The offbeat Hyderabad

While Hyderabad’s Charminar, pearls and biryani have left an indelible impression on the city, there is much more than these to Telangana’s new capital.

Hyderabad, to me, is a special city — it’s the city I grew up in and have some of my fondest memories of. However, when I revisited the city, I had the opportunity to see up-close many aspects of it that I was unaware of. Known for its Hindu and Muslim traditions and a culture that is a mix of Arabian, Turkish and Persian, the buildings, language and food of Hyderabad have their uniqueness.

Built around the iconic Charminar, which continues to be the city’s signature landmark, the city has developed into new proportions. The Old City, however, is where the soul of the city resides. The heritage mosques and grand buildings that are surrounded by a cacophony of colourful bazaars selling pearls and lac bangles, and cafes serving cutting Irani chai and samosas, are charms of the city.

There is more to the city of nizams, courtesy the composite culture left by the wealthy Asif Jahi nizams who ruled between 1724 and 1947. And, a walk through this historical quarter gave me my lesson of its architecture, customs and traditions.

Nizams’ choice

To see the city’s history and development, begin at Purani Haveli (old palace) and the nizam’s museum housed within. The neo-classical building, set amidst a complex in the Old City, was the main residence of the sixth nizam, Mahbub Ali Pasha. The museum houses artefacts, models, photographs and information reflecting the opulence of the Asif Jahi nizams.

Apart from fascinating gold and silver objects, the museum houses pure-silver models of landmark buildings of the city. The other highlights include the nizam’s magnificent wooden wardrobe, a 150-year-old manual elevator, gold-and diamond-crusted daggers and vintage proclamation drums. There’s a section that traces the evolution of the city from the 13th century to what it is today, and includes quirky descriptions of its dialects, customs, cuisine and culture. Do not miss the 176-feet-long, double-storied wardrobe made of pure teak that was used by the nizam.

Spirituality calling

I headed to the Badshahi Ashurkhana or the ‘royal house of mourning’, a monument built by Muhammad Quli Qutub Shahi in the 16th century that stands tall in the heart of the city. It was first built as the meeting place for Shias to congregate during Muharram. Imposing gates led to a courtyard complex within which the walls of a hall are adorned with mosaic tiles that gleam predominantly in yellow and blue.

Housed within are some truly beautiful silver and gold alams studded with precious stones used during Muharram. Built in the memory of Imam Hussain, I learnt that the hall is a picture of frenzied activity on Thursdays leading up to the festival.

Ode to architecture

Being a fan of ornate architecture, my next stop was at Santosh Nagar’s Paigah Tombs that houses 27 tombs belonging to the Paigah nobles. The Paigahs were one of the most influential families in Hyderabad and were related to the nizams through matrimony. They held posts of strategic importance during the era of the nawabs and were great patrons of art, architecture and literature. While the entrance to the monument complex is rather plain, nothing could prepare me for the architectural brilliance inside. The stuccowork on the walls, the ornamental doors and the sheer symmetry of the structures is jaw-dropping. The jalli work on the walls makes sure that no two patterns are alike. The play of light creates remarkable patterns and shadows within the Paigah Tombs.

Heritage hues

For more old-world charm, I suggest you walk the bylanes of the Old City and look at the monuments built during the nizam era. Built with Hindu, Muslim and Persian schools of architecture, some of them, rather dilapidated, still reflect the grandeur of the past. The bylanes of Laad Bazaar, the famous bangle market, is home to several heritage structures including the gate that served as an entrance to the Mecca Masjid, as well as the Jilu Khana gate leading to the magnificent Chowmahalla Palace courtyard. The latter, an arch gateway, was meant for dignitaries and opened during ceremonies and festive occasions.

And as a lover of old doors, I discovered many that have stood the test of time, fastened by bars and old locks on my way to the landmark Mehboob Chowk. This prominent square, named after the sixth nizam Mir Mehboob Ali Khan, includes a mosque, a clock tower and centuries-old shops. Built in 1817 by Khwaja Abdullah Khan, the mosque runs on a self-sustainable model wherein the shops on the lower level pay rent to the mosque committee, reserved for its upkeep.

Standing tall is the 1850 clock tower that is five-storied and replete with multi- cusped arches. The Devdis of the Paigah nobles, Shahi Khazana Building (pension office) are the other buildings that reek old-world charm.

Retail therapy

In Hyderabad’s Old City, I could not resist shopping. Pearls, lac bangles and textiles... Little shops selling ittars (perfumes) in colourful glass vials, prayer books, chaddars and incense line the busy streets. Made without chemicals, ittars contain essential oils replete with herbal and floral extracts, and have a sandalwood base. I found the local speciality known as gil, the aroma of wet earth drenched after the first rains of the season, to be an exquisite fragrance.

Wedding shoppers will rejoice as there are stores specialising in wedding-ware with brocade silk-turbans for bridegrooms, peacock feathers, henna cones and everything else needed for a trousseau.

Do not miss the metal-ware shops selling knives, hammers, keys and skillets, as well as the stores making varakh, used to cover sweets. It’s made by pounding silver into wafer-thin sheets. I decided to pick up some elegant Bidriware, an art where black gunmetal is inlaid with geometric patterns of silver; a craft that was introduced by the Persians in the 16th century.

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