It must be mentioned that, even though I had never heard of Lucknow, let alone anything worth seeing there, the capital of Uttar Pradesh is actually one of the tourism cities of the state, alongside such famous heavyweights as Agra and Varanasi.
I had one day in Lucknow, and a laundry list of must-sees courtesy of an Indian travel blogger in my network. I figured, even if I came to Lucknow on a whim, I thought I should see something of it. She was very enthusiastic, so I thought, maybe this city actually has cool stuff.
- How to spend one day in Lucknow
- Monuments of Lucknow: Which ticket package should you get?
- What is an imambara?
- Begin the day with Chota Imambara
- Continue your day with Bara Imambara
- Husainabad Clock Tower
- Spend the afternoon in a shopping district
- Witness a random procession of India
- Other things to see during a stopover day in Lucknow
- Hiring a rickshaw in Lucknow
- Carbon offsetting information to Lucknow, India
How to spend one day in Lucknow
Lucknow had once been the seat of power for the Nawabs, the vassal princes of the Mughal emperors in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before falling under British colonisation, the city of the Nawabs was a patron of arts and culture.
So if you have just one day in Lucknow, at least half of the day should be devoted to visiting these heritage monuments that still remain from the age of the Nawabs.
For the other half day, I have my personal recommendation, but at the end of this guide there are additional options depending on your interest.
Monuments of Lucknow: Which ticket package should you get?
The monuments of Lucknow are managed by the Hussainabad Trust. There are ticket packages for combinations of monuments. You can buy both the single-attraction tickets, or the package tickets, at any of the monuments. If you take a combination ticket, they will mark off the monument site that you visited at each attraction.
Foreigners pay a much higher ticket price than local Indians (approximately x10). As ticket packages may change, here is my recommendation for what you need to make sure is included, at minimum:
- Chota Imambara
- Bara Imambara
- Bhool-Bhulaiya (aka ‘the Labyrinth’ of Bara Imambara)
- Shahi Baoli (aka ‘the bowli’ or the well of Bara Imambara)
All of these can be done within your one day in Lucknow.
At the time of my visit, the package I took included the Picture Gallery, which I thought was more of a take-it-or-leave-it attraction. But it did not include Shahi Baoli, which I initially thought was not interesting because it was ‘just a well’. Don’t be pound foolish like me, and take the bigger package with the well.
What is an imambara?
When you ask about places to see in Lucknow, ‘the imambara’ is tossed around like you should know what it is. And there’s not one imambara either, but at least two.
If you look up pictures of imambaras, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a mosque. But an imambara is not a mosque. In fact, there is usually an actual mosque inside the compound of an imambara.
An imambara, or imambargah, is a building exclusive to Shiite Islam, primarily for the purpose of commemorating and mourning the martyrdom of Karbala. The Karbala is the event in Islamic history when Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren were killed in the civil war that began the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. (Yes, the same split that still influences geopolitics today.)
The signage at my first stop, Chota Imambara, handily explains the function of an imambara, as well as recounting the Karbala martyrdom, complete with all the gory details of the event.*
Begin the day with Chota Imambara
Admission: 500 rupees (with a package ticket that grants access to other monuments)
Other charges: Photography, guide, shoe guard
The area of old Lucknow where the imambaras are, has a neglected feeling overall. Left dusty and rambling, there is no obvious layout or plan to the general area, no clues to indicate municipal attention such as landscaping or rubbish collection.
So, when I finally finished working out what the ticket system was for the Lucknow monuments, made my choice, and was let in by the gate officers, the sight of Chota Imambara was arresting in its graceful architecture. It stood in stark contrast to the area outside.
Chota Imambara is almost dainty in its design, adorned by many small arches, and decorated by calligraphy that gave a lacy look to the facade (note: the calligraphy are not Qur’anic verses; they are something like salutations). It is a really charming building.
A long reflecting pool dominates the compound, which was tidy and clean. On either side of the pool were other buildings, similarly cleanly white and many-domed in its design.
Husainabad mosque lay by the side, a small and graceful building (note: not for tourist visits, only for Muslims intending to pray). A tomb building next to it houses the remains of some of the Nawab’s family. A lovely little treasury building lies on the opposite side.
Chota Imambara’s inexplicable shoe guarding fee
However, something that must be noted is the multi-gated approach to Lucknow attractions. Note that the fees I describe below are not big amounts, only nominal ones like 2 rupees or 10 rupees. It could easily have been built into the admittance fee.
Although you have paid the entry fee, and are allowed to enter the imambara building, you must not enter with your shoes on. This is fair enough; it does help keep the interior clean, and reduce wear on the floors.
But you must pay a guy a small fee, just to watch your shoes. Despite taking your shoes off being required to actually access what you paid to see in the first place, this fee is not included in the ticket.
Smelling a scam, I hesitated. And indeed another group of visitors – Indians – objected to it as well, and refused. So I likewise refused.
However, later in Bara Imambara (and also much later in Agra), I worked out that this really was a thing, even though it made no sense whatsoever. You’d think it would be more convenient (and more scam and fraud resistant) to roll it into the entry fee, and simply pay the guy out of that collection!
Chota Imambara’s strange photography fee
Once you clear this hurdle, and actually reach the entrance, there is another ‘payment gate’. A couple of men are sat there, and will ask you if you are taking photos. They will tell you it is not allowed.
Again, fair enough. From the information signs, Chota Imambara is not just a congregation point for mourning Karbala, housing a replica of the original grave structure of the martyrs in Karbala, Iraq. It also houses the mausoleum of its builder, the Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah. These are not supposed to be photographed. Lamps filled the rest of the interior spaces – dusty chandeliers and hanging globes, standing lights in gold, crystal and green.
But it turned out, respect for the relics was not the only reason for photography restriction. You can take photographs of everything else – but you have to pay again! While it sounds like a scam, it seems to be a legitimate fee, as it’s quoted on the website of Hussainabad Trust.
Again, I do not understand the multi-layer payment system. Isn’t it simpler to assume that if someone – especially a foreigner – visits a tourist attraction, photography is intended?
Tour guide hire in Chota Imambara
You can also hire a guide to explain the interior of the imambara. I don’t remember what the price was, because I was so irked by the first two fee requests that I was no longer interested in a tour, even though this was the one fee that made sense.
For me, having to pay multiple times within the complex tarnished the experience of visiting Chota Imambara, and made it feel unwelcoming. By the end, I felt like I only saw a pretty building, and felt nothing at all of what it meant or stood for.
In any case, the guide did not seem to speak good English. I did not feel like paying the guide price (this one was not nominal) and then not be able to work out anything he said.
Continue your day with Bara Imambara
Admission: 500 rupees (with a package ticket that grants access to other monuments)
Other charges: Separate tour guides for the bowli and the labyrinth, shoe guard
Built by a different Nawab, Asaf ud-Daula, Bara Imambara is located relatively near to Chota Imambara, but not really a walking distance. At least, not a pleasant one, and definitely not in the heat of August. I recommend doing the two imambaras this way around because this is the more impressive monument. You should build up to Bara Imambara.
Bara Imambara is much bigger (its name literally means ‘the big imambara’) and looks like a lot more thought was put into it. This is probably because aside from being an imambara, it is also a defensible fortification. This made it instantly more interesting to me personally, than the pretty Chota Imambara.
The funny thing is, the Nawab apparently ordered its construction as an excuse to provide employment during a famine. It reminded me of the Irish famine follies. Except that instead of structures that have no purpose, the Nawab clearly felt that even if you were building something unnecessary, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t still be awesome and properly planned.
Passing through an imposing arch with triple gates, you come to the circular Bara Imambara courtyard within a walled compound. Following along the semicircular path, you pass through an identical arch to enter the actual compound of the imambara.
Large and spacious, the compound has a main path leading to Bara Imambara itself. Paths branch off of it, leading to the grand Asfi Mosque (under refurbishment at the time of my visit), and the Shahi Bowli, the Royal Stepwell.
The Bowli of Bara Imambara (Shahi Baoli)
To be honest, at first I was not convinced that I wanted to see a well. But as I rested on one of the few benches in the area under some trees, the tour guides at the entrance talked me into it. So I paid the extra 200 rupees to enter (which apparently comes with a guide – or was it the other way around?) and went in. And it was surprisingly awesome.
The guide spoke rudimentary English, but he used it well. So it was a surprisingly effective tour. You go down a set of steps, which extend even further down. He asked me to look across, and note the layered arches across on the far side. “See looking. Remember it for later,” he said. “See looking.”
Rather than proceeding down the steps, you go around into the corridors of the stepwell. Even though this is not the labyrinth (I’ll get to that later), it already felt quite maze-like.
I have forgotten most of what he told me about the bowli, except two things. One, there was a tunnel within the warren of bowli corridors that connects all the way to Faizabad, which is something like 100km away. (What? Secret tunnel connecting cities? Can we say awesome?)
And second, there were pools within the complex which were not clean, despite the stepwell having freshwater sourced from the Gomti River. They were dark, even oily in appearance.
This was done on purpose. They were ‘mirror wells’.
Defending the stepwell
Further into the bowli complex, there’s less light coming in. So the garrison for the bowli used ponds placed at the bottom of stair approaches, to determine whether approaching soldiers wore their own colours, or were British redcoats. If the reflection showed red, they would shoot while still being unseen themselves.
Finally, as we passed by more arches, the guide stopped, and bid me look across.
We were exactly in line with where we entered, when he asked me to note the far arches. We were now where the Nawab’s soldiers would have been stationed.
Washed in bright light, the British soldiers would be highly visible and in the line of fire coming down the steps. But the garrison remained hidden in the shadowed arches.
The Labyrinth of Bara Imambara (Bhool-Bhulaiya)
On the ticket package, the labyrinth of Bara Imambara is named Bhool-Bhulaiya. If you didn’t know this meant ‘labyrinth’, you might not know to be interested, or know that the ‘labyrinth’ signs within the compound refer to the same thing. Well, except if you can read the Arabic script, which does translate it to ‘Bul-bulayya’.
The entrance to the labyrinth requires getting onto the raised platform in front of the imambara. Like Chota Imambara, you have to take your shoes off to get on the platform. The system seemed more organised here with a ticket stub system for you to re-claim your shoes, instead of just a receipt. The fee was 2 rupees.
You would be offered a guide, at the labyrinth entrance. I agreed to one, since I thought I wouldn’t be able to appreciate something like a labyrinth without one. Also, my good experience with the bowli made me a lot more open to taking another guide.
However, it turned out that the guide I spoke to, who had good English, was not the one who would take me. He handed me over to another guide who already had a group of Indian tourists, saying that the would run the tour in both Hindi and English.
I agreed to it, but in hindsight maybe I should have held out for an English language tour, even if it had to be only me. Although the guide could speak English, he clearly preferred Hindi. So occasionally, he did not bother to translate for me, and I missed quite a bit. In fact, sometimes his tour group was the one who translated for him!
Lost in the Bhool-Bhulaiya
The labyrinth was not actually created as a maze on purpose. It basically came about because the Nawab wanted the central hall to be open, without any columns. So the architects solved the problem by making the ceiling as hollow as possible, leading to the maze of corridors that circle around and above the upper part of Bara Imambara.
It is very easy to get lost in the maze. It is said that there is only one way out, but unless you know it, you would wander for ages trying to find it.
We came into corridors that were narrow and long, kind of creepy in its going-nowhereness. But then we seemed to suddenly emerge into corridors where the arches look down upon the central hall of the imambara.
I was not interested enough in the mausoleum purpose of the building to go inside. So my only sight of it was from above, from the labyrinth. It was a green-walled hall, shallow and wide, and much less cluttered than Chota Imambara. In the middle was the tomb of Nawab Asaf ud-Daula.
The roof parapets of Bara Imambara
The guide went back into the passageways of the labyrinth, and we seemed to sometimes go down and sometimes go up. It can get dark in the labyrinth at this point, so we were told to switch on our phone lights.
Eventually we came into a corridor that was brighter, as the arches opened to the outside. Here, the guide showed us how the corridor functioned like a kind of echo chamber. If you listened close to the wall, a signal rapped from further on could be heard. It was a way for the garrison to communicate, without alerting potential intruders.
The labyrinth connects to the rooftop of the imambara. From the parapet arches, you have a panoramic view of the imambara compounds and surrounding areas.
When the time was up, our guide took us back into the labyrinth. Within a short few moments, we were suddenly back out. Just like that.
Husainabad Clock Tower
I include the clock tower in this list, not because I consider it a true must-see. It’s a pretty enough clock tower, in a pleasant enough grass lawn area. However, it is near to both the imambaras, and can be a quick stop between one and the other.
It is also in the vicinity of the Picture Gallery, which will probably be included in whatever ticket package you have. A compact red building, this is a gallery of paintings and photos of the Nawab rulers of Lucknow. Some of them are gilded, and very skilfully painted. (And I say this as someone who has seen the Raphaels in the Vatican).
However, it’s basically just that, and since they don’t allow any photography, it’s hard to remember much from the visit. Personally, if it wasn’t included in the ticket, I would skip it.
Spend the afternoon in a shopping district
Around this point you would be looking for (a possibly late) lunch. Unlike what I’m used to in Malaysia, tourist attractions in Lucknow (or generally in Uttar Pradesh for that matter) do not come with food outlets bolted on.
My recommendation is to choose a shopping district you would like to wander in after having lunch there. The reason is that there’s so much you could soak in just wandering the streets and markets of a city vs touring its monuments.
Lucknow is a big city, with many districts even just within the core city. You could basically choose between two: Aminabad (closer to the train station) for more of an old city street bustle, or Hazratganj (a bit further to the east towards the river), for a more British India feel.
I chose Aminabad, mainly because it was nearer my hotel. This district has a Muslim area, so you would be able to find non-vegetarian and halal Mughal food. Old Nazirabad Road has a few such restaurants. Further north along this same road, you would also find some money changers.
Witness a random procession of India
Another reason to wander these streets, is that you might come across a religious festival procession. India has many, many holy days (which is not surprising considering the many gods in the Hindu pantheon, plus its many other religions). So there’s a decent chance of this happening at some point on an India trip.
One such procession passed by as I was wandering about. There was a truck and carts carrying music equipment blaring tunes, colour-stained revellers dancing to drummers – men in front, and women behind. And finally, a horse-drawn open carriage, decorated with flowers.
Afterwards, I asked my Indian friends online about what the festival could be.
Did you see an Elephant-headed idol in the truck? If yes, then this is a part of the Hindu festival, Ganesh Chaturthi.
Indeed, the idol borne by the final carriage was an elephant-headed idol. It seems that it is a significant festival, whereby big clay idols of the god Ganesha, smeared with turmeric, are taken to a local water body and immersed.
Other things to see during a stopover day in Lucknow
If you’re up for a longer day, or would rather see the sights than wander a shopping district, there are a few other options of note:
This is a manor house and garden built by the Nawabs. It was closed at the time I was there, so I can’t say whether it is truly a must-see or not. However, if you chose Hazratganj for lunch, then it is just slightly further east towards the river.
I went here the morning after. I had some time on my second day, since my train out from Lucknow was in the late evening. This park is just across Gomti river.
In general, going in this direction and crossing the river, you come into a part of Lucknow that feels completely different from the old part. Buildings are more modern, the roads are better, the cars bigger, and there’s a general feeling of wealth. The Renaissance and the Taj are here, very different hotels indeed than where I stayed.
However, personally, I did not really like Ambedkar Park. It seems built to be monumental, but without the artistry and detail of the old monuments. The park itself seemed to have very few trees, so for summer it felt too harsh to walk in. I think I was also turned off by the entrance, where there was no shelter and no seating, but there’s a solid and roomy space for VVIPs.
However, there is a very interesting cafe near here, which I found through wandering around. (Tip: first get onto the parallel side roads which are sort of under the big highways in front of Ambedkar Park). Sheroes’ Hangout is a cafe and outreach centre run by survivors of acid attacks. Aside from supporting a great cause, the food is decent too.
The ruins of the Residency mark the place where the dwelling of the British Resident-General had been, who was a ‘representative’ of the British in Nawab royal courts. It is somewhere between Bara Imambara and Sikandar Bagh.
As a Malaysian, I am well aware of what a British ‘Resident’ is. Not a ‘representative’ as in ‘a diplomat’, the Resident was the means by which the British Empire controlled many colonies, including the Malay states (present-day peninsular Malaysia), by holding the actual governing power but preserving the appearance that the local ruler was still in charge. Although, objectively, it was a more intelligent way to perpetrate colonisation than the way the continental Europeans did it.
The Residency of Lucknow was also the refuge of basically all the Europeans in the area during the Revolt of 1857, to tragic ends.
Hiring a rickshaw in Lucknow
Unlike Varanasi, whose main attractions are a lot more compact (even though I stayed outside of the old city, it was still walkable to the ghats), Lucknow is much bigger. There was no way I could walk to all of the must-see attractions of Lucknow.
Considering the mad traffic and questionable existence of traffic rules, the sensible option would be some kind of sturdy vehicle, like a taxi or at least a tuktuk. But for some reason, I didn’t feel like hiring the tuktuk drivers that I passed first, walking down the main road near my hotel.
Eventually though, I could not ignore the inescapable fact that I needed to hire something. Abruptly I turned to the next person I came across – an incredibly thin old man, with an ageing rickshaw – and hired him.
Rickshaw vs Lucknow traffic
Before this question can be appreciated, the traffic in Lucknow needs to be understood. It is full on. I had described my impressions of the traffic upon arriving into Varanasi – but in Lucknow it is x10. Every kind of vehicle is on the road, and more of them.
I have certainly seen my share of mad traffic. There’s the infamous Jakarta gridlock. And then there’s the never-ending flow of Ho Chi Minh City motorcycles. And once, we were stuck in a van in Manila traffic for four friggin’ hours, an epic experience which has gone down in my work team’s oral history; until today we commemorate the baffled kitten who was the unfortunate victim of a desperate bladder, and the tale of the cake hallucination… but that’s a different story.
Anyway, it’s still not as mad as the traffic I saw in Lucknow. It was there that I saw for the first time, a harried traffic policeman at an intersection, armed with a stout stick, which he used to prod recalcitrant motorists (and their vehicles) to follow traffic rules, and occasionally threaten to strike them with. That mad.
However, the saving grace of Lucknow traffic is that, at least it moves. Don’t ask me how, but it does. And for some reason, it was perfectly doable to navigate this traffic in a slow and ungainly rickshaw. Although if you have no command of Hindi, you might inadvertently end up in a situation where your rickshaw driver starts to turn into traffic the wrong way, calmly pedalling along, and you are not able to make him understand why you believe this is not the best thing for your mutual life expectancy.
Unsurprisingly, my rickshaw man spoke no English, and seemed to understand very little of it. By gestures, he asked me how much I would pay him. I nearly decided to move on, perhaps find a driver I could more easily communicate with, given my lack of Hindi. Perhaps, also a more sturdy vehicle.
But his eyes, when he looked at me, was quiet with a simple hope. His mouth, part agape in a hopeful toothless smile. His hair part gone, his red shirt faded. And I thought about his obvious age, yet there he was in the streets still. Living day by day. Ah, the hell with it. Let’s do this Lucknow traffic in a rickshaw.
By the use of gestures and show-and-tell, I offered something similar to what I generally paid rickshaw drivers in Varanasi**, which was not a lot at all, even for a fellow Asian. Even so, I had haggled very little in Varanasi, so I know that most likely I still overpaid.
But he readily agreed.
Later on, when we arrived at the first stop, he refused to be paid. He offered to drive me for the whole day, leaving it up to me how much to offer. Suspecting that the first ride had been generous, I offered only the equivalent of three post-haggling Varanasi rides for the full day.
And he still quickly agreed again.
So I have no idea how cheap it could really go. But considering the distances we covered, I’m not really interested to know. I could not imagine haggling him down any more than that.
*I found that this is generally the case across my trip in Uttar Pradesh, in the monuments and in the stories of the tour guides. The history of the land is heavy with grievances and horrific acts of violence, and each one is remembered and passed on through the generations with all its gory details, without any clear sign of reconciliation. In fact, if you think about it, Uttar Pradesh’s grandest monuments basically revolve around mourning. While I’m certainly in favour of acknowledging rather than ignoring the evils that mankind had carried out, I can’t help but feel that the constructive and healthy way to do it, is so that we can avoid repeating history, rather than just passing on a remembered anger that no longer has a cause, gripping embers of resentment in your hands, passing it still burning down countless generations, at any time having the potential to start a new fire of hatred.
**I still often took rickshaws in Varanasi, despite the ghats being within walking distance, both to save time and to intentionally pay into the local economy.
Carbon offsetting information to Lucknow, India
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Varanasi via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,573 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this. Travelling to Lucknow from Varanasi by train only adds about 43 lbs CO2e, which hardly adds even $1 to the offset.
I was pleasantly surprised by Lucknow! I hope that Hussainabad Trust gets better funding. The old city should get an uplift, don’t you think?