Walkin’ It: Charminar to Badshahi Ashurkhana, Hyderabad
The old city of Hyderabad is overwhelming and unapologetic: Winding alleys where pedestrians battle street carts and hawkers, the relentless honking of vehicles, perspiring bodies, piles of stinking rubbish, stray animals, and more chaos than you can imagine. But look closer and you’ll find yourself in a cabinet of curiosities where behind the chaos of modern India looms the grandeur of the land’s golden past. The area is rife for “historical and heritage” immersion and the best way to explore it is on foot. Either DIY or join a guided Hyderabad heritage walk that will show you around the bustling bazaars and grand old neighbourhoods around the pièce de résistance of Hyderabad, the Charminar.
Hyderabad Old City Heritage Walk: Charminar to Badshahi Ashurkhana
In the heart of Hyderabad, magnificent palaces and lofty gateways coexist with contemporary businesses and poverty. The bazaars are colourful but extremely busy. Storefronts showcasing modern electronics, Hyderabadi pearls, and Western fashion jostle with shops selling antiques and relics from the past: perfumes in glass vials, lacquer bangles, bidri craft, traditional weaves, and gold jewellery. Eateries that boast of royal patronage and hawkers selling an array of mouth-watering dishes from carts both find pride of place here. A walk through the narrow alleys is a sensory indulgence. The aroma of Hyderabad’s most famous dish, the biriyani, lingers in the streets. Skewers with juicy kebabs hang from hooks on food carts. Sometimes the stink of sewers and rotting produce assails your nose. Sometimes you walk into a cloud of unforgivingly sweet attar. Honking and screeching of tires, the cries of hawkers, the excited chatter of locals and tourists, the puttering of two-wheelers, and the noisy pigeons create a relentless cacophony.
If you don’t manage to join a guided Heritage Walk then fret not, we have for you the Guide to Exploring Old Hyderabad on Foot!
The Charminar is where Hyderabad begins and ends. It was around this magnificent edifice that Quli Qutub Shah planned his new capital, Hyderabad, in 1591. An excellent example of the Indo-Saracenic style, this charming monument— also a mosque— with its four, char, minarets was built to commemorate the end of an epidemic that had devastated the kingdom. Besides the mosque, the structure also houses a now-defunct madrasa and 45 prayer spaces. The Charminar, sometimes called the Arc de Triomphe of the East, is Hyderabad’s most iconic symbol and thus it is fitting that a heritage walk of old Hyderabad begins at its foot. For INR 5 (INR 100 for foreigners), you can enter the structure and climb the 149 winding steps to the top of the minarets. Beautiful stucco work and a profusion of balustrades and balconies adorn the Charminar. The verandahs offer sweeping views of the bustling Laad Bazaar which is known for its lacquer bangles. Our guide informs that egg white was used to fortify the mortar and also about the famed Golkonde ka Surang, a tunnel said to run from the Charminar to the Golconda Fort. There is no end to the symbolism and the legends attached to the monument. Some of it has been lost; some persist in pages of tattered books, and some can only be found if you listen carefully.
Nimrah Café & Bakery*
A stone’s throw away from the Charminar, this Irani café serves coffee, freshly baked bread and biscuits, and four types of tea. Order a cup of frothy Irani Chai with some salty Osmania biscuits. Surprisingly, the Osmania biscuits which is one of Hyderabad’s most loved souvenirs were originally made for the inmates of Osmania Hospital, a must-visit building if only to gawk at the architecture.
*Not a part of the guided walk.
Though older than the famous Mecca Masjid— it was constructed in 1597— Hyderabad’s Jama Masjid is surprisingly low-key. Once upon a time, you could behold the Charminar from the courtyard of the Jama Masjid. Not so much anymore; massive hoardings asking you to change your telecom operator shamelessly block the view. Hidden behind shops selling prayer caps, rugs, and tapestries embroidered with Persian letters, this beautiful mosque with its interesting mix of Islāmic, Mughal, and Rajasthani architectural styles reveals itself only to those who actively seek it. Inside, were a madrasa and a Turkish hammam. A serai was also attached to the mosque to accommodate traders travelling on the Machilipatnam-Golkonda trade route.
Hyderabad’s most famous mosque was constructed with bricks made of soil brought from Mecca and thus named Mecca (or, Makkah) Masjid. The three-arch facades were carved from a single piece of granite which took five years to be quarried and when Jean-Baptiste Tavernier visited Quli Qutub Shah’s capital, he noted that “It is about 50 years since they began to build a splendid pagoda in the town which will be the grandest in all India when it is completed.” Thousands of workers worked for a greater part of the century to give shape to the Shah’s vision. Exquisite floral motifs and friezes in the Qutub Shahi style and verses from the Qur’an adorn the structure and inside, Belgian crystal chandeliers add a touch of royalty. The Mecca Masjid has stood the test of time, sheltered thousands and thousands of daily prayer-goers, and has even remained undaunted in the face of a terrorist attack in 2007. Besides the enticing architecture, two other things made my visit to this mosque memorable: First, the nonagenarian Mr. Nasreem chided our guide wherever he felt the information and the stories were not being shared in a more profound and poetic way and second, the pigeons. Living in the cornices and ornate friezes were hundreds of pigeons playing, cooing, eating, and shitting without a care. It is their masjid too; their home.
In 1592, Quli Qutub Shah furthered his dream of making Hyderabad the grandest city in the world by commissioning a piazza of four arches known as Char Kaman. They are equidistant from each other and at the centre is Gulzar Hauz, originally called Char-Su-Ka-Hauz. Close your eyes and imagine the erstwhile grandeur of this city: From the fountain flows four streams in four directions. They flow under the lofty gates, with shutters made of ivory and sandalwood and studded with gold and precious stones, and divide the road into two halves. From one of the kamans, floats the sweet sound of the shehnai. Open your eyes and you are back in the chaos. The lofty gates still stand but shops selling trinkets, pearls, kebabs, even sanitary ware have encroached upon the space. The Jilu Khana, the open space between the four gates, is long gone. Unsustainable urbanization and apathy for heritage have wiped away the poetic grandeur. Today, the four gates, the Charminar Kaman, Kali Kaman, Sehr-e-Batil Kaman, and Macchi Kaman stand in various stages of decay and it has become pretty much impossible to admire, in peace, Quli Qutub Shah’s vision to make Hyderabad “a replica of paradise, unequalled in the world.”
All the four kamans have interesting stories. Beneath the Macchi Kaman, a big piñata resembling a fish was hung every lunar year to usher in prosperity. The Charminar Kaman led to the Charminar. To the east is the Kali Kaman from where the royal musicians would play the shehnai and beat the drums five times a day. The grandest of all four, the Sehr-e-Batil Kaman, originally Kaman-e-Sehar-Batil or the arch of the magic breaker, lead to the royal palaces of Dad Mahal, Kudadad Mahal, Lal Mahal, Chandan Mahal, Sajan Mahal, Nadi Mahal, and Jinan Mahal. None of these palaces exists today. A cloth spun of gold covered the opening of the gateway to offer privacy to the royal residences. According to our guide, spells were cast on the Sehr-e-Batil Kaman to keep evil spirits and charms intended to cause harm from entering the city.
Called Pattherghatti because the arcade it occupies was made of rocks and not traditional brick and mortar, this market stretches from the Charminar to the Madina Building. Built by the Nizam Mir Osman Ali in 1911, a flea market is held here every Sunday. What we found: Perfumeries, bangle shops, pearl shops, and numerous clothing shops. It is a strange mix of the contemporary and the historic. In the Sunday market, one can find chandeliers, bronze figurines, and other treasures at great bargains.
Dewan Devdi, or the mansions of the dewans is situated close to the Pattherghatti Bazaar and the Chowmahalla Palace. The 78-room mansion once sat in a sprawling garden and commanded splendid views of the river. Pillared porticos, sweeping marble stairways, arched halls, galleries, and verandahs added opulence to the structure. Bilgrami and Wilmot write:
The palace has two entrances, the one generally used for the reception of visitors being styled the Aina Khanah (glass house). It is a large courtyard with a cistern and fountain, with apartments on three sides. The fourth side consists of a verandah with doorways leading to the reception rooms and private apartment above. The walls and ceilings of the east and west sides of the courtyard are covered with colored glass and mirrors. Here there is also the Sili [silah] Khana containing many curious specimens of old weapons and coats of mail, and also the valuable sword presented to Sir Salar Jung by Earl Canning. Close to the Sili Khana is a curious room called the Chini Khanah, and is covered with china cups, saucers, bowls, plates, etc. of various designs cemented to the wall. Some of the china is very valuable, and altogether a most curious place.
Before being moved to its current location, the Salar Jung Museum was housed in this building. We noticed that there were two gates to enter/exit the Dewan Devdi: One in European style meant exclusively for the sahibs and the other in traditional Islāmic style for the commoners. Interesting, how even architecture can facilitate segregation!
Kaman Chatta Bazaar
The Kaman Chatta Bazaar housed the Nawbat Khana from where drums were beaten to signal the entry or exit of dignitaries in the Qutub Shahi and Nizam eras. This was the briefest, and in hindsight, the most lacklustre stop in our walk. The sprawling bazaar has crept upon this lofty arch and there is no way to admire the structure. Displayed in the congested shops all around are wedding invitation cards decorated with calligraphy and traditional hand-drawn Urdu paintings and motifs.
The last point in our walk was also the grandest. On the 10th day of Muharram, mourners converge in an ashurkhana, also called an imambara, to commemorate the end of the mourning period. Not only is the Badshahi Asurkhana Hyderabad’s most famous and revered ashurkhana but also one of the best-preserved buildings in the city. In its heyday, immaculate cut-enamel Persian tiles adorned the niches. Most of them are gone but the ones on the western wall still show their vibrant colours. Tiles in shades of aubergine, blue, green, yellow, black and white have been used to create opulent botanical patterns. It is said that the Shah lit one lakh lamps on the night of Muharram and the entire building glittered like a diamond. Despite its splendour, not many tourists visit the Badshahi Ashurkhana, and so if you are looking for an alcove of calm in the chaotic old city, spend some time admiring the blue tile work here.
Hyderabad Heritage Walks by Telangana Tourism
The Heritage Walks are meant to enlighten interested travellers about the architectural heritage of the old city of Hyderabad. Born under the tutelage of Madhu Vottery along with patronage from the state government, walks take place every Sunday and on every second Saturday of the month. There are four routes:
- Charminar to Chowmahalla Palace
- Charminar to Badshahi Ashurkhana
- Charminar to Purani Haveli
- State Central Library to the City College.
Mr. Nasreem, whose last name was quite difficult to decipher through his gentle mumbling, was an Economics graduate in British India and worked for 40 years under the governance of both countries, Britain and India, then retired and worked for 40 years as an official guide for the state tourism board before retiring from that too. At 90+, he stills joins the walk every Sunday and fondly, but humbly, talks of his home city and reminisces its golden history! Salient Points of the Telangana Tourism Heritage Walk:
- You can either use the telephone number on the Telangana Tourism website to intimate your interest or could just turn up at the Charminar at around 7.30 in the morning and find the group.
- The tickets are priced at INR 50 each. This does include a very hearty breakfast of idli and vada!
- Even though some of the walks start straight out of the Charminar, the ticket does not cover the daytime Charminar visit passes which you need to climb to the top of the structure.
- Walk 1 (Charminar to Chowmahallah Palace) is conducted on every second Saturday of every month. The other 3 walks are rotated weekly every Sunday. However, if you have a large group (or, exceptional persuasion skills) Walk 1 can be arranged on a Sunday too!
- Be a sensible individual and be respectful towards the monuments and as well as to the sentiments of the Heritage Interpreters and the locals alike. And please do not litter.
Sometimes I passionately dislike walking tours if the experience does not provide me with enough fodder for my satisfaction. But the walk I took that August day is something I can do every single morning. It was informative, interactive, interesting and helped me to get to know, get a feel of the city I had travelled to. The Heritage Walks exist as the storyteller’s bridge between the once mighty monuments and the present where, trapped in a relentlessly busy society, we feel justified in neglecting the past. Highly recommended, there might not be a better shortcut of knowing a foreign city better than this!
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this post are our own. We were not sponsored by Telangana Tourism.