There are a few small ceremonies that happened before the main course stalls opened at around 9:30pm. The bridegroom was carried by the crowd to a makeshift stage on the lawn. The bride climbed the stage from one side and the bridegroom climbed it from the opposite side; both of them with garlands in hand. Just as they were about to put the garland on the other person they were in for a shock and so were the spectators when fireworks went off!
Coming to the food – it was like everything that you can think of as being part of North Indian cuisine could be found here – from main course to sweets. There was also a stall where they made fresh hot badam milk – one of my favourite items but i had to be watchful because of my stomach!
From 10pm to about 11pm or so was reception time with everyone clicking snaps with the couple. Luckily for the couple, the hall was air conditioned and for most part of the reception they could sit. In most weddings down South the couple would have to prostrate often when elderly relatives came to the stage – and that itself would be quite a workout. But even without that workout the bridegroom was still sweating!
When people came to know that there were 16 of us who had come all the way from down south to attend the marriage, they were quite surprised.
You’d think that the festivities were over since it was nearly midnight but that’s the time when the couple and their families had dinner together in the lawn. The temperatures do dip a lot at night and I could certainly feel the chill but the couple were sweating profusely. The main marriage ceremony was yet to start!
Not many people stay on for that except close relatives; and after having such a feast it is hard for anyone to stay awake as well! Our gang was given a room on the first floor; the ceremonies with the priest presiding over them also happened on the first floor – the couple were seated in the center while the rest of the family sat a few feet away from them on the floor on cushions while using the walls as back support. The tiled floor was really chill but Rohan and I would step out of our room once in a while to watch the proceedings where we’d sit directly on the floor. There were people who asked us to use the cushion but we said that we were fine – it was crazy of us to be sitting on the floor but there’s something that runs in your head at times where you want to endure through the challenge – I can understand if this were a sport where you keep pushing yourself to play another game and yet another game but here every time someone asked us to use the cushion, we seemed to be more determined to test ourselves; just part of the crazy illogical things we do sometimes! We had a couple of good conversations with a few people and one of them was a basketball coach.
Few folks in our gang caught a nap while a few of us decided to chat through the night – it was after all the last night before we’d be back to our office routines and so we wanted to make the best use of the last few hours.
The conversation drifted into Shaktimaan – an Indian superhero of yesteryear whom I had heard about and seen in papers but had never watched an episode of.
“There was once that Shaktimaan was trapped inside a computer by the bad guy. Guess how did he escape?”
“His assistant printed him out.”
That really is true; there was an episode with this. We all had a good laugh over it – but with the target audience for Shaktimaan being kids and him dealing with computers 20 years or so ago, the episode probably was impressive for the times.
On the return journey while waiting in the airport, we made fun of Manoj who all through the trip kept claiming that he was reading a ‘Chinese fantasy novel’.
And that wrapped up our whirlwind trip to 3 cities in 3 days and witnessing a grand marriage. When you think about it, you realize that the families really put in a lot of time, effort and money to ensure the marriage is staged at a grand scale – truly makes it a once in a lifetime event for the couple. And for those who attend it – there is dance, music, meeting people and awesome food.
(Note: The clip of Shaktimaan stuck in a computer you can find on youtube)
|< Part 15|
This place is part of the old market; I noticed the name Noor market on one of the boards. There are plenty of shops lining the streets and even though it was really hot at 2pm, there were still huge crowds thronging the place. We were hungry and tired and we really didn’t know where we’d be able to get a ride to the other side of the city. We finally reached the main road (or what seemed like the main road) but even that was crowded. Walking further ahead we reached a junction where the crowd thinned out.
There were a few stationary autos and we asked them how much they’d charge to take us back to our hotel. They quoted a crazy fare saying they’d have to drop us and return empty handed. We tried our luck with Uber and Ola on a couple of phones – it took us a while but we finally got a couple of cabs. The fare turned out to be a lot lower than what the auto drivers quoted. Rather than head back to the hotel we headed to another restaurant that was close to our neighborhood – a friend had visited this restaurant earlier with his wife and they said the kebabs here were really good.
So it wasn’t the original Tunde kebab that we dined at but a restaurant which claimed to have been started by the grandson – it was called Grandson’s Tunday Kebab! Maybe there are many such restaurants in Lucknow claiming to be related to the original one – this one was located on the first floor; small space but it had indoor seating and they said they were still serving lunch. We tried all the variations in kebabs (galouti, shami, seekh, boti) that they had as well as their paratha and rumali roti – I am not a fan of mutton but even those kebabs were so well cooked that it didn’t feel rubbery. Similar to what happened at Chappan Bhog the waiter here also after three rounds of ordering, thought we were ordering more dishes for takeaways! I was still conscious while eating – didn’t want to stress my stomach but I did try everything; just that on a normal day I would have done a few more rounds of this delicious food!
A walk would have taken us a while so we hopped into an auto. As we neared the traffic circle close to our hotel, the auto engine was struggling and making weird noises – exact same situation like that in the old market place; we were on the verge of moving backwards. Fortunately the driver managed to get it past the upslope and we reached our hotel.
Heading to the wedding place
By 7pm we cleared our hotel room and headed to the marriage place. We went in multiple vehicles but I don’t know if the experience in the other vehicles with regard to honking was any different – the driver would honk when the road was clear ahead of him, he would honk when traffic was at a standstill and he would even honk while all the vehicles were moving. It was almost like for every few seconds the driver was programmed to honk irrespective of the situation on the road. We were thankful when we reached our destination. I as well as our gang leader had another marriage invitation in the city – we thought we could spend a couple of hours here and then head to the other one but after seeing the slow moving traffic and the distance between the two places we decided to opt out of the other one; and since I wasn’t feeling normal, I wasn’t keen on attempting a long ride either.
I had never been to a North Indian wedding and this particular wedding as per the bridegroom would not be considered a lavish wedding. I found it hard to imagine what a more lavish one would be like! The place for the wedding looked grand like a palace! There was a red carpet down the middle leading to the main building and on either side of the lawn there were a row of food stalls. We went up to the first floor of the building and dropped off our luggage in a room. And from the top we had a great view of the entrance and folks did photo shoots.
Everyone who was present in the venue was dressed splendidly except for me and a few others from our gang who were in casual western attire! Everyone’s dress literally dazzled – lots of colours on display and you could sense the richness of their attire. One of the relatives from the groom’s side told us, “Many people use these dresses only when attending a marriage.”
Each food stall served a different set of items and all the food was freshly cooked. We had variety from the typical North Indian chaat items to the South Indian dosa to even some continental with sandwiches, mocktails and noodles. The stalls serving the main course (which lined the left side of the lawn) hadn’t yet started functioning – the right side was dedicated for starters! We went as a gang and just like we did in Chappan Bhog, we would get two or three plates of a dish and share it amongst ourselves. We went from one stall to the next following the same routine.
And if you thought this wasn’t sufficient starters, for those who are really close to the family there was a special arrangement of snacks and tea outside the premise. We were also invited to join the family and treated to some food there. That also happened to be the place where the song and dance started. One vehicle had a loud speaker on which Hindi songs played and another vehicle carried the groom. People started joining the crowd and the procession moved extremely slowly – it probably took an hour or 90 minutes for the gathering to make their way to the main entrance. All through the way we had the dancing – there are a few who would join the dance for a short while and drop out while a few enthusiasts danced all through the way. There is an unbelievable amount of energy on display; even the elderly join in eagerly to shake a leg.
Since our gang had come from South India to attend the wedding, there was a song played just for us as well!
|< Part 14||Part 16 >|
Just like our group there were multiple other groups with guides going through the maze. Each guide ensured that their group was in sight. With so many people walking around, you constantly kept bumping into others.
Our guide continued his narrative; the structure is made of edible items and not using cement or the usual construction materials – things like lentils and limestone were used. So if you did happen to get stuck in the maze at least you wouldn’t have a shortage of food!
“Stand there. Put your ear on the wall,” he shouted to a few folks at the back of the line. And then he said something to the wall on his left.
“Did you hear it? The walls will carry sound.”
We tried doing it ourselves and felt we could hear something but with the number of people going back and forth we weren’t sure of what we were hearing.
Apparently there are also tunnels from this place that lead you to other cities in India but those tunnels had been sealed after people disappeared in them.
The terrace beside the maze provides a nice view of the city including some important buildings. It also offers photographic spots unlike the tunnels where you can barely stand. Some of the tunnels were illuminated by the sunlight coming through openings but the others that were closed on all three sides pretty dark even though it was a bright sunny day. The guide took us through an alternative route to get us out of the maze and the building.
On the left of the main building was where we left our footwear and on the right side was a stepwell – this is where water used to be stored; and it also served as a hideout from where the people inside could see outsiders but the people outside couldn’t see inside. As the guide takes you through this structure they’ll show you the point from where you can also witness this. Pretty impressive idea back then to come up with something like this – the use of reflection from the water and the alignment of windows makes this possible.
We spent about 2 hours in the Imambara; we wanted to buy a water bottle – but the vendor inside was selling an unknown brand. He did have the regular brands in a new pack but refused to give one from there. But we didn’t have to go very far – we picked a couple of bottles from the shops at the entrance of the complex.
In search of the kebab
When you come out of the Bara Imambara you will cross a large gate – the Rumi Darwaza it is called; this is pretty much on the main road and you have traffic going via this gate. Someone said that this gate appeared in the Tamil movie Petta. After clicking a few snaps our gang split into the veggie and non-veggie groups. It was 2pm. My stomach was rumbling a bit but I was ok; and I was hoping we’d finish lunch soon and get back to the hotel. We were in the quest of one of the Lucknow’s most famous dishes. The bridegroom had sent us the area where the shop was located; but he had never been there since he is a vegetarian. So with the aid of Google Maps, we directed the auto driver.
After a few minutes the driver stopped and said he can’t go any further. But looking at the map we said he can drop us a little further down the road so that we’d be at the start of the gully that was supposed to lead us to the famous Tunde Kabab restaurant. The auto driver relented but his vehicle struggled to go up the slope – the road went up by a very small angle but bearing the load of 6 of us, we could sense that the engine was stretched to its limit. There was a point where we felt the auto would go backwards!
There was no way the auto could go through the narrow gully which was packed with pedestrians. Following Google’s instructions we walked down the gully. My primary fear was of my stomach upset recurring and me having to find a toilet; there’s no way that there would be a clean public toilet in this place and the further down we went the longer it would take me to even get to an auto to leave this place!
The gully kept narrowing and it merged into another gully which merged into yet another one. As we neared the destination we kept looking at signboards. Very soon, as per Google, we had even crossed the destination but we didn’t see any signboards of Tunday Kebab. Just as we were about to ask one of the shopkeepers we spotted an open restaurant; the entrance side was completely open and we could see a huge tray with plenty of uniform light pink kebab patties and on the other side was a guy making fresh parathas. We spotted a large menu inside the restaurant which listed the main items as beef and buffalo kebabs. The prices were very affordable but none of us wanted to have buffalo or beef meet; also the place was super crowded and so we didn’t even step inside to check what else was available – there definitely was no place to sit and I feared having to visit their toilet in case the need arose. We decided to move on.
|< Part 13|
My stomach was uneasy in the morning – had to visit the restroom a couple of times; seemed like a mild case of diarrhea. I had definitely pushed my digestive system to its limits yesterday! Arpit and I went on a stroll near our hotel to get some tea. We found a roadside vendor selling it in a matka (clay cup); it tasted different but good. On the way we also saw a small snack shop which was closed but with a unique name ‘Bewafa chai wala’; they also had a special offer – discount for those who had a broken heart! I’ll leave it to you to read the actual phrase that was displayed.
Our gang took a couple of Ubers to our next stop – our host had recommended the Parampara restaurant for breakfast. Most Ubers in Lucknow were Maruti’s Wagon R.
I wasn’t particularly looking forward to breakfast – would have been happy to skip it since I was worried that eating anything may trigger another round of diarrhea. Our body has its own ways of healing; when the stomach is upset you don’t get pangs of hunger. We reached Parampara at 10am – this restaurant is on the other side of the city across the Gomti river in an area called Hazratganj. I skipped most of the items except for a few which i sampled – half a dhokla and some malai makhan; the makhan was unique – creamy, slightly sweet and smooth texture; it’s like ice cream but a lot thinner than it; just melts in your mouth. If not for my stomach situation I would have had a cup full of it rather than just a spoonful.
After breakfast we went in search of coffee and found a small shop called Peeni Hai nearby. I guess it was a new shop because they asked us to pose for a snap in front of their shop.
“We should buy some stake in this company,” Arpit said.
Considering the way that many investors were pumping money into tea and coffee shops lately, it may well be worth the investment.
We took Ubers to Bara Imambara which was about 4kms away – our host had told us that it wasn’t maintained very well but worth the visit if time permitted. This place is also on the same side of the river like Hazratganj.
As soon as we stepped out of the Wagon Rs we were mobbed by tour guides. We headed straight to the ticket counter near the entrance; since it didn’t state that guides were mandatory we skipped the guide. You walk past a nice green garden and then cross an archway which will lead you to a path that has green gardens on either side leading you to the main building. Our Delhiite was busy reading info about the Bara Imambara online.
We were told to leave our footwear outside – there’s a large area reserved for footwear. The main building had 3 halls and each hall had a different design – there were some interesting designs on the arches as well as on the ceiling. In this hall they had also displayed some artifacts including ancient scripts – would have been nice if there were some write-ups about the artifacts.
To get to the Bhul Bhulaya (maze), the local guys told us that we could enter only with a guide. And the maze was the main attraction of this place!
Having no choice we opted for one but they only had a Hindi guide; so our folks who were well versed in Hindi did the job of translating what he said for the rest of us.
This would have been a good place for an audio guide; would have helped in terms of language for tourists and also you will get to wander at your own pace. There were a lot of stories the guides told us – some of which we couldn’t catch because he added another group to ours and kept rushing us through the 3 halls. Seems at one point while building this place they had people build it at day and had another set of people pull down the structure at night to give employment to everyone! In the main hall there were places at the top from which women used to watch the proceedings below. It was quite impressive how they managed to construct the place without using beams.
The Bhul Bhulaya (maze) is on an upper level; you take a set of steps to get there – it is a complex maze with narrow pathways, plenty of openings on most corridors, some places with staircases going up and down and low ceilings. Just like most other places in India, you will find names and heart symbols scribbled all over the walls!
“The reason we ask you to leave your footwear outside is because in the evening we will check if all of them have been taken. If not we know that someone is stuck in Bhul Bhulaya. You cannot get out of here without help.”
I’m not sure if they really did that but the maze was definitely not the place that you wanted to be stranded in and perhaps another reason why they would not want to have people wander around with an audio guide – unless they could come up with a way to provide directions to the exit.
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The restaurant was in Gomti Nagar about 8 kms away and across the Gomti river that cut through the city. But the ride felt like it went on and on for a long time – probably took us about 35 minutes to reach what Google claimed as the destination at 9:50pm – the road was deserted and it didn’t appear like there was any restaurant here. We still got down to take a look around and discovered the restaurant ‘Baati Chokha’ which was on the main road but still hidden because the entrance door was a few yards inside – we were glad to see the small OPEN sign hanging on the door. The restaurant was full and we were asked to wait outside where there were a couple of bamboo cots for sitting – something that we typically see in the villages. The whole restaurant had this traditional village type feel.
To our left there were a couple of men with hair caps, in full sleeve shirts and jeans who were tossing around a bunch of balls that looked like potatoes on a charcoal stove; their hands were covered in soot and the potatoes were soiled black.
Arpit explained, “That is the baati.”
He was referring to the balls – they weren’t potato but that was the bread that we’d be served for eating! Baati can be made using wheat and then baked; what they were doing here is the traditional way of creating the baati.
The men carefully picked the balls from the stove using tongs and transferred them to a plate and then into a gunny bag. When they had 15 or so baatis in the bag they began to shake the bag vigorously till all the dust and soot fell off. Heating on the stove had made the balls fairly hard and they arranged the dusted balls on a tray and carried it off to the kitchen – for a couple of minutes the door to the kitchen was open and we could see them pour ghee on to the baatis. And that reminded me of the smell of ghee in our previous eatery Chappan Bhog and the delicious curd that they topped on snacks.
Beware of friends!
We waited 15 minutes outside and then waited 10 minutes or so inside the restaurant.
We took a few photos inside the restaurant before we were led to two large tables one beside the other. Our host, the bridegroom, had recommended us to have the full meal but 6 in the gang didn’t want to take the plunge – they opted for al-la-carte. 5 of us decided to do the full meal which was called the ‘Special Baathi Chowkha’. And we split ourselves that way – the ones eating the full meal on one table and the rest on the other. The Delhiite was on the fence – he initially went to the other table but after a bit of prodding (and lot of teasing) he joined our table – a choice he was likely to regret later!
The food is served on a plate which consisted of a bunch of large leaves. The special meal started with paneer baati – this is the same ball that we saw outside except that in the center they have a stuffing of paneer. One of the folks on the table broke the baati in two and thought that it is only the inner part that is edible! The thing with baatis is that the outer surface tends to be a bit hard. Baati tastes very different compared to the usual indian breads; it wasn’t a taste i relished but this is something that is worth trying out – some may like it while others may not. I loved the dal and chokha that came with the baati (a potato dish that is not too dry but not a gravy either) and the sweet kheer.
The special meal is quite a lot because you get 4 baatis and they are really heavy – the amount of wheat in one ball is sufficient to make 3 chapattis and they are glazed with copious amounts of ghee; and inside the ball you also have a couple of spoons of compressed paneer. Our Delhiite did well to finish the baatis but resigned without having the rice – the rest of us had to help finish that; and that also meant we had the opportunity to tease him again. “You shouldn’t fall for peer pressure”, “You should make your own choices” and more pieces of advice followed!
It’s very rare that I test the limits of my stomach; but right now it was full to the max. We were the last group in the restaurant for the night; it was 11:15pm when we finished. We took a look at the interiors of the restaurant and found a balcony seating available for smaller groups – you had a thick bamboo stairway leading you to a couple of small tables on a raised platform where you could sit on the floor and eat from a low raised table. Traditional paintings on the walls added to the ambience. Whenever we had good spots Aaron and Arpit made the best use of it for photography; they posed in different angles and this time the Delhiite also joined them. The staff started clearing the chairs and tables and were probably hoping that it would pressure us into leaving soon!
Being stuffed to the limit a few of us decided to walk to the hotel since it was nearby. As we walked my stomach felt a little uneasy – the effects of overloading! I hoped that I wouldn’t have a stomach upset to ruin the rest of the trip; more so considering the fact that I hadn’t yet tasted the food items that Lucknow is famous for.
|< Part 11||Part 13 >|
We struggled a bit in crossing the roads since these roads were like highways with pedestrian crossings few and far apart. Beside the Gomati river there was a long park stretch illuminated by a series of lampposts; opposite the park is a theatre – we were wondering if we should check out a movie but opted against it since our host had given us a lot of places to check-out and we were already behind schedule.
We hopped into the riverside park which was quite pretty – very well maintained greenery, clean pathways and a long stretch for a walk or a jog; at this hour of the night there were very few people inside – some families with kids running around the park; but it was surprising that there was only one couple.
On one side of the concrete pathway is greenery and on the other side facing the river are circular sitting areas under small domes. Aaron and Arpit spent the most amount of time clicking snaps over here.
Just outside the park you had a few roadside eateries; one group had pani puris and the other had sweet cotton candy. Most autos in Lucknow are provisioned to accommodate 6 to 8 people – the usual 3-seater at the back and another 3-seater cushion just behind the driver. And the driver seat itself was lengthy such that 2 more people could squeeze in on either side of the driver. As per schedule we should have finished snacks by now and should have been seated in a specific restaurant for dinner. But here we were at 8pm, still near our hotel, haggling on prices with a couple of autos. So much for planning and schedules.
We got off opposite Chappan Bhog; the auto driver was keen on waiting for us but we told him that we’ll be going to nearby places since we didn’t know how long it would take. There was a momentary debate on waiting charges within the group but we decided to let the auto go.
The first thing that catches your eye will be what’s happening outside the shop – there were fresh chaat items being made and something from that will definitely tempt you; we enquired what all the guy was making – he reeled out 3 names and we decided to try all of them; 4 plates of each and 3 of us would share a plate. If you want to try a lot of food, it’s great to be part of a gang because you can get to sample a lot of items! The tikis (potato cutlet), tokri chaat, dahi (curd), the toppings of chutney, pomegranate and masala were all delicious. Just the curd itself tasted different from what we were used to having – very rich in flavour.
By the time we finished the 3 types of dishes, another cook started making jelabi on a stove on the other side of the entrance to the shop. The jalebis were really thin and we bought a few plates of them – they just melted in your mouth; the sweetness was just about right. Inside the shop Arpit paid the cashier for all the dishes that we had outside. And then we discovered that a couple of folks hadn’t tasted the jalebi and Arpit went back to the cashier to pay for a couple more plates; the cashier asked, “Take away?”!
Even after those 2 plates we were still not done because there were plenty of items inside the shop! We bought a few of them and one of the staff also gave us a complimentary plate of sesame-based sweets as samples – that plate was cleaned up by our gang itself.
It was 9:15pm when we finished in Chappan Bhog. We had eaten quite a lot but our host had recommended a restaurant for dinner – as per his plan Chappan Bhog was for snacks but don’t think even he would have expected us to have had so much food here. We easily could have skipped dinner but we thought we’ll have something light in the dinner place.
To get to the restaurant we had to head all the way back to the area near our hotel – these 2 places are on different sides of the city; some autos quoted high prices and many even refused to go there. Getting multiple autos was going to be impossible; so when we found a larger 7-seater minivan we convinced the guy to take us all on-board. 12 of us squeezed into the vehicle!
|< Part 10||Part 12 >|
During our bumpy ride from the Taj Mahal we could see the Agra Fort at a distance – we were told that this was better than the Red Fort. We made one pit stop on the way at a shop that was filled with a variety of flavoured Pethas – the Agra Petha is a famous sweet of this city. I thought Petha would taste like the milky peda which was a sweet I loved; we bought one box of plain Pethas to taste. I had a small piece and it was super sugary without any milkiness – tasted like concentrated syrup with a bit of crunchiness that I didn’t like. Neither did Vijay but the others picked up boxes of flavoured Pethas to carry back home and for colleagues in office.
The ride to Agra ISBT (inter state bus terminus) seemed endless – more so since we were all sitting in uncomfortable cramped positions. We reached at 9:10 am; still 20 minutes for departure. The terminus wasn’t great; had the appearance of a laid back one. Surprising that a city with one of the wonders of the world had such a bus terminus – but then how many of the foreign visitors would be traveling around in a bus?
There were only a few buses around and none of them looked great either – reminded me of the typical bus terminus that we had in smaller towns in South India; there were hardly any shops inside the terminus and I was so worried of missing the bus that I didn’t want to step outside the terminus. It wasn’t hard to locate our bus since there were only a couple that looked like they might leave. The others were abandoned.
The 2nd auto with our gang came in at 9:25; our leader had done the smart thing of stopping at a restaurant nearby to have breakfast. They also brought packed breakfast for us – the pooris had dried up and the channa curry wasn’t hot but even that tasted yummy. We occupied the last few rows of the UP State Transport bus; the outside and inside of the bus were quite a contrast – it was reasonably clean inside and there was an unbelievable amount of leg room for all seats; I always struggle in Indian buses and end up sitting in a funny posture with my legs sticking out on to the aisle. But in this bus I had no such problem – there was ample space between my knee and the seat in front.
Sankar and I had an interesting conversation on school admissions in Chennai; his experiences and what he learned from others. Just like there were forums to discuss about US visa interview encounters there were forums formed by parents to discuss school admissions – for certain schools parents queued up a day in advance just to get the application form since only limited number of forms were issued! Children and parents were put through interviews before admissions were granted. And all this for just lower kindergarten! Not only had the cost of education gone up but so had the stress levels for parents. There are also schools where people made advance reservations for their future kids who were yet to be born – the heights of madness!
Except for the state of the Agra ISBT, I was in for a few pleasant surprises in this bus journey. The intercity ride was a super smooth journey – the highways were really wide and as good as highways you would see in the US. The one thing which was a bit irritating was the speed – the driver never exceeded a specific limit (which we guessed was around 80 kms/hour) even though the road ahead was empty for miles. Why wasn’t he going faster to reduce the travel time? Maybe it was for safety – which was a good thing but being so used to bus drivers trying to accelerate at every opportunity even if the road was clear for only a few meters, this definitely seemed unusual for us. Definitely was very safe due to the limited speed.
There was one long pit stop for lunch; and unlike back home where the buses would stop in shady areas in the middle of the highway, the buses here had properly constructed facilities where they stopped. There was ample parking space; large indoors with few food outlets inside; and even proper toilets.
The whole journey felt surreal – really wish that this was replicated in the rest of the country.
The highways had proper exit diversions similar to the exits in the US freeway system. Given the constant speed that the driver was maintaining we knew how long it would take to reach Lucknow. The only delay we had was during the pit stop – the conductor discovered while counting that a family was missing – it took a few minutes for him to hunt them down and get them back in the bus. Well, that’s one thing that’s the same across the country!
Around 3:45pm we reached Lucknow ISBT; this terminus was a lot better than Agra – a small one but elegant. Next to the bus terminus there was a metro station as well. After using the toilet we headed out; when stepping on the streets of Lucknow the first thing that hit us was the honking. It’s not that we don’t have honking in Chennai – but this was a different level.
Since we never had any lunch we hopped into a restaurant near the bus terminus. I don’t know why but we ended up stepping into a South Indian restaurant – quite crazy of us to have travelled all the way from Chennai to Lucknow and then picking a South Indian restaurant! And it was doubly crazy of us to order a dosa over here – a family dosa that was humungous and shared by 3 of us; it wasn’t good; felt a little sour; and even the other food items weren’t great in the restaurant.
We were put up in a small hotel near Fun republic mall – all arrangements for the hotel taken care of by our host (the bridegroom). Repeating the name of the mall and using Google maps helped us convey the location to the auto drivers. The hotel was across the Gomathi river and the roads on this side of the city looked plush – they were wide, well lit and devoid of any roughness; very different from the roads outside the bus terminus.
After getting our rooms sorted with blankets and figuring out how to switch on the heater (they didn’t give direct control within the rooms and instead had a main switch box on the corridor for this) we headed for a walk at 7pm to the riverside.
|< Part 9||Part 11 >|
A simple security check and we were inside the complex; like the Qutub Minar this isn’t just a single structure – it’s a complex and there’s more than the main attraction alone. The West gate led us down a pathway surrounded by greenery; on the left side is a huge gate called the ‘Darwaza-i-rauza’ or the great gate which is made of red bricks. It’s not a conventional gate but more like a pass through building with a huge entrance – like a grand watch tower that would be used for defending a palace.
From a distance, looking through this gate we saw parts of the white marble of the main monument; as we got closer to this gate we saw more of it and standing directly under the arch of the gate we could see the whole Taj Mahal.
I didn’t have much expectations prior to the visit since we’ve all heard plenty about the Taj Mahal and it makes you wonder whether it would really live up to the hype. This trip for me was meant to help give an affirmative reply to anyone who asked me if I had ever visited the Taj; and very often it is people staying outside India who ask that question. Hype or not, in the morning daylight at 6:40am it looked amazing. There’s something about symmetric structures that our eye finds pleasing and this entire complex including the main structure was all about symmetricity. No matter how many photos we took I knew that they wouldn’t look like what we were seeing – quite a sight. We took our proof group photo with the 7 of us (the other 5 had hopefully started from the railway lounge).
Inside the complex, there’s a manmade waterway that goes straight up to the front of the Taj; the waterway is flanked by large gardens consisting of a row of perfectly trimmed small trees, grass and larger trees beyond. People were taking all sorts of snaps and selfies with the Taj in the background – holding the Taj between their fingers, holding it on their palm, bearing it on their head etc. The main Taj Mahal structure in white marble is called the mausoleum (defined as a large stately tomb) and it resides on a slightly raised platform. The mausoleum has 4 minarets (towers) on the 4 corners of the platform – the dome of the Taj and the 4 towers are what come to mind when we think of the Taj. It’s a bit strange but in this popular tourist destination, at least at this hour of the morning we found a lot of places where it was just the 7 of us – most people are busy focused on the main structure but there are other areas around it that you can cover and avoid the crowd. Below the platform, the Taj is flanked by a couple of buildings which resemble mosques – you can walk around the Taj including the backside (which is a lengthy stretch) where it overlooks the river Yamuna. Just take your time and enjoy all the sights – man-made and natural.
A small staircase leads to the main white marble platform that holds the Taj; tickets are checked since tickets for the mausoleum are separate (and more costly than the admission ticket for the complex). The guards also check if you have the thin cloth cover for your footwear – I guess they don’t want the Taj Mahal to get stained. Unfortunately the shoe cover isn’t available inside the complex and I never bought it from the vendor near our luggage holding area. The guards said that I could hold my shoes in hand and go up in socks. Being early morning you could feel the chill – and the white marble flooring can send the cold running through your body; even through my thick socks i could feel it!
You get to view the huge dome from inside the mausoleum; you also get to see the interiors of the mausoleum – guards will ask you to keep moving along since there’s a constant inflow of visitors. Window like openings on the wall ensured that there was enough daylight inside. Photography is not allowed inside the mausoleum. Our photographer Aaron and his assistant Arpit took plenty of snaps outside the mausoleum as the orange hue gradually dawned on the day – the red circle appeared abruptly in the sky but the whole setting perfect. Looking at some of the snaps you’d wonder if we shot them during sunset or sunrise!
Returning to the gardens after spending 30 minutes near the mausoleum, we were surprised that the garden was suddenly flooded with people. It was 7:20am and there were still a lot of foreigners and I was happy that we had made it early. When we stepped down from the platform, our 2nd group came up. Sankar and I thought that we could perhaps make a quick trip to the Agra Fort and then go to the bus stand. We raced out but discovered from the auto guys that it was impossible considering that our bus was at 9:30am. Problem was our bus tickets were booked and there was no other alternative. So after snacking on some food being sold by a guy on a cycle outside the Taj Mahal we headed to the bus terminus. As usual we crammed ourselves into autos – and as usual the Delhiite ended up being the one who had to sit on someone else! Before leaving the city we had to find the famous Petha.
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We asked the receptionist about how to reach the Taj in the morning and also where we could leave our luggage there – he said luggage is not allowed and advised us to leave the luggage in the railway station since there is no place in the Taj Mahal for baggage. Sounded a little suspicious but he was supremely confident.
A few of us took a stroll around the railway station – none of the shops were open at this hour of the night except for a small stall where we had tea and biscuits. When we returned to the lounge, I tried to catch some sleep in the non-AC area sitting on the chair but wasn’t successful – i felt fairly energetic and ended up plugging my phone to the charger and reading information about the various entrances to the Taj Mahal – south, east and west gates. The official site said the Southern gate is not open for entry; the east and west gates open an hour before sunrise. We had already bought tickets online – there is an extra Rs. 200 ticket for visiting the main mausoleum which also we bought online though we had no idea what the mausoleum contained. The official site didn’t have any mention about a cloak room though in one of the pictures it looked like there was some facility available in the Western gate. There are plenty of online forums where people give their opinions – but even from those I couldn’t conclude one way or the other. After all the digging I made up my mind that we’d go to the Western gate – there were also reviews by people saying taxis take you to the wrong gates closer to shops; not surprising that the ‘market’ tie-up exists here! Leaving our bags in the station, visiting the Taj, coming back to pick up our luggage and then heading to the bus station wasn’t an option for sure. We had to take our chance.
Horror of the toilet
I took a break to explore the other areas of the lounge – not much more to it; there was a small dining area where there were four large stainless steel empty buffet trays on a table. Beside this room were the bathrooms – the urinals were fine, the shower room was ok but the western toilet was a mess and I dreaded the thought of having to use it in the morning. The boys in the AC room were in deep sleep.
The Taj Mahal as per Google was only 6 kms away from the station; we could possibly even walk the distance but we had been warned before our travel that Agra is not the place for walking around the city – ‘the city is dirty, it’s unclean, there’s garbage everywhere, don’t walk on the roads’ were some of the warnings. And even without the warnings I doubt anyone from the gang would have been interested in an early morning walk sacrificing their sleep. From 5am I was waiting for someone to get up so that we could get moving.
At 5:20 our leader was awake; he came out to go to the bathroom. The toilet was still disgusting and I was willing to hold off using the toilet till we reached the Taj! Our leader walked to the receptionist and asked, “Are there any ladies staying?”
“Can you give us the key to the ladies toilet. Many of us are there and we can leave faster if we use the other toilet.”
After a momentary pause he agreed. To our delight the ladies toilet was clean; they had obviously locked it up after cleaning the place. We took our time to ensure that we didn’t have to visit another public toilet for downloading today. This is one problem that backpacker’s in India generally face!
A reverse auction
At 5:50am the first batch moved out; there were auto drivers loitering inside the train station mobbing us as soon as they knew we were heading to the Taj. We were firm in saying that we wanted to go to the West gate. The auto driver asked us to follow him through a back route out of the station but he was intercepted by another driver who wanted to take us to his auto. An auction type argument broke out between the drivers – Rs. 40 per head is where it started. ’40, 35, 30, 25,’ is where it stopped! We went with the Rs. 25 per head fare; all the while we kept repeating “West Gate” to all of them!
On the way we stopped at a roadside tea shop; it was still dark but from what I saw the roads didn’t look all that dirty; this was just like any other city in India. All along the ride I felt that we could definitely have walked the street. New city, dark streets, unknown driver does put you in a state of heightened awareness. But the boards on shops along the way mentioned ‘West Gate’ as part of their address – so at least we weren’t far off from our destination. We got dropped in a small street, the entrance to which was barricaded. A police vehicle with 3 cops manned the other side of the barricade. We walked past them down a lane to end up at the entrance gate to the Taj; there were two queues of foreigners waiting. There was no sign of any cloak room and we asked one of the security guards manning the entrance, “Where can we leave our luggage?”
He pointed us in the direction of the ticketing counter. As we neared that we saw more people – mostly foreigners again but we didn’t see any board about a cloak room. After enquiry we were guided to another location that was about 10 minutes from the ticketing counter. On the way to the cloak room there were guys trying to sell us plastic covers for our feet – this is similar to what is provided in Akshardham for entering the main temple but over here it costs money. I was suspicious about it and didn’t pause to hear out the vendor. We were the first people to put our luggage today in the cloak room. The guy methodically arranged all our bags in an empty room and gave us a token.
“It’s getting late. Let’s run. The sun is rising.”
And we jogged towards the gate to get in the queue; but the one for Indians barely had 5 people while the foreigners queue was a lengthy one! They had obviously planned their trip a lot better than us – they would have booked hotel rooms, left their bags in the hotel and come here early.
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Next stop was Connaught Place – the metro station is Rajiv Chowk; I kept calling it Palace but it’s actually ‘Place’! As soon as you step out of the metro you’ll land in a circle around which there are many buildings with shops. Rohan had been talking about momos many days before the trip and when he saw the first guy on the street selling momos he rushed ahead of the pack; the vendor (operating on a bicycle) had veg and chicken momos and we hogged on both – the chicken momos were really good.
After a mini discussion we decided to have dinner in Connaught and head to the railway station – couldn’t cover any more spots in the remaining time since it was already 9pm. Our leader and Swami had pre planned one thing that they wanted to do before leaving Delhi and they were in the right place for it; they found a bar and broke away from the rest of us who tried to find a restaurant. Aided by Google to find good restaurants we landed up in a place where the menu was 95% non-veg! The four veggies in the group told us to go ahead but we found another restaurant a couple of streets away that had a more balanced menu.
One of the must do’s on our list was having paan in Connaught Place; we found 3 paan shops one beside the other in a circular layout where people had gathered. I had a couple of sweet paans; the guy would take a couple of betel leaves, add a few colourful items from the various small cups that he add, fold the leaves and literally stuff the huge paan preparation in your mouth! You’ll end up munching on that mouthful for 5 minutes!
There are plenty of flavours and types of paans available in the shop: chocolate, strawberry, butterscotch etc. The most unique one is called the flaming paan – the guy would light a small fire on the paan and stuff that into your mouth (with the fire); no one from our group dared to try it but we witnessed a couple of people having it.
It was 11pm when we took a couple of Uber SUVs to get to Hazrat Nizamudin railway station.
From a distance we could see the top part of India Gate which was one of the other places we had on the list the bridegroom had given which we had to skip due to time. The railway station is close to another tourist attraction – Humayun’s Tomb. Couldn’t see much of this on our way except for the board. Following the Uber map, the driver ended up on the backside road to the station which was barricaded for vehicles; we hopped off and walked our way to the entrance.
Our train heading to Agra was already there in the station. The intent of taking such a late night train was to maximize our time in Delhi. We had searched for private cab operators who could have taken us to Agra but didn’t find any that were cheap when we enquired through trusted contacts; there were buses but none of them were available for later in the night – this train was the only option to delay departure from Delhi and arrive for the sunrise in Agra. It’s strange the way the booking system works for our trains – this train starts from Meerut City (one stop before Delhi); when we searched for tickets from Delhi to Agra we didn’t find any but when we searched for tickets from Meerut to Agra there was availability – the ticket price was the same from both stations. The train departs from Delhi at 00:15 after a 1 hour halt in the station. So by the time we reached the station, it was already there. Our host had advised us to book berths in the AC coaches since the temperatures in the non-AC coaches would be a lot lower due to the temperatures outside.
The train left 5 minutes past the scheduled departure time; we were hoping it would get delayed by half an hour or more so that it would delay our arrival in Agra. The scheduled arrival time in Agra Cantt station was 2:40am – the more it was delayed the more we could sleep in the train and less time we would have to spend sitting in Agra’s railway station. I doubt there was anyone else in that train praying for a delay!
I was awake before our alarms went off one after the other; short of sleep but at least caught a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. It wasn’t long before the train halted at Agra; only a delay by a few minutes. This was an odd time; we had 3 hours to kill but getting to a hotel wasn’t of much use since we’d have to pay for a full day. But we were also short of sleep. One good thing about railway stations in India is that at least in the ones in major cities, even during the odd hour or 3am you will still find a few people around; same with this station – thankfully it wasn’t completely deserted – a few people walking around, some sleeping on the platform in self made sleeping bags using bedsheets and some passengers like us sitting on benches.
Our plan (the half baked plan) was we’d find a place to sit (which shouldn’t be hard in a railway station) and while away the 3 hours; but with all of us half sleepy and tired, 3 hours now appeared to be an eternity. We went around the station to find comfortable places; I had read online that there were lounge rooms in the station and that you could even book them online – but when I had tried online for this particular station I was unsuccessful and it made me wonder whether this station had a lounge.
As we wandered through the station we discovered the lounge room and took a peek inside – there was a small reception and then another door that led to a medium sized non-AC hall with many single seater cushioned chairs. Another door in here led to the AC room which had sleeper type seats that looked extremely comfortable and could recline to an almost horizontal state. Unfortunately they didn’t have 12 sleeper seats and a few people had already occupied a couple of them – so we took 5 inside and 7 outside for a couple of hours. The place is better than the usual retiring rooms that you find in railway stations and seems like many of the main railway stations have these sort of lounges – reasonably priced and ideal for backpackers and budget travelers.
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