Lucknow Stories and Tips

Culture in the Cow Belt

Tomb of Saadat-ul-Khan Photo, Lucknow, India

The expanse of land stretching more or less horizontally across the `chest’ of India, below the northernmost states of Jammu and Kashmir, yet above the peninsular states such as Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, is often referred to as the `Cow Belt’. This isn’t just a mere reference to the fact that much of this area is dominated by agriculture (and bullocks, not tractors, are often the means to help plough fields). This has loads of other connotations. The fact, for instance, that it’s a pretty backward region, where issues that India would much rather sweep under the carpet, like poverty, illiteracy, caste discrimination, and the subjugation of women are more the rule than the exception. The people of the Cow Belt (of which Uttar Pradesh is one of the largest states) are said to know only one type of culture--agriculture.

And slap-bang in the middle of the Cow Belt lies the city of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh and a city like none other. I don’t mean to say that Lucknow is vastly different from many other cities of its kind in India. Lucknow, too, is dilapidated, smelly, and gone to seed. Walking down a pavement in comparatively upmarket Hazratganj at night, you’ll still see rickshaw-pullers wrapped in blankets, lying fast asleep on the pavement, surrounded by the stench and dirt of the city. Getting off a train onto Lucknow Railway Station, you’ll find cows wandering about on an appallingly smelly platform, while babies drool and women fidget uncomfortably on hard wooden benches. (Believe me—I spent five hours waiting for a late train.)

And yet, Lucknow has something more. There is still something about this city that deserves a visit. Perhaps the most important, of course, is the fact that it is one of northern India’s most historic cities—and with a history that’s inextricably linked to culture. Once known as Awadh (the English anglicised the name to `Oudh’), Lucknow was ruled by a succession of immensely wealthy Muslim Nawabs, known as much for their generosity as for their luxurious lifestyles. Of the nawabs, the best-known include Safdarjang, who was an important dignitary at the imperial court in Delhi; Asaf-ud-Daulah, who built the amazing Bara Imambara; and the ill-fated Wajid Ali Shah, who was forced to leave his beloved Awadh when the English set up residency in the city.

But one thing almost all the nawabs had in common was that they had an amazing eye for beauty, and they did a lot to encourage the development of art and culture in Awadh. Dance, music, architecture, jewelry, cuisine—nothing was neglected. When the English came and set up shop, priorities went a little haywire but didn’t die out completely. And through the years of turmoil, while India (and Lucknow, to a very large extent) battled the English in a long-drawn-out struggle for freedom, Lucknow retained its memories of days gone by.

And what is a little surprising is that even today, long after the nawabs have drifted into oblivion, Lucknow is still a city of culture. This is the city of one of most exquisite of classical Indian dances, kathak. This is the city of sumptuous kababs, of melt-in-the-mouth rabri (pronounced a bit like `rubbery’, but in reality a heavenly, creamy milk pudding that’s made by cooking milk and sugar till it’s thick and worth dying for), of nahari and kulchas at Raheem’s. This is the city of chikan, that fragile, elegant embroidery that literally covers yards of cloth and is a must-buy if you’re visiting Lucknow. (Chikan, by the way, is of many types—there’s murri, or dhaniapatti, which has tiny knots; there’s jaali, worked on sections of cloth that have been cut into a net-like pattern; there’s tepchi, or single-thread work; and there’s a combination of all of them.) Chikan appears on saris, on salwar-kurtas, on men’s kurtas, on Western blouses that look fabulous with formal trousers, and on bolts of cloth that can be stitched just the way you want them.

Besides all the chikan and kababs, there is a tangible aura of history to this place. Our hotel room looked out on the tombs of a medieval nawab and his begum. We went visiting one day, and although both were in a poor condition, it was not for lack of visitors. While we were there, a bunch of Muslim schoolboys—skullcaps, spotless white Pathan suits, and neat shoes in place—came sightseeing. Not too far—near enough to go by rickshaw, in fact—are the Bara and Chhota Imambaras, the Rumi Darwaza, the Picture Gallery, and the Jama Masjid. All of which, like conscientious tourists, we went to. And just as conscientiously, we also went to the Residency, that relic of days gone by when the English reigned supreme in India. The Residency, now very well-maintained, is one of the few monuments in India where a lot of effort seems to have gone into making it a worthwhile place to visit. There are neatly laid paths, manicured lawns, a good museum, and good signboards (although rather ungrammatical—but what the hell, you can’t have everything!). We wandered around the Residency, looking in at the excellent Mutiny Memorial Museum where lithographs, excavated weaponry, coins, and ceramics share space with copies of the letters exchanged between the British Resident and the Governor General before the Governor General finally managed to send troops for the relief of the besieged Residency.

After the Residency, we made our way to the not-quite-so-colonial parts of town. To Chowk, where, interestingly enough, one of the main roads is called Victoria Street—and where you can still see some beautiful wrought iron balconies on houses that are definitely more than a century old. They’re about the only reminder of British rule, though. Even though a lot of the shops down this stretch have signboards in English, one can hardly call those a reminder of the British. I mean, does "Standard Hair Derisar Jaients Parlar" appear—beyond the first two words—to be even vaguely English? (For those who couldn’t figure it out: Standard Hair Dresser Gents Parlour—a barbershop).

We left behind even these pseudo-colonial areas and headed off to good vintage Lucknow. At the Jama Masjid, we stopped for a while to take photographs of the interesting façade of this mosque (which was originally supposed to be much larger—it was built to rival Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India). And as we took photographs, we noticed an unfamiliar sight—a flock of pigeons circling overhead. They would soar up into the sky, circle once, and then come down almost exactly where they’d risen. Only after a while did we realise what they actually were—not just a random bunch of birds. Somebody was indulging in the leisurely sport of `kabootarbaazi’, simply exercising his (almost certainly his; this is a distinctly male pastime) flock of pigeons. It’s a leisurely post-lunch pastime that’s quiet, refined, and unhurried.

A bit like Lucknow, in fact.

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