beyond the obvious: lucknow beyond its heritage precinct

Lucknow had still not fully woken up as I took a rickshaw from my hotel in the chaos surrounding the railway station to classical Chattar Manzil built by Frenchman Claude Martin, hidden behind the wide leafy avenues of Qaiser Bagh. “We start at 7:30 am,” the guide at Uttar Pradesh Tourism had informed me over the phone.

I was the only person on the walk which revealed a Lucknow far removed from its iconic Nawabi heritage precinct—a side of Lucknow brimming with lesser recounted stories and unsullied beauty. From this one walk, further stemmed, a series of explorations to equally lesser known parts of the city, spanning a few centuries and a few geographies.

The sum of all these detours was an affirmation that there are two parts to every place’s lure. One, those that get touted, and have travellers and tourists alike clambering to check them off their list. These are the ones which make it to backdrops of selfies, travel guides, and blogs galore. And then there is the other part. The ones which often remain forgotten in the pages of history or are so embedded in local life they remain hidden from the casual outside eye.

This post is about those hidden gems and travel experiences in Lucknow. The Lucknow beyond its obvious attractions. Read on and you’ll know why they made it to this list. 😊 Continue reading

#7 beyond the obvious: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

So, you’ve ticked off Agra’s major sights, the raison d’êtres for your visit. Or maybe it is your umpteenth time to the city. What now?

After marvelling at Agra’s treasures [listed from 1 to 6 in this series in no specific order] I wanted to experience yet more of it. Beyond the Agra the travel and history guides enthused about. And I was not disappointed. Digging and wandering through its centuries old lanes, having heartfelt conversations with its present residents, I saw sides of it which further justified its place in a traveller’s bucket list, equal to its more celebrated attractions. Don’t believe there is more to Agra than its UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Mughal masterpieces? Read on and be pleasantly surprised, like I was. 🙂

1. Dig into a Pay-What-You-Want meal at Cafe Sheroes Hangout

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#6 colossal sikandra: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

After getting all sentimental at Shah Jahan’s expression of love for his beloved, departed wife and marvelling at the artistic nuances of Nur Jahan’s token of devotion towards her doting parents, I am ready to be bowled over by Sikandra, Akbar’s tomb for his own self.

Here was a monument made by, and for, one of India’s greatest rulers—befitting his stature and achievements. I wondered what it was going to be like. Continue reading

#5 roman catholic taj mahals: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

Whilst Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal as an ode to his beloved wife, the European Christians in Agra were creating their own fairy-tale like mausoleums in a cemetery dating back to Akbar’s time. Not perhaps on the same scale, they are however, no less delightful in carved red sandstone, yellow basalt, and whitewashed plastered walls. These tombs in Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery are the resting places of initially the Armenian Christians in the 1600s and, thereafter, of other European Catholics in the city. Continue reading

#4 itimad-ud-daulah’s poetic tomb: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

There is no one more fascinating in Mughal history than the Persian father-daughter duo Mirza Ghias Beg and Mehr-un-Nissa. Posterity knows them as Itimad-ud-Daulah and Nur Jahan.

A classic tale of riches to rags and back to riches, Mirza Ghias Beg was a defamed nobleman from Tehran, Iran who decided to try and change his fortunes in 16th Century Mughal India. Robbed on his way, he reached Akbar’s court penniless, but was quick to rise the ranks to earn himself the title Itimad-ud-Daulah or Pillar of the State, and even become the grand vizier in Akbar’s successor, Jahangir’s court.

His daughter, meanwhile, was abandoned at birth by her parents, fraught with poverty, in Qandahar, Afghanistan on 31 May, 1577 on their way to India. She was returned to their home the same night by a stranger who decided to take the family under his wing.

Beautiful, fearless, hot-tempered with nerves of steel, she fell in love with Jahangir, the Emperor Akbar’s son when she was eight years of age. But it was only after a 14-year bad marriage—widowed, 34, and with a child—that she re-entered his life to become his 20th and last wife in 1611. He bestowed upon her the title Nur Jahan, Light of the World. In the ensuing years, Jahangir spent his life intoxicated by opium and alcohol, smitten by her beauty and brains. She, on the other hand, became the most powerful woman in Mughal history and ruled the empire for 16 years from behind the veil. Continue reading

#3 abandoned fatehpur sikri: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

“Jesus, son of Mary said, ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.'”
~ Persian inscription,
Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, 1601

My recollections of Fatehpur Sikri trace back to a family holiday many eons ago. I was 10. I remember being mesmerized as I wandered through the vast, desolate expanses embellished with exquisite stonework. Long fingers of golden sunshine stroked the edifices, setting the scattered, towering, red sandstone walls aflame.

For a 10-year-old it was a surreal place totally removed from all reality as I knew it.

Over the years I would often close my eyes and go back in time to re-emerge starry-eyed about life’s wonders. Amazed about a whole city built by one of the greatest emperors history had known, in honour of a Sufi saint who predicted the one thing he wanted most—a heir to pass on his empire to. Crafted with incredible passion and precision, the emperor Akbar himself oversaw the building of the site from its floor plans to the hand-chiselled columns and doorways to ensure it reflected his secular beliefs and heightened sense of aesthetics. Continue reading

#2 majestic agra fort: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

Sunrise at Agra Fort. Why sunrise ? Why not noon, sunset, twilight … Simple. Because at sunrise, when the warm golden light dapples over the 450-year-old walled Mughal palatial city and its deserted sprawling expanses, something close to magic happens. Plus I like mornings. 🙂

Built in the Indo-Islamic architectural style, the bow-shaped Fort with its 70-feet-high bastioned walls facing the Yamuna river, served as the Mughal empire’s military strategic point, as well as their royal residence.

The story of the Agra Fort is the story of three of its Mughal emperors—their resolute ambition, blinded passion, and romantic love is emblazoned over the red, intricately carved sandstone and translucent marble edifices. The story has been recounted countless times in Indian history books, movies, and music. Agra Fort lets one relive it, in what was once their home, in the company of its memories.

The emperors were Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. Continue reading

#1 poignant taj mahal: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

“The world believes it was built by love but reading Shah Jahan’s own words on the Taj, one could say it was grief that built the Taj Mahal and it was sorrow that saw it through till completion.”
~ Aysha Taryam, The Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of Commentaries

This last week I travelled to Agra. I was keeping a promise to myself to revisit the city at a slower pace, in a more mindful way. It was my 4th visit. Needless to say, my previous ones were of the mass-produced variety.

The universe, weaving its magic in my favour, decided to back me on my plan and gave me one of my most memorable and beautiful travel experiences ever. I did not use any guide. I merely read up a lot, and wandered around the sites a lot more, often seating myself at a quiet spot or another to absorb the place at leisure. May I suggest you do the same? Live Agra’s treasures. Don’t just visit them.

In this post I am uploading a series of pictures of the Taj Mahal, easily Agra’s biggest attraction, taken from 7 am to 12 noon [yes, I was there for five hours 🙂 ], and some basic context one needs to know. I hope it inspires you to let your soul and feet revel in the 350-year-old monument, like mine did. They will both thank you, profusely. Continue reading

india travel shot: breakfast in agra be like this

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I just had to do a separate post for the above picture. This was one of the highlights of my recent Agra trip.

Clear blue skies. The Taj Mahal a stone’s throw away [100 metres]. A full breakfast spread at Rs. 200. Can travel get any better?

There are lots of viewing points for the majestic Taj Mahal in Agra, with the most common and popular being the view from Mehtab Bagh across the Yamuna river. But the one that takes the cake, or should I say breakfast in this case, is that from the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Saniya Palace. I’d read about Saniya on the net. The reviews which rave about the view, I assure you, are spot on! Tucking into a cheese omelette was never more delectable in my life. Thought I’d share the place with you. 🙂

How to get there: Exit the Taj Mahal complex from the south gate. Walk straight. Turn left at the T-point, and again left into a small, narrow lane. The hotel is seedy. But the restaurant on its rooftop … an absolute gem.

a self-guided walk through lucknow’s historical precinct

Can one really argue the pleasures of sitting inside a monument, suspended in time, or a leisurely conversation with a local through whom the past lives on? Isn’t that how travel to places steeped in history should be like?

I am prone to believe there is only one unalloyed way to explore heritage precincts—on foot, on your own, and at your own pace. With no stringent “you have 15 minutes here” or the need to absorb a site amidst a non-stop rattle of facts and stories, some true, some crafted just to enchant you.

Last month, I also discovered no city deserves one’s space and slowed down pace more than Lucknow, where nothing much has changed inside its old city walls over the past 250 years. The mosques and imambaras are still functioning. Travellers from far and wide still gaze at its colossal monuments in wonder. Continue reading

lucknow, revolutions of 2 kinds: residency 1857 and ambedkar memorial 2008

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Revolution
rɛvəˈluːʃ(ə)n/ (noun)
1. a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.
2. a dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation.

Martin Luther King Jr’s above quote is one of my favourites. But not all revolutions are violent massacres aimed at toppling a system by a populace who have reached their limits. At times they are opulent statements made to put a point across. The purpose remains the same. Change. I saw both in Lucknow, in the course of one day. One from way back in 1857, and another from 2008. The disparity was striking. The commonality inspiring. Scroll through, and you will see what I mean. 🙂

The Residency, 1857

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24 hours in incredible allahabad

Amitabh Bachchan’s hometown. If one is Indian, it is the first thing that in most probability comes to mind when one hears of Allahabad. This is by virtue of the superstar’s constant vocal affirmation, flaunted with much pride, of its role in his life. It is where he was born and spent his childhood and youth, before becoming the country’s biggest and brightest star, still shining at 75.

To those spiritually inclined, Allahabad is evocative of all that is sacred in Hinduism. The meeting point of Ganga, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati, the city is built on the site of the ancient Aryan town of Prayag—the place for offerings. And perhaps, thus, by pure logic, it is also the site, since time immemorial, of the largest Hindu gathering held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, or the confluence, in the form of the Maha Kumbh.

Rarely on most travellers’ circuit, Allahabad often gets side-lined in favour of its more popular neighbours on either side—Lucknow and Varanasi. But, like everything else in India, it too oozes of history, heritage, and stories galore, as I was quick to discover. Continue reading