather amusingly, continued to tell stories from the past in his thick Awadhi accent.
I wasn’t sure whether one could hear the name from within the walls or not. But I definitely knew that I couldn’t have weaved my way out of the maze had it not been for him. It has over a thousand passages—1024—if Mirza is to be believed. I was told that the whole purpose of this monumental maze was to confuse and delay invaders.
Built in 1784 by Asaf-ud-Daula, the fourth Nawab of Awadh, various myths surround the Bara Imambara. Erected as a famine relief project, it is said that construction workers built the structure during the day, which was demolished on orders from the Nawab at dusk, only to be rebuilt the next day.
The seemingly straight façade gradually and gracefully gives way to the labyrinth which offers great views of the sprawling city of Lucknow from various levels. Characterised by a massive central hall, Mughal-inspired windows, and a large dome built without any external support, the structure is now used for religious gatherings. Within the premises, the Asafi Mosque and the Shahi Baoli also find a home on either side.
If not for tactful construction and some buried secrets, the majestic dome would have been destined to doom. Forget a cement or brick base, it is rice husk that keeps the dome erect, aided by the labyrinth which reduces the weight of the ceiling, hollowing it out.
My maiden visit to the to the city of nawabs and kebabs was an absolute delight, to say the least. An early morning train, a cramped auto ride, and a drive past the green landscape of the cantonment area, I couldn’t have asked for more. After a hearty home-cooked meal (all thanks to friends and family residing in all corners of the country) I wasn’t willing to waste even a single minute sitting idle. After all, I only had the weekend to make the most of the city famous for its mehman- nawazi. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to experience this hospitality right at the onset of my journey at Rahim ki Nihari at Chowk in the old city.
What sets the old city apart from its newer counterpart is the magnificent Rumi Darwaza, standing tall in all its glory. The ornate gate exemplifying Awadhi architecture served as the entrance to the Old Lucknow city in the bygone era, and like the Bara Imambara is the result of the battle against the decade-long famine.
As we navigated through cobble-stoned streets, it was hard to not draw similarities between Old Delhi and Old Lucknow. Both were former British colonies with narrow lanes and just enough space for two to walk, flanked by decades-old family-run shops on either side.
Finding Rahim’s wasn’t a herculean task, contrary to popular belief. Partly because my host could walk the familiar route even in darkness and the trailing whiff of the slow-cooked meat was a better guide than a map. Generally, one has to wait for hours on end before savouring the signature nihari- kulcha. But on an overcast day like this one, most locals could be spotted within the shops with a steaming hot cup of tea.
Rahim’s, also a family run business, has been the go-to place for locals since its inception in the 1920s. However, their famed nihari-kulcha, the reason to visit, was conceived only two decades later in the 1940s. Rather than diversifying to match their contemporary counterparts, the family-run kitchen believes in carrying on the legacy of their forefathers with only limited dishes on the menu, including their flaky kulcha and the rich meat stew cooked overnight with a mix of spices, which of course is not public knowledge.
History, myths and flavours seamlessly align when in Lucknow. The city’s culinary scene is full of ancient, well-preserved secrets from the royal kitchens of Awadh. The imperial kitchens had khansamas (male chefs) from all across the globe. Hence, the cuisine draws heavily from familiar global flavours. However, it is the Awadhi kitchens that brought the art of slow cooking to India, and later made it native to Lucknow. The richness of Awadhi cuisine doesn’t come as a surprise. But what lends this richness is a mix of raw spices, including saffron, considered the most expensive of the lot.
As soon as I thought my rendezvous with the city’s historical past was over, I found myself sauntering through the well-lit lanes of Hazratganj. I was later informed that my sauntering had a more colloquial term, ‘ganjing’ and I wasn’t the only one caught in the act. Quite literally the heart of the city, Hazratganj is a touch and go with nostalgia. Little nooks and crannies, British-styled buildings and iconic food outlets here are always ready to woo their visitors.
According to connoisseurs, a trip to Lucknow without indulging in its iconic dishes is borderline blasphemy. Even though my taste buds are very Delhi, as some would say, I mostly find myself experimenting with them, within safe limits of course. And dare I upset the clan vouching for Lucknow’s street food. Royal Cafe’s famed basket chaat was up first. A slight crunch followed by a wave of flavours, I couldn’t help but reach out for another spoonful. It was the matar ki chaat that turned out to be the underdog. Unaware of its existence up until now, it tops my ‘must have’ list in Lucknow.
Post my taste buds, the olfactory senses were next in line to be delighted. I was lost in the myriad scents of Sugandh Co. A family-run business since the 1850, they are one of the oldest perfumers in the city and a one-stop shop for aroma therapy. One can always spot a heavy crowd here post sundown. And this evening was no different. After some hassling and haggling, I narrowed down my preferences and happily walked with a bag full of fragrances. It wasn’t until at Janpath that I realised the whiff of the attar lingers long after you’ve left the place. Famous for its chikankari kurtas and dupattas, if you’re a lover of the crafts, I suggest you fix a budget before heading for a dose of retail therapy.
However, Hazratganj is not just about shopping and street food. Once the centre for all kinds of cultural and social activities in the pre-independence era, it is almost ironic how Indians were prohibited from participating in the pomp and show. It was here in Hazratganj that British men and women would often meet over a drink, or engage in some casual evening theatre at either the Mayfair building, Ring Theatre, or at Filmistan.
A short drive away in Lalbagh is another culinary legend, Dastarkhwan. The rich looking interiors were nothing compared to the richness of flavours of the galouti kebabs served with rumali roti. The melt-in-mouth kebabs were truly to die for. Little did I know that fighting this post-hogging food coma would be harder than I thought.
Just in time to catch my train, I took a last fleeting glance at the city on my way to the Lalbagh station, promising myself a long-lasting affair with the land of nawabs and kebabs.