Welcome to Chowk, the heart of old Lucknow. The sound of the azaan here will blend seamlessly with the chants of the aarti, as you seek the hidden mosques and temples, residing side by side in its by-lanes.
It has always been a centre for art and culture, be it the exquisite chikankari and zardozi or cloth dyeing and printing, the sublime art of itar-making or the tough task of beating silver into varq. Be it the mouth-watering aroma of kebabs or the heavenly fragrances of itars, you will find it all here, and then some more.
Once upon a time this street also housed the kothas of the famed Lakhnawi courtesans. They were highly respected in the society and apart from entertaining the Nawabs of Awadh with their ghazals, thumri and Kathak, they also trained the children from noble families in etiquette and mannerisms. So, in the days of yore, Chowk, as a one-point stop for commerce, craft, food and entertainment, was the veritable hub of the society.
Now the city might have expanded around it, spreading to far-flung corners, but Chowk remains vastly unchanged. It is still as cultured, colourful, crowded and chaotic as it ever was, bursting at the seams and always throbbing with activity, from the hottest June afternoons to the coldest January evenings. For the curious traveler, it hides undiscovered treasures in every lane.
One in particular leads to the Firangi Mahal, which gets its name from the ‘firangi’ or foreigners, who lived here before the land was bestowed upon Maulana Abdul Baari’s family by the royal decree of the then Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Baari was a famous scholar, a key player in the fight for freedom and a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, who stayed here whenever he visited Lucknow, and whose letters are proudly displayed in the courtyard for tourists to look at.
Another gem hidden in plain sight is the Tehsin ki Masjid, which seems to loom out of nowhere the moment you step through the narrow doorway. Named after the royal official who commissioned it, the mosque is said to have been built out of left-over raw materials from the famous Asafi Imambada. Also waiting to be discovered is the Nepali Kothi, dealing in sale of amber, saffron and medicinal herbs, and the ancient King’s Unani Hospital, which still offers a week’s medicine for a measly fifteen rupees.
Chowk is also a food lover’s paradise. The proprietor at the famous Tunde Kebabi will serve unbelievable melt-in-the-mouth kebabs with a smile and an Urdu sher. The flavour of kulcha-nihari at Rahim’s will linger on the taste-buds long after the rest is forgotten. These famous eateries do not sport any signage but the aroma emanating from their establishments is identity enough. A truly dedicated food-aholic can even search for the delicious poori-aloo and khasta-kachori at Sevak Ram and Mullu Khaste Wale in the by-lanes. And finally satisfy the sweet tooth with the winter special makhan-malai and thandai at the Gol Darwaza.
Shopping here is more of an educational experience than a commercial one. In workshops scattered all over artisans are seen working at the delicate chikankari or zardozi embroidery. In a small shop wedged in a corner sits Munne Khan Benaras Wale beating away a silver sheet into varq. The sweet fragrance of itars and the colours of the Lakhnawi gharare or flared trousers beckon from the shops. The generations old shops selling such rare products at affordable prices make Chowk a true old fashioned shopper’s heaven.