Those living in other parts of India, and especially those from Mumbai, often look at Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the unofficial 'bad boys' of the country, with some scorn. But Lucknow is a mystery to these very people. The capital of Uttar Pradesh has long been one of the country's cultural hubs and home to the still practiced and revered 'Lucknowi tehzeeb'. Mix that with the delicious and (I must add) cheap cuisine, ingenious heritage structures and hospitable people who still love the arts, and it's easy to lose track of the era you currently live in.
Take for instance our first stop, the Bara Imambara (literally means 'big shrine'), a historical marvel that was built not as a symbol of love or opulence, but as a means to let people earn money. Legend has it that the Nawab of Lucknow (in 1784) was distressed seeing his people suffer after the region was hit by a famine. For 18 years, the poor could work at the monument site and earn their daily wages, providing them with income to tide over the problems.
Enter the complex after hearing the story, and suddenly even the famous Taj Mahal pales in comparison. Unfortunately, the litter lying around and the 'I love you' scribbling along the walls of the beautiful building, a frustrating 'Indian' habit that ails every major and minor historical monument in India, brings you back to reality.
If history doesn't hold your interest, there is always the Bhul Bhulaiya to test navigation skills. Forgo that guide, take your chance in this labyrinth of tunnels and stairways and hope you can find your way back to terra firma. Or go to the Shahi Bauli and learn how the rulers could judge the water levels of the river Gomti depending on the number of steps covered by water in the well there.
One could also spend some tranquil moments at the mosque located within the complex.
For the historically inclined, a trip Chota Imambara and a chance to gape at the architecture on display is not one to pass on. Or visit Residency, now in ruins and declared a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India. This spot served as a refuge for 3,000 British inhabitants during the time of the uprising of 1857. Incidentally, it is still home to the graves of around 2,000 British soldiers who died in the revolt and, yes, is supposedly haunted.
Do make a stop at the museum found within the huge complex and see some of the artillery and weapons used in that era or read the heartfelt letter written by Rani Laxmibai.
Other eye-pleasing places in the culture city include the Rumi Darwaza, constructed in the year 1784 by Nawab Asaf-ud-daula and a fine example of the architectural style of Awadh, and the Vidhan Sabha.
But change is on the horizon. The city is slowly adopting modern ways in terms of architectural designs, and the influx of the mall culture is making its mark on the local scene. Even the soft-spoken Urdu is giving way to English. But if you really want to relive India's rich history, this has to be the city to be in, at least for a few more years.
Eat, shop and ignore
Eat: A trip to Lucknow is incomplete without tasting their famous Tundey kebabs. But for those interested in some biryani, head to Wahid Biryani at Aminabad. Awadh Biryani, close to the Dainik Jagran office, is another option. Try their kebab rolls or boti kebab with Mughlai paratha. A sumptuous meal at these two places won't exceed Rs 150. Another dish worth trying is the chicken kali mirch at Maharaja Hotel, near Charbagh station.
Buy: Shopaholics must visit Hazratganj, the 1.5 to 2km-stretch has been restored to its former glory and done up in a single colour. If you are looking for some original chikan embroidery, this is the place to be. Bargain at the Lucknow Chikan Store and land yourself some great deals. The famished can also try the chaat at the Royal CafÃ© here.
Can't miss: Be prepared to see several statues in and around the city, glorifying the state's present and past leaders. But after spending a few days in the city, the shock of seeing them at every nook and corner fades, and it is easy to ignore them.