I travel first class to the Taj Mahal, check what has changed in the City of Pearls, and steal a glimpse of its riches; I melt down in the fatal heat and perk up with a favourite meal.
The trip on Tuesday night from Bhopal (see here) 15 hours south to Hyderabad was my longest single stretch. Things were less smooth this time. The electronic signboards at the Bhopal station weren’t going and there was no sign of my train. The young man in the tourist booth left me to browse brochures in his air-conditioned office while he asked around to find out the score: my train was running 40 minutes late and would arrive at platform three.
The second class seats had all been sold out so I splashed out on first, which was very affordable and not dramatically different. The seat-cum-beds were maroon instead of blue, and, more significantly, were wider and longer so I could stretch out fully. The closed four-berth compartments were more private. My companions were a semi-retired refrigeration engineer visiting his son in Bangalore and an army colonel on leave from the troubled state of Kashmir. Both were courteous gentleman with excellent English. The engineer insisted I take two of his wife’s chapattis with cauliflower pickle and a carton of mango juice.
7 am arrival, so not yet too hot. I missed the Taj Mahal in Aga but stayed in a “Taj Mahal” hotel here in Hyderabad, although cubic concrete above a highway flyover isn’t quite as romantic as sinuous marble mirrored in tranquil pools. (And unlike the Moghul love of meat, consumption of non-vegetarian food in this Hindu-owned hotel was prohibited.) It turned out to be a common hotel name and there’s a flasher Taj Mahal in town which is much better known. One rickshaw driver took me to the latter, despite my vigorous “No, no, no” (in English and Hindi, with hands and head) whenever he named the suburb, then demanded more money to get to mine.
Hyderabad has about 5.5 million people and, like Bhopal, a higher Muslim proportion than the national average. There are many more black-veiled women on the streets than a decade ago. This is not due to conservative Islam spreading, I read, but increasing freedom and education for women who were previously secluded at home and never seen. Many work in the new IT industry of “Cyberabad”. After the northern scarcity of online connections, I passed many Internet cafes and could see two from my hotel balcony, although the power failed as I was about to hit send.
I spent a week here in November 2007 and saw the major tourist sites. Now I caught an auto-rickshaw to the Old City to see what had changed. Instead of an electric horn as in other cities, the driver squeezed a rubber bulb for a Donald Duck squawk. In the central square, motorbikes and rickshaws swarm around the base of the city’s main icon, the Charminar. It’s sometimes called the “Oriental Arc de Triomphe”, but unlike its Parisian counterpart is square with archways on all four sides, a second-floor mosque, and four 56-meter high corner minarets.
The Charminar seemed a little more drab and soot-stained than when I saw it in 2007 (see here), or perhaps my memory had airbrushed its blemishes. I recalled the baskets of sparkling bangles and the carts with geometric pyramids of apples and oranges. The square would be much nicer without traffic; measurements of Respirable Particulate Matter have found it to be the most polluted area in the city.
A network of lanes around the Charminar houses dealers of pearls and gemstones. Hyderabad is called “the City of Pearls” and the world’s largest diamond, the Kohinoor, came from the mines near Golconda Fort (read about my visit here). One tourist flyer listed the sacred nine gemstones of the Indian scriptures with their corresponding planets and star signs. As a Pisces, it seems my gem is yellow sapphire, to be worn mounted in gold (as opposed to silver or copper for some stones) on the index finger. My planet is Jupiter (for knowledge!) and Thursday my big day. For Indian astrology, pearls represent the moon (and impart coolness to the body) and rubies the sun. Hessonite and Cat’s-Eye, I read, represent the dragon’s head and tail, or the moon in ascending and descending modes.
In a more down-to-earth vein, a row of dental clinics welcomed customers with photographs of perfect toothy smiles and steel-hinged dentures on the counters: grinning pink gums and discoloured incisors embedded in grey clay or lime putty. Two boys held an injured pigeon, dipping its beak into water for a drink and gently stretching out its wings to pose for a photo.
In one corner of the Charminar square is the 17th-century Mecca Masjid, a mosque that can hold 10,000 worshippers. The name is due to a few bricks from Mecca embedded over one arch. I was instructed to either leave my cloth shoulder bag at the gate or roll it up so it looked small. Actually less security than in 2007 when there’d been a recent bomb attack and riot police buses were parked outside. (Since then two bombs killed 16 people in 2013.) In the courtyard, goats and pigeons competed for scattered grain, while I rested alongside tombs of the local rulers in a shady colonnade. Men read papers in the mosque’s small library. Arabic titles wound down each book’s spine, their elegant flourishes filling me with nostalgia for a rich culture and a world of scholarship that I’ve never known.
Hyderabad was ruled by the Moslem Nizams and the last (reigning from 1911-1948) was perhaps the richest man in the world – his personal fortune included £500 million of gold, silver and jewels – and one of the most wed: he had 150 wives. In 1967 he had 14,718 staff and dependants, including 3000 Arab bodyguards, 38 dusters of chandeliers, 28 bringers of drinking water, and several dedicated grinders of royal walnuts. The Chowmahalla palace alone had 6000 staff.
The Chowmahalla was built in 1750-1850 and opened to the public since my last visit, giving me a taste of Hyderabad’s former opulence. “It is the Palace of exuding invisible power and stands out for its intrinsic grandeur”, read the entrance sign, and is “compared by the historians as a Palace of Arabian Nights”. The Nizam’s reception hall was indeed grand, with Belgian chandeliers above a vast expanse of marble before the wide white throne. There were galleries of family portraits, a painted map of Mecca, and an elephant caparison weighing 25 kg. The sixth Nizam was a dandy who never wore the same thing twice: his wardrobe was 72 m long, with two storeys. The Nizam’s cars included a 1912 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, painted yellow.
The armoury seemed worthy of the Arabian Nights. There were curved Iranian swords and Indian sabres, a double-edged Hindu sword with a tip swelling like a cobra’s hood, slim-bladed daggers designed to pierce ring mail, curved Arabic daggers with carved hilts, straight Afghan knives, and double-curved “scorpions” to be concealed in the sleeve. The Nizam tried to remain independent after the British were ousted in 1947. Despite all this weaponry, the Indian Army rolled in one year later and after five days his princely state (the size of Italy) was part of the new nation.
The next day I felt so exhausted that I hung the “do not disturb” sign on my door and went back to bed after breakfast. I left early afternoon to revisit the Salar Jung museum that I enjoyed last time (see here). It’s another Hyderabad hoard, gathered from the four seas by the Nizam’s Grand Vizier, and with 35,000 objects is allegedly the world’s biggest one-man collection. Chinese tapestries and Japanese vases; Arabic manuscripts and Persian carpets; English china, Italian sculptures, European paintings and clocks; Indian silverware and carvings in stone, wood, ivory and bronze. I had forgotten the museum lacked air-conditioning and most doorways open onto outdoor courtyards. For some reason I found displays underneath a fan the most attractive.
Head throbbing in the heat, I dragged myself along the stinking river to the Hotel Shadab on High Court Road, known as one of the best spots for Hyderabad biryani: spicy saffron rice with chicken or mutton or beef. It’s one of my Indian favourites and my morale bounced back on a padded seat under an AC unit, tucking into chicken biryani with side dishes of cool vegetable yoghurt and hot gravy. The serving was so generous I couldn’t finish. Check out the recipe (from here), drawn by Amrita Mohanty at the delicious site www.theydrawandcook.com.