Mythology and History are counterposed. Myths need not go to earlier times but they in some cases carry forward earlier ideas. However, their fluid chronology, and the fact that they are generally not records of actual happenings, myths can be used only in a limited way and cannot be treated as a factual account. Yet the prizing out of the social assumptions implicit in a myth can be helpful to restructuring some kinds of history. The interpretation of myths, if handled with caution, can invoke some of the fantasies and subconscious beliefs of their authors, while the structure of the myth can hint at the connections and confrontations in a society of those sustaining the myths. Since history now reflects many voices, some from sources other than those from the courts of the rulers, mythology or the more popular traditions can no longer dismissed as unimportant.[1]

It is still a popular belief that Indians were an ahistorical people and kept no records of their history. The ancient Indians did keep records of their history. They kept records of those aspects which they felt were significant and worth preserving. It is true that most of these records do not deal with political events and activities. They are more in nature of genealogies, legends and monastic chronicles – all legitimate constituents of a historical tradition but not, unfortunately, very useful as a description of contemporary happening. Even the factual records of this period were written largely in the Brahmi script which could not be deciphered. Systematic record keeping began only after A.D. 500 when court chronicles and historical biographies of considerable authenticity were maintained by the Turkish and Mughal courts. Hence, the study of Ancient Indian history is largely riddled with myths.

The paper aims to highlight the popular myths in Indian history, particularly the ancient and medieval period. It will then go on to discuss how some of these myths have acquired political prominence and have been used as tools of propaganda in recent years.



The discovery of the Indian past was initiated under the auspices of the new rulers, the British. When the Europeans arrived in India and began to look for histories of India, they found ample evidence on the period after about A.D. 1000. The earlier centuries remained historically blurred. Research in the history of ancient India was initiated by Sir William Jones who was followed by James Mill. Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century was exploring different avenues of research. Linguistic studies, especially which of Sanskrit, helped develop the discipline of comparative philology in Europe, which in turn led not only to encourage the study the early languages of Asia but also to re-reading the early history of Eurasia. It was also during this period that the notion of racial superiority swept Europe. Traditional aristocracies upheld ones status in the society and also incorporated them in the new colonial hierarchy that was rapidly developing. Sanskrit and the ethnography of India were studied in the context of racial purity and superiority.[2] Hence, the origin of the Aryan ‘race’ became the primary subject for research. In his address to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal Sir William Jones stated that languages like Greek, Latin, Gothic, Celtic, Persian and Sanskrit have the same source of origin.[3] One the basis of this similitude of languages, he concluded that Europe was the original homeland of the Aryans. The argument was supported on the basis of physical similarities and the description of th the flora and fauna in the Vedic texts. Max Muller, a German scholar, who also reflected on race while studying Sanskrit. His study of the Vedic Sanskrit and philology brought him to his theories of the Aryan race. Max Muller maintained that the Aryans had originated in Central Asia, one branch migrating to Europe and another settling in Iran, with a segment of the Iranian branch subsequently moving to India. He dated the earliest composition of the latter, the Rig-Veda, to about 1200 BC. The Aryans, he maintained, had invaded in large numbers and subordinated the indigenous population of northern India in the second millennium B.C. They had introduced the Indo-Aryan language, the language of the conquerors who represented a superior civilization. The latter emerged as Vedic culture and become the foundation of Indian culture. Since a mechanism for racial segregation was required, this took the form of dividing society into socially self-contained and separate castes. Race was seen as a scientific explanation for caste and the four main castes or varnas were said to represent the major racial groups. Their racial identity was preserved by the strict prevention of intermarriage between them. Max Muller’s theory and the other theories propounded by European scholars gave rise to the ‘myth of racial superiority’ of a particular section of the Indian society and was later deeply embedded in the Indian psyche.

The Aryans who had colonized the whole of the Punjab were not likely to remain inactive on the banks of Satluj or the mythical river Saraswati. The tide of their conquests moved onwards and they crossed those rivers and explored the distant shores of the Jamuna and the Ganges. They settled across the Ganges and marched further eastwards to found new colonies and new Hindu kingdoms. Historically, this was the period of the sixteen Mahajanapadas or the sixteen political republics that were formed during the age of Buddha.[4] The texts which claim to reflect this period are the epics- Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They began as oral traditions and were more informally memorized and frequently added to, and were converted to their present textual form in the early first millennium AD.

The Mahabharata as it survives today is among the longest single poems. Traditionally its composition is ascribed to Ved Vyas. The main action revolves around what has become the famous contest between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and is set in the fertile and strategic region around Delhi. The geography of the Mahabharat focused on the Ganges-Yamuna and adjoining areas and also is Saurastra in Gujarat, where the Yadvas, the clan to which Lord Krishna belonged, were based. Incidentally, these two were the more active cities after the decline of the Harappan cities. The Kauravas with their capital at Hastinapur, one of the 16 Mahajanapadas, were the hundred sons of Dhritrashtra, and the Pandavas the five sons of Pandu were their cousins. The Pandavas became heirs to the Kuru territories, since Dhristrashtra was blind and therefore not eligible to rule. But Pandu had a skin ailment that made succession of the Pandavas uncertain. Dhritrashtra, in the hope of avoiding a conflict between the cousins, divided the territory and gave half to the Pandavas, who ruled from Indraprastha, which is in the vicinity of Delhi. But this arrangement did not satisfy the Kauravas, who challenged the Pandavas to a gambling match. The later staked all their wealth and also their wife which they lost and spent the next few years in exile. The Kauravas were still unwilling to allow them to rule, so the matter had to be settled through a war. They battled for eighteen days on the plains at Kurukshetra, resulting in the annhilition of many clans, including most of the Kauravas. The Pandavas after ruling peacefully, renounced leadership, installed a grandson and went to the City of Gods in the Himalaya. Intervening frequently in the narrative, as a close friend and adviser of the Pandavas, was the Yadava chief, Krishna.

Krishna renounced war in Mathura for the greater good of the people living in the region and founded the city of Dwarka in Gujarat. Krishna’s Dwarka finds a mention in the Mahabharata, and it is said that this Dwarka was located near the site of the current city of Dwarka, but was eventually deserted and submerged into the sea. Whether the original city of Dwarka actually existed is a subject of debate and is also included in the many myths of Indian history.

The other mythical epic, the Ramayana, is much shorter than the Mahabharata despite later additions. The scene is set further east into the middle Ganges Plain and the Vindhyan forest. The original version of the Ramayana is generally dated to the mid-first millennium BC. The original version is attributed to the poet Valmiki who merged bardic fragments and poetic traditions to create this hallmark of early Sankrit literature. The story revolves around the legendary Price Rama, the heir of the King of Kosala, who married Sita, the princess of Videha. Rama’s stepmother wanted her son to succeed to the throne and successfully contrived to have Rama banished for fourteen years. Accompanied by his wife and his younger brother Lakshman, the exile took them to the forests of the Peninsula where they lived as forest dwellers. But Ravana, the demon King of Lanka- kidnapped Sita. Rama organized an army, taking the assistance of Hanuman, the leader of the monkeys. They built a bridge across the ocean and reached the shores of Lanka. A fierce battle was fought against Ravana, in which Ravana and his army were destroyed and Sita was rescued. The fourteen years of exile ended and they returned to the Kingdom of Kosala.

Despite being mythical documents, the two epics have come under the scanner of many historians and have been subjected to many historical interpretations. The Mahabharata and Ramayana have at times been declared as myths. Dr. D.C. Sircar, an eminent Epigraphist and a former chief Epigraphist to the Government of India, declared that the Mahabharata was a myth, devoid of little historical facts.[5] The epics are each concerned with events that are difficult to date since many passages were added at a time later than the original composition. The versions we have today are generally placed in a chronological bracket between the mid-first millennium BC to the mid-first millennium AD. Therefore, they can hardly be regarded as authentic sources for the study of a narrowly defined period. Incidents from the epics can have some historical authenticity provided they are supported by some archeological evidence that can be found to bear them out. An example of this case is the flood at Hastinapur, which has found a mention in the epic and is also corroborated with archeological evidence. This particular evidence has been used to date the war to 900 BC. But such co-relations have so far proved futile. Poetic fantasy and epic poetry is undoubtedly fascinating but cannot be an ally of historical authenticity.

However, the epics help in the greater understanding of the society at large. Mahabharata speaks volumes about clan based societies which had become very common during the period from 1200 BC- 600BC. It also refers to the complexities of administering kingdoms. Originally, the Mahabharata may have been the description of a more localized feud, but it caught the imagination of bards who described the events in the form of a fantasy. The conflict between Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana also reflects an exaggerated version of local conflicts, occurring between expanding kingdoms of the Ganges plain and the less sedentary societies of the Vindhyan range. Both these battles in the two epics symbolize the end of small clan based societies and chiefdoms and the establishment of much larger Kingdoms that were formed in the subsequent centuries.

The emergence of the great Mauryan Empire marked a shift from the 16 republics. Founded by Chandragupta Maurya, it become the largest empires during this period (321 BC-185 BC). Perhaps, the greatest myth surrounding the Mauryan empire is the mysterious accession of its emperor Asoka to the throne. It is believed that when his father and the incumbent, Bindusara became gravely ill, Ashoka succeeded him, although one hundred of his other brothers were mysteriously murdered. Many historians believe Ashoka had his own brothers eliminated so that he could succeed his father.[6]

Asoka’s reign as emperor began with a series of wars and bloodshed, culminating in the Kalinga War. The mammoth loss of life and suffering witnessed on the battlefield made him turn away from war. He subsequently became deeply influenced by Buddhism, and adopted the righteous path. Historically yet to be proven, the myth surrounding Asoka’s accession to the throne and his redemption after embracing Buddhism is largely circulated in today’s time. It is done to re-affirm the fact that it was infact the influence of Buddhism that stirred Asoka’s inner soul and turned him into a man of benevolence and virtue. People today are asked to emulate the same. Myths in such cases are developed to highlight the contrast between the good and the bad.

In the Islamic era, it was the desecration of temples initiated by Emperor Babur that has become a controversial myth. Akbar’s wife, Jodha bai, continues to be a myth. In recent times, the issue came to the fore with the release of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodha Akbar.[7] A lot of popular history regarding Akbar, Jodha Bai and Salim seems to have been derived from the movie Mughal-e-Azam. However, there is no conclusive historical record. The love story of Anarkali and Salim which was encapsulated in the magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam is one of the greatest myths of medieval history. Anarkali is the quasi-mythical character of a slave girl in love with the Mughal Prince Salim, later to be known as Emperor Jahangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this liaison and had the girl walled up at the Mughal court in Lahore. Shattered in love, the prince later built a mausoleum in her memory sixteen years after her death. The monument is still standing at Lahore and is famous as Anarkali herself but historians are not contended that the monument in fact belongs to Anarkali.


The image of the past is the historian’s contribution to the future. However, this image can be used by his contemporaries for political mythmaking. Such political projections of society seek intellectual justification from the theories of historians and other social scientist.[8] To mention, some rather obvious examples – the myth of the racial superiority of the Aryans came in very useful to Hitler and the formation of Fascism and Nazism.

The reaction in India to the myth surrounding the invasion of the Aryans was wide-ranging even among those who were not historians. It came to be used in the political confrontations of different groups. Since the early half of the twentieth century, this view gradually shifted from supporting the theory of the Aryan invasion to denying such an event. The theory largely supported by Veer Savarkar and other votaries of Hindu spirituality concluded that the Aryans in fact were the original inhabitants of the land and had not arrived from a foreign region. It was later claimed that only the Hindus, the believers in Vedic culture, were the lineal descendants of the Aryans. They were therefore the true inheritors of land, the aliens in turn were the Muslims and the Christians whose religion had originated in west Asia. This viewpoint was driven more by compassion than any empirical evidence. Over the years it led to the emergence of the hard-line Hindutva ideology which was to play an integral role in the division of the country in 1947 and also the assassination of Gandhi.[9]

In the later half of the twentieth century, the use of myths became integral to the politics of the Sangh Parivar, a chief representative of the Hindutva ideology. The first issue to come to the core was the reality behind the epic Ramayana and Lord Ram. Oral versions of the Ramayana have circulated for centuries. It has been told, retold, translated and trans-created throughout the country and it continues to be performed in dance, drama, puppet shows, songs and movies all across Asia. From childhood most Indians learn the characters and incidents of these epics and they furnish the ideals and wisdom of common life. The epic binds together the many peoples of India, transcending caste, distance and language. However, ever since Ayodhya became a disputed territory, Ram and instances from the Ramayana have become at the centre stage of the political mobilization. Beginning with the movement for the construction of the temple at Ayodhya, the Sangh Parivar engaged in providing authenticity to various myths surrounding the life of Rama. The central issue of the Ayodhya movement was the identification of the exact birthplace of Rama, which was difficult to ascertain owing to the lack of evidence. Local tradition identifies Ayodhya through a popular myth, which runs as follows: After Treta Yuga when Ram was supposed to have been born Ayodhya could not be located. While Vikramaditya was looking for Ayodhya, a saint told him to leave a calf loose and the place at which the calf secreted milk would be the place where Ayodhya was located. Vikramaditya did as he was told, and where the calf secreted milk he located Ayodhya. This mythical story became the basis for the identification of Ayodhya as well as the birthplace of Rama.

In the accounts given by leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the place of birth became an indisputable fact of history. Following this identification, the VHP accorded historical status to a series of myths. These include the existence of the Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid and the attempts by Hindus to reclaim the temple through several battles against the Muslims in which many sacrificed their lives. It later led to the demolition of the Babri masjid at this very sight in December 1992.

Soon after Ayodhya, the issue of Ram Sethu emerged as yet another issue when myth was intertwined with politics. It was the mega marine Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) launched by the Government of India that brought the Ram Setu controversy to the core. The project envisaged the dredging of the shallow ocean region in the south-eastern Bay of Bengal to create an artificial channel-like passage for ships across the island formations called Adam’s Bridge or Ram Sethu.

The bridge, or sethu, is a discontinuous chain of sandbars dotting a 30-km stretch in the east-west direction between the southern tip of the Rameswaram island in India and Talaimannar in northwestern Sri Lanka, creating a geographical divide between the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, which form part of the southern Cauvery basin. Scientifically, the Rama Sethu is shown to be a pre human structure, called ‘tombol’, a sand deposition due to natural process. The Geological Survey of India ruled out its being manmade. The inference from NASA satellite pictures is that it is due to sedimentation of clay and lime stone. It is tombol in NASA language, connecting one land with another, and that it is from times when human habitation is doubtful. However, the scientific explanations and its economic viability were questioned when different political agitations supported by the various Hindu organizations or the Sangh Parivar criticized the project. According to myth and popular belief, the Ram Sethu was derived from the epic Ramayana wherein Ram built this bridge with the help of his allies, the monkey army, to reach Lanka and rescue his abducted wife Sita, thus giving rise to the belief among Hindus that the island chain is was made by an army of monkeys. 


Mythological bridges driven by political goals and emotions have been constructed in recent years. Myths have now become authentic histories and not only are they paraded as historical facts but they have found place in textbooks as authentic history.[10] Over a period of time, many of these facts could become part of popular history also.

Myth represents reality but symbolically and metaphorically. Yet they tend to mask reality. Therefore, myths are illusory representations of man and his world. Given their illusory nature, myths may not help to unravel the historicity of an event but are an important means to understand reality.[11] Given this overlap, myths are often used or misused for a variety of purposes. So far they have been used to understand natural phenomenon, the origin of certain races, and the understanding of the growth of certain societies. Unfortunately over the years, they have also become tools of political propaganda.

Myths go beyond facts and empirical evidence. In the process, they guide us in analyzing the society from a different perspective. Hence, their importance as sources of history cannot be ruled out. However, at a time when attempts are being made to use myths for political advantage, it is imperative to impart a secular and unbiased character to them so that dispassionate research can be encouraged.



[1] Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin, New Delhi, 2002, p. xxii.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] L.P. Sharma, History of Ancient India, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 1987, p. 15.

[4] G.P. Singh, Republics, Kingdoms, Towns and Cities in Ancient India, D.K. Print World, New Delhi, 2003, p. 93.

[5] S.P. Gupta and K.S. Ramachandra (eds.), Mahabharata: Myth or Reality, Agam Prakashan, Delhi, 1976, p. 7.

[6] Romila Thapar, Early India, pp. 176-178.

[7] Omair Ahmed, ‘Once upon a Fable’, in Outlook, Vol.48, No. 7, 18th February 2008, pp. 77-78.

[8] Romila Thapar, Past and Prejudice, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1994, p.2.

[9] Ibid., p. 14

[10] Ibid.

[11] K.N. Panikkar, Myth, History, Politics, 28th September 2007,


Historical Bazaars of Lucknow

Indian Markets as a means to Promote Cultural Tourism: A look at the ‘Historical Bazaars’ of Lucknow

Heritage and Cultural tourism primarily include within their ambit historical and natural sites as well as the cultural traditions of a place such as dance forms, festivals, rituals, and values and lifestyles of the people. The glorious past of India has ensured that the present and subsequent generations have plenty of historical and cultural heritage to be proud of.

There is no dearth of historical, archeological, and natural sites in India. The ethnic diversity of the country has provided it with a lustrous culture. However, while taking a break from the customary aspects of Indian tourism, this paper will aim to highlight the importance of Indian Markets or ‘Bazaars’ as a chief resource for the promotion of ‘cultural tourism’. Shopping and food form a necessary part of a travelers’ itinerary, hence, one cannot ignore these Bazaars as essential tourist sites.

Indian Bazaars have a history and tradition that dates back to the ancient Indus civilization. In the medieval period, the Indian Bazaar acquired a new identity and became a vital feature of the Indian culture. During the Islamic era, Indian bazaars marketed everything from clothes, household implements, caged birds, and also offered a rich culinary treat. These bazaars have survived well into the present times.

Lucknow is a city popular for its many ‘Historical Bazaars’ such as Hazrat Ganj, Nakhas, Chawk and Aminabad. In Lucknow today, there is a new found interest in its own history and heritage, a part of the wider Indian movement towards conservation which must be welcomed. Voluntary and statuary bodies, including the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), the Indian National Trust for Archeological and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and the Uttar Pradesh State Tourism Department are raising the city’s historical profile. My paper, I like to think, will also help focus attention on Lucknow’s unique assets and suggested ways in which they can be preserved for the future. Anyone who loves old Lucknow must have their own particular wish list of what they would like to see restored, and perhaps in today’s scenario this is not such an impossibility. My own nominations, besides many other things, would be the bazaars of Lucknow. Being active commercial centres of the city they also have an enticing cultural disposition which, I believe, has been largely ignored over the years.

The paper will first trace the history of Lucknow, since it forms a key area of cultural tourism. It will then go onto to discuss the relevance of these bazaars; the different facets of these markets such as their shopping and food culture. The concentric aim of the paper will be to outline ways through which these ‘Historical Bazaars’ can be promoted as key cultural tourist sites.

Nawabi Lucknow: Its Historical and Cultural Milieu

“On the eve of the Indian Rebellion of 1857” says William Dalrymple, “Lucknow, the capital of the Kingdom of Awadh, was indisputably the largest, most prosperous and most civilized pre-colonial city in India. Its spectacular skyline – with its domes and towers and gilded cupolas, palaces and pleasure gardens, ceremonial avenues and wide maidans – reminded travelers of Constantinople, Paris or even Venice. The city’s courtly Urdu diction and elaborate codes of etiquette were renowned as the most subtle and refined in the sub-continent; its dancers admired as the most accomplished; its cuisine famous as the most flamboyantly baroque.”[I]

One fifty years later, Lucknow is rapidly turning into a city of swank malls, café coffee days, and elephants. The fine Urdu diction of the young and old has been replaced by the continuous bantering of its call centre employees. It is also among the fastest growing non-major-metropolitan cities of India and is the second largest city in the state of Uttar Pradesh. However, Lucknow is still a city of Mosques and Imambaras. Pigeons wheel over domes and little boys and girls fly kites from small domed Mughal pavilions. The current economic boom may have cast its spell on this city of the Nawabs, but history remains intact in all the quarters of the city. It is this unique combination of cultured grace and the newly acquired pace that makes it a promising cultural and heritage tourist spot.

The Gomati river stands a silent witness to the many twists and turns the city has seen through the years. Lucknow’s destiny took a fortunate turn when Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula chose it as the site for his new capital of Awadh in 1775, to distance himself from his imperious mother in Faizabad. In eight intense and inspired decades (1775-1856), it grew magically from an unremarkable township into the sophisticated and widely admired court city of the Nawabs of Awadh. It quickly outshone Delhi as the cultural star in the northern firmament even as the Mughal power was on the verge of a decline. Under the patronage of the Nawabs and the nobility, Lucknow attracted poets, artists, and storytellers, who joined the distinguished gathering at the court. The aesthetic and a special fastidiousness of manners and speech, style, fashion, and a refinement in craftsmanship soon became the cachet of Lucknow. Its people and its cultural products were greatly sought after, imitated, or mocked in envy.

The high noon of the Laknawi culture continued even with the lengthening shadow of the East India Company. After having aggressively achieved paramount power in the subcontinent, the British insinuated themselves into the court of the Nawab in Faizabad and later followed the court of his son and heir, Asaf-ud-Daula to Lucknow. They found the riches of Lucknow irresistible and gradually advanced their way into the kingdom. The “Fatal Friendship”[II] of the Nawabs and the English imparted a distinctive culture to the city. New forms of hybrid architecture developed and there was a splurge of Western thoughts and ideas even in the Awadhi court. There were also times when His Majesty would dress up in “a crisp black suit and a London hat.”[III]

In spite of half a century of ceaseless political interference, intimidation, and fiscal exploitations practiced by the Company on successive Nawabs of Awadh, Lucknow flourished and grew. It showed even greater vitality under its last beloved Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, who was wrongly accused of inefficiency and debauchery by Company officials to justify a long planned takeover. Finally, the East India Company sent the Nawab into exile and annexed Awadh in 1857, thus provoking a rebellion in 1857 that swept the state with an unprecedented fury. After the siege, which has been memorialized in a vast literature on both sides, Lucknow lay at the feet of its new masters, its spirit wounded but unbroken. As the embers of battle had died out, the fragrance of khas, henna, and gulab once again mingled with the sweet air of Lucknow and the “defiant noted of the sarangi wailed out of the apartments of courtesans in the Chowk bazaar.[IV]


The Historical Bazaars of Lucknow

“At last”, writes a visitor to Lucknow, “we suddenly entered a very handsome street indeed, wider than the High street at Oxford, but having some distant resemblance to it in the colour of its buildings and the general form and Gothic style of the greater part of them.”[V] Such was Lucknow’s main street- Hazratganj. Contrary to popular belief Hazrat Ganj was not built by Begum Hazrat Mahal, one of the most well known Begums of Wajid Ali Shah. The second last Nawab of Awadh, Amjad Ali Shah, a person of devout and scholarly temperament, honorably referred to as ‘Hazrat’, established Hazrat Ganj. The area was named after him and he also lies buried at Sibtainabad, popularly known as Maqbara, on one end of Hazratganj.   It was left to the British to introduce a colonial and racist character to the area. Called the Queens Way then, Indians were not allowed to enter the main street at certain hours in the evening. In colonial times, British style bakeries (Ben Bows), theaters (Mayfair), and Restaurants such as Kwality and Valerios adorned the street. Valerio’s was what attracted the social elite. A far cry from the Gandhi Ashram that stands in its stead today, Valerio’s was what Gen Next would call a ‘happening place’, especially for the soldiers at the time when World War II came to an end. The ground floor housed the restaurant and there was a huge terrace above where people came to play Housie to earn a quick buck. Dance nights were organized on festivals and other specialoccasions.[VI] This imperialist approach vanished with Independent India, but Anglo-Indians were jeered at by the local populace subsequently, due to their ‘shahib’ connections and mixed origins.

My father, Mr. Deepak Jetley and my aunt, Mrs. Asha Sharma, helped me revive the memories of Hazrat Ganj in the 50s and the 60s. When we visited Lucknow last year in April, he reminded me how the winds of change had swept Lucknow’s premier shopping area. On one of our ganjing days, the first thing that surprised him was Café Coffee Day at the G.P.O junction. He was shocked to know that the 67 year old saree shop of Ram Lall and Bros. had buckled under market forces and like all old things must make for new, this too was replaced by the modern day coffee house. “Way back in 1936”, my aunt retorted, “it was a tailoring shop for the British…They used to do the draping and tailoring for Queen Elizabeth with the help of the Viceroy, who was also their customer.”

Mayfair continued to be a hub of activities even in the 60s and 70s. My aunt recalled her younger days and stated, “The Sunday morning shows at the Mayfair were a special treat for the youngsters.” Not the days when Cartoon Netwrok ruled the roost, animation films and English movies made Mayfair the focal point of entertainment in Hazrat Ganj. Mayfair had a club for youngsters and its members celebrated their birthday by cutting a cake on the stage. Predictably, the theatre ran to packed houses.

There were two other cinema halls in Ganj in much the same style as you have cineplexes today in the metros. Plaza, which later came to be known as Filmistan and then Sahu, and Prince theatre hall stood where Sahu theatre and Prince complex stands today. My father and aunt recalled how Prince theatre was at the ground level, while Filmistan was above that. Of course, they were not hi-tech cinema halls, but Filmistan enjoyed a good reputation at that time. Though films did not come with the hype they do now, film-goers nevertheless turned up to watch a Raj Kapoor movie.

The eateries seemed to have dominated Hazrat Ganj forever. Apart from Valerios in the 40s and Mayfair in the 50s, Kwality adjacent to Mayfair, was the place that the social elite in the city flocked to. Kwality, infact, continued to be a popular joint even in the 70s and 80s. A meal at the restaurant followed by a film at Mayfair was a popular weekend plan for most people. There was also a confectionery shop by the name of Ben Bows. It was owned by a gentleman whose pleasing persona seems to be unforgettable to all the people who made his bakery their regular meeting place. The list of restaurants at Hazrat Ganj in the 60s and 70s was as long as it is today. Ranjana, Annapurna and Krishna were some of the popular restaurants. Chowdhury Sweet House was also a famous eating joint in those days and one could go on about the history of the place. So was Royal Cafe, with a strummer in attendance, which was located near the Halwasiya petrol pump before it moved to its current location and is now run by the same name but by different proprietors. The first popcorn machine in Lucknow also came up in Hazratganj and caused quite a flurry among youngsters. Unbelievable as it may sound, people came to see the machine at Modern Novelties in Love Lane and to get a feel of what the new times had to offer.

Love Lane was also an interesting novelty at Hazrat Ganj. During the colonial period, the city did not have enough places where the British couples could walk in hand in hand. As the main street around Hazrat Ganj was a restricted area, by lanes were used by British couples for their evening walks. Indian lovers also followed the tradition and later it began to be known as the ‘Love Lane’.

Besides being a shopper’s and foodie’s paradise, Hazrat Ganj’s coffee houses offered the much required intellectual stimulation to its many littérateurs. The Indian Coffee House enjoyed the patronage of many senior political leaders and also became a meeting ground for people who would later take on a political career. Heated debates among young Communists and Socialists dominated the coffee house.

If Hazrat Ganj was known for its Colonial touch, Aminabad and Chauk were more ‘Nawabi’ in nature. Built by Asaf ud Daulah, Chauk, the narrow, latticed bazaar-labyrinth was once the centre of Lucknow’s cultural life. In the times of the Nawab, it became known for its many ittar shops. The area used to be full of perfumes from the scent shops.[VII] They had different scents for different seasons: khas for hot season, bhela for the monsoon and henna for the cold. Stalls full of flowers adorned the street and flowers were brought from the gardens and the countryside roundabout.[VIII] It was also in Chauk that the polished courtesans of Lucknow resided. The cultural essence of Chauk began to wane with the passage of time. The carved wooden balconies have still survived. Their elaborate designs, however, are hidden behind modern day hoardings. While walking down the alleys of Chauk one is still confronted, occasionally, by the arched magnificence of a grand haveli. However, the old mansion inside have been either turned into warehouses or godowns. Electricity wires strung down by the side of chowk and many of them have been brutally punched through the walls of the old mansions. Below the living quarters is a wonderful collection of tiny box-like shops selling home made fireworks, fruits, garlands and vegetables.  The ravages of time have left its mark on Chauk but a walk through the oldest street of Lucknow is still a memorable experience because of the series of unfolding scenes such as the rhythm of hammers beating silver into paper to make varq, shoppers lingering at attar shops, bargains taking place for the best of chikankari work and the aroma of roasting meat at a kebab shop.

As for shopping at Chowk, the main concentration of chikan work is to be found here. Besides chikan work you can also buy zardozi and kamdani work. These hand embroideries with gold and silver thread are done on sarees, dupattas, lehengas, cholis, caps, shoes etc. From time immemorial, Lucknow has been known for its jewellery, gold and silver. Exquisite silverware like bowls, tea-sets, salt cellars with patterns of hunting scenes, snakes and roses are very popular. The bidri and zarbuland silver work of Lucknow find expression on excellent pieces of hookah farshi, jewel boxes, trays, bowls, cuff-links, cigarette holders, etcetera. Life-like ivory and bone carvings with motifs of flowers, leaves, creepers, trees, birds and animals are also available. The master craftsmen create intricate items like knives, lamp shades, shirt pins and small toys. In fact, the ivory works from this city continue to find a place at museums and private collections of connoisseurs. Fine pottery from Lucknow is yet another work of art that is popular, particularly surahi, the long necked water pitcher. Then there is attar, the perfume introduced in India by the Muslims. From the 19th century, the Lucknow perfume makers experimented and succeeded in making attar with delicate and lasting fragrances. They created these from various aromatic herbs, spices, sandal oil, musk essence of flowers, and leaves. The famous Lucknawi fragrances are khus, keora, chameli, zaffran and agar. Apart from perfumes, Lucknawi paan, zarda (chewing tobacco), and khamira produced by the local tobacconists are hot favourites among consumers. All this is available at Chowk. Another craft that has reached a high level of artistry in Lucknow is kite making. Although kite making is popular throughout India, this activity attained perfection only in Lucknow. Under Nawabi patronage this form of art flourished and different types of kites and flying strings were developed.

The Chowk is a gourmet’s delight as well – it boasts the best quality non-vegetarian food available in Lucknow. Chowk offers you Raja-ki-thandai and Radhey Lal Sweets. There is also the famous Tunday-Mian-ke-kebab, the eatery which serves galawati kebabs and roti made on an upturned tawa. The other legendary name on the block is Ram Asrey. You have to enter a very narrow lane to reach this mithai shop, and nobody leaves town before buying Ram Asrey’s malai ki gilori. It is said that it was from his shop that special sweets went to Jawaharlal Nehru’s house in Delhi. Indira Gandhi was equally fond of his sweets.

Through Chowk, past Akbari Gate, the road leads to Nakhkhas. An affluent neighbourhood in old Lucknow it was famous for its elegant houses. Families residing in the area were known for their riches and lavish living. They loaned money to the Nawabs and were connoisseurs of good food. Desserts changed with the seasons, for instance, Andarsey ki Goli was preferred in the monsoon and Lowki ka Lachcha became a favourite during summer time.[IX] In summer sherbets made of khus, gulab or kewra essence whipped into cold, sweetened milk would be served all day long. Today, it is a crowded, jostling place where colourful glass bangles, antiques on pavements and exotic birds locked in cages are sold particularly pigeons and fighting cocks. While cock fights are now banned, the antiques bazaar still continues to flourish. It is in Nakhkhas that one can find old gramophone records, some of them even belonging to the era of Rasoolan Bai, old books, electrical appliances, antique decoration items, hookas, pan daans, guldaan etc. Nadan Mahal road, built during the time of Wajid Ali Shah, is also known for its antique items.

The heart of old Lucknow continues to be Aminabad which was built by Amin-ud-Daulah, a minister in the court of Wajid Ali Shah. A walk down present day reminds you how the past has got amalgamated with the present.

Historical Bazaars of Lucknow As Key Cultural Tourists Spots

For a traveler, the bazaar portrays every aspect of a city in particular and the country in culture. It is here where ‘confluence of cultures’ takes place and an iterant gets to observe the general lifestyle of a city from close quarters.  Bazaars are usually situated at the very hub of the city and are thus the most frequented spots by foreigners and domestic tourists alike. Moreover, most of the items available at these bazaars reflect the traditional value of a city as a whole. Intricate artwork tells the tales of a city’s glorious past.


Primary Areas: Restoration, Cleanliness, Hawkers, Parking

Dealing with primary issues such as restoration of buildings, cleanliness, encroachments, and sorting out parking hassles is the first step towards promoting these bazaars as tourist spots. Buildings at all the market places are known for their architectural marvel have to be restored. It should also be assured that their fine carvings or elaborate engravings are not marred by shoddy advertisements. Special policies dealing with illegal hawkers and encroachment should be formulated and general cleanliness, especially in the market areas, will have to be maintained. Traffic control is a dire necessity in all these areas and some vehicles should not be permitted to enter these areas. Building up of paid parking enclosures should also be encouraged.


Setting up of Kiosks or Tourist Information Centres

Kiosks dispensing free information in the form of maps, pamphlets, brochures, or any other form of literature can be set up at a key market area such as Hazrat Ganj. The literature available at the Kiosks can provide general information regarding the history of the city, the various tourist spots in Lucknow and across the state of Uttar Pradesh. Separate pamphlets containing detailed information- history of the bazaars, the prominent shops and eateries, and the traditional arts and crafts that are available- should also be made available.

City tours can be organized and tourists can acquainted with information such as tour timings, tour prices at the kiosks. These kiosks could be managed by two people who can attend tourists and guide them in Hindi as well as English. It should also be assured that the attendants are properly trained in their conduct and behavior.

Enhance Culture

Every market in Lucknow has its own distinctive culture. The colonial milieu of Hazrat Ganj and the Nawabi glimpses of Aminabad and Chauk impart a unique character to these markets. Efforts should be made to enhance their respective attributes. For instance, colonial style hoardings, lampposts can be introduced in Hazrat Ganj. Bakeries and book stores which became popular in the 50s and the 60s should be revived and given a colonial flavor.

Organize Tours within the Bazaars

City tours is a popular tourist attraction in many cities, however, efforts should be made to organize such tours within the market area in Lucknow. Tours can become operative during tourist seasons or during months when the weather is suitable. Instead of enrolling ‘regular’ tour guides the citizenry of Lucknow should be roped in to conduct the tour. Locals who have grown up in the era of the 50s and the 60s should form the ideal choice. During the tour, the guide could give the group of tourists a general feel of the area by haring with them their personal anecdotes and also suggesting to them popular restraints and shops where they can get the best bargain on Chikan wear. College and university students can also be involved and should be encouraged to work as ‘tour guides’ during their vacations.

Tours of City Culminating at these Bazaars

There is no dearth of historical monuments in Lucknow. It is also a city of gardens, ancient temples, medieval mosques and other places of tourist interests. City tours can be designed in such a way that they culminate at one of these markets. Different packages can be designed keeping in mind the proximity of tourist spots to these bazaars. For instance, the Hazrat Ganj package could offer a visit to areas like the tomb of Saadat Ali Khan, Begum Hazrat Mahal park, and the G.P.O. Hazrat Ganj can be the final drop off area where people can shop and eat. Visit to places such as Residency, Bada Imambara, Rumi Darwaza can be included in the Chauk package. Ikka rides could become a special feature of the package. The Aminabad group can visit Kaiser Baugh palace, Baradari, and can reach Aminabad via Latush Road which in itself is a historical landmark of the city.

Weekend Fests

Special festivals on weekends or peak tourist seasons can be organized at these markets. During their visit to one of these markets on a Saturday, local people or tourist could be welcomed food stalls, handicrafts stalls etc. Vehicles should be barred from entering the bazaar areas and Ikka rides or walkathons can be introduced. The festivities can include cultural programes such as street plays enacting events from Lucknow’s history, photographic exhibitions and musical programes.


The bazaars of Lucknow throb with history. Every nook and cranny of these markets has a wonderful anecdote to tell. During my visit to the city last year I observed that not enough measures had been undertaken to promote these markets as areas of cultural and historical interests. Therefore, while shifting my interest from the monumental heritage of the city I listed out ways through which the many historical bazaars of Lucknow can be promoted as key tourists spots. This paper simply forms an avenue through which some of the ideas could reach out to people who take pride in being enduring itinerants.


[I] William Dalrymple, In the Kingdom of Awadh,

[II] Rosie Llewellyn- Jones, A Fatal Friendship: The Nawabs, the British, and the City of Lucknow, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1985.

[III] William Knighton, The Private Life of an Eastern King: By a member of the Household of His Late Majesty, Nussir-ud-Din, King of Oude, Hope & Co., London, 1827, p. 13.

[IV] Veena Talwar Oldenberg, The Making of Colonial Lucknow, Princeton University Press, N.J., 1985,

[V] Sidney Hay, Historic Lucknow, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2002, p. 121.

[VI]Ganjing Down Memory Lane’, in

[VII] William Dalrymple, op.cit.


[VIII] Ibid.


[IX]Chauk to Nakhas’, in

Historical Tales: Looking Beyond the Archives

It is the archive that defines the professional or personal life of a historian. As students, researchers, academics, we are taught to discern, rather devour, those dusty manuscripts and attempt to recreate a past, of which, we claim to be supreme masters. For those, new to the concept of the archive, it is, as explained in simple terms, a repository of documents shedding light on events related to a certain period of history. While archival documents may not be counted as the only sources of history, their role as a storehouse of historical data cannot be undermined. Being a historian and an avid researcher, my career in history, quite naturally began at the archives, in this case the National Archives of India, wherein I shifted from the diaries recording the daily life of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to carefully examining the political proceedings of Delhi in the early nineteenth century, in order to understand the period preceding the Revolt of 1857.

It was during my travels in the north eastern part of the country, that I came across a form of history, which while being undocumented, basis itself, in entirety, on a series of legends, myths and folktales. My travels spread over five years, across the states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Sikkim revealed a history, that has been woven over the years in the form of tales and narrated by village elders. A history, which in the mind of a historian, invokes a depth of imagination that looks beyond the confines of an archive.

With the history of the North East being at the core, the paper will examine the various avenues of historical evidences and research that can be explored by historians today, and those in the making. The paper will first give a glimpse of the histories of the North East, through its many tales and legends, it will then go on to discuss alternate methods of historical research, that can become a historian’s craft in probing the past. ‘Historical tales’ is simply an attempt to look and understand history, unconventionally.


 Myth and oral tradition play a significant role in reconstructing the histories of the North East. The tradition of preserving their oral history existed albeit without a precise timeline of events. Recorded history began to appear only in the 19th century when it became a part of the British Empire in India. With the British annexation of the North East, there began a comprehensive documentation of its peoples by the colonialists. As military administrators of the region, they attempted to understand the history, society and culture of the communities that inhabited the area of their jurisdiction. Anthropologists traveled to the region and analyzed the customs, language and the societal structure of the communities. The missionaries also left several accounts. For a very long time, these foreign accounts were the only written records available on history and cultural heritage.

During research travels through the hill villages of the North East, village elders or Gaon Buras, as they are locally referred to (esp. in the states of Manipur and Nagaland), are usually approached for gathering information, pertaining to history, social structures, cultural patterns of the tribe, the clan, and their village. As interactions with them progress, tales are woven and there begins to emerge a historical world replete with stories tracing origins of these communities, to caves, trees and varied forms of nature. In the villages of Mizoram, the origin of the Mizos, from the bowels of the earth or a stone cave known as the Chhinlung, is recounted as a popular legend.

Similarly, in the rugged Naga hills, rolling swiftly across the states of Nagaland and Manipur, lay the hamlet of Makhel, chronicling the origins of some of the Naga groups. As we stop to record their chronicles, the legend of Makhel resonates through their villages.Makhel is intrinsic to the origins of the Nagas. Village elders point to a hole in the village from where it believed people were seen crawling out.[vi] As people emerged from this hole, the population of the village increased thus leading to a gradual dispersal from Makhel.  Historical vignettes of the Manipuri valley, pre-dominated by the Meitei Hindus, point to an origin of their land in a bowl shaped lake surrounded by hills one finds the first traces of Manipur’s history.


 In his work on Chin Identity, noted anthropologist, Lian Sakhong, mentions that in order to understand the history of the Chin people one follows both the historical and the anthropological approach.[xv] He further states that “while historians begin their historical reconstruction with the origins and immigration of the ancestors, anthropologists focus on the symbiotic, socio-cultural systems, civilizations and hill societies.”[xvi] With the history of the North East being replete with historical tales, it becomes imperative for scholars to corroborate these oral legends with anthropological and etymological sources. However, while delving into anthropological evidences and doggedly looking for the written word, do we sometimes over look the relevance of an oral legend? As historical researchers, quiet rightly taught the methods of research do we, in our bid to achieve conscientiousness, undermine the story narrated by an old gentleman, revered by his fellow villagers as a vanguard of knowledge? These oral legends, perhaps driven by an individuals personal thoughts and emotions, always carry with them the risk of incorporating misconstrued information. However, these historical tales, more often than not, direct us to unique cultures that have evolved differently, cultures that can’t be subject to a written word and have to be understood beyond the realms of historical evidences such as monuments, papers, books, articles, manuscripts etc.

In such a scenario, what is then the historian’s craft? How does on begin the daunting task of understanding a civilization never documented through a written word? A primary step in this direction would be to step out of the library or archive, albeit only briefly, and engulf oneself with the urge to travel. Travelling across such lands, in this case the North East, gives an insight that can never be found in any written pages of history. Travelling with a discerning eye, however, would provide the historian with a deeper understanding of the place and the people they are probing. Keen observations and self analyses, during these journeys, would often reveal to the researcher that they are in fact examining a culture that has not entirely left its past behind but continues to live through it even in present times, chiefly through the historical tales that resonate through their villages. Recording these chronicles then becomes the next tool. Informal interactions and conversations with the villagers, not only makes them comfortable in your presence, but also encourages them to share their vast body of knowledge with you. While recording these chronicles and tales, it is imperative to be a good and most importantly, a dispassionate listener. As your journey progresses, make these tales an essential travel partner, for they not only guide you through your fieldwork but also gives you varied perspectives of history and cultures. Supplementing this information with secondary sources, of course will give the research subject a wholesome form.

With inter and mutli disciplinary research gaining significance in recent times, it becomes essential for us historians to forge ahead of our conformed methods and explore varied avenues and methods of historical research. For it is only when we broaden our scope and objective, will the historian be able to create a craft that is not only known for its outer beauty but is based on an all encompassing approach and ideas.


[i]Lt. Colonel J. Shakespear, The Lushei Kuki Clans, Aizawl:TRI, ,2008,p.93

[ii] N.E. Parry,The Lakhers, Aizawl:TRI, Mizoram, 2008, p.4.

[iii] Song and translation from Dr. Sangkima, Mizos: Society and Social Change, Guwahati:Spectrum Publications, 1992, p.12.

[iv] Story cited in Lian H. Sakhong, In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics, & Ethnic Identity in Burma Thailand:NIAS Press, 2003,pp. 6-7.

[v] N. Salew, A Brief History of Makhrai Rabu Hru, Makhai Rabu Village Council, 2014,p. 11.

[vi] William Neouni, Socio-Cultural History of the Shupfomei Naga Tribe: A Historical Study of Ememei,   p. 37.

[vii] T.C. Hodson, The Naga Tribes of Manipur, Delhi,: Low Price Publications 2013, p. 13.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Chand Anth Thangmi, The Thangal Naga Tribe of North East India, New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2012, pp. 57-63.

[x] N.G. Mataisang, ‘The Religious Life of the Naga Tribes of Manipur with special reference `to Tangkhuls’, PhD thesis submitted to the Department of History, Manipur University, 2002, p. 10.

[xi] T.C. Hodson, op.cit, p. 16.

[xii] Shantibala Devi, ‘The Traditional Costume of the Zeliangrong Tribes’, PhD thesis submitted to the Department of History, Manipur University, 2002, pp. 13-14.

[xiii] Hawaibam Biren Singh, Social Geography of Manipur, New Delhi: Rajesh Publications 2010, p. 32.

[xiv] Gangmumei Kabui, History of Manipur: Pre Colonial Period, Vol. I, , New Delhi,: National Publishing House, 2011, p. 15.

[xv] Lian H. Sakhong, op.cit p. 35.

[xvi] Ibid.