As I proffer the small fee demanded of visitors climbing to the top of Charminar, Hyderabad’s iconic four-towered mosque, the woman at the counter shakes her head.
“We don’t allow single women to go up alone,” she says. Why? “Because they jump from there and commit suicide.”
To set the record straight, single women don’t do this, as a rule, at Charminar: it happened once, but the paranoia still lingers. Eventually, I am allowed to climb the 400-year-old landmark, once I have convinced the woman’s superior officer of my non-suicidal intentions.
From the top, the heart of old Hyderabad, with its crowds and chaos, spreads out before you. In one direction, Laad Bazaar (also known as Choodi Bazaar, reflecting the dozens of bangle shops that line the narrow street); in another, stores selling the pearls for which Hyderabad is famed.
Stepping out of the tower, you enter a maelstrom – there is hardly any space in which to walk, so packed are the streets with autorickshaws, passengers hanging from their sides; groups of black-clad Muslim shoppers; cyclists and bikers merrily honking their bells and horns; and vendors of everything from pink candyfloss to sparkly clothing. A man offers to draw my portrait, displaying one of actor Shahrukh Khan as proof of his abilities. Another tries to sell strands of suspiciously shiny pearl-like beads: “Just try it on, madam.”
I ignore them and make my way through the twinkling displays of Laad Bazaar and reflect on what Lonely Planet has to say about the city, one of its top 10 recommendations for 2013: “Elegant and blossoming, but also weathered and undiscovered, Hyderabad’s Old City is ripe for exploration.”
Chowmahalla Palace is indeed all of that. I have the huge sprawling complex to myself but for a few families braving the midday heat and clandestine couples cuddling in quiet corners.
Completed in the mid-19th century and painstakingly restored over the past decade, Chowmahalla was once the seat of the nizams, rulers of the former Hyderabad state. Outside, green lawns, graceful arches and cool fountains; inside, ornate chandeliers and collections of exquisite clothing, baroque furniture, old stagecoaches and vintage cars. It’s easy to believe that Hyderabad was once one of the wealthiest states in the land.
Hyderabad was established in the late 16th century by a ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, when he moved here from nearby Golconda Fort – home to the fabulous Koh-i-Noor diamond. Legend has it that the city’s name came from a love story, involving King Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah and Hindu courtesan Bhagmati.
The monarch bestowed the Muslim name Hyder Mahal on his lady love, and named his new city after her; “-abad” being a Persian suffix for “settlement”.
Hyderabad fell into the hands of the Mughals for a brief while, after which the nizams, their former viceroys, took over. Today it is the capital of Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s four southern states, and the country’s sixth largest city.
The extent of Hyderabad’s past prosperity is on display at the Salar Jung Museum. Set up in 1951, after Hyderabad state had been incorporated into India, it houses the collection of Mir Yousuf Ali Khan, or Salar Jung III, prime minister of the seventh nizam of Hyderabad.
If you had to choose only one exhibit to see in the museum, it would have to be the Veiled Rebecca, a 19th-century Italian sculpture by Giovanni Maria Benzoni. Every feature of Rebecca’s face is visible through the gossamer marble veil and you almost expect her flowing garments to flutter when the fan is switched on.
If this part of the old city is entirely Salar Jung’s show, the other Hyderabad – the one with the gleaming steel and chrome structures, wide roads, men and women dressed in business attire – is also the vision of one man. The credit for creating what is now known as “Cyberabad” goes to former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu.
Microsoft, Google, Accenture, Novartis, Facebook, Dell and several other multinationals have found a friendly home in a city within the city. Hitec (the Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy) City is giving the information technology hub in Bangalore a run for its money. And close to Hyderabad’s mammoth “tech parks” is Inorbit Mall, a monument to the pleasures of modern shopping.
If you ask about Hyderabad’s famous biryani, chances are you’ll be pointed in the direction of the Paradise Restaurant.
I have no time to visit Paradise, however, and grab a quick lunch at a new eatery inside the mall. The chef-owner of Dil Punjabi is typical of Cyberabad: young, somewhat brash, slightly dismissive of the past and confidently looking to the future.
He dismisses the biryani at Paradise as “all hype” and, with a wave of his hand, produces his own version of the dish. To be fair, it’s pretty good.
All in all, Hyderabad effortlessly straddles its avatars: the gentle charm of the old city; the legacy of the tombs and palaces scattered around the town; the buzz of its modern pubs and restaurants; and the cutting-edge sheen of Cyberabad. Hyder Mahal would be proud of what has become of her namesake.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com ) flies direct from Hong Kong to Hyderabad four times a week.