All the world’s a stage – street life in the cities of Lucknow and Allahabad

Cycle rickshaws, Allahabad

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. 

Baker’s, Lucknow

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.

Fruit vendor, Allahabad

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.

Marigolds, Lucknow

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 Residence, Lucknow

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.

Bank queue, Allahabad

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!

Kebabs fried outside the restaurant

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.

Preparing offerings at 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.

All saints cathedral, Allahabad

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.

Khasru Bagh, Allahabad

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.

Cows and a woman sift through piles of rotting rubbish in Lucknow

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Gurus, traffic jams and apple pie in Rishikesh-on-the-Ganges

Laxman Jhula bridge

When the Beatles rocked up in Rishikesh in 1968, Ringo Starr said he thought it was just like Butlin’s. I’d say it’s more like Disneyland, but foreign tourists come here in search of gurus and spiritual enlightenment, rather than fast food and Mickey Mouse. Indian visitors also flock here because it’s the place where the Ganges emerges from the mountains, although the true spot where it enters the plains lies a little further downstream at Haridwar. 

The ghats

Both towns represent the worst of Indian city life, congested roads and piles of rubbish. As a pedestrian you have to brave yourself against the onslaught of cars, lorries, buses, rickshaws and cows. Drivers use their horn more than the gears or brakes, many of them instead of. It’s an enervating experience just walking from A to B. No wonder yoga and Ayurvedic massages are all the rage here. There’s so much stress to get rid of.

Pilgrim by the Ganges

I was lucky, though, as I stayed in a guesthouse in High Bank, a quiet pedestrian enclave above the chaos which surrounds the two suspension bridges spanning the Ganges. I guess if you’re in Rishikesh to do something like a yoga course, you’d probably get more out of the place, but I didn’t think it was worth it just for a few days and I had no interest in spirituality or “finding myself”. But there’s nothing of historical or architectural significance here and so for me there was little to keep me occupied.

Bathing at the ghats in Haridwar

For Indians it does have a religious significance and there are ceremonies down by the ghats (steps) to the river every night. Plastic bottles are on sale so people can scoop up the holy water to take home with them, although one man told me you can buy bottled Ganges water in Delhi. Kids pester you to buy flowers and candles for offerings to the river. The idea is you put them in a little boat and set it adrift down the river. I saw several Westerners pretending to be Hindus and making offerings. Religion and soul-searching are big business here.

Sunset on the Ganges

In the end I have to admit it wasn’t my kind of thing. It’s probably more due to my cynicism than anything else, but I’m just not interested in places whose existence is built entirely on tourism. On a more positive note, there are some good restaurants offering a change from the usual Indian fare and great bakeries with apple pie. You can escape the crowds and traffic by walking out of town north from Laxman Jhula bridge and follow the river up the beautiful valley. As a place to relax and eat well after a few weeks roughing it in the mountains, it did the trick for me, but I was anxious to move on to somewhere more real.