Hyderabad was a must-see, a mental must-see. It’s a busy, built-up, jumble of people, lives and buildings, crammed in around artefacts and relics of the past. It contains all the technology of the future and none of the green to soften its edges like Bangalore. Here I felt more foreign, got more stares, found men more aggressive, as they moved in packs through the streets and on the corners. Here I noticed more poverty, slums and I saw more people sleeping rough than I ever thought I’d see in one place; piled in colourful, pitiful heaps, lined up on the roadside. I found Hyderabad hot, noisy and crowded, and also slightly mosquito-full but I also found it buzzing with culture – cultures, even – and history. It possesses a certain grittiness that Bangalore didn’t always give. I felt that with so many people piled atop one another here, there are certain things that are unavoidable and you can see many more levels of life much more clearly from this close up. It’s an enchanting city but I don’t think I’d ever live there.
This was also my first ever Indian Train Trip – and I really liked it. I’ve never even been on a sleeper train in England so I had no idea what I should be expecting but we were travelling first class, as we were travelling with Amma so it was certainly the nicest train experience I could have asked for. It was an almost 12 hour journey from Bangalore to Hyderabad and as we set off, very slowly, people were still hopping on and off the train in a leisurely fashion. There were four beds and sterilised packaged sheets with which to make them. I ended up on the top bunk, where I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep but that was mostly because of the swaying. Nothing I can do about it, I do feel travel sick fairly often, so I braced for the swaying like I would for a boat journey and it wasn’t so bad. Although sometimes we were catapulting between stations so fast I thought I was going to be swung right out of the little bed. The toilets were no horror story either, much to my surprise I’d say they were cleaner than most English trains I’ve sat on recently.
The roads for one are insane. In Bangalore Amma had said there was a method to their madness but here there did not seem to be; nor did there seem to be a pause from breath in the never ending, slow moving traffic jam that plagued the city morning till night. That didn’t stop the magic of the street vendors enchanting me; the colours of the people weaving in and out of the cars in the pouring rain, or stubbornly shopping while the traffic moved around them, still fascinated me and the autos still made me smile with their erratic horn use and crazy messages scrawled on back windows. The roads were a law unto themselves, or no law unto themselves as the case may be.
We had to traffic and rain dodge when we went to see Charminar (only one of those efforts succeeded but I am still alive). Charminar, or Four Towers, is a monument from 1591 and I heard two stories about its building: firstly, that it was built as a monument from one lover to another as a symbol of their affair, and secondly that it marked several thousand people who had died here of the plague at that time. I believe the second is true but I really like the first. We paid to enter the relative shelter between the four towers, currently housing more people than it should – tourists, locals and even some foreigners like me. It’s impressive to stand under but much more impressive to climb up; the claustrophobic, hot and almost-airless stairway was a squeeze, and there is nowhere to pause from climbing. You definitely get a twinge of fear that everyone might fall, and certainly die, while you’re on the way up because it is steep and dizzying too. We hit the top with relief and I was greeted with what will probably remain one of my favourite views forever more – the beautiful, rain quenched streets of Hyderabad stretching out in four majestic directions around me. All are packed with colour, newly-brightened by the downpour, and with the noise barely penetrating so high up, simply tinkling to my ears, I found myself extremely fond of the mosaic that was writhing and dancing below my feet. I could see some government buildings, maybe an ex-palace, crouching on the banks of the river in pre-colonial splendour (although Hyderabad was never a British colony). You can see people scuttling from stall to stall, autos weaving their way through tiny gaps, dogs rushing about their business, cars waiting impatiently and it all seems to make such intricate sense from this height that you’re excited to go back and join it. I start to think India should always be viewed from a height to gain any kind of understanding or perspective. I think this later again too when we’re stood on the roof of her cousin’s start-up business office, that is two floors in size, and admiring through the heat haze, the vastness of the never ending city stretching out around us.
From our office-vantage-point I see the first historical sight I visit, the Qutb Shahi tombs, odd round protrusions from a rare green space. These are the eerie burial grounds of the founding kings. I love the attitude to ruins in India, where you can go right up to, into and climb on the ruins. You can touch history – and no one has graffiti-ed it – I think it breeds more respect for history if you can walk closer to it and talk to it. The tombs resemble other tombs I’ve seen, mostly in Cyprus, in layout; the husband and wife’s tombs are often built next to each other, there seems to be a system where the size of tomb relates to the importance and the proximity from one tomb to another denotes the closeness of relatives. On some tombs the colouring and tiles are still intact and radiant, intricate in detail, surrounding the doors and lining some of the inside, which is otherwise bare apart from the grey, stone casket. On other tombs almost all remnants of splendour is gone apart from the vast, almost spherical domes that rise into the skyline, their weathered stone mottled and interesting against their plain blue background. There are lots of families picnicking here, in the shade, on the tombs, under nearby trees. There’s respect and irreverence at the same time, children playing and mums pushing prams, some people reading and others sitting and reflecting. It’s that attitude again, it’s so different from how a ruin like this would be treated in Britain, fenced off and viewable only from a distance.
Gol Konda Fort, visible from the tombs, was the highlight of my trip to Hyderabad and the guide we hired there was certainly worth every rupee for riveting stories. I remember so many arbitrary chunks of information from that day; that it is supposed to be the most impenetrable fort of its time, and you can see the two walls, several kilometres apart, and the defence systems in them, although now the space in between is merely crammed with the most dense greenery to be found in Hyderabad. I remember also that it was from here that the Koh-i-Noor, currently nestling in the crown jewels, was mined. The structure, although completely in ruins now, still climbs impressively above and overlooks almost the whole kingdom, red and regal. The acoustics of the fort are the incredible part, just barely imaginable now stood in the vacuums that once formed palace buildings, a court, prisons, a harem… In the bottom entrance court yard if you clap your hands the echo can be heard directly in the topmost tower, a good 3km walk away in an uphill direction, and it was this way that messages were passed between guards. It was said the king could recognise, from the top of the hill, the sound of hooves and whether they were his horses or invading troops. This way he could slip out and escape via the 7-10 miles of hidden tunnel that once traversed the city at a subterranean level; they were closed years ago because of collapses, snakes and people dying trying to live in them and running out of oxygen (I love grim history). There were also various set-ups so that a whisper from a prisoner in the court could be heard by the king above, although his head was shielded by the low ceiling to protect him from knives being thrown. The king could also hear from his chambers every whisper in the guest chambers below despite them being separated by solid stone floor – that must have been fun some nights – in case the guests were whispering about him. Two giant stages can be seen from the very top, along with a panorama of breathtaking proportions, where the king apparently used to watch two sisters sing and dance – and he could hear them from here, over 5 km away because their voices carried so perfectly through the air. These facts all blew my mind. So did attempting to imagine people inhabiting this, imagine the water being transported mechanically from a hill in the distance and brought, with technology ahead of its time, all the way to the top of this poised, delicate peak, which has no water source of its own. It was crowded at the fort, full of rushing, loud people, but you still have a real sense of heritage, the vague notion that its roots are almost incomprehensibly old. I also managed to get a quick look at my first mongoose here.
We headed to the Salar Jung Museum while in town too, which was very interesting, in the way most big museums are, but there were also far too many things to see. You’d definitely need a full day there. Here I became a minor celebrity due to my skin colour, which was hilarious and a little weird – I had people taking photos of me while I looked at exhibits. Then we headed off to visit an Auntie and that was the real shocker of the day; I had no idea they made houses this big. There are a lot of contrasting lives rubbing along next to each other here and this house, this family, was one of the big contrasts. There are several chandeliers, a beautifully stocked larder, a swimming pool on the ground floor and a balcony overlooking it on the upper floor; I ran round like a child, completely overwhelmed and finding it hilarious that a house like this existed, it was so cool and quiet compared to the street outside when we ventured out for Biryani. Biryani is apparently a Hyderbadi specialty and it was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever eaten; we had mutton, egg and some arbitrary spicy chicken in our rice. I could have eaten it forever.
I had also been really hyped to see Shilparamam, an outdoor night market, and so we eventually persuaded a cousin to drive us, albeit reluctantly, out there to shop. It was a bit of a disappointment honestly, although corners of it were packed with colour and rather beautiful, especially as the light dropped, it was very empty and without so much of a vibe as I had expected. The stalls too were mostly selling the same things – after you’d seen one row you’d seen them all – so it lessened the feeling of shopping for something individual or handmade. I think most of the items at least were handmade, but on a larger scale, and the intimacy was somewhat ruined by the stalls not being so individual. When the sun goes down the lighting gets prettier and more colourful, people come here just to chill and a black and white Bollywood film was projected onto a wall in the entrance to the market. It was pretty though and worth perusal, although quite why you have to pay entry I do not know.
Hyderabad was certainly a lively, bright, carnival of a city which stands out in my mind as clearly as if I’d gone there yesterday but it really doesn’t give off a vibe of wanting to live there. Given the choice I’d pick Bangalore any day.