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Of biryanis, museums, monuments and other Deccan delights

The Charminar
The Charminar
 
We decided to take a much-needed break from the excruciating heat of Delhi in June and had to choose a destination...in the end it was a toss-up between the hills of Uttarakhand and Hyderabad.
 
With the rains approaching, my husband was not comfortable with the thought of going to Uttarakhand, and he also had some official work in Hyderabad. While we enjoy travelling to resorts, both of us also love visiting big cities. The rest of us had never been to Hyderabad and that clinched the issue.
 
Glad as can be, we set about getting things done for our five-day trip. We shopped around for the best offers that Hyderabad hotels had to offer by calling up several of them and finally decided on Marriott, because it offered the best value for money and also had a superb location.
 
Our flight from Delhi landed at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport at Shamshabad around noon and we were recieved by a man from Marriott, who was all courtesy as he helped us with the baggage and then guided us to the car from the hotel.
 
For travellers from Delhi, the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport  (RGIA) at Shamshabad will appear familiar. Not surprising, because both airports- Delhi's T3 and RGIA -- have been built at by the same company, infrastructure major GMR.
 
Where Hyderabad scores is the landscaping around the airport, which appeared so fresh and gave it a look very different from the usual scenery outside other Indian airports.
 
The drive from the airport was long but pleasant. On the way, we got on to a bridge which was well over 11 kilometres long! This bridge bypassed many of the crowded areas and gave us a panoramic view of the land and its distinct features.
 
Hillocks with enormous boulders balancing precariously, or so we felt, were skirted by neat expressways. Residential buildings stood tall with schools, institutes and offices amongst them.
 
Hyderabad has a unique landscape, consisting of spectacular ancient rock formations which dot the expanses on the outskirts of the rapidly expanding city. These delicate "balancing acts" are part of the Deccan Shield and geologists say they date to 2500 million years ago. Quarrying for building material over the years has taken its toll, but they still provide a treat for the eyes in many parts of the city.
 
We saw a metallic 'Fish' building that housed offices and not an aquarium as we initially thought. Our driver filled us in on these and other details as he drove us, and we discovered that he was fluent not only in Hindi but quite comfortable in English, too.
 
In the next few days, we were to discover that he was not alone in this respect. All the drivers of cars we hired, knew Hindi and a fair bit of English and, more importantly, they knew the answers to all our questions about Hyderabad. After being at the mercy of clueless taxi drivers in other places, including Bangalore and Delhi, this was like a God-send!
 
The Hussain Sagar
The Hussain Sagar
The Marriott is situated near the landmark and picturesque Hussain Sagar Lake, set between the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. It is huge and the largest water body in Hyderabad. We saw the man-made lake first while driving past towards the hotel. The waters were choppy because of a very strong cool breeze. There is a large Buddha statue situated near the middle of the lake, one of the world's tallest monolithic statues. The statue is lit up with coloured lights in the evening. People use the wide sidewalk to stroll and spend some moments there, any time of the day. Indeed, it seemed a very pleasant activity and in my mind's to-do list, I added a stroll there, if possible. The lake was created by Hussain Shah Wali, during the reign of Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah in 1562, and has facilities for boating.
 
After checking in and freshening up, we charted our actitvities for the stay. In the early evening we decided to step out for a drive around the city and ended up visiting  some pearl shops that I saw from the car and could not resist. It was not part of our must-do list but curiousity had got the better of me. Hyderabad is famous for pearls, which come from far off places such as Hong Kong as well as from nearby places like Kakinada. One can buy good quality pearls and other gems here at reasonable prices, I am told. Since I do not keep track of prices of gems, I can only say that the stuff we saw was very pretty and extremely desirable. I thought I would pick up a few strings of this and that later, but it did not happen this time. So, I have now pushed this forward for our next visit, hopefully in the near future.
 
Hyderabad is also famous for Bidriware, the most known of the handicrafts of Andhra Pradesh. It is a metal craft named after Bidar, the place of origin of this exquisite art, which involves inlaying silver on black metal.
 
Dinner time on day one and we went to 'Paradise'. Yes, paradise, it was! Almost everyone we had met before leaving for Hyderabad, told us to have at least one biryani meal here and we obliged all by having it on the first night out itself. There are many 'Paradise' outlets all over Hyderabad, many of them take-away joints. We went to the one next to Prasad's IMAX theatre, which by itself is a major attraction of the city.
 
The dining hall is well ventilated, spick and span, spacious and uncluttered. I thought to myself that if any restaurant in Delhi had this kind of space, it would have laid out another 100 covers easily! Diners came in a steady, unending stream. The turnover is huge and so the food served is always fresh.  We had their famed Hyderabadi mutton biryani and dessert. The portions are large enough and the three of us found two plates of the superb, fragrant biryani quite sufficient. The dessert was also large portioned. One order of  their succulent 'khubbani ka meetha' sufficed for two. This is dried apricot stewed and served with large scoops of vanilla icecream, a signature dish of Hyderabad. We also had 'Double ka meetha', another Hyderabadi speciality. It's a sort of bread pudding. It was difficult to choose between the two desserts as both were really good. But finally, my vote went to the superlative apricot pudding. 
The Salar Jung Museum
The Salar Jung Museum
 
What began as a small cafe near the now-defunct Paradise cinema in Secunderabad in 1953, serving tea and snacks, has over the years grown into a large chain of restaurants and a must-visit place for tourists looking to enjoy authentic Hyderabadi biryani.
 
Apart from the Charminar, which is synonymous with Hyderabad, one of the biggest attractions for tourists visiting Hyderabad is the famous Salar Jung Museum. It is at least one leisurely day's trip.
 
The museum houses the personal and household effects of Nawab Salar Jung III -- an amazing treasure house of antiques and works of art that is the largest single-man collection in the world.
 
Now, you see, everyone everywhere has  household articles.  But this enormous collection beats almost all others hollow. The tour starts with an introduction to the Nawab, his illustrious family and their collective history. Photos and paintings of members of the family, the ancestors and the great man himself took up walls and walls of area. Their elaborate bejewelled ceremonial clothes preserved in almost mint condition, spread-eagled along with the rest of the accessories were kept in clear glass cases. Room after room showed  different aspects of life in that bygone era. Pictures of the life that they led, their friends and grand ceremonies, the outdoor sporting activities and their travels, everything was always grand.  Every item was so well preserved! Even photos of their small armies of household staff were displayed.
 
Personal effects of all kinds, some even from his early school days were there too. Such lovely handwriting, the people of those days had! Rooms of furniture of all types, and all so handsome, will easily put most modern furnishing products in the shade.  A most interesting train set, in a glass case of course, drew kids and us adults alike. Statues, paintings and other handicrafts kept us interested all through. In the 'Ivory Room', I was fascinated by a mat made out of elephant tusk...how did they do it? An answer still eludes me.  
 
However, the most famous exhibits are a couple of statues, one of the exquisite Veiled Rebecca and the other, the mysterious Double Faced statue. One should see these to understand why these are so famous. Looking at the 'Rebecca', you could almost feel the strong breeze blowing at her most diaphanous veil and pushing it back. One could write essays on each exhibit here. However, it is worthwhile to read up about this place before going there.
 
There is a short film show also which we skipped as we wanted to see the rest of the museum. It is good to come here with very light hand baggage as the walk around the museum is fairly long, while one gets lost in the beauty and cleverness behind each exhibit. The Salar Jung museum has to be seen in leisure and savoured if possible over a day or two. Another visit to this fine place will definitely not be amiss. 
 
Enroute the museum we passed the High Court and the Osmania Hospital. Both are housed in heritage building complexes. Being places of current use, there is a lot of activity here. 
 
Our next stop was the Charminar. A vibrant and populous place, it is mostly a large market area now. People were everywhere! Almost all had come to do some sort of shopping or other. There are areas here which sell only certain items like the famous Hyderabadi bangles, pearls, and other things. Here we also saw some shops selling huge metal pots and pans. These  vessels are traditional trousseau articles for the local Muslim brides, our cab driver informed us.
 
Built in 1591 by Sultan Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi Dynasty, the Charminar, on the east bank of the Musi river, is now synonymous with Hyderabad and one of the most recognized structures in India. Its name means "four minarets" and the four towers here are ornate structures supported by grand arches. The beautiful square monument has the signature style of Islamic architecture, with a lot of detailed work. Each of the minarets is about 184 feet tall with a double balcony and has a bulbous dome on top.
 
On the north-east of the Charminar is the Laad Bazaar and on its west is the famous Makkah Masjid. At scores of eateries around the area, traditional food like biryani, haleem, mirchi ka salan and double ka meetha is available. Charminar was all we expected but far neater than similar places we had seen elsewhere. One can take a tour of the monument and look out from the top of the monument to see the city from a different height. 
 
There are any number of places to visit in the city, including temples, churches and mosques, palaces such as the Chowmahalla palace, gardens such as the Lumbini Park and the NTR Garden, museums such as the Nizam's Museum and modern attractions such as the Imax Multiplex.
 
One evening, we went silk saree shopping. Andhra Pradesh is famous for pochampally, gadwal, mangalgiri and other silks. So, when my sister-in-law sent me a message to pick a few sarees for her, I thought it is best to go to a wholesale shop and pick up her requirements. Unfortunately, nobody knew of any particular shop and so we went to the nearby General Bazaar and from a retail shop picked up a few. Even at this retail shop, the prices were much lower than what we would end up paying elsewhere in India. 
 
When you are in Hyderabad in these times, the Telangana issue will loom large everywhere, and it was so during our stay there. A march to the government Secretariat, called by pro-Telangana groups, during our stay in the city restricted our movements. Our hotel, located very near the Secretariat, was right in the middle of all the action and there were heavy barricades all over. We decided to drive out of town to the famous Ramoji Film City on that day, since nothing much could be achieved in the city anyway.
 

Scenes while driving around
We are diehard Bollywood and South Indian movie fans and so enjoyed the excursion a lot!  We saw some glimpses of this industry here. To really enjoy Ramoji City, one has to leave one's prejudices outside the gate and enter a world of make-believe.  Set after set of movies past are still standing and in use, albeit with some variations. The estate is well over 1600 acres with gardens and caves and waterfalls and steps besides halls, making it the world's largest integrated film studio complex and one of the most popular tourist attactions in the country.
 
The complex has hotels, restaurants and guest rooms for the benefit of artistes, technicians and visitors. The studio is located near Hayathnagar and Peddamberpet in Ranga Reddy district, about 45 minutes away from Hyderabad.
 
Inside, there is a fair amount of walking  to do despite the nice bus rides and as the terrain is not level, it can be tiring, more so for older persons. Kids have a lot of things here to enjoy too. The enthusiasm to see this place is great and we did see a few people being pushed around on wheel chairs too. Do visit the place if only to understand some of the wonderful illusions, movies weave for us. If you are travelling with children, do take them there and they will surely not want to leave.There are different types of package tours available here. So one can choose a package that suits the pocket. 
 
There are historical monuments all over Hyderabad, and quite a few of them are still operational. Looking at some of them, made us feel as though we are in the early 1900s or even much earlier. Most of these heritage buldings are well maintained. They include palaces, museums, offices, residences  and other places of interest.
 
Working on the Metro Rail
Working on the Metro Rail
Among those is the imposing Golconda Fort, the place where the priceless Kohinoor diamond was found. It was originally a mud fort built by the Kakatiya kings of Warangal in the 13th century but attained glory under the Qutub Shahi dynasty (1518-1687). There is a sound and light show there in the evenings.
 
Hyderabad is also choc-a-bloc with reputed central government educational institutions and research centres. Several well-known important public sector, including in the defence sector, are located here. 
 
As visitors from Delhi, we were glad to see the Hyderabad Metro rail project coming up in several parts of the city. There are also statues of well-known people all over the city.
 
On one evening, we were invited to dinner by very dear old friends. We first went to the Hyderabad Boat Club for some refreshments. The club was like a throwback to the days of the sixties, all prim and correct. We enjoyed the ambience a lot. Our friends then took us to a wonderful Asian restaurant called The Mekong at the Marigold. Lingering over a fine pan-Asian meal, we caught up with each other's lives and work. So much had happened in everyone's lives and we lost track of time till the hotel staff had to finally drop some gentle hints before we decided to call it a day. What a lovely time it was!
 
The Marriott was the venue of a concert by the popular Bangalore-based folk-rock group "Swarathma" and we decided to attend that. It was a charity event and the price of the tickets included dinner too. The music was all that we expected from the band -- energetic, thought-provoking and entertaining. As the evening progressed, they had most of the audience dancing.  
 
The concert was held to raise funds for a well-known local NGO, Nirnaya, which does a lot of work for girls and women. We felt nice being able to contribute in our humble way. The foot-tapping music and the interesting and often light-hearted lyrics on a wide range of serious issues of the day took us a world away. It felt so good to attend a rock concert after a long time and I felt it ended too soon. Our friends, who were part of the organizers, introduced us to many of their friends, and we were touched at the way they went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
 
The dinner, which included, you guessed it, Hyderabadi biryani, was sumptuous. In fact, the food at the hotel was one of the highlights of our trip.
 
Cousins living on the outskirts of the city invited us over for dinner one day and so we got to see some more of Hyderabad. Their home is in a well-maintained housing complex and we enjoyed our time with them a lot. Revisiting old times and recounting old incidents had us in splits. Dinner was in a restaurant within the complex. A very pleasant evening with them had us longing for the rest of the clan.
 
The weather was excellent on all days while we were in Hyderabad. We had travelled to Hyderabad in mid-June. Sometimes there was a very light drizzle and almost always there was a cool breeze. It was hardly ever hot. We were glad to have escaped the famous Andhra summer and could move around without any discomfort.
 

More scenes while driving around
Like Paradise, almost everyone you will meet in Hyderabad will recommend Karachi Bakery, famous for their wide range of cookies and pastries. Like Paradise, the bakery is also an institution. Everyone said so many good things about the eats there. But, since we knew that even a casual visit to any bakery will have us bringing back loads of goodies, we decided to fight temptation. There were Karachi Bakery outlets wherever we went, and we had a tough time resisting the temptation.
 
Finally, it was time to pack up and return home. We had some time to spare, and we asked the driver to drive us around areas such as Abids and Banjara Hills, before we headed for the airport, using the newly-built highway. We saw many Karachi Bakery outlets on the way but did not give in. At the airport, there were some more outlets, but we were determined. Finally, after check-in and security, there was this outlet. It was just too much, and we finally gave in. We had to struggle a bit to catch the shop assistant's attention, given the small crowd there. We picked up quite a few of the packets there.
 
Back home in Delhi, as we savoured those cookies, we were reminded of those five wonderful days in Hyderabad, meeting old friends, making new ones, listening to the sounds of Telugu and Hyderabadi Urdu, and gettng to experience a bit of Hyderabad's famed culture, cuisine and hospitality. Clearly, there is much more to the ancient city than what our five-day holiday allowed us to experience. Yeh dil maange more!
 
Photos by Vinita Sonny Abraham
 
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Comments

thank you

Thank you so much for the travelogue.....me being in hyderabad ...now I need to walk the roads of the old city. This came at a time when a friend of mine has her cousins visiting her. This will be a great help.

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