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.
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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!
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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.
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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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Inside Akshardham, I was struck by the vast area and designs on the walls. We went through the visitors area where Sankar picked a couple of small booklets. There were a few exhibition halls, some events like a boat ride and water show and the main mandir (temple). Sankar was visibly excited – he wanted to visit everything but time was a constraint and we had to buy tickets if we wanted to go to the exhibition halls; in the end he decided, “Let’s watch the water show.”
I knew it had good reviews and readily agreed.
Our leader wasn’t too keen; this wasn’t his type of place and boat rides and water shows were definitely not his thing. But having come here and the time being past 6pm we decided that we’d stay here for the water show.
Sankar didn’t even wait for the group’s consensus; since he didn’t see any voice of dissent, he rushed off to get into the queue for buying tickets; he was eager like a little kid bubbling with excitement to get an ice cream. While we waited for him, our leader sat on one of the parapets and covered himself as much as he could with his arms – he was finally showing signs of feeling the chill as the temperature dipped in the evening.
The main part in Akshardham is the mandir and that was quite a sight from the outside; the mandir will appear as if it is being supported by many elephants and other animals – that’s the first layer of carvings. Above this layer were pillars and walls which had more carvings like those of goddesses.
And inside the mandir it was even more grand – the marble flooring, the statues, carvings on pillars, intricate designs on the ceilings, the unusual lighting setup with light focussed upwards to illuminate the place. At the centre is a large golden figure of Swaminarayanan seated making the abhayamudra (gesture of fearlessness); Akshardham is a tribute to him. The large figure does have a calming effect on the mind. There walls in the temple had illustrations about his life.
This is one of those man made places that you could just look at in awe and forget the passage of time. But we were crunch on time and we had just enough time to see everything inside before moving on to the area for the water show.
There was one food cart in the arena that sold coffee, soup and some snacks. Our gang tried every item available but didn’t really like anything. To add to the misery our leader was made to wait for ages as the guy at the counter didn’t give preference to the people standing in queue. At the centre of the open air arena was a large pool which had a lotus styled layout in the middle; around this pool were large steps where people could sit to watch the show; and bordering this were lengthy and tall compound walls – everything was constructed with the same material, reddish coloured bricks, and so even the compound walls blended with the arena. This place is called the Yagnapurush Kund – Kund is a reservoir of water; yagna means a ritual or offering.
We sat in 3 groups in different spots around the pool.
“I think we’ll get wet,” our Delhiite said since we were in the second row from the pool. Despite that thought we still sat in the same place; I guess we were just lazy to get up and find a new spot.
Suddenly we heard the Aarti song playing; there was nothing happening on the water pool but after a minute I noticed that there were a couple of people performing aarti in front of the large building that was facing one end of the pool; the other 3 sides were covered by the compound walls. At the end of the song the water came alive; a few kids appeared and danced around the edge of the pool as the water fountains came into play. Water splayed in different directions and colorful lights added to the visual effect. It was pretty good and reminded me of the musical water show in Dubai mall which was quite a spectacle. But the best here was yet to come. There was a narrator (audio recording being played) telling a story and we had visuals appear on the face of the large building. The images which were projected on the building blended uniformly with the building such that the background looked realistic and not like a projection. Characters appeared on the screen but what i found most impressive was when they depicted the forces of nature descend down from the building into the pool – it felt as if there was a really furious waterfall pouring down the building; the edges of the building added to the illusion. This was augmented reality!
The story involving the kids had an opening segment, a few segments with the gods appearing on the building and then the finale. The middle part felt repetitive after the 3rd time; each time a different god would appear and the plot was the same – but the visuals were different; for the fire god it was fire from the building, for the water god it was water gushing down and so on. Also the water fountains reacted differently to the different forces of nature. Just when you think the plot is dragging, the story moves to the final segment.
The real actor kids in the performance would sing a song in each of the middle segments (it gets repeated often with a slight change in few words).
Nahi jala… nahi jala
hamara phool nahi jala
By the end the song and tune will get etched in your head! Narration is in Hindi; but even for those who don’t understand the language while witnessing the middle segment they’d probably grasp the story. Kids of course would love the visuals.
A short clip of the performance is available online: https://akshardham.com/explore/water-show/You can also view snaps of the place in the above link
The story I later found is adapted from the Kena Upanisad (part of ancient Vedic text); there are a lot of symbolic meanings in the story – one of which is the question “Who am I”.
During the remainder of the trip Arpit and our Delhiite would often start singing “Nahi jala, nahi jala” making the rest of us plead with them to stop!
The mandir looked even more brilliant at night with the lighting outside. As soon as we reached the luggage room, our leader rummaged through his bag to pull out his jacket! Quite daring that he was able to manage in a thin single layer so far.
Once outside the complex, after taking a snap as proof that we visited Akshardham, we returned to the metro where we ate a few delicious cream rolls. I consciously gulped half a litre of water; we barely sweat during the day and with the temperature dropping you didn’t really feel thirsty.
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Next we had to find our way out of the lanes to the main road; and our Delhiite led us confidently with the help of Google. Strangely, even though he was a Delhiite he was the one carrying the most luggage – a small suitcase in addition to the backpack. Dragging his trolley suitcase he religiously listened to Google which brought us to a dead end after 10 minutes of weaving through lanes!
“There should be a way here,” he said while double checking the map.
With so many people and shops around we could easily have asked someone for directions! And that’s what we eventually did.
After a couple of lanes we could see the Red Fort, our next destination, at a distance. To get there we had to cross the construction area; we walked in a single line so that there was space for people to walk in the opposite direction. I noticed a man chewing something opening and closing his mouth and walking towards me; when he was an arms length away from he, he made a funny noise and fired a blob of colored spit that went splat on the construction board to my left; the projectile missed me by a few inches. This is the habit of chewing paan (the betel nut – this is different from the betel leaf); this nut has a place in traditional medicine but anything consumed in excess is harmful for the body. The habit of chewing paan is more often seen in North India; people typically chew it for a long while and then spit it out; this creates red stains on pavements, roads and walls. I stood frozen for a moment – it was disgusting the way he spit in public without any second thoughts and didn’t bother that there were people around him; was it practice or just coincidence that it missed me?
The pedestrian signal to get to the Red Fort was stuck on red for a while; it was an irony to see a few foreigners wade through the traffic by raising their hands to cross the road while we were initially hesitant to do so! The Red Fort had hoards of people standing inside the complex and outside. We didn’t know if it was open and the Fort itself was deep inside the complex; going inside would have wiped out our entire evening.
“Let’s take a photo for proof.”
We took a group snap as proof that we had visited the Red Fort and then debated on our next destination. Plan was to get to Rashtrapathi Bhavan (area where the president resides) by night and so we did have at least an hour to squeeze in another place. Sankar and I had a place in mind that we definitely wanted to cover but didn’t include in our final list – we weren’t sure if others would enjoy the place and didn’t push for its inclusion. But now with an hour to spare and no one having any other suggestions, we pushed our agenda!
“Let’s take an auto we can reach quicker.” Our leader stopped a couple of autos to enquire the rate for Akshardham. It was about 8kms away and they quoted a ridiculous amount; seeing our shocked faces, a couple of the auto drivers said they can drop us at the Chandni Chowk metro for us to take a train – that was the station from where we had walked through all the lanes to get here. Some of the autos could accommodate 4 people at the back and a couple of people sitting with the driver while others were a little more spacious and could easily accommodate 6 people at the back without disturbing the driver. We needed 2 autos and we were used to the rate of Rs.10 per head but these drivers demanded Rs.20 per head. Autos are convenient for short rides and you find plenty of them in Delhi. While negotiating the rate, someone in the group shouted, “Hey, there’s a metro station here.”
Turning around we could see the symbol for the metro station on a small board. We abandoned the auto plan and walked to the metro – it was the Lal Quila metro station – we had forgotten to check what was the closest metro and the auto drivers were ready to take us to another metro station even though there was one just a few feet away! Definitely check your destinations before getting into autos.
Delhi is pretty well connected by metro – at least all the tourist attractions are; so you might be able to avoid doing any autos if you are ok to walk a little to get to the stations. We got on the violet line and then switched to the blue line. Swami got stuck again because the turnstiles didn’t like his card; and again he had to be helped by the metro staff – no pretty lady for assistance this time though! The Akshardham metro station had bicycles for rent but since it was getting dark and the place was just a kilometer away we didn’t take them. There were a good number of sign boards showing directions to the Akshardham.
The complex was huge; we could see large parking lots and there was a fair bit to walk to get to the main entrance itself. A few metres past the entrance there was an open cabin staffed by a lady; while she was checking the bags of visitors, a bunch of boys went ahead of us skipping her. She called out, “Heeeyyyy” and the boys returned with a sheepish grin to have their bags checked. Though the place was obviously designed to handle 1000s of visitors, the baggage checking counter was definitely short staffed; it was easy for people to walk past the lady.
Since we were 12 we were considered a group and groups had separate areas for depositing bags – helped us avoid a queue! While counting the mobile phones we discovered that Aaron and Aprit were missing; they were busy taking photos and we asked them to hurry along. Even though we were still not inside the main area of Akshardham one thing that struck us was the cleanliness.
It was nearly 5:30pm and the last entry to the Mandir was 6:30pm. No photography in the Mandir.
“Only two people inside,” the baggage staff shouted.
Two of us took turns to stack our bags in a shelf. Our Delhiite bought a couple of juices from the snack counter near the luggage room; Sankar and I hurried the folks to finish it soon since we wanted to maximize the time spent inside rather than outside. We rushed to the security queue.
In the queue for gents, the frisking done here was more thorough than what was done in the airport – this one is bound to make people uncomfortable! Even if you had a coin in your pocket these guys would feel it. Entry was free and we had 50 minutes to cover this place.
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We were soon navigating through the gullies of Chandni Chowk being led by our Delhiite; Chandni Chowk is very similar to the gullies in Sowcarpet (Chennai). The gullies were packed with small shops and most over here targeted women – clothes, cosmetics etc. There were also many small eateries along the way. Arpit and I were tempted by a Dahi Bhalla (curd vada) shop – they had a large plate where the vadas were soaked in curd. We stopped and looked at each other for a few seconds wondering whether to indulge or not – in the end it was too tempting to resist; add to it the fact that we were hungry – we shared a plate. And since the rest of the gang was well ahead of us we didn’t call them either.
The lane from the dahi bhalla shop led us to an open area with a lot of ruble and barricades due to construction activity; it seemed like at some point of time this might have been a main road. Because of our unannounced pit stop we didn’t know where our gang was. After a couple of minutes we found them on the other side of the rubble; they were wondering why we both were so slow! Past the rubble we ventured deeper into the maze; the gullies became narrower and dirtier; one of them had stagnant water that was probably from yesterday’s rain – to get across the puddle there were two bricks positioned such that you had to hop from one to the other to escape the puddle. Some waited for their turn while some were happy to step into the puddle and wet their feet to get across quickly instead of waiting in queue. Since i was in shoes I tried tip-toeing across quickly and hoped that the adjacent gully would be dry; but that was even worse since there was running water on both sides of the lane! I noticed a guy crouched on the left side, below an eatery washing vessels; was he washing it off the water from the street or was there another stream of water coming from one of the pipes out of the eatery? I didn’t want to take a second look and just raced ahead. I couldn’t believe people were eating in this street. By now our group had split and three of us were the ones in front.
When we found a place to stand, the Delhiite announced, “That was the parathe wali galli”. Literal translation means the street with parathas (Wiki says paratha is a type of flatbread). Our host, the bridegroom, had given us a food itinerary of places to eat at and this was one of the places on the list!
“No way in that street.”
“We won’t eat there,” the three of us agreed.
We finally got to a dry lane and waited for the others to catch up.
While we waited with people and vehicles bustling past us, we spotted a couple of roadside chaat shops where we satisfied our hunger a little. The kulchas with butter were amazing.
When after finishing 2 dishes we still didn’t see any signs of our gang, we gave them a call.
“They want to eat there?”
“In the galli?”
“Yes. They’re calling.”
This didn’t sound like a good idea but with the majority of the group over there we didn’t have a choice. We stood at the end of the street to confirm that our gang was really there – they were and they were vigorously signaling to us to join them. We stepped into a small restaurant opposite the one where I saw the guy washing vessels.
We occupied 3 out of the 5 tables in the shop; fortunately the place was a couple of steps higher than the street and so there was no water flowing into the restaurant.
The place was meant for parathas and the menu was plastered on the walls – very convenient compared to passing around menus! We ordered as much of the variety available as we could – the sides were a potato and peas kurma and sweet chutney (the one used in chaats). There were so many parathas – any veg item you could think of, you’d find that paratha here – from peas to radish to bitter gourd to almonds and cashews and bananas and what not. But the one we loved the most was the khoa paratha (sweet khoa stuffing).
We dug into the food conveniently ignoring the fact that just a few minutes earlier we were worried about hygienic cooking conditions!
“They could have had a place upstairs with few beds. What more does one need – good food and good sleep.”
We ended the roughly Rs.200 per head lunch with a sweet lassi; a sumptuous meal for the price. It was nearly 4pm when we left; people were still entering the shop – parathas are available throughout the day!
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