Tag Archives: Sarojini Naidu

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.