The hidden heart of Hyderabad

Novelist Doris Lessing felt pearls mean tears. In Hyderabad, it meant the laughter and glory of the Nizams. From the time they welcomed pearl merchants from the Arabian markets, Hyderabad has been the Pearl City. However, more interesting and lesser known is the story of the diamonds that light up the city’s history.

Take the Koh-i-noor, one of the world’s largest diamonds. It was once stored at Golkonda, just a hop, skip and jump (or a bumpy auto-rickshaw ride) away from the Nizam’s capital. Golkonda, then a mini town, was also the administrative seat of various dynasties, since the mid 10th century. It was only in the late 16th century that Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah moved a few miles and established the city of Hyderabad, building the Charminar at its core.


But this morning, I am not in the heart of Hyderabad to discuss diamonds with historians or purchase pearls from jewellers. I make my way towards Charminar, its four minarets casting a watchful eye over the neighbourhood. Walking through the narrow shopping lanes branching out from this tower is a sensory overload, pleasurable in a way that is purely Indian.

I have ambled through these lanes several times before, ignoring the cacophony of traffic and spindrift of people brushing past me. I have enjoyed the burst of bling from the bangles at Laad Bazaar, their glass, metal and lac twinkling in the sunlight. I have laughed at the way canny shopkeepers call out to “just come in, madam, dekhne ka paisa nahi lagta,” knowing fully well that to see is to succumb.

Laad Bazaar


I have no favourites here, though. Nor have I known if any one of the shops is better than the others. I suspect this is how it is with most outside visitors to this area.

This time, it is different. At the Taj Krishna, where I am staying, they have put together a little exploration of the old city’s inscrutable streets. So I am on a “Deccan Odyssey” with Raize, Hyderabad’s first female tourist guide.

On our way to the Charminar, I quiz Raize, a Hyderabadi recently married to a Lucknowi, about the difference between the two styles of biryani. Raize’s loyalty clearly lies with her maika, as she declares that the Hyderabadi biryani—cooked for hours, with heaps of patience and generous sprinklings of secret ingredients—is the real McCoy.

Strolling around Charminar in the company of a local is a novel experience for me. Our first stop is at Nimrah café and bakery, an Iranian chai point, right next to Mecca Masjid. It is that no-man’s time between breakfast and lunch, but Nimrah is a veritable beehive. Men of all ages stand outside gossiping, as they sip on chai poured on to saucers. Inside, tray after tray of piping hot biscuits, cookies and dilpasand are brought out from the desi oven, to be displayed on the counters.


OsmaniaI get to sample a bit of this and a bit of that, all of it still warm and fragrant. The specialty here is the melt-in-the-mouth Osmania biscuits, the favourite of Hyderabad’s last and risibly eccentric Nizam.

In my many visits to this area, I have never noticed Nimrah. And I know that on my own, I would never have stepped inside. I leave clutching a box of Osmania, a gift from the gracious owner Abood Bin Aslam, “Hyderabad ki taraf se.”

Then we head into the throbbing mass of humanity that is Laad bazaar, where Raize imparts interesting trivia about how it got its name. Popular belief is that it is derived from lacquer (laad) which is used in the bangles this market is renowned for.

However, I prefer Raize’s theory that the bazaar was set up as a shopping destination by our old friend Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah for his daughter Laad’s wedding to Aurangazeb’s son. Even today, Laad Bazaar serves as the hub for trousseau shopping for many Hyderabadi brides.

We shop at Nayeem Bangles; an incredible collection, from the very subtle and classy to the cheerfully glittering and sparkly crammed into a small shop. Here, there is no oversell as they let the trinkets speak for themselves.



KharchobJust down the road is Afzal Miyan Karchobwale’s Lace Centre, here since 1951. Now run by the grandson of the original entrepreneur, this shop is legendary for its karchob (hand embroidery) work, not just among ordinary wedding shoppers but also among the rich and famous.

I hear whispers that Afzal Miyan’s craft—exquisite zardosi and delicate lace embroidery has patrons ranging from Princess Esra to Sabyasachi Mukherjee. I also learn that in this tiny space, some of the fabric that glitters is actually gold; from borders on saris to bridal khada dupattas.

Afzal Mian

Since we begin the tour with food, we also end it with a pit-stop at Navrang for a sachet of their biryani masala. For a shop that stocks condiments, nuts and spices, it is quirkily named Navrang Colour Merchant. The owner has never revealed the secret of his “Special Hyderabad Old City Biryani Masala” made of 15 spices, which guarantees a sublime biryani.

I catch a whiff of it and I can tell you this. The battle of the biryanis may never get resolved, but don’t leave Hyderabad without a stash of this masala.

Biryani masala

Lonely Planet, in choosing Hyderabad as one of the top 10 destinations for 2013, had said, “Elegant and blossoming, but also weathered and undiscovered, Hyderabad’s Old City is ripe for exploration.” Truly, Hyderabad reveals its charms slowly and bashfully to the visitor. Beyond the teeming masses and eager vendors, the old city has a warm heart.

For details on the Deccan Odyssey, email

Published in The New Sunday Express Magazine on November 16, 2014 as Time’s Own Trinket

Pearl of the south

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.



4From 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.

11If 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…

The temple that time forgot

Published in the April issue of ‘Windows & Aisles’, the inflight magazine of Paramount Airways…

Take a closer look at Lepakshi and discover a legend hidden behind every pillar
and every wall in the temple…

Lepakshi is a town that is fighting a hard and brave battle against obscurity. Despite being a contemporary of its more famous cousin of the Vijayanagara dynasty, Hampi, Lepakshi lies lonely and forgotten at the border between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. A reference is made in the Skandapurana to Lepakshi as one of the hundred and eight important Shaiva Kshetras (pilgrimage centres for worshippers of Shiva) though it is hard to believe today that that this remote town was once a bustling centre for trade and pilgrimage.

Lepakshi today is like any other small dusty town (or large village) in South India. There is one main road that passes all the way through the town, with shops and small businesses located on either side of the road. Apart from small children in bright blue and white uniforms and polished back shoes walking about briskly on their way to school, there is little activity to be seen on the roads. The town as such does not have any other attractions for tourists, but the temple, with its rich heritage makes it more than worth the trouble of visiting.

You turn off the main road into a dusty lane leading to the temple. Just near the car park are shops, similar to those found outside temples everywhere, selling everything from puja items like flowers and coconuts and incense sticks to polyester saris and plastic buckets! Tourist guides authorized by the Andhra Pradesh government are also available just outside the temple. It is best to hire a guide (some of them speak English, apart from Telugu and Kannada) so as to not miss on any of the finer details inside the temple.

On and on and on...

The locals seem indifferent to the marvel from the past that lies in their midst, giving directions reluctantly and with a sense of surprise and even irritation as if to say, what’s all the fuss about? But prod a little deeper and the spirit emerges – the watchman at the temple told me, his eyes lighting up with pride, last month there was a film shooting here – people came all the way from Bombay to shoot here… Very famous temple! he ended, slightly wistfully. For famous, the Lepakshi temple is not, though Andhra Pradesh handicrafts has usurped the name for its showrooms across the state.

Whipping out his cellphone

That isolation also perhaps explains why all the gods in the temple wear angry expressions on their faces. Although the guidebooks tell you a different story. The presiding deity here is Veerabhadra Swamy, an irate form taken by Lord Shiva. According to our guide’s version, when Parvati died during Dakshayagna, Shiva struck with grief and rage threw a clump of his hair on to the earth and the spot where it fell now houses the temple and the statue of the lord. And the statue of Parvati too wears a correspondingly sad and angry look. Indeed the entire temple abounds with legends about Shiva and Parvati and their royal wedding and separation later.


What is in a name?

There are also ample stories floating in the air inside the temple walls about the other divine couple Rama and Sita, and in fact, one of them relates to the suggested origin of the name Lepakshi. It is believed that when Ravana kidnapped Sita, the brave bird Jatayu fought against the evil king and died in the battle on this spot. As it lay wounded, its wings cut off by Ravana, Lord Rama said with compassion, “le pakshi” (rise, o bird!) – and so, Lepakshi. Look out for the imprint of the giant footprint just outside the kalyanamantapa, believed to have been left by Sita herself!

In the shade

The other, and equally gory story about the name points to the brothers Veeranna and Virupanna, under King Achutaraya of the Vijayanagara dynasty who succeeded the famous Krishna Deva Raya. The latter who was treasurer of Penukonda province (where the town was located earlier as opposed to Anantpur district in modern times) spared no expense to have the temple built the way he wished, leading to suspicions from the king about embezzlement of money. In grief and in anticipation of royal punishment, Virupanna plucked out his own eyes and threw them against the wall, where the muted blood stains from centuries ago are believed to be visible even today. And thus, lepa-akshi (blinded eyes)

For all the blood that seems to have been spilled within these walls, the temple today bears no signs of a turbulent past as it sits in obscurity, an earthy brown edifice amidst the brown and dry landscape of rural Andhra Pradesh. The only sign that all perhaps did not go well is that the temple is incomplete in many places, especially the kalyanamantapa that was being built when Virupanna died.


The Vijayanagara architecture style

The temple at Lepakshi has several characteristics that are unique to the Vijayanagara style of architecture – the most striking being giant monoliths; in Lepakshi the nagalinga and the Nandi are both the largest such statues (other monoliths from the period being the Ganesha temples at Hampi and the Gomateshwara statue at Karkala).

You enter the temple at the mukhamantapa (main hall) directly into the natyamantapa (dancing hall) that is at the centre of the building and leads into the garbagruha or the sanctum. This hall has pillars depicting divine musicians, Parvati dancing, Brahma on the cymbals and Surya on the nadaswaram and finally, Nataraja himself, leg raised in the classical nartana position. Walking along the side of the temple on the outer prahara, you then come to the giant statue of the seven-headed cobra Nagalinga and further down, Ganesha (also in an angry pose but that is another long story) etched into the wall.

This walk leads to the other important structure within the building, also an essential element of Vijayanagara architecture, the open-air kalyanamantapa (wedding hall). This kalyanamantapa has been depicted as the site of the celestial wedding between Shiva and Parvati, and each of the pillars is a celebration of this – drummers and musicians adding to the atmosphere and lesser gods and goddesses blessing the couple. Close by stands the Latamantapa, with its 42 pillars, each carved with intricate motifs of birds and flowers, used to this day as designs on sari borders, and the reason why AP handicrafts chose this name.


After you have finished looking around you, stop at the natyamantapa and look up to find the most fascinating feature of the temple, the murals that adorn the ceiling. Although a lot of it has now been eroded by the harshness of time and neglect, the vibrant colors of natural vegetable and flower dyes still catch the eye of the visitor. Each of them depicts a story from mythology; here is Ravana handing over the Shivalinga to Ganesha dressed as a Brahmin (the lingam now found at Gokarna in coastal Karnataka), there you see the divine wedding, the couple seated on a swing and the guests sitting or standing close-by. And some interesting history lessons too, a peek into the society and culture of the times when the temple was built, the hairstyles and clothes and accessories of the women, the postures of saints and hermits deep in penance. And on the ceiling of the inner sanctum is what is considered to be the largest mural in Asia, a panel about 7 by 4 meters depicting Lord Virabhadra with his retinue and devotees. Although much of this has been dimmed like the rest of the murals, it is impressive in sheer size and detail.


The monolith Nandi

Half a kilometer from the temple, just by the main road stands the statue of Nandi carved from red granite. At 4.5 meters height, this is the largest monolith Nandi in the world. Yet for all its imposing size, the carving is intricate in places, especially around the neck where a chain hangs bearing the royal insignia of the Vijayanagara dynasty. This Nandi, like the Nagalinga inside the temple (which this faces directly) is believed to have been carved by a craftsman in his leisure time!


And just like with Hampi, each stone, each pillar and wall has a story to tell, if only you have the time and patience to listen carefully. The temple here is built on a tortoise shaped hillock – kurmasaila; between all the straight lines and sharp angles of the walls and pillars, there is a smooth rounded rock (the back of the tortoise) in the outer prahara. As I leave the temple, I say a small prayer for this slow tortoise to finally win the race. For, what will make the authorities sit up and take notice of the decay facing this glorious temple town?


Getting there and away

It is best to do this as a day trip from Bangalore, take the NH 7 towards Hyderabad and turn left near the check-post between the two states. Lepakshi is 15 km down this road. From Hyderabad, the journey into Lepakshi is long and tiring; cross Anantpur and turn right either near Hindupur or further down the highway near the check-post.

Stay and food

Lepakshi has nothing much to offer by way of food or accommodation; the government-run Punnami guesthouse is close to the temple but is badly maintained. If you wish to stay over, Hindupur 20 km away has a Tourism Complex with clean rooms and a restaurant as well as a few budget hotels.

Other attractions

If you are driving from Bangalore, you could stop at Nandi Hills on the way, just outside the city for fresh air and great views of the valley and city far below, The curving roads up the hill are a pleasure to drive on and for those with sight-seeing needs, the Yoganandishwara at the top (attributed to the Chola rulers) and Bhoganadishwara temples at the foot of the hills are worth visiting.

On the road to Timbaktu

Each time I stepped out of the car for a break during our recent road trip, it took me a few minutes to feel “grounded” – the sensation of swaying ever so slightly even on solid ground was one that I got used to eventually, but never liked. But that was to be expected on such a long trip by road – Bombay to Hyderabad and Bangalore and Kasargod in North Kerala via Madikeri and all the way up coastal Karnataka and Goa before reaching Bombay ten days later, dazed and bedraggled but full of good memories, some of them unique to road travel.



Like stopping for steaming chai at roadside shacks early in the morning… Like stumbling upon a sign post leading to Timbaktu in the middle of nowhere… Like feeling the cool breeze on your face, whooshing and roaring as you drive on open lonely roads, music louder than usual, competing against the sound of the wind… Like stopping at railway crossings, watching tiny bicycles make their way under and through the gates down in anticipation of the train… Like the happy surprise of making and changing plans as you go along, turning off from the highway to explore that small temple, climb that inviting hill or just take another snack break…


Like the sense of deja vu as you pass through small towns bang in the middle of national highways, civilization slowly spilling on to the main road in search of a livelihood, shops selling everything from flowers to plastic buckets on either side of the road… Like the unparalleled pleasure of catching a golden yellow orange pink red sunset, as the day winds down slowly and lazily, the road stretching as a dark snake in front of you…

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. Which road do I take? she asked. Where do you want to go? was his response. I don’t know, Alice answered. Then, said the cat, it doesn’t matter.



Related reading : On and of the road

Update – Bhanu explains the Timbaktu angle – fascinating venture – read here about the Timbaktu collective