‘To lose is to learn’ – did anyone wise ever put this down for posterity? If, in fact, a traveller’s ultimate aim is to lose oneself, then we needn’t go far to find a labyrinth. I first realised the beauty of the simple Indian concept called ‘gully’, in my own backyard, in Bandra. After that I have always searched for places with enough character to lose myself in. Below is a little compilation of big urban mazes, our favourite treasure troves of confusion.
Varanasi – The Original Labyrinth
The real thing. Follow any, and I mean any one of the gullies leading in from the ghats and you are guaranteed an amusing roundabout in the world’s oldest city. You might find a palm reader in one subterranean cubbyhole, or see a cow parked outside a music school full of Koreans learning to play tabla. Banaras is endless, how long the game lasts only depends on your capacity to walk (and to dodge cows, because you’ll meet many on the ways).
Lucknow’s Bhool Bhulaiya
Before you dive into busy-busy Banaras you’re going to need practice. For that, make way to Lucknow’s most famous monument – Bara Imambara. Here, you will find a very mysterious place built by Lucknow’s fourth Nawab back in 1784. It is called Bhool Bhulaiya – a triple-storeyed network of around 1,000 narrow passages, staircases and tunnels. It was meant to confuse the enemy; so perhaps this would be a good spot for an office holiday?
Jodhpur’s Blue Maze
Rajasthan has mastered so much in tourism terms, it’s got turbans, forts, gems, desert safaris, and lassis down to an immaculate art form. But one thing most travellers fail to notice is that nearly every one of Rajasthan’s cities is a maze of pathways. Among these, Jodhpur’s Old City is the most visually awesome because of the indigo everywhere. In winter you can just keep going. Jaisalmer Fort is another gorgeous maze, full of the old gold and new hippie psychedelic.
The Sufi Heart Of Delhi
Old Delhi is the second contender for the title of an Indian Labyrinth. But for those who love Varanasi, it is Nizamuddin Basti that comes closest to that kind of holy character. Nizamuddin is where Sufism was founded (ya, it wasn’t an IHC or NCPA invention), and something of those blessed origins still lingers in the gullies. You might come upon a step-well, you might get ambushed by the smell of attar, or end up following the aroma of suleimani chai. And eventually, in these gullies which are the arteries of Delhi’s Sufi heart, you will come across a very quiet courtyard where the city’s greatest Urdu poet lays buried. A labyrinth leading to Mirza Ghalib.
Mumbai – Classic & Contemporary
Mumbai is a labyrinth alright, one that gets consistently more complex thanks to the metro construction. But it is home to many sub-labyrinths that have the kind of character we define the city with. For an old Bombay, it is Bhuleshwar you need to be in. It is named after the city’s patron deity, and can take you from temples to water tanks to markets to temples again. For gullies with a new Mumbai flavour, Bazaar Road in Bandra is unique with its graffiti and pav wala quirks.
The Dakhni Puzzle Of Hyderabad
The iconic Charminar area is somewhat like Old Delhi, but less messy, more witty, and definitely preserving its poetic history better. Hyderabad’s peculiar Dakhni dialect can be heard everywhere, paused only by azan. There are old, old Irani chai shops and old, old bakeries still baking osmania biscuits. All those bangle and pearl markets you’ve heard of are in this glittering maze where shopkeepers might still recite a couplet or two. And if all this doesn’t inspire, watch Telugu star Mahesh Babu prancing around these streets in his famous film Okkadu.
Madurai In The Middle
Don’t wrinkle your nose like that, labyrinths aren’t meant to look like whitewashed meditation halls. They are supposed to be as colourful and confusing as Madurai’s focal point is. Meenakshi Temple was considered a lotus from which streets grew around like petals. The temple complex and everything around it including flower sellers and tailors alike, are a veritable Tamilian maze with mornings full of rituals. Yes, go on, try losing yourself.