I don’t look back a whole lot but when we set foot in Hyderabad some 13 years since we were last here, I was a little taken aback by the sentiments it brought out.
Madhu and I met here in 1997 while on a 5-month training program provided by a company that we’d both joined at the same time. There were 10 other trainees from Bombay with us and a whole bunch of locals in the training program. We hung out together, stayed in one of Hyderabad‘s nicer hotels, formed close friendships and generally had some of the best times of our lives, especially considering that most of us were in our early twenties! It was a magical time! So now, after 11 years of marriage, when Madhu and I rolled into the city where it had all begun, it felt exciting and tremendously nostalgic!
And what a change 13 years has made! The town that was once sleepy and devoid of people on the streets, is now hopping-crazy with commercial development that has completely overtaken every part of it. Today the streets are chock-a-block with traffic and people; there are malls, multiplexes, multi-national companies and the same big-city problems of filth and pollution that we see in Bombay and Delhi. But we are not complaining – the city seems to have bloomed over the last few years and that’s a good thing!
When we looked at the guidebooks, we realized that even though we had stayed for 5 whole months we had not explored the city much; there’s so much to see out here! We started our tour by visiting the famed Salarjung Museum. We got there at 10am sharp just when the gates were opened to the visitors. Bags and cameras are not allowed into the museum so we had to deposit ours in a locker that was provided for free near the ticket counter. And then to our utter dismay we saw bus loads of school children queue up before the museum entrance. Only then did we notice the banner that hung above: Free tickets for children below 12 years from Nov 14th to the 20th as part of Children’s Day celebrations! Oh well!
Originally established in 1951 in the ancestral home of Nawab Mir Yusuf Khan Salar Jung III, this museum is the third largest in the country. Salar Jung III was the Prime Minister of the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad. He had a great passion for collecting masterpieces from around the world and in fact, his is believed to be the biggest one-man collection of antiques in the world! The museum was shifted to the current location in Afzalgunj in 1968 by which time quite a few pieces, sadly, were siphoned off or stolen. Nevertheless, the collection is still humungous and it’s almost impossible to see it all in one visit at least we couldn’t!
The collection includes antique stone & bronze sculptures, fabrics, furnishings, swords, guns, ivory items, marble statues, paintings, coins, manuscripts and a lot more from around the world. Of these all, we loved the Indian art section that housed some amazing stuff. But the best of all was no doubt the unbelievably beautiful marble sculpture called the Veiled Lady. It’s hard to imagine how someone could sculpt such magic on stone!
In 2005, 4 more wings were added to the existing collection. Unfortunately after almost 2 & ½ hrs of browsing through the main collection, Madhu and I just didn’t have the energy to check the new sections out. I guess, it was foolish of us to attempt a museum visit immediately after a tiring overnight journey!
To rejuvenate, we had lunch at the restaurant of Hotel Amrutha Castle where we had stayed in 1997 . Since then it has been bought over by the Best Western group but no changes have been made to the hotel’s interiors, which looked pretty much the same as it had back then. However, the area around the hotel has changed completely. Back then there were hardly any buildings around and we would always have trouble finding auto-rickshaws to get to work. But today it is a busy intersection with a flyover in the front; we didn’t recognize the area at all!
We had a great time sitting in the hotel’s restaurant and reminiscing the ‘good old days’ over beer and sandwiches !
The following morning, we took an auto to Mehdipatnam and from there a bus to Golconda Fort, which is some 11kms west of the city center. The fort-city was originally built by the Kakatiya rulers in the 12th century. But much of its present layout and features are attributed to the embellishments made by the Qutb Shahi kings during the 16th century. In the nine-month-long battle of 1687, Aurangzeb won over the citadel, after which it fell into ruins. Today, the ASI has done a decent job of maintaining the fort-city but the graffiti left behind by callous youngsters is still there as testimony to the utter lack of respect our people have for the country’s past!
We entered the fort through the beautiful Fateh Darwaza, which has iron-spiked gates and a lovely, arched pavilion. One of the fort’s unique and most well-known feature is that a clap beneath the central dome of this pavilion can be heard almost a kilometer away at the very top of the fort! This engineering marvel used to help alert the dwellers of any unwanted visits or attacks. From the pavilion, a sign directed us to enter the fort area from the right. This path wound up to the top of the hill where we saw a mosque (gated and locked), a Kali temple and a fabulous Darbar Hall. From here, we headed back down the hill by a different route, past the living quarters of guards and then finally got to that of the royalty. The palaces are fronted by a lovely square with a now defunct water-fountain in the center. This square is where the ASI holds its Light and Sound show in the evenings. We had attended it in 1997 and had thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Amitabh Bachcan’s baritone as he brought to life Golconda’s fabulous past. However, we now realized that the equipment from 1997 hasn’t been updated as yet; large, out-dated-looking lights, speakers, switch-boxes and wires connecting them all lie strewn around the palace grounds obtrusively; an ugly sight!
While wandering around the fort we saw 3 performers dressed completely in black hanging from the walls of the fort with thick ropes for support. A fourth person stood before them atop a rocky cliff and led them through some dance routines, which they practiced against some soulful music. It was amazing to watch them flip in the air and literally dance across the walls of the fort in sync! We learnt that they were part of the Bandaloop team that was to perform in Golconda the following Sunday in the afternoon. They apparently specialize in dancing on towers, skyscrapers, mountains and bridges – quite a unique concept! Along with the other visitors, we spent quite a few minutes watching the dancers and marveling at their technique!
From Golconda, we took an auto to the tombs of the Qutb Shahi family that lie about 2kms away in an area called Ibrahim Bagh. This place is not as popular with visitors as the Golconda Fort and that’s quite sad ‘coz the tombs are all gorgeous and definitely worth a look! Interspersed amongst the tombs are small but graceful mosques. All of them are enclosed within a garden and seem to be under restoration by the ASI.
The tombs belong to the seven Qutb Shahi rulers as well as some of their wives and other royal family. Most of them are built as a square, pillared pavilion, with a domed structure at the top. They are either one or two-storied and have exquisite stone carvings. It’s said that the facade of the tombs were originally overlaid with yellow, green and blue tiles but very little of this remains today. The sarcophagus is at the center of the square pavilion and we noticed (where the doors were not locked) that most of them were covered with green or red cloths with Persian inscriptions. We rambled through the entire enclosure admiring the fabulous architecture before taking an auto back to Golconda, a shared auto back to Mehdipatnam and then another auto to the city center.
We spent the morning of our 3rd day in Hyderabad’s old city starting with the lovely Chowmohalla Palace. Since we hadn’t heard about it before, our expectations were low. But the palace grounds surprised us with its size and grandeur. Although construction of the palace complex began in 1750, it was completed (as it is in its present form) only in 1869. The palace, or group of residential and administrative structures, was considered to be the seat of the Nizami dynasty where all functions and ceremonies were held.
The complex has two courtyards, each with a lovely water feature in the center surrounded by one or two-storied palaces in pale-yellow with a white trim. The most grand structure amongst them is the Khilwat Mubarak, which was used as a Darbar Hall. It has marble flooring with a marble throne and fabulous chandeliers. The tall ceilings of all the rooms have exquisite stucco carvings and add to the grandeur of the place. The palace today exhibits some of the furniture used by the royalty as well as their crockery and armory. Another palace, where the descendants of the royal family reside during their India visits is not open to the public for entry but we could view their living space from an open terrace at the back of the structure. It has gorgeous furnishings and decor, befitting true royalty. Another palace held an exhibit of photographs and paintings of the royal family, which was quite riveting. A collection of vintage cars is displayed in a glassed enclosure behind the two courtyards.
One of the security guards mentioned that they don’t receive many visitors and that the money collected through entry tickets, (Rs.30 per person + Rs.50 for camera) is not enough to cover even the annual maintenance costs of such a large, palatial complex. I hope that the city advertises this hidden gem and encourages more people to visit, not only because it’s so darn pretty but also because it holds so much historical significance! We learnt more about Hyderabad’s Nizami past here than we had in guidebooks or museums!
The palace complex is within walking distance of Mecca Masjid and Hyderabad’s famed mascot: the Charminar. The masjid is architecturally quite beautiful and well laid-out. The main prayer hall has a pillared gallery to the left and a water-tank in the front. However, when we entered we were told that, for security reasons, bags must be dropped off in a holding area that didn’t look very secure. So I waited with the bags while Madhu took a quick tour of the place. The security guards kindly offered me their seat under the shade of the entry pavilion. While people-watching from that seat I noticed that mosques in the south are not as strict about women covering their heads and hair as they are in the north.
The Charminar, meaning ‘Mosque of Four Minarets’, is a gorgeous monument, which is sadly lost in the chaotic market and traffic that surrounds it. It was built in 1591 by the fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty to commemorate the elimination of a plague epidemic from the city. This square structure with a 4-storey tall minaret in each corner is very elegant in architecture, typical of Islamic monuments of that period. Visitors are allowed to climb one of the minarets through a claustrophobic passage with spiral stairs to the pavilion at the top. From here the views out to Hyderabad’s markets and bustling lanes are fabulous. We were there around mid-afternoon; I bet the view in the late evenings would be much nicer when the city is all lit up!
Before calling it a day, we visited the Nizam’s Purani Haveli (Old Palace) where the HEH Nizam’s Museum is housed. Outside of Salarjung Museum and Charminar, Hyderabad’s auto guys have no idea where the rest of the places are. So we had to ask numerous auto-drivers before one of them knew where the Chowmohalla Palace was. But in the case of the HEH Nizam’s Museum, no one knew of its whereabouts. Finally, one enterprising auto guy asked a traffic cop who thankfully turned out to be knowledgeable. Not only did he know where the museum was but he also knew that auto drivers can get Rs.20 for every person they bring to the gates of the museum! This was the first time we had heard of such a scheme. Apparently it was the first time our auto guy had heard about it too; he enthusiastically drove us there!
Only after paying Rs.70 per head, not paying Rs.150 per camera and viewing the sad collection within the palace did we realize why the authorities have to bribe auto guys to bring visitors here; it was a complete waste of time! First of all, the palace itself is architecturally not very interesting. Secondly, the museum within mainly houses the gifts that the Nizam’s family received over the years! This consists mainly of boring trophies and building models in silver or gold and some other arbitrary stuff. The only room of interest was a long rectangular hall, which was the Nizam’s dressing room. It housed wall-to-wall armoires, which were, back then, filled with clothes. Apparently, the Nizam never repeated his clothes and hence, the humungous collection!
Our three days in Hyderabad flew by in a flurry of sight-seeing activities, trying out Biryani in different restaurants and generally reminiscing about the past. The city has lots to offer visitors and enough to keep them engrossed for a few days. Apart from what we covered in this visit, the area around Hussein Sagar Lake is also worth exploring. The walk along Tank Bund, bridge across the lake, is quite fascinating especially in the evening. The Birla Temple dedicated to Lord Venkateshwara is located beautifully atop a small hillock overlooking the lake. The views from there are lovely (especially in the evenings) and so is the temple.
With the Hyderabad visit, we couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful end to this leg of our South-India tour!