Tale of Two Cities
Like all storied cities, Hyderabad might seem like nothing more but the sum of its iconic Charminar, Golconda Fort, pearls and the lip-smacking Hyderabadi biryani. But beyond these intoxicating features, it is a place that judders around with its historical immortality and much more, writes Kaushikibrata Banerjee.
Though Hyderabad is the capital of the newly-formed state of Telangana, the images that the name conjures take one back to the era of the Nizams. The epochal Charminar, the Golconda Fort and its mine that produced the Kohinoor, the imperial Falaknuma Palace complete the picture with tinted glasses and decadent grandeur.
Steeped in history, this place has two distinctly different characters. The first is a combination of the splendour of a bygone era, its majesty, and its heritage. The second is far younger and replete with more modern and contemporary structures. This other pole is Hi-Tech City and other neighbouring districts like Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills that abound with flaunting shopping malls, multiplexes, clubs, pubs and tempting restaurants.
The Hussain Sagar Lake geographically divides Hyderabad from Secunderabad, its twin city. Spread across an area of 5.7 square kilometres, the Hussain Sagar Lake was built by Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah in 1563. A large monolithic statue of Gautam Buddha, erected in 1992, stands on Gibraltar Rock at the centre of the lake. Hussain Sagar, a heritage site of India, was declared as the "Heart of the World" by UNWTO on September 27, 2012.
Home to the largest one-man collection of antiques in the world, including the Veiled Rebecca, Salar Jung Museum also boasts of the double-figure wooden statue of Mephistopheles and Margaretta along with Aurangzeb's sword and many other marvels. The Veiled Rebecca, described as a "melody in marble," is one of the four copies created by 19th-century Italian neoclassical sculptor Giovanni Maria Benzoni. Rebecca, according to the Hebrew Bible, is the bride of Isaac who appears to be draped in a wet garment. This life-sized sculpture is the epitome of purity and grace as Benzoni exquisitely draws an outstanding artistic creation of a transparent veil with every fold and pleat vividly visible.
This vast collection was amassed by Mir Yousuf Ali Khan (Salar Jung III), who was briefly grand vizier to the seventh Nizam. The 39 galleries include early South Indian bronze and wood and stone sculptures, Indian miniature paintings, European fine art, historic manuscripts and a room of jade apart from the remarkable Veiled Rebecca.
The symbol that represents Hyderabad globally is the massive Charminar. Built by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah in 1591 to commemorate the founding of Hyderabad and the end of epidemics caused by Golconda's water shortage, the colossal four-column, the 56m-high structure has four arches facing the cardinal points with minarets atop each column (hence the name Charminar — four minarets). Standing tall at the heart of Hyderabad, this structure was constructed in the intersection of the historical trade route that connects the markets of Golconda with the port city of Machilipatnam.
The structure is made of granite, limestone, mortar and pulverized marble. Initially, the monument with its four arches was so proportionately planned that when the fort was opened one could catch a glimpse of the bustling city, as these Charminar arches faced the most active royal ancestral streets.
Each minaret is crowned by a bulbous dome with dainty petal-like designs at the base. Unlike the Taj Mahal, Charminar's four fluted minarets are built into the main structure. There are around 149 winding steps to reach the upper floor. The monument is also known for its profusion of stucco decorations and the arrangement of its balustrades and balconies.
A mosque is located at the western end of the open roof with the remaining part serving as a court during the Qutb Shahi times. The actual mosque occupies the top floor of the four-storeyed structure. A thriving market exists around Charminar: Laad Bazaar is known for its jewellery, especially exquisite bangles and the Pather Gatti which is famous for its pearls. Overlooking the dusty Deccan foothills, situated on the western edge of the town lies the city's most impressive and awe-inspiring Golconda Fort.
Built in the 16th century atop a 120m high granite hill surrounded by massive ramparts, all ringed by further necklaces of crenellated fortifications, 11 km in perimeter, the monumental fort would take at least three hours to explore.
Golconda Fort was first built by the Kakatiya dynasty as part of their western defences along the lines of the Kondapalli Fort. By the time Qutb Shahis took control, Golconda Fort had already existed for at least three centuries under the Kakatiyas and Bahmani Sultanate and was already famed for its diamonds, which were mostly mined in the Krishna River valley, but cut and traded here. The Qutb Shahis moved to their new city of Hyderabad in 1591 but maintained Golconda as a citadel until Mughal emperor Aurangzeb annexed it in 1687 after a year-long siege, ending the Qutb Shahi rule.
Golconda's massive gates were studded with iron spikes to obstruct war elephants. Within the fort, a series of concealed glazed earthenware pipes ensured a reliable water supply, while the ingenious acoustics guaranteed that even the smallest sound from the entrance would echo across the fort complex.
The 21 imposing domed granite Qutb Shahi tombs, with almost as many mosques, sit serenely in landscaped gardens about 2 km northwest of Golconda Fort, where many of their occupants spent large parts of their lives. Seven of the eight Qutb Shahi rulers were buried here, as well as family members and a few physicians, courtesans along with other aides. Among the finest is that of Mohammed Quli, the founder of Hyderabad, standing 42m tall on a platform near the edge of the complex, with views back towards Golconda.
A trip to Hyderabad is not complete without visiting the 200-year-old Chowmahalla Palace that was the main residence of several nizams, comprising several grandiose buildings and four garden courtyards. Most dazzling is the Khilwat Mubarak, a magnificent Durbar hall where nizams held ceremonies under 19 enormous chandeliers of Belgian crystal. Its side rooms today house historical exhibits, arts and crafts and exhibits of Nizams' personal possessions. In the southernmost courtyard is a priceless collection of carriages and vintage cars including a 1911 yellow Rolls-Royce and 1937 Buick convertible.
Modelled after the Shah's Palace in Iran, the grand complex will simply take your breath away with its beautiful marble pillars and architecture. The Taj Falaknuma Palace, the former residence of the Nizams, is as nawabi as it gets, with embossed leather wallpaper, 24-carat ceiling trim and crystal chandeliers.
Nowhere is the nawabi legacy more prevalent than in Hyderabadi cuisine, a unique blend of Mughlai and Arabic with a local Telugu undertone that will leave you drooling.
If you are a true foodie in heart and spirit, Hyderabad is a must-visit. A plate of Nihari in the Old City would mean a sumptuous stew of goat tongue and shanks slow-cooked overnight, ready to be devoured with a Phulka (roti). Foodgasm guaranteed!
Like the Charminar, the Hyderabadi biryani is another synonym associated with the city. Options are many in this regard — from Shahdab, Paradise, to Shah Ghouse where the mutton and rice are layered and cooked in a dough-sealed vessel.
For that kick on a slow day, Mirchi ka Salan is a must try. The perfect balance comes from the coconut paste that is added to a supremely refreshing flavour. Other must-try dishes are Maghaz Masala, Boti kebab, Khatti Dal, Gosht Pasinde, Qabooli Biryani, Tunday Kebabi and Hyderabadi Marag.
For evening snack and tea, coupled with buttery sweet-and-salty Osmania biscuits, a stop-over at Nampally Market is a must. Hyderabad's very iconic Karachi Bakery deserves a mention here as well.
For ice-cream lovers, it's best to try the seasonal fruit ice-cream at Famous Ice-cream in Mozamjahi Market. The ice-cream here is made in a sancha (hand-churner) using fresh fruit pulp. As the tastes melt, it is time to ponder upon the fortunes of Hyderabad — straddling a decadent legacy of sheer historical excellence and at the same time nurturing the gloss and madness, under its grit, and retaining the cultural moorings of its past.