Good Old Hyderabad

Pranjali Bhonde Pethe | Updated on July 05, 2019 Published on July 05, 2019

Come, all ye faithful: The Badshahi Ashoorkhana, built by Quli Qutb Shah, the founder of Hyderabad, is a Shia place of mourning   -  THE HINDU/KVS GIRI

Skip the Charminar. The walled city is studded with shrines and mausoleums

I am in Hyderabad for a conference when I spot pictures of spectacular tombs at the lobby of the convention centre. Intrigued by the images — of the Paigah tombs and the Badshahi Ashoorkhana — I ask the manager of the hotel about the monuments. She promptly introduces me to Jonty Rajagopalan (47), who left a high-paying job to become a tour guide. Rajagopalan agrees to show me around the streets of the Old City and we set a date for the weekend.

In remembrance: There are 27 tombs in the Paigah Tombs complex   -  PV SIVAKUMAR


Rajagopalan meets me outside Shadab, a popular restaurant offering traditional Hyderabadi delicacies.

Instead of the Charminar, we head for the Badshahi Ashoorkhana. It was built in 1611 by Quli Qutb Shah, the man who founded Hyderabad and also built the Charminar. An ashoorkhana is a Shia place of mourning and it is thronged by devotees during Muharram. A door with an iron mesh guards the entrance to the main hall, where an arch is inlaid with haft rang or seven-coloured tiles. Some of these tiles received a fresh dab of paint after a flood damaged the structure.

Also in the hall is a gold miniature that serves as the replica of the grave of Hussain, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in Karbala. A silver cradle, placed next to the symbolic grave, stands for Ali Asgar, Hussain’s infant son, who is said to have been starved to death during the Battle of Karbala.

On the day of Muharram, the ashoorkhana turns into a sea of black as mourners stream in to lament the death of Hussain and his entourage. On our way out, I notice a string of prayer beads and stones with inscriptions in Arabic. These are said to be from Karbala, also the place where Hussain was born. When the devotees offer prayer on Muharram, they touch the stones with their forehead.

We leave the ashoorkhana and the stories of Hussain behind to take a round of the winding alleys of Patel Market. There we stop for hot jalebis with namakpaare (also known as nimki or nimkin in some parts of the country) at Sharmaji, a popular roadside eatery. The streets look quite empty, given it’s half past ten in the morning. The shops are yet to start business. Jalebis in hand, we veer to Urdu Galli. We stop by at the shrine of Shaikh Ji Hali Abul Ulai, a saint who joined the Sufi order at the age of 14 and moved to Hyderabad from Rajasthan in 1778. He is said to have introduced qawwali to the City of Nizams. As a tribute to the saint, the shrine still hosts qawwali nights every Thursday. Intricate jali work on the walls of the serene Makrana-marble mausoleum makes this place worth a visit. During Basant Panchami, the shrine is bedecked in yellow, and the devotees too dress in that hue, to mark the advent of spring.

The aroma of biryani tickles our nostrils as we walk back into the maze of alleys. We, however, choose to have a dosa at Govind’s, an eatery tucked inside a lane near the Gulzar Houz fountain. It is that time between breakfast and lunch, but Govind’s is a veritable beehive. Scores of hungry regulars clamour for a bite. Ravenously, we tuck into crisp buttery dosas and tawa idlis.

We are only a few metres away from the Charminar but I am on a tight schedule. So we steer clear of the regular tourist traps and head for the Paigah tombs, situated 6 km from the Charminar. A white arched entrance called Naubat Khana leads us to a cobblestone courtyard. From there, we can see only a dilapidated building. It makes me wonder if we are at the right place.

However, a few steps aheadis a beautiful mausoleum made of lime and mortar and inlaid with marble carvings. The complex retains an old-world charm, surrounded by a well-kept garden. Rehmatullah, the caretaker of the tomb since 1965, leads us to the main building that houses the tombs of 27 members of the noble Paigah family of Hyderabad.

I am struck by the tomb of Asman Jah, who served as the Prime Minister of Hyderabad from 1887 to 1894. The coffin is adorned with a green stone that changes colour. The tomb opens to the sky and is surrounded by ornate trellises and carved pillars and domes. Another notable tomb — known for being a replica of Mumtaz Mahal’s grave inside the Taj Mahal — is that of Hussain-un-Nissa Begum, the daughter of the fifth Nizam of Hyderabad. It has beautiful parchin kari (pietra dura inlay work) on Makrana marble.

As we take leave of Rehmat, the elderly caretaker proudly displays his ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) card and declares that he wouldn’t leave this place for anything in the world. With a place as beautiful as this, who would?

Pranjali Bhonde Pethe is a freelance writer based in Pune

Published on July 05, 2019
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