As I hand over the small fee to climb up to the top of Charminar, the iconic four-sided tower of Hyderabad, the woman at the counter shakes her head in refusal. “We don’t allow single women to go up alone,” she says. And why please? “Because they jump from there and commit suicide.” Mind you, single women don’t do this as a rule at Charminar; it has happened once, but the paranoia lingers. 400 years of history and the Charminar has come to this? I am finally allowed to climb once I convince her superior officer about my purely non-suicidal intentions.
From the top, the heart of the city opens itself up to me, the crowds and chaos that mark old Hyderabad all intact. On one side, Laad Bazaar – also known as Chudi Bazaar for the dozens of bangle shops that line the narrow street. On the other, shops selling the pearls that Hyderabad is famous for.
Just outside, there is hardly any space to walk. Autorickshaws with passengers hanging out from the sides, groups of Muslim women covered in black purdah out shopping, cyclists and bikers merrily honking, and vendors of everything from pink cotton candy to sparkly Indian clothes. A man invites me to have my portrait drawn, displaying the one of actor Shah Rukh Khan that he has made. Another tries to sell strands of suspiciously shiny pearls; “just try it on, madam.” I ignore them all and make my way through Laad Bazaar, through the burst of bling from the bangles on display: glass, metal and lac twinkling at me in the sunlight.
Making my way to Chowmahalla Palace from there, I think of what Lonely Planet has said about Hyderabad, one its top 10 recommended cities to visit in 2013: “Elegant and blossoming, but also weathered and undiscovered, Hyderabad’s Old City is ripe for exploration.” The palace is indeed all of that. I have the huge sprawling complex almost to myself, but for a few families braving the midday heat and clandestine couples who have found themselves quiet corners to cuddle in.
Chowmahalla, completed in the mid 19th century and painstakingly restored in the last decade, was the seat of the ruling Nizams of the erstwhile Hyderabad state. Green lawns, graceful arches and cool fountains outside, and inside, ornate chandeliers that hang from every ceiling, collections of exquisite clothing and baroque furniture, old stagecoaches and vintage cars – I can easily believe that Hyderabad was once among the richest states in the country.
Hyderabad was created in the late 16th century by a ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, when he moved from Golconda fort nearby – home to the fabulous Koh-i-noor diamond. Legend has it that the name was born out of a love story; that of king Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah who married the Hindu courtesan Bhagmati. He renamed his lady love Hyder Mahal and carried over her name to his city. Hyderabad later fell into in the hands of the Mughals for a brief while, after which the Nizams, their erstwhile viceroys took over. Currently, it is the capital of Andhra Pradesh, one of the four important southern states and the sixth largest city in India.
However, to experience the real extent of Hyderabad’s prosperity in the past, you need to visit the Salar Jung Museum. Set up in 1951, after Hyderabad state had been integrated into India, the museum houses the collection of Mir Yousuf Ali, or Salar Jung III, Prime Minister of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad.
I am on a whirlwind tour and decide to stick to old favourites from several childhood visits to the museum. So I head like a homing pigeon to the Veiled Rebecca, a 19th century Italian sculpture by Benzoni (gallery 12 on the ground floor – believe me, you don’t want to miss this one). Every single feature of Rebecca’s face is visible through the gossamer marble veil and you almost expect her flowing garments to flutter when the fan is switched on. And then on another floor, another favourite – the wooden statue of a bearded Mephistopheles, head held high, reflected in the mirror behind as Marguerite, head bowed decorously.
I hum with happiness as these bring back other childhood memories of scorching summer days in Hyderabad; juicy golden mangos, old books at Abids, long days at the zoo, tall glasses of sugarcane juice and above all, a house filled with the raucous sounds of cousins.
If this bit of the old city is entirely Salar Jung’s show, the other face of Hyderabad, with its gleaming steel and chrome buildings, wide road, men and women in sharp business wear is also the vision of one man. The credit for creating what is now known as Cyberabad goes to the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. Microsoft, Google, Accenture, Novartis, Facebook, Dell and several other multinational companies have found a friendly home in this city within a city. Also known as HITEC (Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consulting) City, this has been giving Information Technology hub Bangalore a run for its money. And close to these mammoth “tech parks” where these offices are located, is Inorbit Mall, a paean to the pleasures of modern shopping.
If you ask about Hyderabad’s famous biryani, everyone points you to Paradise Restaurant, a legend in the city. I have no time for a trip to Paradise though and grab a quick lunch at a new restaurant inside the mall. The chef-owner of the Dil Punjabi restaurant is everything Cyberabad is: young, somewhat brash, slightly dismissive of the past and confidently looking to the future. As if to confirm this, he disses Paradise biryani as “all hype” and with a wave of his hand, produces his own version of the dish.
Visiting Hyderabad after many many years, I am struck by how it straddles all its avatars effortlessly; the gentle charm of the old city, the legacy of the tombs and palaces scattered all over, the buzz of its modern pubs and restaurants and the cutting edge sheen of Cyberabad.
An edited version of this was published in the South China Morning Post, March 31 – read Pearl of the South here…