Tales from crypts

hyderabadi Heritage

Tales from crypts

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” sang Noel Coward. Clearly, he hadn’t heard of us. There we were, out on a hot Hyderabadi day. The sun blazed down in its untrammelled glory, turning the land into a skillet, addling our brains till all we could think of, all we craved for, was shade. But a little bit of sun was not going to deter us from visiting the city’s famed Qutb Shahi tombs, a site that figures on UNESCO’s Tentative List for World Heritage Site nominations.

The Qutb Shahi tombs are in a complex about 2.5 km from Hyderabad’s most famous tourist spot, the Golconda Fort. Till the 1700s, India was the world’s only supplier of diamonds, and most of these came from mines in the kingdom of Golconda. In the 1500s and 1600s, it was the Qutb Shahis who ruled over Golconda. With the immense riches from the diamond trade at their disposal, what would the resting places of these kings be like, I wondered.

Quite ignored, apparently. There were no milling crowds, and none of the stalls, shacks and guides so characteristic of popular tourist spots in India. At the entrance to the complex was a map showing six tombs, and I found myself already planning where to go when we left in an

Royal burials
Imagine our surprise then when we strolled past the ticket gate into a large complex packed with tombs. There were squat tombs, tall tombs, large tombs, small tombs, square tombs, octagonal tombs, tombs on a plinth and tombs without, tombs that towered and those that did not, and for good measure, there were a handful of mosques and wells thrown in too.

The complex is one of the largest royal necropolises in India. It is also one of the most complete, containing the tombs of all but one of the dynasty’s kings, apart from those of minor royalty, attendants and associates. The earliest burial — of Sultan Quli, the founder of the Qutb Shahi dynasty — took place in 1543. The last structure was the unfinished tomb of Abul Hasan, the eighth and last Qutb Shahi ruler, built in the 1670s or so. In between, the Qutb Shahis added almost 40 tombs here, laid out gardens, built 23 mosques, five step-wells and a mortuary bath, and added other paraphernalia like pavilions and enclosure walls.

The first tomb we entered was among the largest in the complex. It was the resting place, not of a king, but of the extraordinary queen, Hayat Baksh Begum. She was the only child of the fifth king, the wife of the sixth king and the mother of the seventh king of the dynasty. She also ruled as regent for her son till she died in 1667. It was during her regency that the Mughal Aurangzeb began harassing the Qutb Shahis. When he laid siege to Golconda in 1656, the brave, beautiful and resourceful Hayat Baksh rode out to meet Aurangzeb and made him an offer — Aurangzeb’s son would marry her granddaughter and be the next king of Golconda, in exchange for peace. The negotiation worked and the siege was lifted!

For her final resting place, this plucky Queen had built herself a large and airy tomb, very similar in design to her husband’s. Standing at one of the entrances to the tomb, you could not only feel but also hear the draughts of cool breeze blowing through the building. Who needs air-conditioning when you can build on a raised platform, with 10 feet thick walls, incorporate a high onion dome and arched verandahs running all around.

Just outside Hayat Baksh’s tomb is the so-called Grand Mosque, also built by the Queen, and to my mind, the most beautiful building in the complex. The Qutb Shahi penchant for stucco ornamentation seems to have reached a zenith here. The minarets, almost filigreed in their profusion of decoration, are each delectably perfect. Each of the five arches is decorated with sinuous floral ribbons, large round medallions bearing Persian inscriptions and a broad rectangular floral border. I loved this unusual juxtaposition of shapes, which together with the deeply incised yet delicate, lace-like patterning, leads to a very pleasing effect indeed.

Of love & longing
Another building just outside Hayat Baksh’s tomb was built by her adversary and the Qutb Shahi dynasty’s nemesis. Aurangzeb had built a small mosque here in thanksgiving for his defeat of the last Qutb Shahi king Abul Hasan, in 1687. Abul Hasan was packed off to Daulatabad where he eventually died. Mohammed, a guide at the monument, informed me that the building was called the One-Day mosque, since it is said to have been built in just one day.

There were plenty of other interesting stories behind other tombs, other kings. We saw the grand tomb of the fifth king, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the founder of Hyderabad. He was in his teens when he fell in love with a young girl named Bhagmati. He made her his queen and named the city he founded in 1591 Bhagnagar in her honour, which later became Hyderabad. The redoubtable Hyder Baksh was Bhagmati’s daughter. We also saw the twin tombs of the ravishing sisters Taramati and Pemmati, who bewitched the seventh king,
Abdullah Qutb Shah, with their singing and dancing. Pemmati’s grave bears the sentimental inscription, “From eternity, Pemmati was a rose of Paradise.” Listening to these tales, I recalled Sarojini Naidu’s poem on the tombs, written in 1905: “I pause, my dreaming spirit hears, Across the wind’s unquiet tides, The glimmering music of your spears, The laughter of your royal brides.”

We wandered in and out of the many tombs, lingering in their quiet coolness. We explored the five step-wells, some of them in forgotten corners of the complex. For the most part, we had the complex to ourselves, for apart from a handful of foreign tourists, the only other visitors were couples spending quality time together.

The French trader Jean Baptiste Tavernier had visited these tombs in the 1600s. “When you wish to see something really beautiful, you should go to these tombs,” he wrote, especially during a festival, when the tombs were decorated with rich carpets, and music and dance programmes were held there. Prayers were read in the mosques and free food distributed to the needy everyday. The tombs themselves looked quite different. Tantalising traces of brilliantly coloured glazed tiles still remain on some of the tombs, including that of Ibrahim Quli and Mohammed Qutb Shah, fourth and sixth kings. Though all the tombs today are an austere white, at least some of them were once flamboyantly coloured buildings that glittered like jewels under the Hyderabad sun.

Earlier this year, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) signed an MoU with the Andhra Pradesh Government for the conservation of this complex. AKTC plans to develop it as an urban archaeological park. Perhaps the tombs here too will once more resonate with the sound of music and dance.

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