If you reside in Delhi NCR and yet, are unaware of this gem, well, it is not too late now. Are you wondering what is so special about it? Then read on!
P had visited the Mughal Garden earlier & had been wowed by its grandiosity. A visit to this Garden was a fitting gift for N who is also an anthophile. The Garden can be visited during Udyanotsav held every year between February to March.
Entry is free of cost, but you do need to register on the easy-to-navigate website. The Mughal Garden comes under Circuit Three. We received the Visitor Entry Pass after registering on the website. It contained a registration number, date of visit, time slot, our names & guidelines.
Do note that you may not get tickets for the immediate dates. (Considering the current pandemic, the Udyanotsav 2021 dates have not been announced.)
So, up and about on Saturday, we made our way to the Mughal Garden. We were returning to the Presidential Estate a little more than a year later. On our first visit, we had toured Circuit One; you can read about it here.
The architecture had fascinated us. This time, we were ready to be mesmerized by nature. The day we visited; the heavens had opened. We kept hoping rain would not play spoilsport & luckily, it did not. A light drizzle continued throughout our visit but nothing that could dampen our sightseeing.
Entry is allowed from Gate 35 only. Leave behind everything except your cell phone, wallet, identity card and the Visitor Entry Pass. After scrutiny of our identity papers & a physical search, we were inside the Mughal Garden.
What is a Mughal Garden?
To the credit of the Mughals, they had a keen eye for aesthetics. They blended architecture & nature beautifully using plenty of flower beds & water bodies. India has, architecturally, benefited from the import of the Charbagh design, i.e., using canals to divide a rectangle/ square into four distinct parts.
The Mughal Garden in the Presidential Estate
The Mughal Garden at the President’s House is one such garden. This Garden had not been built by the Mughals but by Sir Edwin Lutyens, taking inspiration from the Charbagh design.
While the name ‘Mughal Garden’ makes the Mughal inspiration evident, what is unknown is it also includes British garden art elements – flower beds on lawn edges & along pavements.
The Garden consists of rare species of flowers. If you want to see more than 70 varieties of seasonal flowers, head here. The lush greenery is eye-catching.
We had a wild desire to become President just to be able to live in this beezer house with this beaut garden!
The first garden we encountered was a Bonsai Garden. This Garden was Former President Ms. Pratibha Patil’s contribution. We had never seen so many bonsai plants under one roof (or one sky to be technically correct).
The petite plants glistened with the raindrops. The variety left us spellbound – upright, slanting, cascade, semi cascade – jade, rubber bush, fern, camachile, tamarind & many, many more!
We remember camachile (better known as jungle jalebi) from our childhood. It was an integral part. We picked these off the ground & ate the sour & sweet pulp inside the seed pod!
Next, we stepped into the Herbal Garden. This Garden was established by Former President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. The Garden has more than 30 aromatic & medicinal plants. The best part is – their use is depicted alongside them.
It was a treat to our senses to be able to see & smell herbs like Ashwagandha, Damask Rose, Geranium, Lemongrass, Stevia etc. Another part of the garden contained shrubs & small trees of Bay Leaf, Bel, Cinnamon, Clove, Gooseberry, Hadjod, Jamun etc.
The President’s Office frequently invites farmers to see the herbal plants & encourages them to grow these for their own as well as society’s benefit.
Our next foray was into the Spiritual Garden. This Garden had ~40 different plants of importance to different religions – banyan, coconut, fig, Krishna burgad, rudraksh, etc.
The Garden conveys the message of co-existence despite differences.
As we gazed at the greenery around us, strains of music reached our ears. On looking around, we saw a Musical Fountain. This Fountain was Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam’s initiative.
Being Dr. Kalam’s brainchild, it was only natural that the Fountain incorporated scientific elements of digital electronics, hydro dynamics etc. In the tranquil Mughal Gardens, this brought liveliness.
It played the tunes of Shehnai & Vande Mataram.
This Garden is right in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan main building. Water canals divide the Garden into a grid of squares. Spanish Cherry trees are planted around this.
It has two main gardens – East Lawn in oblong shape & Central Lawn in square shape. The Central Lawn is where the President meets diplomatic community, media persons etc.
Terrace gardens flank the sides of the Rectangular Garden. The centers of these gardens have inward falling fountains, making wells. At the end of the terrace gardens, two gazebos stand handsomely, sheltered by Putranjiva trees.
Water chutes have been creatively designed through levels of steps and with carved fish motifs, giving an impression of fishes in water!
Dahlias, annuals grown here, lined up the sides of this Garden. Their colors & sizes were unbelievable!
Rows & rows of a variety of orange – the China Orange – were a delight to see.
Undoubtedly, this Garden is one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.
While the Mughal Garden has a variety of flowers, roses are the prime attraction. & while roses are a permanent feature of the Garden, the prime bloom is in February-March.
We next walked into the Long Garden or more popularly called ‘rose garden’. As soon as we entered this Garden, the sweet smell of hundreds of roses wafted up to us.
Is there any other place where you can see more than 120 rose varieties? Adora, Blue Moon, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Taj Mahal etc. Mind boggling! The rose beds are margined with dahlia, iris, oxalis, salvia etc.
A pergola stands on the central pavement of the Garden with elephant trunks carved on it. The enclosing walls of the Long Garden are covered with creepers like flame vine, garlic vine etc.
On exiting this Garden, we came across Sweet Pea flowers & were wholly enamored with them. The splash of color, their lush leaves, & their tendency to climb made them a favorite for us.
Our visit ended at the Circular Garden. This Garden is also known as Pearl/ Sunken Garden. A fountain concealed in a circular pond forms the center of the Garden. This has more than 30 varieties of seasonal flowers. We had a jolly time gaping at alyssum, marigold, phlox, viola, sweet William etc.
A distillation unit is installed here to distill essential oils of aromatic & herbal plants.
On the Rashtrapati Bhavan website, a statement is written that summarizes the entire Mughal Garden beautifully, better than we could have done –
“If the Rashtrapati Bhavan is a masterpiece of architecture, the 15-acre Mughal Garden is considered its soul.”
There are some places you can never get enough of. Lucknow always brings a sense of belonging. It feels like home. Tunde kebab & kulfi at Aminabad, walk at Hazratganj, sightseeing at Bada & Chota Imambargahs, crossing Cantt, mutton nihari at Rahim’s, kulfi at Chhappan Bhog, chikankari & zari shopping at Chowk, walk in Ambedkar Park, galauti kebab at Dastarkhwan, & kulfi (again!) at Nishatganj – spread over just a few days. That pretty much summaries our two visits to Lucknow.
We chose to spend our sixth anniversary in the Awadhi city. We usually make elaborate travel plans, but work commitments forbade us this time. A road trip came to the rescue. Leaving from Noida, using the Yamuna Expressway, eating breakfast at Jewar, & then using the Agra – Lucknow Expressway, we made good time & reached Lucknow by evening.
The Agra – Lucknow Expressway was a breeze to drive on. An empty six – lane highway, with high toll fees (no wonder it is empty), & with almost no stops, the expressway allowed us to cover a large distance in a short span of time.
A highlight of the Agra – Lucknow Expressway is an emergency airstrip built on the expressway itself. The airstrip stretches for a little more than three kilometers. If an emergency landing of IAF combat jets is needed, this can be used.
Caution: Do not get tempted into exceeding speed limits on the Agra – Lucknow Expressway. Like all Indian highways, it can be unpredictable. Also, Indian cars are not made for extremely high speeds. There are enough & more cases of tires bursting on the Expressway.
The First Evening
Our first evening in Lucknow was our anniversary itself. We chose to spend it in a relaxed manner, dressing up, lounging on the rooftop bar of our hotel, raising a toast, coming down to the in house restaurant, hogging on Awadhi cuisine, & retiring early.
At times, a little thing like sitting under the stars can bring immense happiness. As the night got colder, our souls became warmer. We thanked our gods for all the good things bestowed on us…
Saraca, the open-air bar overlooking the lawns, is just what the doctor ordered. Here, it was quite cold but, luckily, they had heaters placed around tables. The dim lighting of Saraca & the twinkling lights of the surrounding buildings created a romantic ambience. We sipped on colorful Long Island Iced Tea & Mojito, both well made. To accompany the drinks, we had Galawat Kebab, which was good too.
Saraca was perfect to relax. Exotic drinks, Awadhi starters, & music under the stars…
Time to call it a night after some more yummy in our tummy. Azrak, the restaurant at lebua, serves Awadhi food. If Awadhi cuisine isn’t well made, it can turn the dishes oily. But we did not face any such challenge here. We had Awadh Dum Murgh Biryani, Bakarkhani, Dum Murgh, & Ulte Tave Ka Paratha. We are fans of Bakarkhani, & this one lived up to our expectations too.
Azrak is one of those laid-back places; do not hurry through your meal here.
The Next Day
We had traveled over a December long weekend. Fresh after a restful night, we were ready to explore Lucknow. While we waited for our Uber, we posed & clicked with the vintage cars in the lebua premises. The best way to get around old Lucknow is by public transport.
Our first stop was the Bara Imam Bara. An imam bara is a hall for Shia Muslim ceremonies, especially Muharram. The Bara Imam Bara is an imam bara complex built by the Awadh Nawab in 1784. This was the year famine had hit Awadh. Through the Imam Bara construction, the Nawab wanted to provide employment for people. The construction & the consequent employment lasted for 10 years, same as the famine duration.
As we entered the compound, we were struck by the imposing gateways. We entered one, came across a circular garden, & then chanced upon the second gateway. The second is the main gateway where we purchased tickets. As we walked further, the Asfi Masjid came up on our right. It is the last monument to be constructed without using iron.
Moving on to the main imam bara, we got ourselves a guide & entered a large vaulted central chamber (largest in the world). In the center of the chamber is the tomb of the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-Ud-Daula. On the upper floor is a labyrinth, famously known as the Bhool Bhulaiya.
When we emerged from the passages onto the hall balcony, we could not help but be amazed at such a large structure being built without beams/ pillars. Caution – Walking on the narrow terrace is not for the fainthearted! Or for those with acrophobia or vertigo!
The Bhool Bhulaiya legend says there are 1,024 ways to get inside the maze, but only two to come out! The network of passageways winds its way inside the monument, & eventually leads to the roof. The roof was meant to give a panoramic view of the Awadhi city. In the 21st century, however, this is not easily possible.
We were thrilled with the Bhool Bhulaiya. For the first time, we got a chance to see a heritage monument by actively participating in it. Namely, finding our way out of the incredible maze! The architecture is worth a mention, specially of echoing walls, & hidden cloisters.
A flight of stairs leads down to the Shahi Baoli (royal stepwell). Around the Baoli is a multi- storey structure with arched windows & inter-connected galleries. Apparently, the Baoli still has running water. Rumors of the Baoli being connected to River Gomti, & of treasures/ treasure maps/ keys to some hidden treasure underneath are quite rife. Exceptional architecture here!
Before we left the Bara Imam Bara, we found another trivia – Ordinary people built the edifice during the day. At night, noblemen broke down whatever was raised that day. This was by the order of the Nawab, to ensure continuing employment for the masses.
Through the Bara Imambargah complex, we caught ourselves gaping at the architecture! For a heritage lover, the Bara Imam Bara scores not only on the heritage but also on the maintenance of its premises, and the easy & fair availability of authorized guides who explain the history behind the monument. To enjoy the monument fully, do take a guide.
Out of the Bara Imam Bara, we hopped onto a tanga (horse carriage). Our first carriage ride! To double the excitement, we spotted the Rumi Darwaza coming up ahead. It is a gateway built under the patronage of Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula, in the same year as the Bara Imam Bara.
The front facade of the Rumi Darwaza is a fine example of Awadhi architecture! There’s no ticket to see it. Caution – As the Rumi Darwaza is an operational gateway, you must be careful of traffic.
The Husainabad Clock Tower is a 19th century marvel. It was constructed in 1881 to mark Sir George Couper’s arrival, the first LG of United Province of Avadh. You can spot the Clock Tower from kilometers, but as you come closer, you can also see a large step-well next to it.
The Satkhanda is a watchtower from the 1800s. The iconic tower has an octagonal base, arched windows & Islamic design details. It is located next to the Husainabad Clock Tower; so, if you are in the area, you cannot miss it. A reminder of Lucknow’s Awadhi & colonial past.
The Husainabad Picture Gallery houses portraits of the erstwhile nawabs of Awadh. The portraits are quite fine, with intricate details. The caretaker pointed out to us a few amazing bits here & there. Like how the nawab’s shoes seem to move!
Our minds were also blown off by the view that the Picture Gallery offered. The Clock Tower to the left, Chota Imam Bara straight ahead, & the Satkhanda to the right. Photography is prohibited at the Gallery. It does not seem to be frequented by tourists; we had the place almost to ourselves.
There is no dearth of darwazas in Lucknow. The Husainabad Darwaza is an outer gateway to the Chota Imam Bara. Passing under arched gateways will remain high points of our lives.
Chota Imam Bara is the popular name of the monument; its actual name is Imam Bara Husainabad Mubarak. It was built under the patronage of Muhammad Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in 1838. Today, it serves as a mausoleum for him & his mother.
Indian heritage buildings are nothing short of fascinating. Not just architecturally, but from an engineering POV too:
We noticed a goldfish at the entrance. It is an anemometer. One of the earliest ones in India.
A golden statue at the entrance holds a chain that is connected to a spire. This works as earthing.
A Shahi Hammam (royal bath) houses stained glass windows, an elaborate hot water system & a jacuzzi setup. Apparently, when the nawabs would visit the Imam Bara, they would first complete their ablutions in the Shahi Hammam.
The Tomb of Princess Zinat Asiya is supposed to be a replica of the Taj Mahal. We, however, did not see the likeness.
Moving ahead, photography inside the main Imam Bara hall is prohibited. But the inside is worth seeing – chandeliers & crystal glass lampstands!
Looking back from the main Imam Bara hall, we saw the ceremonial gate reflected in the rectangular pond.
Caution – Women are required to cover their heads here.
Opposite the Chota Imam Bara is the Naubat Khana. A Naubat Khana was the orchestra pit of buildings, i.e., musicians would play their instruments sitting in the Naubat Khana so that their music could be heard far & wide.
In the context of the Chota Imam Bara, the Naubat Khana was more of a place from where the hour of the day was announced by beating drums.
We bid adieu to the Chota Imam Bara & hopped back on our tanga. It brought us to the Jama Masjid. The construction was started in 1839 under the patronage of Mohammad Ali Shah Bahadur. Apparently, he wanted this mosque to surpass the Delhi Jama Masjid in size. But, unfortunately, he died before its completion.
His wife, Malika Jahan Sahiba, got it completed, but the size could not be matched.
After all the sightseeing, we attacked what Lucknow is famous for – the Awadhi cuisine. If you are a non vegetarian visiting Lucknow, you MUST try the nihari with Qulcha at Raheem’s Qulcha Nihari. Tucked in one of the lanes of Chowk, the restaurant may appear a little dingy but do not let that deter you.
We walked in for lunch & had Mutton Biryani, Mutton Nihari & Qulcha. Each dish was mouthwatering. Portion size was adequate for two. Service was quick. Raheem’s can get quite crowded; you may have to wait your turn. But it is worth it. Families & women can easily go here; nothing to get intimidated about.
Stepping out of Raheem Qulcha Nihari with big smiles on our faces, we found ourselves in Phool Wali Gali. The flower mandi is 200-year-old. If we close our eyes, we still remember the fragrance!
It is not just heritage structures that lend an appeal to a place; it is also the traditional markets, cuisines, & culture. Chowk contributes majorly to Lucknow’s history! This market area is heaven for foodies & shoppers. The best way to get around is on foot. Do not hesitate to explore the tiny gullies!
We had heard a lot about the Malai Gilori at Ram Asrey. We had to check it out. Ram Asrey was in another gully of Chowk. We walked here from Raheem’s, taking in the sights & sounds of this centuries’ old market. Ram Asrey is a large sweetmeat shop & goes back hundreds of years.
The Malai Paan was a little different from what we expected but delicious, nonetheless. Go ahead & try other mithais too. A heaven for those with a sweet tooth.
We wanted to explore the British Residency post this, but, for some reason, we could not get any public transport to the place. Uber cabs were taking too long to arrive, & rickshaw pullers did not seem to know where the Residency was. After waiting for almost half an hour, we got an Uber cab ready to take us to our hotel.
In the evening, we decided to visit Khadi Weavers, a store we had (again) heard a lot about. It has all Khadi products under one roof. Men’s wear, women’s wear, personal care products, you name it! Khadi Weavers is amazing. The store is compact, neat & well laid out. The clothes are to-die-for & so reasonably priced!
We came out with a bag full of garments. This was after we had to stop our greed from taking over our senses.
We ended our day at The Mughals Dastarkhwan. We were advised to try this restaurant over Tunde Kebabi. Glad we did! Dastarkhwan had a large waiting time, which indicated to us that it was, indeed, popular. It has a proper waiting area outside, where the smell of the tandoori dishes’ wafts in, & gives a boost to your appetite.
Finally, when we were seated inside, we had Dhania Roti, Galawat Kebab, Mutton Rogan Josh, Plain Rice, Shahi Tukda, & Ulte Tawe Ka Paratha. The Dhania Roti (chapati with coriander filling) was a first for us. The Galawat Kebab was, truly, melt-in-the-mouth. The service was quick. The Mughals Dastarkhwan is a family-friendly place.
We cannot wait to go back!
A post – meal drive took us to the Lucknow Charbagh Railway Station. In a place like Lucknow, you cannot possibly escape heritage. Designed by J.H. Hornimen, the Charbagh Railway Station construction began in 1914. It is a fabulous mix of Awadhi, Mughal & Rajput architecture!
If you are up for it, step out in the cold night to have a kulhad chai. It will fill you with warmth…
The Last Morning
It was time to head back home but only after a hearty breakfast & a photo shoot! (P.S. The Azrak breakfast spread was great.)
As we crossed our favorite mustard fields on our way back home, we made up our minds to return to Lucknow. After all, still lots to see & eat.
For the frugal us, our sixth anniversary was a time to splurge. The least we could do was stay at a fantastic place — the lebua Lucknow.
A boutique property, in the heart of Lucknow, is housed in an old, traditional bungalow with a lush green lawn. Almost entirely white in color, lebua exudes calm. An aangan (courtyard) is surrounded by beautiful rooms. On the grounds you can find vintage cars & two-wheeler, & a garden full of flowering plants & trees. Large, colorful bougainvillea! The hotel had a few Awadh/ Lucknow books on sale at the reception.
Our room was more than comfortable. With a four-poster bed, we felt we had been transported back in time.
Thank goodness for the folks who restored this heritage bungalow! When you travel to Lucknow, & if you can, please stay at lebua. Its modern hospitality blended with traditional ethos will impress you.
Come April & the Sun starts its mercilessness on the hapless souls of the National Capital Region. Right till September, it becomes a matter of hot, very hot & unbearably hot. In these six months, at least one getaway is needed to cooler environs.
Aren’t we thankful that the Himalayas are a stone’s throw away? So, to help you tolerate the weather, we bring three relatively unknown, long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in Uttarakhand, in the Nainital district, yet are as different from Nainital as chalk from cheese!
Jeolikot: It was a never-heard-of-before village for us till we made our way here. Jeolikot is located close to Nainital, & yet, is far removed from the chaos that Nainital can be during the tourist season. It is a great place for flower lovers & lepidopterists.
Visit Jeolikot for a picturesque view of the Himalayas. It is not a place where you rush around to ‘see’ spots. Rather, grab a book, or put on your favorite music, or carry a board game, sit facing the mountains, grab a cup of ‘chai’ & life is sorted.
Located a little down the hill from the main road, The Cottage is a cozy home stay reminiscent of the bygone colonial era. Its red roof exudes an old-world charm. The shimmery blue & white porcelain crockery make up a large part of the decor. A decor you will be tempted to take home!
To top it, Ms. Bhuvan Kumari’s impeccable hospitality & warmth. Over mugs of tea, she regaled us with stories ranging from leopards to winter soirees. The best part – dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.
We tried to get to Nainital but, being an extended weekend, we could not get past the traffic jam. Instead, we turned towards Bhimtal, had lunch at a dhaba from where the Bhimtal Lake was faintly visible, & returned to the calmness of Jeolikot.
We recommend – do not bother with Nainital & the like. Head out for a stroll in Jeolikot itself. You will come across giggling kids, grazing horses, plenty of flora, & wild berries. Try the Chicken Roast at The Cottage, and pick up souvenirs from Kilmora.
You can get from Delhi NCR to Jeolikot in about seven hours, nine if there is traffic.
Sattal: A village deriving its name from the lake it encircles, Sattal is near Bhimtal, but is less known. True to its name, the ‘lake’ is actually a combination of seven lakes, each quite pristine. Forests surround the lakes.
Given the ecosystem, birds thrive here, making Sattal a paradise for ornithophiles. We spent our time birding. Ask for directions to get to the bird watching spot, the Studio. It is a downhill walk, with no restrooms in the vicinity. As birding is a time-consuming activity, this is something you need to be aware of. Also, note that bird watching needs a lot of patience & silence. You make one movement/ sound, & the bird would have flown off.
It was our first birding experience; we were lucky to spot jungle myna, blue whistling thrush, grey wagtail, red-Wattled lapwing, oriental turtle dove, orange flanked bush robin, grey-headed canary flycatcher, black bulbul, verditer flycatcher, white throated laughing thrush, slaty-headed parakeet, ultramarine flycatcher, Himalayan bulbul, & black headed jay.
Located in a nearby village called Suriyagaon is Naveen’s Glen, an estate comprising apartments, cottages & villas. It is run by Ms. Nitya Budharaja & her family. The rooms have been done up warmly. A personal touch is evident in every aspect of Naveen’s Glen.
To top it, there is an absolutely stunning view of the sunset from the garden. We spent many minutes chatting with Ms. Budharaja, getting recommendations from her for bird watching & for food.
The best part – again dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.
It does not snow in Sattal; so, it is accessible throughout the year. You
can get from Delhi NCR to Sattal in about six hours, eight in case of traffic.
Naveen’s Glen is located off the main road, the last few kilometers are devoid
of human habitation. But, do not worry – you are on the right track.
Nathuakhan: Falling under the Ramgarh block, Nathuakhan is essentially a village. & therein lies its beauty. It offers appealing views of the sun caressed Himalayan ranges which are dotted with soaring trees of pine, birch & many others.
The mountainous terrains, fertile valley and dense cover of abundant forest make Nathuakhan a place to rest and enjoy solitude away from the city buzz. The mountains may get your creative juices flowing; so, whatever your artistic inclination, carry it along.
If you like to work your limbs, there are a number of walking trails nearby. Keep a lookout for members of the feline family. For those who like their poison on-the-go, Nathuakhan has a country liquor store with few English brands available. So, if you have superior tastes or are fussy, we suggest you carry your alcohol.
Country wood cottages augment the beauty of Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place is one such. It is nestled away from crowds, provides comforting food, and does not compel one to do anything. Bob’s Place has standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones command a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones have sit-out areas but the view gets diminished by the foliage.
Our cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater. The food we ate did not taste any different from what we eat at home. The ‘poha’ we had for breakfast was quite different though, and wonderfully so. It was made with ‘khada garam masala’. People who have eaten the Indian-style meat can identify how good this would taste. The ‘masala chai’ was free-flowing too. Special mention of the chicken fry we got as our finale dinner. Do ask for it when you head to Bob’s Place.
You can get from Delhi NCR to Nathuakhan in about nine hours, eleven in case of traffic. Do not forget to pick up shawls, stoles, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora, and fruit spreads from Himjoli.
(You can read our full blog post on Nathuakhan here.)