Greetings, gentle reader. It’s been four years since I last wrote a travel blog – the most recent trip that I wrote about was our visit to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in March 2014 – if you’d like to read more, please just click on the Travel tab at the top of the page. Since then, we’ve been lucky to visit India quite a few times and I had planned to write a series of posts about all our visits there over the last four years. However, I reckon that could just be a bit too much for you, and I don’t want to bore you with excessive detail! So instead, I have written up our trips from 2016 and 2017 in a series of 13 (unlucky!) blog posts that I hope might stir your interest to visit that fascinating country. So here goes with the first one. And remember…
Please click on the photographs to get a better view!
Our 2016 trip to India (November 17th – December 3rd) started in Gurgaon, which may seem an odd place to launch a trip, but Mrs Chrisparkle has some colleagues there and so popped round once or twice to make sure everyone was ok. It was left to me to lounge by the pool and tackle the lunchtime buffet single-handed. It was a tough job, but I think I came to grips with it. We were staying at the Oberoi; there was an expensive looking wedding going on which meant they unfortunately had to upgrade us to one of their Premier Suites. The Rack Rate is 400,000 rupees per night; at the time, the equivalent to about £4,770 per night. Gosh. No wonder we thought it was nice. We had one more night there at the end of our holiday – sadly we didn’t get the same upgrade. But the Premier Room was most pleasant too; and there’s nothing more toe-curlingly pleasurable than experiencing Oberoi hospitality.
We had to get up at hideous o’clock in order to get the car to Delhi airport, then go through the rigmarole of a) getting into the airport (security requires that you show your documents to the policeman or soldier at the entrance to the airport and they scrutinise every page extremely slowly), and b) checking in, only to be told you have to go somewhere else to pay the 500 rupees for excess baggage – baggage allowances on Indian domestic flights are notoriously skinflint. Still, it’s a quick flight, and we were met at Lucknow airport by our smiling guide Sapan and our even more smiling driver Mr Ashish, then taken to the Vivanta by Taj Gomti Nagar to check in. It’s a really smart and elegant hotel and I would say we enjoyed it more than any other Vivanta by Taj hotel we’ve tried. We had a Deluxe Delight room with Garden view and it was very comfortable and well appointed. We were there for two nights and dined at the Oudhyana both evenings, where we were really well looked after by Shubham, Arun and Najeev. The Saqi bar is one of those noisy, glamorous and really naughty-feeling Indian bars that they do so well.
After a brief pause, Sapan collected us and took us for our afternoon trip visiting some of the sites towards the outskirts of the city. First up was a visit to La Martinière College, built by Major General Claude Martin – his tomb lies in the basement – in the style of an extravagant Gothic French chateau. When he died, his will stipulated that it should become a school for boys, and thus the college was founded in 1845. There’s a serene elegance to the whole place, even when you bump into groups of extremely well-behaved and privileged boys, who have that air of well-educated confidence when comfortably enjoying each other’s company, but remain shy and reserved if you approach them individually. Sapan suggested we spoke to one of the boys – we did; he was, as you would expect, supremely polite but also overwhelmed with tongue-tied embarrassment.
Outside there are Olympic-type figures set in the gardens encouraging sporting prowess; inside, the library has the air of a gentleman’s club. On the steps leading up to the entrance, alumni have written their names in the concrete as indelible proof that they studied there. One hopes Messrs Rigby, Attwell, Route and Nooruddin put their excellent education to good use. An award ceremony was taking place that day, and silver cups were proudly displayed on a table at the foot of the steps to the entrance, celebrating achievement in athletics, hockey, swimming and other sports. There were lots of proud looking mothers too. It was a charming insight into a particular Indian lifestyle that the average tourist rarely encounters, and we really enjoyed the experience.
From there we visited the Dilkusha Palace and Gardens. It was constructed by the British Major Gore Ouseley for his friend the Nawab Saadat Ali Khan II. Legend has it that when the Nawab saw it in all its glory once it had been constructed, he said “Dil khush hua”, which means “my heart is pleased” – hence the name Dilkusha. I’m not sure how pleased he’d be today, as it suffered greatly during the siege of Lucknow, although it still offers a real idea of how splendid it must once have been, and its gardens are beautifully maintained throughout. There’s a rather stark grave to Lieutenant Charles Keith Dashwood, who died, November 22nd 1857, aged 19. Not as a result of the siege of Lucknow, bizarrely, as this fascinating account relates.
We were having a leisurely walk around the grounds when a young man approached us – extremely polite, and wanting to try out his English, which was not half bad. Would we come and meet his friends and hear him sing and play his guitar, he asked. You can never be quite sure what you’re walking into under such circumstances, but he seemed genuine and Sapan didn’t seem over-concerned, so we did it. There were about eight young guys, all pretty high on weed to be honest, but relaxed as a consequence. Our chap picked up his guitar and started to sing Adele’s Chasing Pavements. He clearly didn’t know all the words and made up some similarly sounding sounds at times, which he knew was rubbish, and it made us all laugh. For about three minutes, Mrs C and I became hippies. We said our thank yous and goodbyes and left them to strum away and smoke some more weird stuff.
Our final port of call for this first afternoon was something extremely different. Right in the middle of the city is a vast modern park, known locally as Ambedkar Memorial Park, but with the official title of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal. At first sight, it looks like one of those vast memorials to something Soviet from a former age, or maybe a huge religious shrine to some cult deity. In fact, it is the modern equivalent of a hybrid of the two. It was created, planned and masterminded by Ms Mayawati, the Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh and opened in 2008.
It’s breathtaking in many ways, and we had enormous fun exploring it, taking photos, and getting the general vibe of the place. It was sunset, the perfect time to see it. But the most breathtaking aspect to it is the realisation that it is one enormous ego-trip by the Chief Minister. It is a shrine to herself. 60-odd elephants line the route to the gallery where her good works are displayed, like something out of North Korea. She appears everywhere, in statues clutching her horrible handbag, dwarfing more minor figures such as, for instance, Lord Buddha. She appears in tableaux leading parliaments, or healing the sick. The place expects silent admiration for her, but the visitors treat it as an enormous playground, with a hilarious lack of respect for her pomposity and self-aggrandisement. It’s genuinely one of the funniest places we’ve ever visited. And the site itself throws a subtle side-twist in that you can see that much of this beautiful and enormous civic architecture is actually constructed out of really poor materials, so, for example, the elephants are losing their trunks with surprising rapidity and no one cares to replace or renovate anything on the site. Because, in the ultimate moment of hubris, having constructed this gigantic monument to herself, Ms Mayawati lost her seat in parliament. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up. But it’s a great place and I don’t think we’ll ever forget our time there. And that was quite enough for day one. We retreated to the – not safety, but danger – of the Saqi bar before indulging in a splendid feast at the Oudhyana.
Next morning saw us up bright and reasonably early to take in perhaps the most historically significant sight in Lucknow – the Residency. You’ve heard of the famous Siege of Lucknow – well, this is where it took place. Over five months in 1857, the British held on to this fortified enclave whilst it was attacked by rebellious sepoys. Estimates of the numbers of dead range from two to three thousand. Today, as you walk around, you can get a feel for both the grandeur of its original state – it was the home of all the top ranking British officials – and the horror of the consequent siege. Sad, part-destroyed, brick built walls mark out what would once have been splendid housing, whilst the open areas still offer a lovely green space with tall palm trees, so it is a popular area for local people to come and walk, have picnics and so on. There is a small museum, where they are very strict with their no-photo rule, you have to check your camera and phones in with a little man in a hut before approaching the building. Inside there are some fascinating old photos and mementos. You can also visit the graveyard of St Mary’s Church within the compound, and see the names of those who were lost in the siege. It’s tranquil, and quite beautiful; and you really feel you’re at the heart of a most significant historical event.
Sapan took us on a short detour to see the once beautiful Chattar Manzil, the Umbrella Palace built between 1798 and 1814. This fine building has now dilapidated into disrepair. From 1950 it was the home to the Central Drug Research Institute, but they recently left and now all you’ll find here are a few security staff. It’s in a prime location so it shouldn’t be like this for long.
The next major sight we saw was the Bara Imambara. An Imambara is a congregation hall for Shia commemoration ceremonies, and Bara means “Great” – so you get the picture. This is an amazing place and you can spend hours here. First you have the beautiful Imambara hall itself, with its ostentatious ceiling, eye-catching lamps and stunning green walls – enjoy the photograph as I was told off for taking it. Apparently it is the largest structure in the world not to use pillars, beams or concrete walls. There is a stepwell to the side with inward-facing balconies and steps deep down into the earth. On the upper levels it also boasts the entertaining bhul-bhulaiya, or labyrinth, where tourists, families and illicit lovers like to run and hide. Seemingly endless corridors take you from one part of the building to another, with many a sheer-edge drop out of a window at the top of the building. You wouldn’t want to do it after too many bottles of Kingfisher. 489 identical doorways mean you can easily get lost, but there are some great photo opportunities to relish as you do so. The site also houses an extravagant Asafi Mosque, and outside you can see the Rumi Darwaza, or west-facing entrance to the Imambara; looking completely different from the outside than it does on the inside.
We walked on up Napier Road to view the Chota Imambara, and then doubled-back on ourselves to walk past the Husainabad Clock Tower, erected in 1887 to welcome Sir George Cooper, the first lieutenant governor. It’s situated in a wide open dusty area, designed for local boys to hone their cricketing skills. There’s also a rather foreboding art gallery, worth popping in, because Indian paintings always have that “just different” look. Unfortunately, you can’t take photos. One last place to visit on our way back to the hotel – the tombs of the fifth Nawab, Saadat Ali Khan, and his wife, Khurshid Zadi. Unfortunately, they were closed when we got there so we just had a stroll around the attractive park and took a few selfies.
And that was our visit to Lucknow! Grand, friendly, funny, welcoming and oozing history from every pore. Another night to spend in the Vivanta by Taj, and the next day we would be back on the road, for the four-hour, south-easterly drive to the sacred city of Allahabad.