It’s no secret that two of my pet hates are The Taj Mahal and the lack of imagination of much of the travel industry. Anything beyond the Golden Triangle seems to be beyond most people. However, whilst it is logical and does make sense, India is so much more.
For the sake of this post, I am relenting on my views on Agra. This isn’t because my views have changed, rather I know that in 99.9% of cases, I am not going to change public opinion, most first-time travellers will visit Agra. However, let me digress back to an event I was invited to a few years ago, the Uttar Pradesh Travel Writers Conference. Now it is my bet that most tourists don’t even know that the Taj Mahal is in Uttar Pradesh, but it is, not Rajasthan! Now, at said conference, I was asked to start the questioning, thinking that I would behave, and naturally, my opening statement in front of the Minister of Tourism and other distinguished guests was that, coming from a travel background, the Taj Mahal was the bane of my life. It is actually nothing to do with the monument, but people’s desire to see it means that they invariably do not do the holiday they actually would want to do in India if they really thought about it.
My follow up statement (having visited most of the relevant destinations in UP over the previous 12 months) was that was that UP gets what, 85% of the tourists visiting India to its state but then loses them to Rajasthan. Why? Basically, because of the unimaginative marketing power of the Golden Triangle, or the equally unimaginative Taj and Tigers itinerary. When I initially thought about writing this post a couple of years ago, I was all ready to give Jaipur one of my infamous bashings, the gateway to Rajasthan and the most visited tourist destination in the state had become a hole, I was mortified traveling with 60 foreign tour operators to GITB, or the Great Indian Travel Bazaar. It was filthy, piles of litter everywhere, and being one of the fastest growing cities of India, crowded, busy, the traffic a nightmare and the road conditions, dreadful. You would have hoped the state and tourism board could work together to at least attempt to make a visit to the city somewhat enjoyable. I felt that it was an embarrassment, I know many agents who now feel the same, and are trying to plan itineraries which leave it out but in its defence, since then, it has cleaned up somewhat, which has to a degree, begun to reverse my opinion of the place. However, despite this, UP Tourism is missing a massive trick.
The state of Uttar Pradesh has two of India’s most popular tourist destinations, Agra and Varanasi. It also has three more destinations which absolutely should be as popular but no one bothers to promote them and therefore few people have heard of them. It is time to redress that balance. It’s time to put Lucknow on the map. I first visited in 1999 and vowed I would never go back, but, always happy to be proved wrong, I revisited in 2015. What a transformation and what an extraordinary destination! It literally blew me away. Number one, it was clean, the roads well maintained, no piles of litter anywhere that I saw, even on the drive from the airport. My interest was piqued. It helped that, at a time when I feel that standards in general are falling in India in particular with cars, drivers and guides, I had the most perfectly executed airport transfer to greet me. I was traveling with Tornos, they impressed me from the word go.
I spent four days visiting the city and it was nothing like my memories. Yes it was clean but its history and monuments (this is me who doesn’t necessarily rate monuments) were incredibly well maintained, fascinating, spectacular and, without the crowds, a delight to visit. The Residency, scene of the first Indian war of Independence, poignant, beautiful and the entire visit enhanced by the obvious care taken to maintain this piece of history but also the qawwali singers who were ensconced in one of the tombs, playing for no audience, just themselves and their belief.
Next stop was La Martiniere, a public school founded by Major General Claude Martin, beautiful architecturally but also with many stories woven into its history and, given the privilege of being shown around by Prateek Hira, the founder of Tornos himself, these captured by imagination. An era gone by but with modern day success.
We moved onto the The Bara Imambara. My memory did not serve me well and I was in no way prepared for just how extraordinary it is. It is a phenomenal building which, quite literally, took my breath away. It’s construction was auctioned, to the highest bidder, or maybe the lowest, Hafiz Kifayat Ullah, an architect from Shahjahanabad back in 1784 and it took 14 years to complete. Now for those of you who don’t know what an Imambara is, it is a hall where Shia Muslims come together for various ceremonies. Of course, this one being commissioned by the Nawab of the day to provide employment during a time of great drought, it had to be big and impressive, hence the name Bara ( Big) Imambara (or one of the reasons anyway). And it is.
The challenge given to the architect was to make the main hall column free but still rather huge 50m long, 16 wide and 15m high, one of the largest structures of its kind in the world. Naturally this posed a conundrum to him but he found a solution and for this, I shamelessly have to admit, not being an architect, to consulting Wikipedia: ‘’There are eight surrounding chambers built to different roof heights, permitting the space above these to be reconstructed as a three-dimensional labyrinth with passages interconnecting with each other through 489 identical doorways. This part of the building, and often the whole complex, may be referred to as the Bhulbhulaya. Known as a popular attraction, it is possibly the only existing maze in India and came about unintentionally as the method by which to support the weight of the building.’’ Not bad eh? This labyrinth is now one of the major attractions of the Imambara due to the huge number of interconnected passageways which lead to nowhere, well, apart from another passage – taking a guide is recommended! It is quite easy to get lost however. Many of these passageways open into windows which give you fabulous views over the complex and some also take you up on the roof. Oh, and watch out for the acoustics – they are impressive too.
I visited the old town and dhobi ghat, and sampled the street food tour. (I may have done that twice.) I had expert guides for each different experience. I’ve written about it before, in my usual excitable style, and would rather not repeat but click here for more information http://memsahibinindia.com/2016/07/lucknowthe-ugly-duckling-became-a-swan/
Once I had done with Lucknow, I decided to head off and spend the day in Ayodhya. For those of you who don’t know, this is the birthplace of Lord Ram and the cause of some controversy because of the demolition of a mosque by spirited and politically motivated Hindus that was said to have been built after demolishing a temple by Babar. But leave that aside and it is quite an extraordinary place to visit: full of temples, each either representing a different region of India or built by a devout Hindu family originally from Ayodhya. In fact each home in Ayodhya is said to have a temple of its own. I met a cow which takes itself on a round 108 times to be precise, twice a day of a small shrine behind the Rang Mahal Temple, and had a delicious lunch, all served on plates made of leaves and cups of terracotta, with the priest in the Tiwari Mandir. I took a small boat ride along the river to Ram Ghat (Ram Ki Pairi) and then, my own personal evening aarti ceremony had been arranged for me on the ghats, can you imagine? Of course, this being India, there is no such thing as a ‘private’ aarti, and around 100 bystanders sauntered down to join in, which all added to the marvelousness of the experience.
So, can Lucknow give competition to Jaipur and become a legitimate apex of the Golden Triangle? Absolutely, Lucknow has as much if not more to offer in terms of the magnificence of it’s monuments, its rich history, charming culture and its beautiful chikan embroidery work, and then there is its food! Not only that, but it is clean and the guides haven’t got greedy, you will not be tricked or coerced into any shops.
As usual, I’ve written far more than intended, but I can’t end without giving mention to the second most famous circuit on the Indian Tourist trail, the Taj and Tigers Tour. What would happen to including a wildlife element to a tour if you take out Jaipur? Well, this is where UP also comes into its own, it has Dudhwa National Park, which is actually 3 parks, between them it has tiger, wild elephant one horned rhino and riverine life in Khatarniaghat. That’s more than Ranthambhore can boast. Plus, so few people venture there, you virtually have the park to yourselves. For more on this: http://memsahibinindia.com/2016/06/dudhwa-one-lodge-two-nights-three-parks/
I put it to the UP Tourism at the travel writers mart (which surprisingly I didn’t get thrown out of) to come up with a slogan to rival the Golden Triangle or Taj and Tigers, or even just start some competitive marketing of their own. So far, this hasn’t been done, though the headline in the Times of India the following day did proclaim, “There is more to UP than the Taj Mahal and Varanasi.’’