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, www.travelintelligence.net/php/articles/art.php.

[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, p.vi.

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

[VI]Ganjing Down Memory Lane’, in http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/lucknow-times/Ganjing-down-memory-lane/articleshow/62484.cms

[VII] William Dalrymple, op.cit.


[VIII] Ibid.


[IX]Chauk to Nakhas’, in http://www.uppercrustindia.com/posts/39/Chowk-To-Nakhkh


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