Category Archives: Hyderabad

High Security Easter: Hanuman, Cops and Christ

I remember the death of Christ and encounter the birth of a monkey god, cross barbed wire beset with flags and escape the clash of orange and green.

On Wednesday evening, sudden gusts whipped dust into my eyes and gloom descended over the Charminar, before the first rain I’d seen in weeks.  I took shelter in a second-floor air-con café, grabbed an ice coffee and an easy chair overlooking the square, and enjoyed the show for an hour.  As twilight deepened and the floodlights came on, the Charminar glowed purple, then rose, then yellow.  Lightning flashed behind it, though I heard no thunder.  The wind whipped flags.  Pyramids of fruit gleamed under bare bulbs.  Stall holders pulled tarpaulins over their carts and bag-sellers hurried off between showers.  Looking at headlights to see whether rain was still falling, I noticed how few vehicles had their lights on.

The weather seemed to herald the gloom of Good Friday, when darkness fell over Jerusalem as Jesus was crucified.  On Google I found Baptist Church Hyderabad was 10 minutes’ walk from my hotel, with a service at 11 am.  It sounded ideal.  Four policemen sat at the gate in front of rows of overflow seating under an awning.  There was an English bulletin and worship songs from Hillsong Australia were playing as I entered.  I also heard them in Korea and Kyoto years ago: the popular Protestant equivalent of the Roman Catholic mass in Latin.  The familiar tunes warm the heart of the homesick traveller and I hummed along with almost a tear, but it’s a shame more peoples aren’t praising God in their own style and tongue.

And, in fact, they were here.  The service turned out to be hours of incomprehensible Telegu.  For each of Christ’s seven last words from the cross there was a full sermon, prayers and bracket of songs.  Although I’d grabbed a pew under a fan, by 12:30 I’d emptied both my water bottles.  I slipped outside, heard shouting at the end of the street, and found out why the police were there.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-motorbikesYoung men zoomed past on motorbikes or an occasional truck.  I switched my camera speed to ISO High.  They waved bright orange or red pennants.  The cloth triangles showed a black silhouette of a jumping monkey wielding a mace.  The Christian Good Friday was also the Hindu Hanuman Jayanti, the birthday of the monkey god.  In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman and his simian hordes helped the divine Lord Ram recover his kidnapped wife (see my post here).  From a lamp post hung a political banner, showing party members alongside the blue-skinned Ram embracing Hanuman.  When motorcyclists shouted “Jai Shri Ram”, or “Hail Lord Rama”, the crowd responded with the same words, especially to the mighty hollering of a zealot standing on a motorbike.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-political-posterI remembered the headline in The Times of India at breakfast: “Blanket of Security for Rally Today”.  “Heavy bandobust arrangements are in place” and “10K Cops Deployed”, including 32 battalions of Special Police and four companies of Rapid Action Force, with peace committee volunteers also on vigil.  In British times the ruling Nizams were marked by religious tolerance, but Hyderabad has since become known as a riot-prone city.  In 2010, Hindu flags in Muslim areas sparked stone pelting and communal clashes at the Hanuman rally, leading to several days of curfew.  This year an inflammatory leader of a fundamentalist Hindu party was allowed to speak publicly.

“Police is geared up to handle any situation proactively” assured the commissioner, with police pickets near mosques and churches “to prevent any untoward incident.”  One building the size of a shed was encircled by coiled razor wire and covered in a tarpaulin.  Through a crack I glimpsed green, the colour of Islam: it was a Muslim shrine.

Ebbing and flowing, the stream of flags on wheels seemed endless.  Organisers had expected the bike rally to attract over 200,000 participants.  They were officially requested “not to cover their faces and not to hide the vehicle registration numbers with stickers”.  Many shops were keeping security roller doors down until after the Muslim Friday afternoon prayers.  Further along the street, youths danced to pumping Hindu music.  A lad waved a banner far longer than himself.  Small plastic pockets of water were distributed to sweating devotees.  No doubt many had downloaded the Hanuman ringtones advertised in the paper.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-flagsTraffic piled up behind police barricades on side streets and to get back to my hotel, I had to climb through barbed wire strands and weave through the gridlock.  I recalled the Passover festival in Jerusalem two millennia ago, when the presence of Roman troops was pumped up to make sure religious excitement didn’t turn to revolution.  The tensions between idol-worshipping Romans and monotheistic Jews were not unlike those between Hindus and Muslims here today.

I read of the aftermath a few days later, once I was safely in Bangalore.  There were a few jitters as the procession passed a mosque and a few Muslims with slogans, but no real trouble and the cops were relaxed.  Later on, however, riots broke out.  People were stabbed.  Dead animals and dog parts were thrown into places of worship.  For much of the week the old city around the Charminar where I’d been in the previous days was completely closed.  Tourists were frustrated.  Shops lost revenue.  Residents were running out of medicine and milk.

O come the day when the Prince of Peace, killed in darkness at Easter and risen in new life, will complete his work and break down every wall of resentment, religion and race.


Gemstones and Biryani: Stinking Rich in Hyderabad

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.

hyderabad-charminarI 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.

hyderabad-banglesA 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.

hyderabad-dental-clinicsIn 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.

hyderabad-hurt-birdIn 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.

hyderabad-chowmahalla-clockThe 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.

biryaniHead 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

Chicken Biryani by Amrita Mohanty

Bangles and Beggars: the Charminar Bazaar

Pastel Buddha, Sikh pudding and Jain disappointment; a gallery of marvels and a market of gems: cricket and Mecca, glowing fruit and perfumed wrists and begging without hands.

On Thursday I moved to the Hotel Rajmata in central Hyderabad for my remaining four nights in town.  About NZ$20 per day for a large twin room with TV and bathroom, sheets a bit grubby, the Times of India shooting under my door each morning.  Continuing my religious education, from here I visited a number of sacred sites.  (See my Hyderabad photos here.)

I climbed a winding lane to the Birla Mandir temple, built from white marble in 1976.  A dying red ball of sun flickered over the sea and artificial lake below, turning the sky pastel pink-blue behind the slim 17.5m Buddha statue on its miniature island, which I later ferried to.  Carved stone panels cited Moses, Jesus, Confucius, Sai Baba, as well as Hindu scriptures.  The compulsory shoe, bag and camera deposit stated “Free Service – Give No Tips”, so the elderly attendant requested “change”.

I draped my pocket sweat cloth over my head to enter a Sikh gurudwara (similar to one in Bangalore I described here).  A hefty turbaned attendant woke from his slumbers and approached.  I feared I had caused offence, but was given a handful of sacred karkah pudding, prepared while reciting their scriptures and offered to all visitors irrespective of religion or caste.

I found my first Jain temple tucked away in the buzzing Sultan Bazaar.  Rice grains were spread on the floor in their reverse-swastika symbol.  No English information, but cartoons on the walls illustrated stories I recognised from our Jainism lecture (see here).  Books lay in offering before one stone idol, their covers smeared with the same paste worshippers anoint themselves with.  From a shrine on the roof I photographed the bazaar below.  Before leaving the hotel I’d switched my leather belt (forbidden in strict Jain temples) for a synthetic one, but was disappointed that no one checked, and that I didn’t see any Jain monks wearing gauze masks to avoid breathing insects.

Hyderabad was ruled by the Moslem Nizams until 1948, and the Salar Jung museum contains their collection of world art.  Signs were in English, Hindi, Telegu (the local state language), and Urdu (slightly modified Arabic script).  The day I was there, 14 November, was the birthday of Nehru, the first prime minister of India.  He loved kids so it’s also Children’s Day.  The museum swarmed with uniformed lasses and lads, the latter keen to shake my hand.

There were many wonders here.  An all marble “Veiled Rebecca” – I first thought the veil was cloth.  A mat woven from ivory threads.  Silver elephant ornaments: ear and ankle rings, necklaces, forehead plates.  Paintings of the Moghul ruler Akbar hunting with his hawk, and the sword of the last emperor Aurangzeb.  The Japanese art shared a certain sparse beauty with Muslim calligraphy, of which one style, said a label, came from a dream of a heron.  It all gave a taste of the city’s former elegance.

The city’s icon is the Charminar (“four towers”), a square tower with 56 m high corner minarettes, built in 1591 to mark the end of an epidemic.  It’s still an icon of ill-health, best known on packets of Charminar cigarettes.  From the top I admired the huge Mecca mosque silhouetted against the twilight, while feeling a little uneasy as others pushed past – there is only a one-foot-high stone wall between you and the swirling hustle below.

The Charminar is surrounded by a labyrinth of small shops and markets.  I found a street of smiley Muslims selling khowa, the milk powder base for Indian sweets.  “Chicken centres” with caged birds.  Water pumped from hand-wells.  Square-inch silver foil was hammered flat between book pages.  Tailors re-stitched shirts, feet pedalling their sewing machines.  I tried to distinguish smells of different samples dabbed on my hand at Chunilal Dayal Das Perfumers: House of Indian Attars, established 1885.

I must have given my country and name dozens of times.  Upon learning I’m from NZ, most mention cricket or cricketers like Stephen Fleming and Richard Hadlee (unlike in Korea a few years ago, where people knew the Lord of the Rings movies).  Cricketing knowledge would facilitate conversation but is an interest I lack.  Until recently the only Flemings I knew were author Ian and pharmacologist Alexander.

Jewellers’ counters sparkle like Aladdin’s Cave.  On the street, baskets display billions of glittering bangles on pink rolls.  Even poor wrists jangle four or more silver bracelets.  In the “Moin Bangles Centre, Specialists in Immitation Stone Bangles and Jewellery”, the owner, white robed and capped, posed for me with fingers dangling inch-wide bangles encrusted with glass gems.  I purchased one.  A guy on top of a bus lifted dangling power lines snagging its roof rack.  Several kids asked to see NZ coins – I must bring some next time.

In a vegetable market, between weighing pans, heaped produce and foraging goats, sat a lady robed in black with her face and even eyes completely veiled.  She cried out for alms, with one beseeching hand malformed like a shrunken foot.  Somehow this faceless beggar disturbed me more than others.  To give or not to give?  Many beggars apparently choose to sponge off tourists – it’s more lucrative than a productive occupation (especially, no doubt, for pretty young women with babies), or are fuelling addictions.  But some are still missing hands, or drag themselves along on trolleys trailing deformed legs.  Apart from a few slices of bread from the loaf I often carry for safe snacking, I haven’t given to beggars.  I’m thinking I should donate to India when I get back, via World Vision or the like, hopefully producing more lasting change for the truly needy than any coins I might give here.

After dark, geometrically-stacked spheres of bright fruit glow under bare electric bulbs.  A line of Muslim calendars, with Arabic script and pictures of the cubic black Kaaba in Mecca, hangs above a row of Hindu gods and gurus.  I bought cards for the Muslim Eid festivals that end the fasting and pilgrimage months, and a wall-hanging with pictures of minarets and palm trees, “Muhammed” and “Allah” written in Arabic.  A friendly Muslim store-keeper told me the holy names should be held in the right hand by my heart, not swung below my waist in the left.  An outstandingly honest auto-rickshaw driver I approached directed me to cross a bridge (through smoke from smouldering litter on the unkempt river banks) and catch a bus back to my hotel instead.

See how the speckled sky burns like a pigeon’s throat,
Jewelled with embers of opal and peridote.

See the white river that flashes and scintillates,
Curved like a tusk from the mouth of the city-gates.

Hark, from the minaret, how the muezzin’s call
Floats like a battle-flag over the city wall.

From trellised balconies, languid and luminous
Faces gleam, veiled in a splendour voluminous.

Leisurely elephants wind through the winding lanes,
Swinging their silver bells hung from their silver chains.

Round the high Char Minar sounds of gay cavalcades
Blend with the music of cymbals and serenades.

Over the city bridge Night comes majestical,
Borne like a queen to a sumptuous festival.

Nightfall in the City Of Hyderabad
Sarojini Naidu

Ruined Grandeur: Golconda Fort and Garden Tombs

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.

Pork and Pollution: by Rail to Hyderabad

My first train and an old friend, culinary minutiae and mistakes, beards and burkas and bombs; packing in the transport with congestion of roads and nose.

Last night I took the overnight Rajdhani Express 11 hours north to Hyderabad.  It was my first Indian train and the process was pleasingly efficient.  I booked online (although the website crashed a few times) and a ticket was couriered to “Shri David Titheridge” within two days.  When the train pulled in, a list of occupants’ names was taped alongside each carriage door.  A Railway Protection Force sign warned, “Do not accept biscuits, tea, drinks, fruits from the strangers.  Don’t get drugged and lose your cash, jewels etc.”  That made me a little nervous, reminding me to get a water bottle at the station chemist, where a man buying Vomistop tablets didn’t bode well either.

I had no need to accept magic cookies from leering malefactors.  My “Trains at a Glance” book specified the menu with precision – 150 mL soup, 20 g bun, 10 g butter chiplet; 100 g rice, 150 g dal, 150 g vegetarian or chicken mains; 150 mL tea/coffee in a 170 mL capacity cup – and that’s exactly what arrived, the hot dish wrapped in foil as on planes.  I guessed the pedantic detail might be to stop rail employees flogging off supplies.  Others in my carriage complained about Indian inefficiency.

On board are both Western sitting and Indian squat toilets.  The latter is more hygienic as no skin contacts the facilities, but by the same token you’re less balanced in a rocking train and need to grip the sink drain pipe.  Speeding sleepers blur together through the hole.  I was in second class A.C.  Blue vinyl seats fold down to make bunks separated by dark blue curtains.  It seemed a remarkably dull decor for India, maybe because the British built the railways.  I got some broken sleep on my upper berth, before morning tea and crackers arrived.  Best of all, not once did I wish for that chemist gentleman’s pills.

Dawn broke with romantic views of amber sunrise through the tinted windows, white herons reflected in water (doubtless stinking in prosaic reality), in which a few daring souls washed.  At 7:30 am I arrived in Hyderabad (population about 6 million), capital of Andra Pradesh state.  It’s long been the “Pearl Capital” of India and is now “Cyberabad”, Indian headquarters of Google and Bangalore’s IT competitor.  The four-turreted Charminar, icon of the city, does look a bit futuristic when glowing blue and green at night. (See my Hyderabad photos here.)

I was met by my friend Hima, who shared the same postgraduate chemistry supervisor at Auckland University, and stayed with her family for two nights.  We celebrated her mother’s 61st birthday at Nanking Restaurant.  Chinese eateries are popular here as China is a neighbouring country but there were no chopsticks!  As an alternative to chicken, I ordered sweet and sour pork and was embarrassed to discover the others, although Christian, wouldn’t eat it.  Topped off the meal with paan: a mixture of ground nut and spices wrapped in a green betel leaf to freshen the breath.  Returning home, we passed a wedding celebration.  The bridal couple sat in a horse and buggy, while guests drummed, piped and danced till after midnight, lit by gas lamps carried on attendants’ heads.

Hyderabad has a strongly Muslim culture (perhaps explaining my predicament with the pork).  I’ve seen more mosques than temples.  A billboard outside the train station reads “Welcome to Haj pilgrims”, and other signs ask the pilgrims’ blessings on the city.  A lot of Muslim men wear tight-fitting skullcaps, and those who who’ve been to Mecca have beards died reddish-orange.  My beard is naturally ginger so I wondered whether they took me for a fellow pilgrim.

Many women show only eyes through black burka slits – few women in Bangalore covered up so well.  Many also had braided hair hanging out the back of their veil, toenails polished with ankle bracelets, high-heel shoes, and were holding hands with a boyfriend in jeans.

14 people died in a bomb blast last May during Friday prayers at the 17th-century Mecca Masjid mosque, which can hold 10,000 people, so civic security is tight.  Near the mosque are police “Rapid Action Force” buses and police jeeps with barred windows patrol the streets.  There are metal detectors at entrances to malls and even one family lake-side park.  A police sign read, “We salute the spirit of Hyderabad.  Terrorism can’t divide us.”  Billboards proclaimed, “Na Hindu, Na Muslim, Na Sikh – Na Issai”, or “No Hindu, No Muslim, No Sikh – No Difference”.

Hima’s young boys complained of the terrible streets and traffic, but I find them comparatively good after Bangalore, with few stand-still jams, and footpaths mostly intact although overcrowded.  Vans equipped for “Mobile Pollution Monitoring” show environmental awareness, as did an electronic sign in Bangalore: “Carbon monoxide limit 10 mg/m3.  Keep pollution under control.”  The paper reported that increasing smog has reduced India’s sunshine by 5% over the last 20 years.  I was pleased to see one LPG auto-rickshaw, hopefully the way of the future with its blissful absence of black belching.  In New Delhi, I hear that all public transport is now CNG, significantly reducing pollution, although increasing private transport counterbalances the improvement.

Hyderabad auto-rickshaws have manual horn bulbs and cram in more people than in Bangalore – I’ve counted 8 or maybe more.  And I have a new motorbike record: two black burka’d women behind the driver and two kids in front.  Motorbike helmets are sold in stalls by the road.  It’s all pretty thrilling, but I’m getting more used to crossing the crazy roads.  The trick is to attach myself downstream of a group of locals.  Pedalling more sedately are pushbike-drawn carts, bicycle rickshaws, and one tricycle ferrying baskets of live chickens.  I smiled at the irony of a “Zen Motor Driving School”.

Although they call India an assault on all the senses, I haven’t noticed the smells as much as you might think because my nose is mostly half-blocked with dust.  I use decongestant spray to clear it at night so I can breathe to sleep.  Now and then I’m seduced by a whiff of incense from a shop or temple, or sickened by rotting refuse, animal or human dung or urine.  Some walls read “Urination Prohibited”, but my olfactory organ senses that certain sidewalks are considered public conveniences.

After a gold coin meal of piping hot naan with tasty vegetable kurma – washing my right hand in warm water with a lemon slice and crunching mouth-freshener seeds – nose and stomach and morale all feel better.  Every day in India has both positives and negatives.  I oscillate between “It’s fantastic – I wanna come back!” and counting down the days before I get out.  The Minnesotan students’ info pack was wise when it advised: take India one day – or even one minute – at a time.