An Introduction to Hyderabad: Charminar, Markets, Chowmahalla Palace

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December 7th 2017
Published: December 7th 2017
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Yes, I’ve dropped into another world. I’ve experienced similar places in India: people weaving across busy streets, through streams of cars, motorcycles, auto rickshaws; endless honking, people spitting everywhere, pools of spittle, some tinged with red betelnut, women clad in dark draperies, eyes peering from a human mask. How beautiful those women must be—but I see their eyes only, darting, staring at me, then withdrawing their gaze, clutching a toddler’s hand, comforting a crying baby. The noise, oh the noise, swelling voices, arguing, calling, discussing prices in the market, crowing, the creak of the wheels of portable stalls, rumble of motors, honking, endless honking.

What’s different about Hyderabad? A city of over 5 million, crammed with movement, the drone of the call to prayer early in the morning and several more times throughout the day, men wearing white caps, women hidden, shapeless but real, swishing around with their companions, shopping for the latest bargains in pearls, jewels, perfumes, home supplies. They flock to the bazaar like pigeons after crumbs, they line up five deep around carts of bangles and glittering jewels.

I got caught in this place. When I had felt somewhat stabilized after transporting myself from New Mexico to India in about 35 hours, I ventured out to see the sights. I was following Ivanka, I realized, her face peered from a billboard with India’s PrIme Minister Modi. Fresh paint lined many of the roads, flower pots holding dashes of red decorated the road medians. All new, explained my taxi driver. Perhaps all for Ivanka, the “First Daughter” as one resident told me, but maybe some of the newness for the others who attended the recent conference for women entrepreneurs held here.

The Charminar, which translates to “four minarets,” anchors the old city. Built in 1591 by Hyderabad’s founder, Quli Quebec Shah, it must have been a breathtaking experience to behold this edifice before all the carbon-spewing taxis and auto rickshaws started vibrating around its walls. From the second floor are grand views down streets that bustle in the evening with zillions of shoppers and selfie-taking tourists. Although I visited this iconic structure early in the day, the buzz was still annoying for someone like me, a seeker of quiet and contemplation.

I got my chance for quiet around the corner at Chowmahalla Palace. A grand complex dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, it includes multiple garden spaces and impressive buildings used by several nizams. Wandering the tended grounds with large pools of water, spraying fountains, and soaring arches on buildings gave me relief from the noisy bedlam outside its walls. And the curves, patterns, symmetry, and grandiosity of the architecture delighted my imagination. Such lives these royals led. Their costumes alone…always the finest. A photographic collection of the nizams suggested the evolution of their clothing from spectacular in the late 1800’s to less ostentatious by the mid-1900’s.

A priceless collection of restored Qurans is housed in one room. No photos and no shoes allowed. Here was a Quran from approximately AD1500, written on an enormous hand woven cotton cloth. Other examples were written in lapis lazuli and cinnabar, and some volumes were tiny tiny, no bigger than a quarter, and had a magnifier built into the case.

I was reminded of how I am very popular in India—me with my floppy hat and odd costume. Resting on a bench under a shady tree, two smiling women plopped their ample behinds to the sides of mine, and smiled at their male companions while they took a photo with the tourist. “Where are you from?” I ask. “Gujarat,” they say—tourists, like me.

I wandered the markets, discovered the men who hand-embroider amazing sari blouses with gold thread, mirrors, jewels, sequins. The kaplunk-kerplop, kaplunk-kerplop of men’s hammers drew me to a small shop, where seated artisans pounded what looked like a leather bound book cover, over and over and over again. In between the thin pages were squares of silver that they were flattening into skins of edible shine—to grace confections and other such fancy desserts. A man selling fish hooks called me to his booth, and treated me to a sales pitch on tiny fish hooks and fishing line. “Made in Singapore,” he proudly said. Another pair of men begged me to buy a hair clip—plastic hand decorated with fake jewels. And the bangle shop vendors were relentless—there’s a vaguely uncomfortable feeling when they beckon with crooked smiles, trying to convince me I need the massive jewel-studded bangles for which Hyderabad is famous.

I stumbled and explored, wove in and out of traffic and stalls, and tromped the back streets. It was getting late, my eyelids sagged and I limped along. Light was fading and I realized, with a tinge of horror, that this place was really busy. Throngs clogged the streets, vendors hassled me for attention, a little girl rapped on my back repeatedly for a handout. Got to get out of here, stay calm, I’ll find a taxi, I thought.

Hyderabad is different, though, all the taxis are call taxis, and all the auto rickshaws were crammed with shoppers. I stood in the middle of the street, near the Charminar,where many night shoppers collected, all intent on taking the best selfie ever. (Are about 23 selfies enough??) The crowd, noise, vehicles, all swelled. How am I ever going to find transportation to my lodging, 7 miles away? My phone didn’t work yet, I couldn’t call for a taxi. In my post-travel fatigued state, my senses had left me, and I really felt stuck.

On a whim, I turned to a group of young men. “Excuse me, could you help call a taxi for me?” They seemed a bit befuddled, but finally figured it out, saw me safely into my Ola taxi. The nice driver understood my relief, even as we sat in traffic for the next hour. But I was safe in my taxi, on the way back to rest. So I could get up and do it again the next day, explore this crazy city of historic delights and surprises, experience another world both familiar and captivating.

Additional photos below
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The streets below Charminar; Mecca Masjid in distanceThe streets below Charminar; Mecca Masjid in distance
The streets below Charminar; Mecca Masjid in distance

A very large mosque holding up to 10,000 for prayer

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