REVEALING THE TRUTH BEHIND THE REAL BIRTH PLACE AND DATE OF AZAD!

Shri Chandrashekhar Azad was one of the most important freedom fighter which Uttar Pradesh had produced. No one can deny the important role Uttar Pradesh played in India’s fight for freedom against the British. The huge state produced many courageous freedom fighters. U.P. was the playground for many important events in the 19th and 20th century which eventually led to the hard earned freedom of India.

During my 7 years in Navi Mumbai, I made many visits to my hometown in Lucknow. I always made sure that I picked at least 5 or 10 samosas at Unnao junction every time the ever punctual and everyone’s favourite Pushpak Express (Mumbai – Lucknow) halted in Lucknow. For many years Unnao meant Samosa (The taste is special) until Vineet Singh, an Unnao Resident and a talented travel and documentary photographer, casually mentioned the importance of Badarka village near Unnao over a chat.

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The statue of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad in Badarka, Unnao

Despite being born and brought up in U.P., I was clueless that this nondescript village is so significant in India’s freedom struggle movement. Unfortunately very few people know that it was the hometown and birth place of one of India’s greatest freedom fighter Shri Chandra Shekhar Azad. What made it interesting is the controversy regarding the real birth date and birth place of Azad.

Pictures above: 1) Vineet asking for direction, 2) a little girl at The Amar Shaheed Chadrashekhar Azad Dwar 3) Upcoming Housing Societies coming up in Azad’s name in Badarka, Unnao (Pls. click to enlarge)

I joined Vineet one hot afternoon in June to unearth the truth of India’s much revered and feted freedom fighter, fondly called by people as Azad (Free). While Vineet drove his car along the 12 km long dusty lanes of Badarka, my eyes were constantly peeled to spot any signs which mentioned the glorious past of the place. Tragically, except the signboard of an upcoming residential building named ‘Azad City’, cashing on his name, nothing else seemed to be celebrating the glorious past of the place. None of the villagers knew the location of the exact house of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad or his neighbour Shri Rajan Shukla’s residence.

Pictures above: The Amar Shaheed Chadrashekhar Azad Dwar (Pls. click to enlarge)

After much probing, one villager directed us to a memorial built to commemorate him. We entered the empty grounds populated by few monkeys and daily wage labourers toting kids with running noses.  Azad’s statue built in the campus of the poorly maintained and dusty large ground attracted my attention. The statue was a typical Azad statue which showed him proudly rolling his moustache with machismo.

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Me (left) and Vineet posing with the statue of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at the Amar Shaheed Chandrashekhar Azad Dwar, Badarka, Unnao

The Amar Shaheed Chadrashekhar Azad Dwar was a memorial which was built to commemorate the contribution of Azad towards India’s freedom struggle. On 7th January every year, thousands from across India congregate at this ground to celebrate the birth anniversary of Azad over 3 days (6th,7th  & 8th January). The District Magistrate helms the opening ceremony. The tradition of this ceremony dates back to the year 1932, just a year after Azad was martyred. The tradition was started by Azad’s mother to keep his memory alive. Many freedom fighters, politicians and friends of Azad attended the first event which was grand and celebrated with much fanfare. Bigwigs like former Indian Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi, Professor Nakamura (Foreign delegate from Tokyo University in 1973) and scores of former Chief Ministers and Governors have paid visit to Badarka. Mr Shukla recounted a story about Professor Nakamura. When he heard about the birth place of Azad during his stay in Delhi, he got curious and visited Badarka along with dozen more delegates. Moved by Azad’s story he promised to build a statue in Tokyo University in Azad’s memory. He communicated the same to Shukla family via snail mail once he fulfilled his promise. Mr. Rajan recalled fondly how much he liked the ‘buknu’ powder made by his mother. He requested to pack some for him and carried it all the way to Japan. Indian Freedom fighters like Shri Ram Prasad Bismil have also visited Mr. Shukla’s home at some point.

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A plaque at Azad mandir, Badarka, Unnao

In those days during the annual celebrations, veterans from Badarka and freedom fighters (many of them also the friends of Azad) used to recite unknown anecdotes from Azad’s life in their passionate and emotional speeches.

It is said that those speeches were so poignant that mere words would move the crowds to tears. Over the years, things changed. These days, celebrations are marked by political speeches and kids performing in cultural shows.  All of a sudden, people celebrate and acknowledge the glorious past of Badarka, for merely 3 days! The show is hijacked by politicians these days. Politicians usurp the podium, make umpteen promises and then disappear until next 7th January, Mr. Rajan Shukla rued.

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Me and Mr. Rajan Shukla at his residence. He spoke passionately about Shri Chandrashekhar Azad. Badarka, Unnao.

Long back, the then Chief Minister of U.P. promised to improve Badarka’s fortunes by developing it as an international tourist destination, even building quality schools and medical facilities. Predictably, it never materialised. Mr Shukla said disdainfully that despite its proximity to Lucknow, which is the capital and the political axis of U. P, Badarka has been given a step motherly treatment despite its historical significance. He lamented that Badarka lacks even basic education and medical facilities, let alone any development projects. For a population of above 5000, Badarka has only one school upto standard 8th. Even schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme failed to turn the fortunes of Badarka. No wonder, many youngsters are choosing to migrate to other cities to build a future for themselves.

THE CONTROVERSY REGARDING THE BIRTH DATE & BIRTH PLACE OF AZAD

The birth place and the birth date of Azad is disputed. Some records claim 23rd July, 1906 and Alirajpur in M.P. as Azad’s birth date and birth place respectively. Some official records mention Azad’s birth date as 7th January, 1906 and his birth place as Badarka. Smt. Jagrani Devi, Azad’s mother was clueless about Azad’s martyrdom until March 1931, a month after Azad killed himself when gheraoed by British officers at (then) Alfred park, Allahabad. Pandit Ramlaal ji Shukla, father of Shri Rajan alongwith Shri Sampoorna Singh, a freedom fighter visited her and broke the tragic news to her. Refusing to believe it, she cried for hours and collapsed. When they requested her to show to them a belonging of Azad, she showed them Azad’s ‘Jhabla’ (Clothes for infants) and janam kundli (Natal Chart/Birth Chart).

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One of the plaques at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao

She refused to hand over the hand woven jhabla which she lovingly knitted for Azad but gave away the ‘janam kundli’ of Azad to Shri Sampoorna Singh, based upon which he did the ‘shilanyas’ (laying the foundation) of his memorial with fanfare. Mr. Rajan presented to me an original photograph of Azad’s mother and an original copy of Janam Kundli. It clearly mentioned Azad’s date of birth and place of birth. The tradition continues to this date. The family of Mr. Ichcha Shankar Shukla, Azad’s classmate till class 4th, claims the same date. During British rule it was a hard task to openly celebrate the Azad’s birth anniversary or build the memorial because the British officer regularly frequented Badarka and sternly warned the locals to not even take his name, leave alone build a memorial. They feared that his story might inspire people and produce more Azads. The first birth anniversary was surreptitiously celebrated at Azad’s family home. Till the time India achieved independence from British rule, the location used to change every year. Many villagers volunteered to celebrate it in their home in a clandestine manner.

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Azad Mandir, Badarka Unnao. This was the actual residence of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad. A hut existed here originally.

Badarka was the place where the first Azad Memorial was built in 1958. The folklore has it that such was the aura of Azad that the memorial attracted huge crowd from across India in those days. Even today the magic continues, albeit on special occasions. In 2006, a parliament member from Karnataka, questioned the Central government about what steps they are taking to honor Azad’s birth centenary. The centre realized that his birth place is still under dispute. Upon the study and verification of the official records, 80 % of it mentioned Badarka as Azad’s birth place. The other 20 % claimed Alirajpur as his birth place. When Centre verified the records with Uttar Pradesh secretariat, they found that Badarka was mentioned as his birth place. The state and centre team then sent a team to inquire on the same minutely to Bhabhra village, formerly under Jhabua district, now a part of Alirajpur district in M.P. Badarka was finally announced as his birth place formally by the Government after much verification and research.

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Statue of Smt. Jagrani Devi, mother of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at Azad mandir, Badarka, Unnao

Relying on Vineet’s memory of an earlier visit long time ago, we managed to find the house of Mr. Rajan. The hot June afternoon forced the entire village to stay cocooned in the cooler climes of their homes. We broke the silence of the village as we knocked Mr. Rajan’s door, He was amused at our arrival. Not many expect visitor during hot summer noons. As he recounted stories of Azad and his home, cows busied themselves in chewing cud and monkeys fooled around.

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Mr. Rajan showing me an old picture of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at his residence in Badarka, Unnao

His family maintained close bond with the family of Azad, especially his mother. In those days, both the families used to visit each other’s house almost on daily basis. Smt. Jagrani Devi, mother of Azad, used to spend hours just chatting  at the house of Mr. Rajan. Smt. Jagrani Devi, the third wife of Pandit Sita Ram Tiwari gave birth to Azad and Sukhdev. Both of them were born in Badarka. Sukhdev passed away at a young age. A self respecting woman, Smt. Jagrani Devi never approached anyone for help even when she was the only surviving member of her small family. Mr. Rajan recounts that often she used to share her sorrows and shed tears in the memory of Azad at his house and that of Shri Ichcha Shankar Shukla, the 2 families with whom she shared deep ties. Roads and memorials were built in her memory in Badarka after she bid adieu to the world in 1951. Shri Braj Kishore Shukla (Father of Mr. Rajan), a freedom fighter himself, dedicated his entire life in lovingly preserving the memories of Azad.

He started a trust called – Shaheed Chandra Shekhar Azad Smarak Trust Samiti to facilitate the same. In those days many revolutionaries were involved in the committee. Established in 1960, its goal was to rekindle the interest of young people in Azad and improve the living standards of Badarka. The committee did succeed in turning a dirt road into a 16 kms long road known as Shaheed Chandra Shekhar Azad Marg. It also implemented the ‘pey jal yojna’ which supplies water to the locals. Mr. Rajan, 65 years old is taking that legacy forward. He passionately presented before us the old files, well preserved newspaper cuttings and original documents and pictures which narrated the story of Azad.

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The yellow building at right is Azad Mandir. A hut existed here originally and Shri Chandrashekhar Azad was born and brought up here. Badarka, Unnao

Mr. Rajan was mentioning about Azad’s home every now and then.  It piqued my curiosity and I requested him to narrate the rest of the story at his house, now a memorial. The memorial called ‘Azad Mandir’ was inaugurated on 7th January, 1988 by Shri Gopi Nath Dixit, the then governor of U.P. Its foundation was laid on 7th Jnauary, 1985 by the then C.M. of U.P. Pandit Narayan Datt Tiwari. Located just 5 minutes away from his house, I was losing patience to see it for myself. As Mr. Rajan continued talking, I stole glances through the corner of my eye, distracted by the few village kids, ruins of ancient haveli and tethered buffaloes. The first sight of Azad’s house humbled me.

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Statue of Smt. Jagrani Devi, mother of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao

Now a memorial, it was once a hut built of wood and mud. If we compare with modern apartments, it was even smaller than a studio flat. It was just a small room without any kitchen or attached toilet. In comparison Mr. Rajan’s home and others’ home was much bigger. I reckoned that greatness must always be defined by ‘karma’ and not privilege. Realising that such a great freedom fighter had such modest roots made me reflective.

I left my slippers outside the metal gate, which is never locked. Despite the poor maintenance, the locals revere the place and remove the footwear before entering, just like they do in temples in India. I jump, at times to avoid resting my feet on a thorn, at other times to avoid the hot floor. The tethered cows at the front house guard the commemorative memorial. The floor was covered in dust and thorns were lying here and there. The statue of Smt. Jagrani Devi stood tall amongst all the muck, as if still smiling with pride! Patriotic slogans which evoked the freedom struggle were painted on yellow walls.

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Shri Rajan Shukla with the statue of Smt. Jagrani Devi at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao.

After finding a spot in shadow, Mr. Rajan recited the escapades of Azad with passion. The tales which turned Chandu into Azad and made him great!  Mr. Rajan pointed towards a plaque which addressed Azad as ‘Son of Lion’ (Singh Shaavak).  He fondly narrated to me and Vineet about an anecdote of Azad’s childhood in Badarka. Azad was taking his lessons under a makeshift open air school, with a ‘chappar’ roof, he was distracted when some British officers harassed the locals from the ‘pasi’ community.  They started bundling all the belonging of a certain Kallu Pasi. The ‘daroga’ (Inspector) beat him up, turning his body red with blood when he protested. Little Chandu, (Azad’s nickname) found it hard to look at it and do nothing. The rebel kid in him made him hit the cops and run away. The furious cops found his home and interrogated his petrified father. Then Azad narrated the entire sequence and said that he did not like what he saw and hit them. It was one of the first instances when Azad displayed a rebellious nature, valour and fearlessness.

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One of the plaques at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao

Mr. Rajan ji told me a story of Azad which not many know. A certain Mr. Ram Lakhan  Awasthi, inspector in Alirajpur, hired father of Azad as a gardener at a paltry salary of Rs. 5 per month. Azad was around 13 years old when the family had moved to Alirajpur. Bored and disinterested in living in a remote tribal area, Azad agreed when a merchant asked him to accompany him to Mumbai. Odd job of painting a ship and later dish washing dishes at a tea shop sustained him in Mumbai, then Bombay. A Sanskrit teacher Shri Nand Kishore Gupta spotted him washing dishes and could make out that the child belonged to a decent family. He asked him his residence details, his name and the reason why he was washing utensils.

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The ruins of old havelis at Badarka, Unnao. Who would have thought?

He convinced him to come to Varanasi and offered him food, shelter, education, clothes and a monthly allowance at Benaras Sanskrit Vidyapeeth. Azad moved to Benaras. At the tender age of 15, when adolescents are engaged in frivolous activities, he along with the students of his college participated in a procession chanting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (Long Live Mother India) and Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live the Revolution). Azad led the procession with a flag in his hand. The British confronted the procession and tried to stop it. They asked Azad to throw away the flag and retreat. He taken to the magistrate upon arrest. What happened next is history. Here is what Azad answered to the questions posed by Magistrate.

Name : ‘Azad’(free)

Father’s name : ‘Swadheen’ (free)

Address : ‘Jail’

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Smt. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India visited Badarka, Unnao. The plaque commemorates that event.

The magistrate, annoyed with his bold replies, ordered 15 lashes to be whipped on his exposed body with leather belt (dipped in hot oil). He would utter, ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ at each lash unflinchingly. After the ‘punishment’, his blood soaked body was dumped on the road. His pictures and story were carried in newspapers of that time. This event made him a household name.

His medication was taken care of by Shri Sampoornanad, a close family friend. Later, upon healing Azad addressed a crowd at a public meeting. It is said that the crowd was so huge that they had to put a chair above a table on a cot so that everyone could see him. He declared boldly from the stage, “We are free (Azad) from today onwards!! The British will never be able to kill us.” Years later, he kept his words when he shot himself as British officers attacked him.

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We sat here and chatted for hours with Mr. Rajan. Badarka, Unnao

I probed Mr. Rajan why was there so much confusion regarding his birth date and place. His theory seems plausible. As per him most of writers who wrote on him did not belong to Badarka. Unfortunately, no one from Badarka documented his life in words. On the other hand, other, including his jealous rivals, minted money by penning books on his life with half baked facts. Mr. Rajan told me that some so called revolutionaries from Bundelkhand were rivals of Azad. Azad had even ordered to get them eliminated since they were involved in anti national activities such as acting police informer. Tragically, after Azad was martyred, the same set of people wrote books on him with an agenda of raking in the moolah. They even spread fabricated stories like Azad, who was a Brahmin, ate meat in order to gain political mileage. This resulted in wrong information masquerading as history.

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Plaque praising Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at Badarka, Unnao

Mr Rajan rues that if Azad was still around, India’s destiny would have been something else. Not only did Azad have a vision of a free India but also an India without cast, creed and caste. I contemplated at the seemingly impossible dream of an egalitarian society, took a deep breath and said my thanks and good bye.

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Ruins of old havelis at Badarka, Unnao

White Palace Of Badarka – The ruins of this huge building is walking distance from Azad’s home in Badarka. The British christened it such. The 500 year old fort was built by Mughal emperor Jehangir. As per historian Shri Lakhpat Rai Sharma, Jehangir transported and buried large amounts of treasure in the underground cellar of the mysterious fort. In a bid to recover the treasure, the British did much damage to the palace as they tried to demolish it. One can still see the cannon shots. The British managed to loot much of the wealth. However they could not find any treasure. Also called Fort of Harivansh Rai, the massive fort comprises of 7 stories, 4 above the ground and 3 below it and is built on the area of 4 hectares. The folklore has it that a 25 kms long tunnel passes near the fort with doors at regular intervals. The religious idols recovered from a temple within the campus have now been moved to another temple nearby. Mr. Rajan told me a quirky fact: even if a small stone falls off its walls, it always drops within the fort and never outside it. Azad used to sit and plan the next missions here along with his friends. It is said that they escaped from the tunnel when British Officers attacked the fort.  The mutiny of 1857 did most damage to the fort.

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Plaques at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao

Other significant places in Uttar Pradesh which played a major role in India’s freedom struggle.

U.P. played a vital role in the freedom struggle of India. While many revolutionaries nourished the soil with their blood, many politicians discussed and shaped the future of India on the land of U.P.

Kakori Station: 91 years have passed but the details of Kakori Kaand’ also known as Kakori Revolution is still etched in the conscience of Indians. On August 9, 1925 near Kakori station, HRA (Hindustan Republican Association) members overpowered the train heading towards Lucknow and looted the money which belonged to the British. Led by revolutionary Shri Ram Prasad Bismil, he was accompanied by other legendary freedom fighters such as Shri Chandra Shekhar Azad, Shri Ashfaqulla Khan, Shri Sachindra Bakhshi and others. Everyone involved were arrested except Azad.

Chandra Shekhar Azad Park: Known as Alfred Park during Raj, British built the park in Allahabad. Today, it is remembered as the park where Azad breathed his last. He preferred ending his life under a tree rather than surrendering to British who gheraoed him. The prized possession of the nearby museum is the .32 bore colt pistol which Azad owned. Anand Bhawan, the residence of Nehru and often visited by Gandhi and other freedom fighters, is also a must visit.

Residency: The ruins of Residency in Lucknow still reverberate with the echo of the chaos which prevailed during the Mutiny of 1857. The goosebumpy marks of cannon shots are still visible on the walls. Nearby is a graveyard where British officers and their families, who perished in the siege, were laid to rest. The place haunts with its aura and one must visit it to develop an understanding of the freedom struggle movement of India and Uttar Pradesh’s role in the same.

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Plaque commemorating Azad’s birth in Azad Mandir in Badarka, Unnao. Notice the name of Dr. Braj Kishor Shukla, father of Mr. Rajan on the bottom right.

Note: This is my longest blog till date. It is also the blog I worked the most on. The blog is based upon my conversation with Mr. Rajan Shukla, the neighbour of Azad and took me many days to assemble the facts and write them. The personal meeting with Mr. Rajan was followed up by many phone calls and telephonic interviews to verify the facts and write an error free story on a sensitive topic. Heartfelt thanks to Mr. Rajan for giving me his valuable time and special thanks to Vineet for bringing Badarka to my notice. I stayed overnight at his home and he and his parents played a wonderful host to me.

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My articled Shri Chandrashekhar Azad’s relation with Badarka Village in Railbandhu magazine.

 This article was also published in the January 2017 issue of Railbandhu magazine, the official Railway magazine of India run by the Government.

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Me busy documenting Badarka, Unnao on a hot June afternoon. Picture by: Vineet Singh

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Statue of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at Badarka, Unnao

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TAJ BALLOON FESTIVAL: HAVE YOU SEEN TAJ MAHAL FROM TOP?

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This is how we landed. Clicked immediately after our landing by Baadshah!

img_9261THE BALLOON LANDED WITH A THUD in the middle of nowhere. It first hit the floor, our balloon tips over, rested briefly on the ground, dragged a little and finally stopped. A storm of dust enveloped my face, hair and camera.  I tried to find my balance as I was lying on the wooden basket on ground, my back facing the ground, my legs up in the air. Kind of 90 degrees! My co travelers, who were the next door neighbors a while ago, were now occupying the first floor of the ‘apartment’.  A group of villagers, young, old, kids came rushing to us as the balloon stopped and inflated, like a giant monster destroyed by a superhero. Windy landings are common if the weather is not favourable. It is safe even if the basket tips over. All you need to do is follow the instructions of pilot diligently.

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Local village kids running from one balloon to another in excitement. Adults were excited too but showed restraint.

Richard (from Sri Lanka, in pic below), our pilot said, “I have piloted Hot Air balloon in one of the most exotic locations in the world but I enjoy flying in India the most. The reason is nothing else but the sheer warmth of people and the excitement it builds at the landing place. Every single time!”

I couldn’t agree more with him. The moment we took off from the P.A.C ground in Agra, we were constantly accompanied by a strange cacophimg_9411ony. Nothing like I have heard before. As I looked down from the balloon, I saw small dots waving at us, screaming with joy and abandon. Each one of them was looking up; the kids playing on rooftop of their houses, the ‘ghoonghat’ (veil) clad women on the streets, the shopkeepers and vendors. It was the first balloon ride for all the 6 journalists and bloggers, including me. While we were ecstatic to participate in our first ride ever, the people below were excited just to see us fly.

As we floated lyrically in the air, our happiness found an extension in their happiness. The constant bird’s eye view of the iconic Taj Mahal, one of the 7 wonders of the world made it memorable; once-in-a-lifetime thing. The early morning ride made it amusing for me to see people start their daily routine viz. women drying clothes, school kids readying for school, shopkeepers opening their shops, a group of unruly monkeys jumping across rooftop boundaries of adjoining homes.

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View of balloon from our balloon!

We covered a distance of 10 kilometres in 17 minutes. Another balloon had landed near our landing spot. It was a scandalous site. The balloon stood tall, its fabric poetically waving in the air. Before it collapsed, it attracted the attention of villagers, young and old alike. Young kids ran from all directions, initiating little dust storms. Senior citizens from the villages showed restraint and yet found it hard to hide their excitement! They looked at the balloon in awe, agape mouthed, cracking jokes and sharing good cheer. I sensed that they would perhaps discuss it all day, maybe even all week. This is how a sleepy village comes to life in India.

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The other balloon which attracted much attention. It landed on a stage like hillock making it all the more dramatic.

It was one of the most memorable mornings of my life. I value it even more because I was unable to fly the previous morning. Owing to bad weather (strong winds), I was supposed to be in one of the 5 balloon rides which were cancelled out of 15. Our lady pilot from Malaysia apologized for cancelling the ride. “I am sorry, I shouldn’t be flying today. The winds are too strong. It is my first time in India and I can’t take the risk. You can still hop in the balloon and take selfies though.” Me and my co traveler, were disappointed but understood that it’s better not to fly than to risk it all. Never mind, the sumptuous breakfast (delicious South Indian) at The Grand Imperial was still waiting for us.

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The view of Taj from our Balloon!

I was supposed to leave Agra the same day but I extended my trip for one more day, to give it a shot the next day! I decided to relax the entire day at my comfortable room in Samovar hotel Agra, sometimes sleeping, sometimes gazing at the Taj Mahal from my room. I just happened to get lucky the next day despite the warnings of strong winds again!

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The bird’s eye view of Taj was clear this time, unlike a hazy one during 1st edition in 2015.

My extended stay was a blessing in disguise as I got an opportunity to be witness to the special Night Glow Show of hot air balloons dancing to the tunes of western music. In this event, all the 15 balloons were tethered to the ground and visitors were given a taste of what the real ride would be like. The constant firing gave it a dramatic look especially to those balloons shaped like a cartoon character, Smurf being the most popular one.

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Ballons shaped like cartoon characters ruled!

Kudos to the Uttar Pradesh government for coming up with such initiative. Despite such diverse landscapes and important sites, a Hot Air Balloon scene is conspicuously missing in India. Thanks to companies like E factor and Sky waltz, one can have such experiences in places like Jaipur, Agra etc. Samit Garg, the CEO of E factor told us, “I had a memorable Hot Air Balloon experience in Germany. I wondered why it is not happening in India. So, I decided to introduce it in some destinations in India with much success. Taj Hot Air Balloon festival is a seasonal event and we hope to make it a permanent activity, increasing the present count of 15 to 100 in coming years. We have already grown from 3 days event last year to a six day event this year.”

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Night Glow event!

Tushar, the energetic marketing personnel from E factor told us, “It is a safe activity. Indians now get a chance to explore the world class aviation and adventure sport right in their backyard. It’s really rare that anything goes wrong up in the air. In our history, we have not had any such issues. The visibility is much better this time. Last year, due to smog the view of Taj Mahal from top was cloudy.”  E-factor Adventure Tourism  Pvt. Ltd. runs commercial hot air ballooning flights in India. It promotes and hosts Hot Air Ballooning events in other destinations too.

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Smurf clearly walked away (or is it flew away) with all the attention!

Accomplished pilots from India and countries like Malaysia (female pilot), Sri Lanka (Richard, our pilot), USA, UK, UAE, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Netherland, Switzerland, Belgium helped make the dream come true for many.

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO OF THE FESTIVAL. CLICK HERE

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Our Malaysian Pilot on day 1. It was her first time in India.

YOU CAN DO IT TOO:

If you are lucky, you might end up winning a lucky draw and do the ride for free. Those interested may submit a form to the tourism office. A lucky draw will be held each evening based upon which winners will be finalized. There is a fixed quota for domestic and international tourists.

When to go: The second edition of Annual Taj Balloon Festival is a 6 day event commencing from 25th November and ends at 30th November. If you missed this year, do give it a try next year!

How to reach: make a 3 to 4 hour long road trip/train ride from Delhi. Agra has an airport. Feel free to book it via Sky Scanner.

One can fly to Delhi and make a trip to Agra or fly to Agra Airport.

When: The 2nd edition is from 25th Novmber to 30th November. In case you miss this event, keep an eye for the dates on UP Tourism website for next year, mostly in November.

Where to Stay: Samovar Hotel is comfortable, luxurious and in cenimg_9221tral location. The meals (I sampled Veg Burger and Stuffed Parathas) are good. There were some issues in TV which was sorted immediately by the maintenance person. Best part: You get view of Taj Mahal all day from your (soul) window. I often lazed around eating and gazing at the Taj from the comfort of the room.  Much like how Shah Jahan must have longingly stared at Taj Mahal when he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Red Fort. If only Shah Jahan had an option to view Taj from top. I stayed in room number 412.

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This is where we took off from. I clicked this from my balloon up in the air.

Moral Policing:

  • In case your ride is cancelled, please do not argue with the organizers and nag them for a ride. Safety is most important and the weather condition is in nobody’s hand!
  • If you have taken a ride already, don’t ask for another one. There are people waiting for same since the number of people who can ride is limited. This year it was just 400 people.
  • Strictly follow the instructions of your pilot. If he says keep the camera in your bag and sit on the floor of basket, then do it. It is for your own safety.
  • Don’t bend from the basket when it is up in the air.
  • Don’t walk over the deflated balloon. Some of them cost more than Rs. 90 lakhs.
  • Don’t demand a flight over the Taj. No flights are allowed till a certain distance from Taj.
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It was heartening to see locals help trained pilots with packing of balloon. Deflating it is much harder than your think! And they did it 2 times in a day!

The view from my #SoulWindow makes me speechless!

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Bird’s eye view of Taj from the Hot Air balloon. Clicked using an 18-135 mm lens

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A local amused by the unexpected landing!

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

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Pool Side buffet at Grand Imperial Hotel, Agra. Loved their South Indian fare.
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Locals gathered near our balloon as soon as we landed near the village.

Pink Tea,Samovar and other secrets – In Search of vegetarian food in Lucknow during Ramadan

I have spent my growing up years in Lucknow (Well 1998 to 2008) and after moving to Mumbai and then Delhi, I keep coming back to meet parents. But never had I explored the Ramadaan special food walks in the old city area. Perhaps, the vegetarian in me stopped me. This year I decided to explore the vegetarian delight during the month long festival.

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Scene from Abdul Aziz Road, Lucknow

My photo researcher/photographer friend, Sneha Srivastava agreed to join me.  She is on a sabbatical in Lucknow (and spends her time playing with her dog, attending mundane ‘mundan’ parties and other small joys in life.) We roamed around the lanes of very chaotic Akbari Gate. I was curious to locate an ancient gate when a vendor directed me to a narrow lane, the kind where two fat men can’t walk together. I was intrigued to find a dilapidated gate sandwiched by a mix of nondescript buildings.

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Sheermal being cooked in an underground oven. Look closely!

 

As we explored more lanes around the place, around 7:04 p.m., people in almost all the shops, sat around a buffet of home cooked food, performing their prayers and breaking the fast. A friendly person asked us to join them for the feast in a garments shop. I hesitantly agreed, suspecting the food to be a mix of vegetarian and non vegetarian fare. I was surprised when the gentleman told me that each item of the feast was ‘pure vegetarian’. Apparently, in Indian homes, in most Roza Iftaaris, the major chunk of food served is vegetarian.

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They invited us for the Iftar Party. Read text for the full story!

I wasn’t really observing Roza but I was more than happy to join them for iftari. Iftar means the meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan. They shared their black chanas (chickpeas), dates, pakoras (fritters) , desserts, cut fruits and ‘sherbet’ with me. Food was nothing to write home about. It was what you get in home but what made it special was the love and affection with which it was served to us.

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Sewai galore in Old Lucknow.

When two burqa clad women who were passing by, asked them for water, they invited them to join. Within minutes, a cheerful friend of them joined them and spread the festive cheer with his upbeat mood. I understood in that moment, that this ritual is not only about self control,self restraint, sacrifice but also about bonding, bonhomie and sharing. As they sipped water from the old fashioned ‘katora’ (bowl), I thanked them for their hospitality and moved on.

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Even drinking water is prohibited during Roza. Our host breaking his fast by drinking water from a traditional ‘katora’

Near Akbari gate is the famous shop called Al Madina Lassi and Kashmiri Chai. The shop is mostly known for the meticulously made Kashmiri Noon Chai. It is run by 3 brothers, Munna, Wahid and Latif Munna gave me a lowdown on the process. He told me that the preparations start since morning.

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People come from afar from that one cup of Kashmiri pink tea. This tea is not a secret to the locals.

It was surprising for me to know that the Pink tea was made with the regular green tea. But the process was more meticulous. The shopkeeper, said ruefully (but also with a hint of pride), “It takes a lot of time to make this tea.” It tastes even better in winters, I was told. It also helps one keep warm in winter. Tea leaves are boiled in water for one hour or more along with baking soda. Once the tea leaves release dark color, it is boiled for four hours alongwith dried rose petals, dalchini (cinnamon), tejpatta (Bay Leaf), Kesar aka Jaffran (saffron), Ilaichi (Cardamom), laung (cloves) and khada namak (salt), milk, crushed almonds, sugar et al. The samovar (mostly made up of copper) adds to its distinct taste. It is then dispensed from the Samovar directly, everytime an order comes. You can also taste the delicious Kesariya kheer and lassi here.

 

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Kesariya Kheer at Al Madeena

On seeing our interest (and perhaps ‘peeled eyes’ expressions), an enthusiastic Daaud from a nearby shop invited us to sample dishes from his roadside shop. His brother Mohammed Sabir sells Kashmiri tea and desserts on his hand pulled cart. He showed us how to set up the Samovar. The Samovar has a lid which when opened, reveals a metal pipe which runs through the entire pot. The pipe is filled with burning coal/charcoals. They settle at the base on a metal web. The metal web is constantly fuelled by mild fire though an opening at the base. This helps keep the tea warm. A modern day thermos flask could have done the same job more easily and efficiently but I think some things should just be done the old way.

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Dawood with his ‘besan ki roti’

Apart from Middle east and some parts of Europe, the samovar is also quite popular in Russia. In fact these originated in Russia. They come in many beautifully crafted designs and shapes. Some people collect antique versions for the prized beauty. It also has a chimney for the smoke to escape. When not using it to keep tea warm, people use it to boil water for daily use, using anything from coal to pine cones.  In many cultures, samovars are used during community feasts and festivals.

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Kashmiri pink tea at Al Madeena

Also pronounced as Samaavar, Daood pronounced it as Samovar which is actually the Persian way of saying it. The samovar we saw was a Kashmiri version and was made up of copper. It was embellished with calligraphic motifs. I spotted floral designs. This work is known as ‘naqash’ Few days after my visit to Lucknow, I attended an Iranian film festival and observed that samovar was featured in many Iranian films as an important routine of everyday life. In fact, the event also had a desk with a display of Iranian style copper Samovar and cups.

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A beautiful copper Samovar at Dawood’s shop!

Kashmiri Noon Chai (It has a hint of salt) is also known as Pink Tea, Gulaabi chai (Pink in color) or Sheer Chai. It is though not as salty as the Butter Tea you get in Buddhist regions. It is neither as crisp as the kahwa, the other Kashmiri Chai.  It is best consumed with breads like Lavasa, Sheermaal, Taftan Samosa, Balaai, Kulcha etc and is a part of daily routine in Kashmir and now some parts of Lucknow. The pink color is achieved by adding baking soda to it. Migrants from Kashmir brought this special tea with them to Lucknow. Today you can find this drink easily in the streets of Old Lucknow. The credit of popularizing it goes to Ameer Ahmad. He started selling it in 1962 on the streets of Lucknow on the suggestion of his mother. He dealt in the business of oil lamp prior to that. Ameer Started running a shop at Abdul Aziz road (Akbari gate). His son Rasheed Ahmad took over the legacy from him. Today’s Rasheed’s sons Waheed Ahmad and Munna (Moin Ahmad) and Lateef run the shop.

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It’s rush hour at Al Madeena. On the left is Samovar!

Though the Kashmiri tea costed me just Rs.10, a very interesting variation of the same came at a higher price. At Rs.40 a cup, Chai, samosa, malai ka pyala was nothing like what I have tasted before. Khari like puff pastry  is crushed roughly and placed in a bowl. Then, it is topped with pink Kashmiri tea and thick malai (cream).  It is quite filling and is meant to be savored leisurely as the crunchy puff pastry turns its texture into chewy.

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Pics above : Chai, samosa, malai ka pyala

Coming back to Dawood’s shop, the Shahi Tukda was passable (Though still worth a try) kheer was sure a winner. It was thick, creamy and had khoya, zaafran (Saffron), milk, dry fruits and rice in it. Rice is added whole and crushed during the cooking. It sure left me begging for more but I had to stop since Dawood bhai insisted that he won’t charge us a penny in spite of our protests. (Ah, the perks of a travel writer and sweet Lucknow people!) He also runs a shop where he sells only ‘besan ki roti’. It is shallow fried gramflour bread and is served with two spicy chutneys (Tomato and Chilly). Till the time I was there, I did not see the shopkeepers free for even a second. The rotis just flew off the tawa as the crowd gathered the cart. At Rs. 10 a piece, its great VFM.

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Shahi Tukda at Dawood’s shop. They could not beat my mom’s recipe!

Who knew the under rated city of Lucknow hides so many gems under its sleeve? A sequel of unique vegetarian dishes to eat in Lucknow is coming soon on the blog. Stay tuned.

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Your parents can’t go to Old Lucknow? Never mind, pack some for them. Like I did!

FIND THEM:

Al Madina Lassi And Kashmiri Chai : Abdul Aziz Road, Akbari Road Slope, Lucknow. Phone Waheed (9336166805), Munna (7068568426)

Dawood (For besan ki Roti, Pink Tea and Sweets) – Akbari Gate Slope, In Front of Umar Plaza, Lucknow. Phone – 9044140846

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‘Besan Ki Roti’ sold like hot cakes. They just flew off the huge griddle!

 

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Dawood’s shop and the samovar

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

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Special thanks to Sneha Srivastava, a fab photographer and photo researcher for accompanying me
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Sewai paradise!