Hyderabad: Chronicles of palaces, forts and culture


The city of Hyderabad is a warren of narrow lanes, juxtaposed with its modern avatar of high rises and gleaming ambition. But somewhere between the bustle of the streets of the old city, and the assembly line traffic around the well-lined skyscrapers, you experience the way of life of one of the most culturally vibrant cities in India, the city of Nizams. Hyderabad is like the old banyan tree that grows and flourishes for centuries, giving shelter and life to those who care to tarry a while under its shade. And if you care to become a permanent resident, it welcomes you equally with warmth and grace.

Text and photos: Text: Ishma Raina

Historically, Hyderabad has seen a wide range of reigns from the mighty Mauryans, the Chalukyas, the Kakatiyas, the Qutb Shahi dynasty, the Mughals and finally, the Nizams of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, the descendants of which are the unsaid patrons of various places of heritage in Hyderabad.

Hyderabad has everything you would want in a place – a perfect mix of the ancient and the contemporary, and an efficient public transport system that shuttles you between the old and the new like a time machine. While Charminar, Golconda Fort and the delicious biryani have become synonymous with the identity of the city, there is a lot more to Hyderabad, quietly waiting to be found and spoken about, if one truly wishes to explore. It becomes necessary to talk about the hidden Hyderabad, which breathes and lives right next to the Hyderabad everyone knows of. How can this city be seen differently? As a student away from home, I found my own favourites in the city, and realised that the truest exploration can happen only when one dissociates from the sense of alienation that engulfs us when we visit a city for the first time, though this is easier said than done. Every place we visit is a feeling – we accept it, it accepts us, and thereby begins a wondrous saga.

The city of Hyderabad from the Bhongir Fort

The city of Hyderabad from the Bhongir Fort

The generic notion leads to the belief that the Nizams have been the only initiators of cultural development in the city, but architectural work in Hyderabad has been dated back to the Kakatiyas, who ruled over the then kingdom of Golconda and were the builders of the fort du jour – Golconda Fort. The natural elevation of the city due to the rocky Deccan Plateau was nothing but an advantage to build impregnable and invincible forts to protect the city. A popular legend states that there exists a secret underground pathway starting from the Golconda Fort and extending to a distance of almost 50 km, the end point of which is the Bhongir Fort, though any practical trace of this pathway has not been found till date.

The Bhongir Fort
In a city where there is no dearth of heritage, there is a competitive clamour for recognition and immortality – a clamour that holds the power to drown out the bid of those places which were not established in the heart of the city. One such place lies on the present day Hyderabad-Warangal Expressway, well within the radius of the city, in a small town called Bhongir.

The Bhongir Fort

The Bhongir Fort

The Bhongir Fort (or the Bhuvangiri Fort), was built by and named after the Chalukya ruler Tribhuvanmalla Vikramaditya VI in the 10th century CE. Spread over an area of fifty acres, this fort stands at a height of 610 metres above sea level and is said to have witnessed its period of glory during the reign of Kakatiya Queen Rudramadevi, and her grandson Prataprudra II. What distinguishes this fort from the rest amongst its clique is the way the main balcony of the fort has been structured over a huge monolith that can be spotted from kilometres away. This main balcony is encircled by the typical fort walls as one would find in the Rajputana architecture. The walls of the fort lead to a Hanuman temple and platforms where lie heavy metallic cannons that were most likely used to attack invaders.

It is from here that the real ascend up to the balcony starts. Once this monolith is scaled, you can feel what is known as ‘being on top of the world’. The view that the fort offers is majestic – panoramic and pretty much aerial. The only difference is that you are not flying, but then, you are not even on the ground. The monoliths do not have any railings whatsoever, and one can literally lean over to see where the steep slope of the monolith could lead to. (This also does enable a lot of thrilling visuals in one’s imagination). Various black patches are visible from top to bottom on the monolith at regular intervals, and it is assumed that these marks are a result of pouring of tonnes of litres of boiling oil to hinder the path of the invaders. The inundations in the monolith are home to small ponds, around which there is a vast expanse of grassland, which provides for a very tranquil spot to unwind.

The Bhongir Fort does not find place under the list of monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, which is also evident enough in the present condition of the fort. The balcony stands half dilapidated, and more than the carvings of construction, what is visible are the engravings of destruction. Access to this once invincible fort has been reduced to all of three rupees! It was imperative to ask the administration the reason behind such low rates. Surprisingly, they confessed their desire to let the fort remain in oblivion rather than watch fame play havoc with it. What I wondered was if oblivion had proved to be any better! Adventurers’ clubs within the city are trying to increase awareness about the Bhongir Fort since it is also an appropriate site for adventure activities like rock climbing and rappelling. Travelling to the fort by public transport is not a headache either, so it really is not remote as one would associate small towns lying en route an expressway with.

The Qutb Shahi Tomb Complex, which houses thirty tombs and mosques

The Qutb Shahi Tomb Complex, which houses thirty tombs and mosques

The fall of the Kakatiyas paved way for the Islamic rulers in Hyderabad and with them arrived the presently predominant Islamic cultural life. The kingdom of Golconda rose to prominence under the Bahmani Sultanate, after the disintegration of which (1538 CE), Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk was able to establish an independent dynasty in Golconda. The Qutb Shahi Dynasty shifted its capital to the present city of Hyderabad, and this is where they were laid to rest.

The Qutb Shahi Tombs
The Qutb Shahi Tomb complex (also known as the Seven Tombs) is a vast mausoleum complex that houses thirty tombs, mosques and a mortuary bath, and is the perfect example of a dynastic necropolis, probably even better preserved and documented than any Mughal cemetery. The complex has seven most prominent tombs that are visible atop the Golconda Fort, and that is how the name ‘Seven Tombs’ came into being. The entry to the tombs looks like a poetic imagery, with a long straight road surrounded by trees on all sides, and a distant view of a tomb peeping through the gaps in the leaves. Near the entry is also a dargah of Hazrat Hussain Shah Wali, the revered Sufi saint to whom the construction of the Hussain Sagar Lake is attributed. This dargah often resonates with the sounds of qawwali performances in praise of the saint and the Lord. Some of the tombs are two-storied, which indicate greater prominence of the ruler in the pages of history.

The Qutb Shahi tombs are revered by the people of Hyderabad

The Qutb Shahi tombs are revered by the people of Hyderabad

Six out of seven rulers of the Qutb Shahi dynasty rest in the main tombs. Other tombs are that of their wives, children, members of the royal family, and other nobles who devoted their lives towards loyalty to the Qutb Shahi kings. The last of the Qutb Shahi kings, Sultan Abul Hasan Qutb Shah, was taken as a prisoner by the Mughals under Aurangzeb, and was imprisoned in the Daulatabad Fort, where he died. He was not buried alongside his ancestors in this tomb complex, but was buried instead in a modest grave at Khaludabad.

Most of these tombs look alike in terms of architecture, and all the artwork and tile-work done on these tombs weathered off considerably owing to the fact that these tombs lay in complete negligence until Sir Salar Jung III ordered for their restoration. Ironically, the most famous ruler of the dynasty, Sultan Quli Qutb Mulk, has the humblest tomb, while the grandest tomb is said to be that of Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah. His tomb is in a vault below a massive terrace of area sixty five metres square. This tomb is so grand that it bears resemblance to the Taj Mahal. Why then, does this necropolis not find many takers inspite of being the resting ground of one of the most powerful and influential dynasties in medieval India?
The most fascinating thing about these tombs however, is that not all the major tombs belong to men. The tomb of Fatima Sultan is near the entrance of the tomb garden, and houses several other graves. Hayat Baskhi Begum was the daughter of the fifth sultan, Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah, and the Masjid within the complex is named after her. There are also tombs that have been left unfinished, and while they might not be able to compete with the architectural marvels that the other tombs are, they do stand out, in their own imperfect way, and shine on, brick by brick – bricks to which the rest of the tombs are gradually reducing.

The splendid Royal Darbar at the Chowmohalla Palace

The splendid Royal Darbar at the Chowmohalla Palace

Many in Hyderabad still treat these tombs as a sanctum sanctorum, and revere these kings only next to God. These tombs have different meanings for different people. For some, they are places of historical significance, and for others, these are places of personal significance. The emotion that the people visiting these tombs attach to their kings is something so unseen and unheard of, that it can only be understood if witnessed firsthand. The tomb garden is becoming a site for heritage walks and storytelling sessions within the city. The essence of the seven tombs must not be reduced to a mere bird’s eye view of the domes popping out of the trees from the top of the Golconda Fort.

Hyderabad was annexed by the Mughals during the reign of Aurangzeb, but after the gradual decline of the Mughal Empire, its hold on the city weakened and the governors gained autonomy from Delhi. Chin Quilich Khan Asaf Jah I established the Asaf Jahi dyansty in 1724 CE, which ruled over Hyderabad until a year after India’s independence from Britain. The Asaf Jahis are now based in London, but that does not dim the glory of their ancestors and the effect they had on the daily life in the old Hyderabad city.

Chowmohalla Palace
A few lanes away from the shimmer of pearls, the aroma of ittars, the call of the Azaan and the Charminar at the heart of it all, stands the magnificent Chowmohalla Palace, resting quietly within close, guarded walls, separated from the world outside. The Chowmohalla Palace served as the residence of the Asaf Jahis, and the moment you enter the gates of the palace premises, you can see the clock rewind and stand still in the past. Entrance to the Chowmohalla Palace is like the gate to Narnia – an entry into a completely different parallel world that you did not know existed all this while. Once you are in, all you can see is a vast expanse of beautiful royalty, a number of people at work to preserve and maintain the beauty of the palace, and the noise of the city fades somewhere in the background.

The word Chowmohalla or Chowmahall literally means ‘four palaces’, and it has been named so because of the four main palaces that adorn the oldest southern courtyard of the palace – Afzal Mahal, Aftab Mahal, Mahtab Mahal and Tahniyat Mahal. The construction of the palace began in 1750, and was completed by the reign of Asaf Jah V, between 1857 and 1869. The palace has two main courtyards, within which symmetrical gardens, pools and fountains have been designed. The clock on the main gate of the palace is called the Khiwat Clock, which has been ticking away for the last two centuries, keeping pace with the changing times.

Unlike most conventional Indian palaces, the Chowmohalla Palace has a very neoclassical style of architecture, unlike the Indo-Islamic domes and curvatures. Open air corridors are lined with heavy metallic cupboards, and rooms have become galleries for the possessions of the Asaf Jahis. Snippets from the past have been displayed in the form of huge art portraits and pictures signifying landmark moments during the reign of the Asaf Jahis. The Nizami collection ranges right from the richest collection of clothes from all over the country to weaponry, furniture, crockery, automobiles and buggies that have been owned by the Nizams through the years. This vast display in itself has the power to make you feel royal, let alone the thought of being able to access it. Inspite of such opulent and priceless antiques, the Chowmohalla Palace has not been able to gain as much prominence as the Salar Jung Museum. One reason for this is the fact that the Chowmohalla Palace was a closed residence, which was opened to the public only on the orders of the present Nizam Barkat Ali Khan Mukarram Jah in 2005, while the Salar Jung Museum has been open to the public since 1951.

One of the most beautiful sights in the palace is the Royal Darbar, where the daily proceedings of the court were said to have taken place. This darbar is sculpted with beautiful artwork and tile-work, and lined with nineteen chandeliers at regular intervals. In the centre of the darbar is the seat of the Asaf Jahis – a pristine white marble throne called Takht-e-Nishan, which is decorated so immaculately as though it awaits the arrival of the Nizam in the next few minutes. The darbar hall has grand pillars that hold balconies on top of them, most likely for the royal women to watch the proceedings as they happened. The Asaf Jahis have made sure to stick to their roots and do visit the palace time and again. The caretaker of the room of weaponries excitedly spoke about how the Nizam showers him and the rest of the staff with gifts for their services even today. The absence of the Nizam in the palace has not dented their loyalty towards him and his family.

Another contribution of the Asaf Jahis was their peaceful dialogue with the British during the colonial rule. During the same time, the aristocratic nobility of Hyderabad saw the rise of one of the most well-known families, who have gained equal, if not more recognition than the Nizams themselves – the Paigah nobles. The bond between the Paigah nobles and the Nizams strengthened with time, and they helped the Nizams in establishing western institutions in the Hyderabad State. Through this, they were able to amalgamate the oriental with the western way of life. The Paigah nobles were known for having rich personal collections of artefacts, antiques and manuscripts, which contributed to the heritage in more ways than one.

The State Central Library
The bridge over the Musi River heads straight to one of the busiest bus stations in Hyderabad – the Afzalgunj Bus Terminus. Amidst the hullabaloo of buses going to and fro, stands the State Central Library, well hidden by fenced trees, as stoic as it can be. There is a bus stop right outside the premises of the library, and so there is a perennial presence of people. Yet, only a miniscule is actually seen going inside the big black gate which leads to the most fascinating collection of books and manuscripts that you can find anywhere in Hyderabad. The State Central Library is the perfect place to be for avid readers or enthusiasts of any particular genre of reading. This library functions twelve hours a day, and has very neo-classical features to it. The library was established in 1891 with the efforts of NawabImaad-ul-Mulk, whose personal library formed its initial foundation. Back then, this library was known by the name Asafia Library. In 1955 it was declared as the State Central Library.

The State Central Library, which is indeed a treasure house of books

The State Central Library, which is indeed a treasure house of books

The first thing that any bibliophile is greeted with while climbing the main staircase of the library is the smell of old pages and hard bind. It looks like a planetary system of books – books wherever you go, in every nook and corner, including the sides of the high walled ceilings. The administration there claims that most visitors there (which are only a handful), come there mainly for preparatory purposes, and not out of the sheer love for books. The library does not believe in offering wi-fi, and insists on silence of both the visitors as well as their phones. There are drawers of innumerable postcards issued to various members of the library that date back to the 1920s, people who might have spent unending hours in the corridors of this library.

The library has a collection of more than five thousand books in all Indian vernacular languages, English, Arabic, Persian, French, Italian, Russian, German, to name a few. The collection ranges from manuscripts to encyclopaedias to novels to archives of Readers’ Digest and newspapers dating to decades back. Some racks are all about Karl Marx, some are talking Tagore and Gulzar. The creaking wooden staircases lead to corridors that have pathways and more pathways within them, most of them locked and lying under layers of dust. They are like the room of requirement – right in front of your eyes, but you see only them if you seek. If you are lucky enough, you can also have an Indiana Jones experience by sneaking into the restricted section of the library, and you will not want to come out of that place, ever. Three storeys of unregistered books lined across eight racks on each floor, with just one window for illumination – talk about oblivion here! At this moment, you are so completely hypnotised by the sight of having unearthed treasure more valuable than those of the Nizams, you do not worry about all the dust on your clothes from picking out books from the racks. The thrill however, does not last for more than a few minutes when you realise the gross under utilisation of these books. They are hidden away from the eyes of the visitors, and that is nothing but a sad waste of the core collection of the library. Near the library is the first outlet of the most famous and celebrated bakers in Hyderabad – the Karachi Bakery. That ensures a sumptuous bite and a warm coffee after a nice read.

The famous Charminar of Hyderabad

The famous Charminar of Hyderabad

Inspite of being in the heart of the city, the library does not attract many visitors. People are unable to guide you to the spot even though it is right there on one of the busiest roads of the city.

The hidden Hyderabad
Be it the forts, tombs or the library, all of them are in competition with the Charminar and Golconda Fort in the race against time, and what is most painful is that you can see them lagging behind. More than preservation by the State, these places need attention of the people they were preserved for in the first place. These are the places that tell the tale of time better than anything on Google, and to wait for them to crumble into dust before their significance can be realised, is a loss of national treasure.

Hyderabad is one of the friendliest places in the country, and this quality of the city should be taken into consideration while exploring it. The city and the people welcome you with open arms, and before you know it, you have become a part of the city too. All that is required is to break the ice and try and know the city better, try and see places that others do not see, try and know the secrets that the city is waiting to tell. Map the ruins and spread the word of these places. It is important to go to the forts that have existed over years either under threat, or abandonment; it is important to go to the tombs of those kings who probably feared oblivion all their lives; and it is important to go to the libraries where books are engulfed in darkness, waiting to be dusted and breathed open again. It is in times like these that you ponder upon the lesser known towns, what they might have in store, what is known of them, and what amongst them is perishing. If the biggest cities of the country can have lesser known places of historical significance, what about the lesser known towns? The answer lies in knocking on doors that seem closed, and letting the spirit of the city or town or even a village, stir the soul.


Ishma Raina

Ishma Raina is a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences with a special fascination for Indian History. Her introduction to the diversity in India began right from her schooling days. Avid reading and travels across different parts of the world like Russia, UK and Japan have only strengthened her quest to know and showcase India better.