I storm ruined battlements, fight off guides, and mourn lost monarchs as a nightingale sings of old glories.
This morning I invaded the 16th-century Golconda Fort where flocks once grazed outside Hyderabad – Golconda means “Shepherd Hill”. Layer upon layer of rock ascends the slope, square blocks of masonry on granite boulders. Gates are studded with sharp iron knobs to prevent elephant battering, with holes above to pour molten lead on attackers. Golconda was a tough nut to crack. After withholding tribute from Delhi in the 17th century, the fort withstood a seven-month siege from Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, until it was betrayed for a bribe. The women inside killed themselves by jumping into a well rather than be taken alive. (See the fort and other Hyderabad photos here.)
The main invaders are now wild grass, yellow crimson flowers and scruffy shrubbery that are overrunning the rubble, besieging every wall and clambering tenaciously up the stone faces to wave triumphantly in the wind atop crumbling ramparts. Huge oblong tanks of water that sustained defenders now contain bottles floating on green slime. Everywhere you look, fortifications and crenellations are framed through archways or empty windows, with stark patterns of sun and shade on floors beneath roofless vaults.
I was surprised to see no monkeys, hardly any dogs, and my first white faces for several days. Tourists. Guides rushed up to demonstrate cunning acoustics that announced royal guests or enemy invaders: hand claps in the entrance Grand Portico are heard in the hill-top throne room 120m above. The compound once housed barracks, jail, gunpowder store, armoury and camel stables, along with the cool colonnades and bathing pools of the palace harem, luxurious abode of voluptuous queens, princesses, concubines.
Alas, I am too late to see those beauteous ladies of yesteryear – though only eunuchs and the king could enter their charmed quarters. Today it was a class of school children in blue uniforms that gushed up from a dark stairwell like a spring, rippled over the summit courtyard and cascaded down narrow winding stairs. Above the chunky defences with their crude rectangular shooting holes peek the delicate twin minarets of the Ibrahim Masjid. The mosque’s floral decoration and monochrome symmetry suggest an ordered spiritual world beyond the chaos of arms and men.
Around the corner through whitewashed archways was a contrasting structure. The garish Mahakali temple clung to a rock outcrop shaped like Mickey Mouse ears. A small entrance beneath fluttering red flags and yellow cupola led to a shrine inside the boulder. The goddess Durga is painted on the rock, seated on her lion. She seems to have raided the armoury below, her eight arms brandishing sword, trident, throwing star, dagger, battleaxe, bow and mace.
I fled such warlike visions for the peaceful Qutb Shahi Tombs, resting place of the Muslim rulers. 82 stone mausoleums are scattered around a shady park, some maintained, others forgotten, glimpsed between unpruned trees that sheltered courting couples.
The tombs have square lower storeys lined with archways and are topped with bulbous domes, patchily flaking and blotchily blackened. Apparently they were once turquoise-green; now they are shades of grey and grass sprouts from their cracks. Tessellating stone patterns, darkened with grime and scratched by vandals, framed graffitied wooden doors. One had fallen from its hinges so I could peer into the gloom: the echoing interiors was empty. The tombs reflect sadly in pools between outdoor graves, grey stone pyramids shrouded in green cloth.
I enjoyed watching school kids play hide and seek through the tombs or chasing teacher around their seated classmates, but I didn’t appreciate the “guides”. The worst latched on to me after I repeated “No”, spouted a few names and dates (which I suspect were invented) and then insisted, “You have to pay me. I gave you history… That man just paid me 100 rupees.” I thought to myself, “Either he’s a fool, or you’re a liar. I’d put my money on the latter.” and managed, after further irritation, to shake him.
Nevertheless, the tombs were atmospheric. Like an old wrinkled face they perhaps had more character than in their lost youth. The Kohinoor diamond came from the Golconda mines and as I prospected around I unearthed a gem myself. A faded marble tablet had a poem by the “nightingale of India”, Sarojini Naidu (1879 – 1949). She was also a freedom fighter with Gandhi and India’s first woman governor. The verses were headed “The Royal Tombs of Golconda” and captured the faded glory of ruined palaces, fallen kings and queens:
I muse among these silent fanes [shrines]
Whose spacious darkness guards your dust;
Around me sleep the hoary plains
That hold your ancient wars in trust.
I pause, my dreaming spirit hears,
Across the wind’s unquiet tides,
The glimmering music of your spears,
The laughter of your royal brides.
In vain, O Kings, doth time aspire
To make your names oblivion’s sport,
While yonder hill wears like a tier
The ruined grandeur of your fort.
Though centuries falter and decline,
Your proven strongholds shall remain
Embodied memories of your line,
Incarnate legends of your reign.
O Queens, in vain old Fate decreed
Your flower-like bodies to the tomb;
Death is in truth the vital seed
Of your imperishable bloom.
Each new-born year the bulbuls sing
Their songs of your renascent loves;
Your beauty wakens with the spring
To kindle these pomegranate groves.