My auto rickshaw driver chats away animatedly in impeccable Urdu as he navigates through the narrow by-lanes. We are on our way to the heart and soul of Hyderabad—Charminar and its immediate vicinity. It is 8 am and the old, still drowsy, historical, cultural, and commercial hub lined with shuttered shops is just about yawning itself awake.
Me: Dukaane kitne bajje khulte hai? [When do the shops open?]
Maqsood [the auto rickshaw driver]: Hyderabad nawaabo ka shahar hai. Nawaabi se uthte hai, phursat se kaam pe aate hai. 11 aur 12 ke baad le ke chalo. [Hyderabad is the city of nawaabs (Muslim ruling princes). They wake up at leisure and come to work at leisure. Say post 11 or 12 noon.]
And nope, there was no pun intended.
Despite the decades following its relinquishment of princely status in 1948, the city of Hyderabad, once capital of Hyderabad State and prior to that the Golconda Sultanate, still wears a veil of gentility. Of refined conversations and artistic sensibilities. The people are a little kinder. With all its love for bling and gold, the local lifestyles are a little simpler.
The unusual mix of an imported Islamic culture from Persia and Turkey into a distinctly Deccan geography and indigenous Telegu populace is responsible for Hyderabad’s rather unique identity.
Whilst much of South India shuns Hindi and Urdu, Hyderabad converses in both fluently replete with cultural appendages such as the biryani and ghazals. Monuments combine Islamic architectural styles and motifs straight out of an Arabian Nights tale, built by Hindu artisans. Love stories between the foreign rulers and local courtesans are regaled to date. One such led to the founding of the city of Hyderabad itself.
Two dynasties have authored the city’s story—the Qutb Shahis (1518 – 1687) and Asaf Jah Nizams (1724 – 1948). The former now lie asleep in a series of bulbous tombs surrounded by overgrown weeds on Hyderabad’s outskirts. Mukarram Jah, the last and 8th [titular] Nizam lives anonymously in a two-bedroom apartment in Turkey even as his multiple palaces back home have been converted into museums, government offices, and 7-star hotels.
Though fast growing into a hi-tech park for modern India with plush offices for Microsoft and Wipro, Hyderabad’s old walled city remains untouched by modernism.
Here’s my 36 hours in the narrow, jumbled lanes around Charminar: An ode to its 400-year romance with its past, and the stories and sights held in its folds. If you’ve explored the old city too, do share your favourite highlight. Would love to read about it. 🙂
Day 1: Morning: Hyderabad of the Qutb Shahis—Charminar, Mecca Masjid, and Lad Bazaar
Hyderabad’s centrepiece: The Charminar built in 1591–92 by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, the 5th Sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty and founder of the city.
I just had to take this picture! And when I asked the two policemen if they were okay with me using it in my blog [putting it on the net in simpler language] they just smiled and wanted to know if I was enjoying my stay in their city. 🙂
There are a number of theories explaining the origin of the city’s name. One states Hyderabad means “Haydar’s city” or “lion city” in honour of Caliph Ali Ibn Abi Talib who was referred to as Haydar for his valour in the battlefield. Another claims the city was once called “Baghnagar” or “City of Gardens.”
The most popular, and one recited by guide books and academia alike, is that Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, the 5th Sultan of the Golconda Sultanate and founder of the city in 1591 named it after a nautch [dancing] girl he fell head over heels in love with and married. Her name was Bhagmati, so he called the city which he built around her village “Bhagyanagar” or “Bhagnagar.” When she converted to Islam and adopted the name Hyder Mahal, he faithfully renamed it Hyderabad.
Inspired by his Persian roots, Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah designed Hyderabad on the lines of Esfahan with bazaars around a square and palaces, lakes, gardens, and orchards; the edifices decorated with stucco and tile-work.
At the centre of it all was the square 31.95 metres wide Charminar to commemorate the eradication of a plague epidemic, topped with a mosque on its second floor [now closed] and four towering three-storeyed, 56-metre-high minarets at each corner. An auspicious date was chosen for its construction in keeping with its role as the city’s centrepiece—the first day of the first month of Muharram of 1000 AH [Hijri or Islamic calendar].
A couple of hours later the four 19th Century clocks, placed on each wall by the 6th Nizam, tell me it is time for me to leave for Mecca Masjid, a stone’s throw away. Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah laid its foundation stone in 1617, but it was not until 1694 that the mosque was finally completed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. It is said the central arch contains bricks made of clay brought all the way from Mecca to Hyderabad by the Sultan. In a canopied hallway leading to the prayer hall the Nizams and their families rest in peace in marble graves.
On the opposite side of Charminar, the Charkaman (1594) or four gateways lead into the city’s main crossroads. It is enclosed in a town square with an octagonal cistern called Gulzar Hauz in its centre. As I stand at the same crossroads, I involuntarily pinch myself. I need to remind myself I am in the 21st Century and not way back in the 16th Century coz I don’t think it was that much different from what it is now.
A priest at Mecca Masjid. The mosque gets its name from the bricks in the central arch which are made of clay brought all the way from Mecca by the 5th Sultan. The Asaf Jah Nizams and their families are buried in marble graves inside the canopied building leading to the mosque.
54 metres wide, 67 metres long, 23 metres high and made of granite: Mecca Masjid is one of India’s largest and oldest mosques, and can seat up to 10,000 worshipers at a time. Women are not allowed inside dressed in jeans so the police at the entrance wrapped me up in dupattas!
Lad Bazaar with its bling-filled shops was explicitly set up for the 5th Sultan’s daughter’s wedding over 400 years ago.
The lanes around Charminar bustle with life which only get livelier as the hours go by, the shops selling authentic Hyderabadi lac, glass bangles, pearls and attar [perfume]. “The Hindus come here during the day. The Muslims come at night,” a Hyderabadi explains to me as I make my way through the sea of humanity in Lad Bazaar.
Lad Bazaar was believed to have been set up at the orders of Sultan Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah as a shopping market for his daughter Hayat Baksh Begum’s wedding. “Lad” by the way means lacquer, a material used to make artificial stone-studded bangles. But Lad Bazaar is not the destination. Ok, maybe the camera’s. Piece-de-resistance is the grand Chowmahalla Palace tucked away in an obscure side lane inside the market. But, first lunch!
Day 1: Lunch: Sandwiches and coffee in the company of Charminar
Coffee Café Day aka CCD for the primary reason that it has bay window views of the Charminar in all its splendour! And a latte is always welcome. Plus, if you are a café person like me, this is the only coffee shop [that I could find] in the old city.
Day 1: Afternoon: Hyderabad of the Nizams—Chowmahalla Palace and Paigah Tombs
Chowmahalla Palace, official seat of the Asaf Jah Nizams of Hyderabad till 1948, is a medley of palaces constructed over a hundred years in a variety of architectural styles forming a unified poetic whole. The magnum opus is the breathtakingly beautiful Khilawat [Durbar Hall] with its Takht-e-Nishan or royal seat and 19 spectacular Belgian crystal chandeliers.
Khilawat was designed especially for Nizam Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah VII’s coronation in 1911. Prior to this the royal seat was in another part of the palace which no longer exists.
The wealth of the Nizams has been much touted about wherein diamonds were weighed by kilograms, pearls in acres, and gold bars in tonnes. In such a context, the Chowmahalla Palace and its trappings feel almost—normal.
An amalgamation of various architectural styles, Chowmahalla was built over a period spanning an entire century and the reign of two Nizams (1750 – 1869). Comprising two courtyards, northern and southern, separated by the grand show-stopper Khilawat [Durbar Hall], Chowmahalla literally means four palaces—Aftab Mahal, Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, and Tehniyat Mahal which stand amidst fountains and gardens in the southern courtyard.
The elegant string of palaces was modelled on the lines of the Shah of Iran’s palace in Esfahan, and served as the Nizams’ official residence, as well as the venue for royal ceremonial coronations and receptions. Fancy cars and buggies, including a canary yellow Rolls Royce Silver Ghost throne car of the Nizam made to order in 1911 with pure gold and silver fittings, complete the display of the most lavish lifestyles of Indian royalty.
One of the most charming exhibitions in the palace though is a collection of photographs of the royal family which throw light onto lesser known details of their personal lives. The oldest photographs date back to 1873. It also humanizes the Chowmahalla experience when you realise it was real people who lived like this. Real people with wrinkles and dimples, frowns and twinkles.
Formal portrait of the three wives of Nizam Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah VII in traditional costumes and jewellery. [Digital reprint. Original image c. 1915. Raja Deen Dayal and Sons.] The 7th Nizam had seven wives in total.
Talking about people, a family tied to the Nizams in matrimony and blood were the Paigahs, and their onion domed tombs a short rickshaw ride away are Hyderabad’s most ethereally beautiful structures.
Paigah, meaning “pomp and rank” in Persian, were descendants of the second caliph of Islam, Hazrat Omer Farooq-e-Azam. They were introduced to the royal court by Nizam Ali Khan Asaf Jah II, conferred the titles Shams ul Umara [sun of the nobles] and Amir-e-Kabir [chief of the nobles], and gifted large tracts of land. The daughters of the Nizams were given only to the Paigahs in marriage, making the family above all the nobles in the realm, exempted from every court jurisdiction, and answerable only to the sovereign ruler.
Their necropolis containing elaborate tombs of 27 family members is a testimony to the family’s aesthetic sense and deep affinity with art. Oh, and yeah, the family also built the Falaknuma Palace which they later offered to the 6th Nizam who used it as a royal guest house. It is now a swanky hotel with room rates starting at US$745 a night.
Twenty-seven members of the Paigah dynasty, Hyderabad’s most celebrated family ranking second in power only to the Nizams, are interred in a burial complex 3 kilometres away from Charminar. My pictures were directed by my 20-year-old guide who assured me they would result in coffee table compositions. I think he was right. 😛
Day 1: Dinner: Hyderabadi Biryani at Shah Ghouse
For a memorable evening, may I suggest you precede dinner with a visit to the marble Birla Mandir (1976) perched on top of a hill called Naubath Pahad with endless views of the city. I did. You can see Golconda Fort, the old city, and the heart-shaped Hussain Sagar lake built by Ibrahim Quli Qutb Shah in 1563 with its monolithic statue of Gautama Buddha (1992) from here. Plonk yourself on the cool marble floors and see the sun and lights streak the sky and land in colour, while soft Sanskrit prayers float in the otherwise silence.
Day 2: Morning: Museum-hopping—treasures of Salar Jung Museum
Left: Wooden double statue with Mephistopheles [male] in front and Margaretta [female] at the back, Sculptor: Unknown, 19th Century, France; Right: The Veiled Rebecca, Sculptor: G.B. Benzoni, 19th Century, Italy.
The audio guide at the counter recommends three hours at the Salar Jung Museum. It is sacrilege. You need a good few days. Keeping the 36 hours, however that I had in mind for Hyderabad, I console myself with the three hours and a promise to return.
I say this because there are 38 galleries with 13,654 artefacts from the 2nd Century BC to the 20th Century AD brought in from all over India, Europe, Persia, Egypt, Syria, China, and Japan—by one person with impeccable taste.
His name was Nawab Mir Yusuf Ali Khan Salar Jung III (1889–1949), the former Prime Minister of the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad, who [wisely] gave up his cushy job at 25 and spent the rest of his life travelling the world. And collecting.
Highlights inside the maze of galleries spread over multiple wings are galore. Add to that, each and every objet d’art is a work of exquisite craftsmanship. Just ensure you do not miss the “Veiled Rebecca” from Rome, a set of ivory chairs presented by Louis XVI of France to Tippu Sultan of Mysore, and a jade fruit knife encrusted with precious stones which once belonged to the Mughal emperor Jahangir’s favourite wife, Nur Jahan. My personal favourite though was the walking sticks collection. Yup, walking sticks. Read this and you will know what I mean!
Note: The museum cafe serves pretty nice biryani and veg pulao during lunch hours.
Day 2: Early afternoon: Museum-hopping—treasures of H.E.H. The Nizam Museum
Highlight 1: Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Asaf Jah VI’s private two-storeyed wardrobe stretches 176 feet long.
Highlight 2, 3, 4, …. : Left: Gold burnished wooden throne used by the 7th Nizam for his silver jubilee festivities; Right: Pure gold and silver souvenirs gifted to the 7th Nizam on his reign’s 25th anniversary.
In stark contrast to the grandeur of Salar Jung Museum is His Exalted Highness [H.E.H.] The Nizam’s Museum. The latter is smaller in scale and more intimate in nature covering just one floor of one wing of the Purani Haveli [Old Palace], the Asaf Jah family’s first home in Hyderabad. The palace was acquired by the 2nd Nizam in 1750.
A fascinating collection is housed within of articles presented to the 7th Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah VII, on the silver jubilee of his reign in 1936 and thereafter. The souvenirs, gifts, mementos, and models were gifted to him by his people, land-owners, government departments and associations, labour unions, religious communities, and eminent individuals from India and abroad.
But what sets this collection apart is that all the articles are in pure solid silver and gold.
The museum’s other highlight is Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Asaf Jah VI’s majestic wardrobe. The gentleman had a penchant for clothes and shoes which the 176 feet long Burmese teak cupboard built on two levels took care of.
Day 2: Late afternoon: Classical Persian aesthetics at Baad Shahi Ashoor Khana
Detail, 400-year-old Persian enamel tiles on the walls of Baad Shahi Ashoor Khana.
I’m always amazed at what a little digging whilst travelling reveals. One such is the Baad Shahi Ashoor Khana in Ghansi Bazaar, an absolute gem yet oft overlooked heritage site built soon after the Charminar, in 1595, under the orders of Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah.
Ashoor Khanas are used by Shi’a Muslims to mourn the Battle of Karbala in which Prophet Muhammed’s grandson, Hazrat Imam Hussain Ibn Ali was martyred along with 72 of his followers. The mourning forms part of the Muharram festival.
Mutawalli Mujawer Mir Nawazish Ali Moosvi, the 11th generation custodian inside, tells me: “During the Qutb Shahi period the Ashoor Khana was decorated with 10,000 lamps placed in ten rows. The Sultan used to light them, a row each night, so that on the 10th night a total number of 10,000 lamps were lit. These lights illuminated the Ashoor Khana to such an extent it appeared to be bright day during night.” His eyes shine just a tad brighter as he speaks.
Decorated with enamel tiles made by Iranian craftsmen, the hall is a riot of blues and greens in floral and geometric patterns. It reminds me of the mosques in Yazd and Esfahan. It also brings Hyderabad’s Persian connect full circle. ❤
- Getting to Hyderabad: The city is well-connected with flights and trains from all major Indian metros. I flew down from Mumbai.
- Getting around: Auto rickshaws are plentiful. However, none of them charge by the meter so you will need to agree on the fare first.
- Staying there: I stayed in Abids, a 10-minute ride away from the historical centre at a OYO Rooms Flagship property. Not a fancy hotel, but super cheap, perfect location, and has will-bend-over-backwards-for-you staff.