Wandering the streets of Indian cities you’ll encounter some of the most astonishing street theatre anywhere in the world. It seems that life is lived on the streets, business is conducted and, for many, it’s simply the place to sit back or lie down and watch the world go by over a cup of chai. It’s noisy and chaotic, enervating and exhilarating, but one thing is certain – it’s never boring. There may be historical monuments and museums to visit, but it’s invariably the streets that hold the most fascination.
Surprisingly, shops and businesses don’t open till around 10am, so exploring before then guarantees you’ll beat the crowds and heat. By midday, however, you’ll be plunged into the madness and mayhem, as every conceivable type of transport battles for a place on the busy streets along with cows, goats and stray dogs.
The market areas, bazaars and chowks, are particularly intense. Street vendors selling fruit and vegetables push their carts through the throngs. Beggars beg, the poor perform their ablutions under outdoor taps and many relieve themselves in public. Barbers cut hair in the open air. Men type affidavits on old-fashioned typewriters in front of the law courts.
On my first day in Lucknow I visited the Residence, where in 1857 many British were under siege for five months during an uprising against the Raj. It’s left pretty much as it was and you can still see the bullet and canon holes in the walls.
The next day I woke not only to the horrors of a Trump victory in the USA, but to the news that all bank notes of 500 rupees and over have been made worthless. The government is trying to clamp down on the black economy and forged currency, but the banks are struggling to exchange everyone’s money and the ATMs have enormous queues.
Lucknow has a rich Mughal history and the tourist office runs a great City Heritage walk through the narrow streets of the Muslim area. There are also some imposing Mughal buildings in the area. Meat is common here, unlike many cities in India. I even found buffalo kebabs. They were slightly disappointing, though. I was looking forward to something really chewy and meaty, but they were more like patties. They were created by royal chefs so that the toothless nawabs could still eat meat without having to chew!
After a few days I moved on to Allahabad, a big city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, but relatively off the tourist trail. It’s a big Hindu destination, however, as it lies on the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges, two of the holiest cities in India. I have already been to the sources of these two great rivers in the high Himalayas, so I was intrigued to join a boatload of shaven-headed pilgrims rowing out to to Sangam.
My bargaining skills have recently been honed after being ripped off too many times and I managed to get the boatman down from 250 to 50 rupees. Learning a few numbers in Hindi also seems to help. The locals were there to float offerings of marigolds and candles and to take a dip. Given the pollution of the waters, I was happy just to watch.
Allahabad also has some attractive monuments. There are British built buildings, including All Saints Cathedral, which almost transports you back to England, until an auto rickshaw whizzes past. There is an atmospheric park containing Mughal tombs, one of which belongs to Khasru, who rebelled against his father, Jehangir. If he hadn’t been defeated, he might have become emperor instead of his brother, Shah Jahan, who went on to build the Taj Mahal.
Negotiating the streets is not for the faint-hearted. There are times when I find it almost unbearable, but it’s an incredible experience. You are immersed in the pulsating vibrancy of life and it’s full of extremes. It’s often said that you either love India or hate it, but I think it’s more complicated than that. The poverty, traffic, noise, hassle and rubbish can be overwhelming, but it’s intoxicating and hugely rewarding. There’s nowhere quite like it.