The spectacular chandeliers of the Kilawat Mubarak, the durbar hall of the Chowmahalla palace, along with the royal seat of the Nizams of Hyderabad.
And now for something completely different. In October of last year, I spent a little over two weeks exploring the fantastic state of Karnataka (and a little bit of Andhra Pradesh), in southern India. Despite the fact that Northeast India is perhaps the most inaccessible part of the county, by an odd set of circumstances it's the part that I now know best. But I had never been south of Agra (with the exception of the Andaman Islands which are something else entirely). This was my first foray into the south, and hopefully there will be many more to come.
My plan was to land in Hyderabad, and then travel overland to Bangalore, visiting Bidar, Bijaipur, Badami, and Hampi, on the way. Hyderabad hadn't really been an objective in and of itself: I chose to fly in there because it was the most convenient place from which I could access Bidar. I spent less than 30 hours there, and hence it was the place on my route which I explored the least. But, from what little I saw, it is a fascinating city, and well worth a trip in and of itself.
I landed at about 10 PM, was settled into a hotel in the Abids neighborhood by twelve. I hadn't eaten anything since dinner the night before at my girlfriend's friend's house (who happens to be from Hyderabad...go figure). I wound up having lunch at a vast, busy, Islamic style dinning hall, along similar lines to Karim's next to the Jama Majid in Delhi. I got some funny looks from the locals, though the mutton biryani was mighty tasty, and dirt cheap to boot.
By this point it was already fairly late in the afternoon. Still, I decided to go out make the most of my time in Hyderabad. The first thing I did was go down to the Charminar, Hyderabad's main landmark, and one of India's most iconic buildings. If you happen to be watching a south Indian movie, and the film needs to establish that we're in Hyderabad, what you'll see is an image of the Charminar.
One of the minarets of the Charminar. The name translates easily into "Four Minarets." Not sure what point the saffron flag is making.
The Charminar was built around 1590 by the sultans of Golkonda, one of the five great dynasties that resulted from the fragmentation of the Bahmani Sultanate (which was itself an offshoot of the Tughluks of Delhi). The Golkonda sultans founded Hyderabad, and planned their city around the Charminar. The purpose of the structure, other than to celebrate the founding of the city, was to serve as a mosque, though when I was there it was open during late-afternoon prayers. It was evidently in fairly poor condition as of the early 19th century and has since undergone extensive renovation.
The area adjacent to the Charminar is the very heart of Hyderabad. The monument is now something of a giant traffic circle, around which goes every sort of vehicle imaginable. While I was there, the wife of a certain South Indian superstar (mostly in Telugu films) by the name of Nagarjuna, was taking a tour of the monument. Literally thousands of people were swarming around her, snarling traffic and congesting the central artery of the city. A security contingent of around 50 or so cops was pushing away hundreds of curious folks. I of course tried to get a look myself, though there were just too many people, and I get the impression that Nararjuna's wife was rather short.
Anyway, because Nagarjuna's wife was visiting, the Charminar was closed off, so I decided to head into the area directly east of the monument: Laad Bazaar.
Bangle apocalypse. Laad Bazaar.
Laad Bazaar evidently goes back to around the time Hyderabad was founded, and then as now, it specialized in Bangels. There's one shop after another after another selling bangels, bangels, bangles, and more bagels, while if you go into the lanes behind the shops and walk a short distance, you come to the workshops where the bangles, bangles, bangles, and more bangles, are being made.
Laad Bazaar workshop. As you can see, they're making....bangels. The word "Laad" is evidently a term for the sort of lacquer used in Bangel-making.
A surreal view through wires and scaffolding of one of the Minarets of the Mecca Masjid, a mosque also dating back to the late Golkonda Sultanate period, being renovated. In 2007, the mosque was the site of a bombing by Hindu extremists (the renovation happening in this picture is not because of the bombing). I had hoped to visit the mosque later in the day, but unfortunately when I got back there, prayers were being conducted, so I had to skip it.
From Laad Bazaar, if you walk to the first intersection and then turn left, you'll come to the Chowmahalla in around ten minutes. The Chowmahalla was the residence of the Asaf Jahi rulers of Hyderabad, who broke away from the Moghuls in the early 18th century. The Moghuls, in turn, had absorbed the Golconda Sultanate, and the Asaf Jahi's, now usually referred to as the Nizams, had started off as their governors in the region.
The reign of the Nizams lasted from shortly after the death of the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb to the mid twentieth century. Through the Raj, Hyderabad was one of the very richest princely states in British India, and after Indian Independence, the Nizams made an attempt to remain separate from the India, though they were ultimately annexed to the country by force.
Chowmahalla means "Four palaces," "Chow" evidently being a local rendering of "Char", as in, "Charminar." The compound consists of a number of buildings in a hybrid, and not always successful, East-West style, along with a series of displays of the Nizams erstwhile wealth.
The place was closed as of 2010, but has since been restored and opened up as a museum, with the financial aid of the Tatas. [REVISION: A reader below has pointed out (has, rather, pointedly pointed out) that the restoration project was begun by Esra Jah, the wife of Nizam Mukarram Jah Bahadur Asaf Jah VIII, the still reigning Nizam. My confusion might have come from the fact that another former palace of the Nizams, the nearby Falaknuma, was restored and opened by the Taj group of hotels, which is part of the Tata business empire. As I remember, there were plaques or sings up all over in the Chowmahalla bearing the Tata name...it's also worth pointing out that the architecture firm that worked on the Chowmahalla restoration has also worked for various Tata concerns. Hence, though it does appear to me that much of the money for the project seems to have come from the Nizams themselves, there also appears to have been some Tata involvement....hence my confusion...]
Horse drawn carriage in Chowmahalla.
Photo of a photo of Nizam Mukarram Jah Bahadur Asaf Jah VIII, the current Nizam, as a little boy. Born in 1933, married at age five to a Turkish Princess, he was apparently the richest man in India for a while, along with being ( through his marriage) a prince of the Ottoman Empire, a personal friend of Nehru, and an Australian sheep farmer (????). He's still around, though his wealth is much reduced to a paltry one billion dollars.
Another view of the Khilawat Mubarak, by far the most impressive part of the Chowmahalla. This is where official ceremonies were held. Apparently the chandeliers had been in storage for quite some time, and were recently dusted off and re-hung.
A grotesque display of killing implements. A person I knew once described India as "The land of peace." Sadly I think he was mistaken.
Big ax, Chowmahalla.
After a quick tour around the Chowmahalla, I headed back over to the Charminar. Now that it was later in the day, the light was rather better, and Nagarjuna's wife had gone.
Local flavor: Laad Bazaar, a burka-clad woman, an ice-cream cart, and the Charminar rising above it all. Note the people in the arches to either side of the clock on the Charminar.
A sign for a one of the workshops in Laad Bazaar, along with some quality PVC furniture. That guy to the left was very happy that I took the time to photograph the sign. He made me promise I would post it online, so here it is.
It's possible to actually go inside the Charminar, though, unfortunately, they don't allow you to go all the way to the top of the minarets. Still, you get an interesting view out over the center of Hyderabad.
View north from the Charminar, through the Char Kaman, a gate which was built at the same time as the Charminar (though in it's current form has been much restored).
The view south from the Charminar. The open space to the right is the courtyard of the Mecca Masjid. The multiple domed building to the left is actually a government run hospital.
Charminar Dental Hospital, otherwise known as Satanic Parker Posey's lair.
After visiting the Charminar, I retreated to my hotel in order to get a full night's rest (I had only slept around four hours the night before). However, I did have one experience worth mentioning on my way back. I was riding in a auto-rickshaw, and another auto was driving next to mine. The driver of the other auto must have been desperate to make some extra money, because as he dodged in and out of traffic, doing his best to remain parallel to my auto, he was simultaneously trying to get me to buy sunglasses from him. This meant that, with one hand, he was steering the auto, but with the other he was reaching over and shoving sunglasses in my face...me, my driver, and the other driver's passenger all had a good laugh.
The next day, my objective was to get all the way to a town called Bidar, which is just across the border in Karnataka. But, having gotten up relatively early, I decided I would have enough time to explore Hyderabad a bit more, providing I hurried. I wound up visiting the older side of Hyderabad: Golconda, and the necropolis of the Qutb Shahi Kings.
Golkonda fort goes back to the 12th century, to the Hindu predecessors of the Golconda sultans, though most of the fort that still exists today is from the 16th century. Ultimately it was knocked over by Aurangzeb in the 17th century, though Moghul control over the area did not last long, as the Nizams broke off in the early 18th century.
My visit to Golkonda and the Qutb Shahi Kings was a rather rushed, hence I didn't spend as much time at either place as I would have liked. It was something of a marathon around Golkonda's walls....But still....
The multiple ramparts of Golkonda Fort, in highly variable states of preservation. The structure at the very top is the fort's durbar hall.
Armaments in Golkonda Fort. A Cannon, cannon balls, and large circular spheres of granite that were meant to be rolled down from the fort's many parapets.
Huge arches that have been recently restored by covering them in concrete. The effect is rather incongruous, and also seems to make it much easier for people to carve their names into the structures. Only a few of the ruins in Golkonda have been restored in this way, making them stand out sharply against he unrestored sections.
Dr. Seuss architecture, Golkonda Fort.
Creepy crumbling underground chamber in Golkonda Fort. There are long stretches of dark, underground passageways beneath the fort, most of them filled with bats and flying foxes. The underground passages of the fort are a great place for flying mammals to hide during the day. There were apparently tunnels built under the fort that lead all the way out to the center of modern Hyderabad.
The ruins of Golkonda Fort rising up to the Durbar Hall. Golkonda's chief claim to fame is that it once housed in it's vaults a number of famous stones, including the Hope and Koh-i-nor diamonds.
The Durga of Golkonda. This is the Ellamma Devi Temple, which was built by a couple of Hindu ministers of the Golkonda sultans. I don't think the painting is of any great antiquity, but it makes an impression.
View on the durbar hall, nearing the top of the fort.
A sign outside of the Durbar Hall. I think it speaks for itself.
Overview of part of the fort from the durbar hall.
Deccan style granite boulders, in this case having been incorporated into one of the strongholds many defensive walls. The boulders here are very similar to the kind one finds further south in Hampi and Anegondi in Karnataka (or, for that matter, in Joshua Tree National Park and in Lone Pine California...however, this is not the granite boulder post...)
After visiting Golkonda Fort, I tried to walk to the tombs of the men who built it, the Qutb Shahi kings. However, I took a wrong turn, and found myself wandering out of the city...About the time that I noticed my mistake was when I realized that I was looking back at the outer walls of the old city.
Turrets, walls, and a moat: Part of the old outer defenses of the city of Golkonda.
A forlorn random old cannon sitting on one of the turrets of the outer wall.
Of course, getting lost in India is frequently as interesting as getting where you mean to be going.
After taking a quick look at the out walls of the city, I got in the nearest auto and rode out to the elegant tombs of the Qutb Shahi Kings. Unfortunately, it was getting late, so I only got the briefest look at the city of mausoleums (and, in truth, took very few good pictures). I would be perfectly happy to come back and see the place properly.
The tomb of Abdullah Qutub Shah, who ruled during the 17th century. It was during his reign that the Moghuls established suzerainty over Hyderabad, though the Golkonda Sultans still remained nominally in power. Evidently he received fairly rough treatment at the hands of Aurangzeb. Still, he sure got a nice mausoleum.
The grave of Muhammad Kuli Qutub Shah, the founder of Hyderabad and the builder on the Charminar, in the catacombs under his tomb. Above, there is a large open chamber, directly under the dome, where another grave-marker has been placed. But the actual body of the sultan is further down, beneath this second grave marker. This is a fairly common practice in the Islamic Tombs of India. You have a similar situation inside the much better known Taj-Mahal.
The Unfinished Tomb of Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed. Apparently Nizamuddin Ahmed led a revolt against Abul Hasan Tana Shah, the last sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, but was defeated. Hence the construction that was begun on his tomb was never finished. However, though the last of the Golkonda Sultans succeeded in putting down Nizamuddin Ahmed's revolt, his decision to try and reassert the Qutb Shahis independence from the Moghuls didn't turn out so well. Golkonda Fort was besieged and taken with much bloodshed, Aurangzeb seized the Hope Diamond, and the Qutb Shahi dynasty came to an end.
Looking up at unfinished dome in the Tomb of Nizamuddin Ahmed.
After that, I had to rush back to my hotel, pack quickly, rush down to the bus stand, rush to my bus, and then rush to Bidar, the next stop on my itinerary, and a place that I was able to explore at a much more leisurely pace. After a four hour bus ride, I was in the state of Karnataka, where I would stay for the next two weeks.
More to come shortly...