The Fantastical Indian Ruritania: Hyderabad

If you are a voracious reader and an ardent traveller then you will be able to relate with the feeling of wanting to visit a place after having read about it in a novel or travel journal. When I read William Dalrymple’s account of Hyderabad in The Age of Kali I was shocked at my lack of knowledge about the manner in which Hyderabad was annexed with the Indian Union. Our history text books are embarrassingly selective about what they reveal to us. (I’ll talk about ‘Operation Polo’ later.)  For me Hyderabad was synonymous with Charminar and the IT industry. It was Dalrymple’s account that brought forth epiphany,

“…under the Nizam Hyderabad grew to be an important center of learning and the arts. After the fall of Lucknow to the British in 1856, Hyderabad remained the last redoubt of Indo-Islamic culture and the flagship of Deccani civilization, with its long heritage of composite Qu’tb Shahi, Vijaynagaran, Moghul, Kakatiyan, Central Asian and Iranian influences. Its Osmania University was the first in India to teach in an indigenous Indian language, and it was far ahead of most regions of India in the spread of education. In the early twentieth century it was the most important area for the production of Urdu literature in the subcontinent, and the people of Hyderabad had evolved their own distinctive-and often very sophisticated-manners, habits, language, music, literature, food and dress. Moreover their capital was famous as a city of palaces, rivaling in grandeur and magnificence anything in South Asia.”

That some of that grandeur has managed to survive the ravages of time made me want to have a look at the Hyderabad of today and try to decipher the myriad stories that it’s changed skyline would have to say. Dalrymple’s reference to Hyderabad as a “sort of fantastical Indian Ruritania, where an unreconstructed feudal aristocracy preserved extravagantly rococo rules of etiquette, and where life revolved around fabulously intricate and elaborate orders of precedence” piqued my interest in the place. When this interest was met with an invitation from my cousin to visit her, a trip was duly planned.

Hyderebadi-Hum Aiseich Bolte

The first thing that one notices upon arriving in Hyderabad is the famous Hyderabadi Tongue of the people. To put it succinctly- It’s different! Hearing people say, “Light lo Yaaron”, “Arrey yaaron…” was quite appealing and amusing to my ears, more so with my brother-in-law mimicking it and my cousin getting thoroughly annoyed. I was asked by my brother-in-law to watch The Angrez (one of the first movies to effectively and humorously portray the Old City Hyderabadi tongue) to get the true feel of the dialect and the accent. When my brother-in-law and our auto wallah struck a conversation on account of that movie, both of them singing paeans of The Angrez, I decided to give it a shot. While the Hyderabadi tongue is indeed there, there is nothing else to this Pretentious-Movie-Review-Potential-Candidate movie; but it is one of those it-is-so-senseless-that-it-is good kind. The movie does give a flavor of the general attitude of the people, described by Dalrymple as:

“As in Delhi and Lucknow, the extravagantly aristocratic culture of Hyderabad filtered down to the streets. ‘The people of other cities say we are a little lazy,’ said a shopkeeper in the bazaar, ‘that we all behave as if we are little Nizams. That we work slowly, eat slowly, wake up slowly, do everything slowly. Many shopkeepers in Hyderabad don’t open their shutters until 11 a.m. We like to take life gently, to take lots of holidays and only to work when we have no money in our pockets.’”

This life as the people knew it was given a jolt in 1948 when Hyderabad was invaded by the Indian Army. The fact that it has managed to survive that ugly chapter says a lot about the resilience of the people in general and their lifestyle in particular. An instance of its survival was broadcasted live to us when we asked a traffic police inspector standing near Charminar for driving instructions to Falaknuma. He very calmly told us to keep going straight; from the first traffic signal we encounter we are not supposed to turn but keep going straight; ditto for the second signal we encounter. Beyond that after we have gone straight for sometime, we shall see Falaknuma on a hill on our right. Google Maps’ Aunty could take inspiration!

Operation Polo

From books to mainstream Bollywood movies, India-Pakistan partition has received a lot of attention. It is difficult to imagine that a carnage of similar scale had occurred anywhere else in India. It was only while reading Dalrymple’s book that I came across the subject of the Indian Integration of Hyderabad State, then known as ‘Operation Polo’ and referred to today in nationalist historiography as ‘the Police Action’, a terminology grossly underplaying the looting, mass murder and rape of Muslims in reprisals by Hyderabadi Hindus and Indian Army soldiers. BBC referred to this as India’s hidden massacre.

Jawaharlal Nehru appointed a mixed-faith committee led by Pandit Sunderlal to investigate the situation. The report meticulously catalogues the incidents of murder and mass rape, sometimes committed by troops, in other cases by local Hindu hooligans after the troops had disarmed the Muslim population. The findings of the report,  ‘On the Post-Operation Polo Massacres, Rape and Destruction or Seizure of Property in Hyderabad State’ (Pandit Sunderlal Committee Report) were not disclosed until 2013. On Operation Polo, Dalrymple writes,

“In all, the report estimates that as many as two hundred thousand Hyderabadi Muslims were slaughtered, which, if true, would make the aftermath of the ‘Police Action’ a bloodbath comparable to parts of the Punjab during Partition.

Even if one chooses to regard the figure of two hundred thousand dead as an impossible exaggeration, it is still clear that the scale of the killing was horrific. Although publicly Nehru played down the disorder in Hyderabad, telling the Indian representative at the United Nations that following the Nizam’s officials deserting their posts there had been ‘some disorder in which Hindus had retaliated for their sufferings under the Razakar militia’, privately he was much more alarmed. This is indicated by a note he sent to Sardar Patel’s Ministry of States on 26 November 1948, in which he wrote that he had received reports of killings of Muslims so large in number ‘as to stagger the imagination’, and looting of Muslim property ‘on a tremendous scale’-which would seem to confirm the general tone of Pandit Sunderlal’s report.”

Leaving this dark episode in its past, Hyderabad has moved on. In fact, through all my guided tours and my walking tour of Hyderabad, it was only once that this episode was mentioned, that too as a slur in a sentence that spoke about Salar Jung’s Property. But then, I was a tourist who stayed for a few days. I can’t say if the scars of that wound remain to this day.

The Land before the Nizams

To be able to get an interesting perspective on the city and its narrow lanes and by-lanes, each with a tale to tell, a Walking Tour of the Old City is definitely recommended. We opted for the tour organised by the ASI (which costs just 50 bucks and starts from the Charminar at 7:30 am). Standing under the arches of the Charminar, our guide started her narrative of Hyderabad’s journey from Golconda under the Kakatiyas and via the Qutub Shahi Dynasty reached the Hyderabad of today. Her story corroborated what Dalrymple had to say,

“That this fairy-tale extravagance has always been part of the culture of Hyderabad is demonstrated by the medieval Qu’tb Shahi tombs, a short distance to the east of the Falaknuma. They are wonderfully ebullient and foppish monuments dating from the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, with domes swelling out of all proportion to the bases, like a watermelon attempting to balance on a fig. Above the domes rises the craggy citadel of Golconda, source of the ceaseless stream of diamonds which ensured that Hyderabad’s rulers would never be poor. Inside the walls you pass a succession of harems and bathing pools, pavilions and pleasure gardens-a world that seems to have jumped straight out of the pages of The Arabian Nights. When the French jeweler Jean Baptiste Tavernier visited Golconda in 1642 he found a society every bit as decadent as this architecture might suggest.”

The Land of the Nizams

That the Nizam, Major-General Sir Osman Ali Khan, possessed the largest fortune in the world and the Kohinoor came from nearby Golconda are two facts that cannot escape any tourist visiting Hyderabad. On the former, Dalrymple writes “according to one contemporary estimate it (Nizam’s fortune) amounted to at least £100 million in gold and silver bullion and £400 million in jewels, many of which came from his own Golconda mines, source of the Koh-i-Noor and the legendary (though now lost) Great Moghul Diamond which, at 787 carats, is thought to have been the largest ever discovered.”

Walking to Chowmahalla Palace from Charminar along the Laad Bazaar, one gets a feel of what Darlymple is talking about when he writes,

“The Nizam (Osman Ali Khan) was also the most senior Prince in India, the only one to merit the title ‘His Exalted Higheness’,  and for most of the first half of the twentieth century he ruled a state the size of Italy as absolute monarch, answerable (in internal matters at least) to no one but himself. Within this vast area he could claim the allegiance of fifteen million subjects. The grandest members of the Hyderabad aristocracy-known as the Paigah Nobles-were richer than most Maharajahs, and each maintained his own court, his own extraordinary palace-or palaces-and his own three or four thousand strong private army. Nor, despite all the dreadful inequalities of wealth, was Hyderabad a poor country: in its final year of existence, 1947-48, the state’s income and expenditure rivaled those of Belgium and exceeded those of twenty member states of the United Nations.”

In her narrative of the Nizams, our guide informed us about the curious case of the Sixth Nizam, Mahbub Ali Khan, and his son, Osman Ali Khan . When his father died he was two years and seven months old, and thus became the 6th Nizam of the Asaf Jahi dynasty in 1869. Asaf Jah VI was well known for his lavish lifestyle and luxuries, and had an enormous fascination for clothes and cars. His collection of garments was one of the most extensive in the world at the time, with sherwanis, shirts, coats, collars, socks, shoes, headgear, walking sticks, perfumes – not one each, but dozens of almost each item. He devoted a whole wing of his palace to his wardrobe and would never wear the same dress twice. His son was his polar opposite. Dalrymple writes:

“While most Indian Maharajahs dressed in magnificent costumes and bedecked themselves with jewels the size of ostrich eggs, according to one British resident the Nizam resembled ‘a snuffly clerk too old to be sacked.’ All his life he wore the same dirty old fez, a grubby pair of pyjamas, and an ancient sherwani; towards the end he even took to knitting his own socks. When he died in 1967the Times described the Nizam as a ‘shabby old man shuffling through his dream world’, and described his hobbies as ‘taking opium, writing Persian poetry and’-a wonderful detail-‘watching surgical operations’.”

Hyderabad Today

That the world has changed one can feel in the older bazaars and the arched gateways of the old Hyderabadi havelis that lead to nowhere. After the integration of Hyderabad in the Indian Union, the aristocracy lost all their status and their income. Since they knew almost nothing about business, selling their heritage was the only way they could make ends meet. So they just sold everything that they owned: land, houses, even the doors and windows. The consequence of which was that very little of all that once was now remains. All the great houses including the City Palace, the Green Palace, the Blue Palace and the most lovely of all, the Pearl Palace have gone. As recollected in The Age of Kali,“ Even King’s Kothi [the Nizam’s palace] had been bulldozed, or at least most of it. There was one wing left, converted into some sort of hospital.”

Vestiges of the old world survive in isolated oases, one of which is the Falaknuma Palace. Now a five star luxury hotel, Taj Falaknuma Palace gives a glimpse into the grandeur of the Nizams’ world. Falaknuma Palace gives a complimentary guided tour of the palace with it’s lunch, high tea and dinner. While we did book ourselves for their lunch, we ended up having lunch at one of the quintessential Hyderabadi places near Charminar that had been recommended to us by the locals. Now that we were all full and I really wanted to see Falaknuma we did go to the palace. After a display of some amazing confidence on my cousin’s end, we did attend their tour without having their meal!

Apart from the above mentioned attractions of Hyderabad, my trip was about a painful yoga class that I accompanied my cousin to, a hot and humid Friday evening spent watching a series of short plays by Dramanon at Lamakaan (spiced up by the amazing samosas of the Lamakaan canteen), local street food, fight for credibility points and Elsa (my cousin’s pet)! It was also about realising that “you musn’t live in your memories. One must try to move with the times, and face the future rather than always dreaming about what has gone.”

Statutory Warning: Do not be overenthusiastic to travel to Hyderabad in summer. I did it but is definitely not recommended. If you do end up there in hot weather, then the best view to be had of the Charminar is from the Cafe Coffee Day across the street on the Jama Masjid side. Curse capitalism or modernisation, but watching Charminar from the air-conditioned premises of CCD is an experience by itself.

2 thoughts on “The Fantastical Indian Ruritania: Hyderabad

  1. Hi,
    I read this one a couple of days ago and have been meaning to provide a feedback ever since. I’m actually awestruck by the amount of historical details you have provided here. And Hyderabad deserves no less! I’ve always been excited about this place (be it for the historical significance, or the culture, or the accent as you know, etc). And this read was truly a delight. ‘Kya mast likha hai yaaron..!’
    Brilliant piece of work here 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s