I had to cling to my headscarf as the auto-rickshaw sped across the Musi River, as if it were chased by demons. The sun had barely made it up above the rooftops and the streets were still relatively empty. The night before we sat in traffic for three hours in India’s forth most populous city waiting to make our way up to our residence in the Banjara Hills. This morning, for what I would have called normal traffic levels back home, made it a ghost town by comparison.
Despite the traffic the night before, for me, Hyderabad was love at first site. While I had seen some amazing places in my odyssey through South India, from living 1000 year old temples to remote backwaters covered in flowers, there was a certain magic about Hyderabad that left an impression on me far after I had gone. Perhaps it was my love of Islamic architecture, which was evident from the city’s numerous dome-like structures and curved arches decorating the buildings from the houses to the mosques and palaces. The smell of freshly cooked biryani perfumed the air from street stalls to fried pakoras and even incense from small Hindu shrines on the roadside, to a background noise of hooting cars and honking rickshaws peppered with haunting calls to prayer crackling through the night sky.
While the region has a significant Muslim population, Hyderabad’s location in the central part of India, meant the former Princely State of Hyderabad, couldn’t join Pakistan after India declared independence from the British, but the Asif Jahi Nizams or the Nizams of Hyderabad, who were the rulers of the Princely state, wanted to keep the state independent. But nevertheless, the state became integrated between neighbouring Indian states of Bombay and Mysore in 1953, but was then merged with Andhra Pradesh, until 2014 when Telangana declared independence and became India’s newest state.
Hyderabad has a diverse population. While my first impression of women walking around covered from head to toe in black, their faces covered by their niqabs revealing only their eyes in slits of black fabric was a little intimidating, but I saw other women wear a simple headscarves that did not mask their faces, as well as Hindu women walking side by side with them in saris. Despite its strong Islamic overtones, Telangana State is still majority Hindu, although in Hyderabad city the Muslim and Hindu populations are closer in proportion, with Hindus still being the majority.
Early in the morning, I wanted to catch a glimpse of this mysterious city we were only passing through, so I donned the most conservative salwar kameez (an Indian trouser suit) I had, a brown and green one I had made for me back in Kerala, covered my head with the transparent dupatta and hailed a rickshaw before the sun had even risen above the vast city.
Leaning out of the rickshaw as we approached the centre, driving past closed shops under arched arcades, I caught my first glimpse of the Charminar, a white monument crowned with four minaret towers. It is also the symbol of Hyderabad and one of India’s most famous monuments.
There are various stories behind the Charminar’s original purpose, but one of the more accepted theories is its construction the 16th century served to commemorate the eradication of a plague that ravaged the city. Supposedly Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah prayed for the plague to end in the city on that very spot and vowed to build a mosque right there. The other story postulates that the Charminar was a millennial monument marking the second Islamic millennium year.
What ever its story of origin, the Charminar is one of the most alluring examples of Islamic architecture, marked by four large arches at its base and elaborately carved curved windows and details all the way up to its minarets. The first floor houses a mosque, but this only opened later in the morning, when I would already be on a bumpy road to Hampi.
The city stirred and the fruit sellers set up their stands for the upcoming day. I left my driver smoking a cigarette on the edge of the of the square for my stolen hour in the city. The stalls offered promises of fresh fruit from fresh juicy pomegranates, spilling with ruby-like fruit as the young man next to me cut them open to stubby bananas that smelled like the plantations they came from. Even though the sun wasn’t quite up yet, the square began to fill.
Crossing the road, I cautiously approached the Mecca Masjid, one of Hyderabad’s oldest mosques. I stuck my camera through the bars to capture the mosque and a young man who had his back to me. After travels in North Africa and the Middle East, I felt that mosques were a sacred place off limits to me, remembering how I had to peek through the arches as a curious 17-year-old in Kairouan’s Mosque of Uqba in Tunisia, told it was forbidden for me, as a non-Muslim, to enter.
An old man selling oils and perfumes by the gate called me over, waving me through to the mosque. I was hesitant at first. I saw a sign in English stating women must wear their dupatta, a headscarf, which I was already wearing. The officer at security looked a me nonchalantly as I passed a metal detector and directed me through into the open plaza that lay on the grounds with a smile.
The building itself is impressive. It’s one of the largest mosques in India, and one that carries listed heritage status. Built in 1694 by the same Shah from the Qutb Shahi dynasty who also constructed the Charminar. The name “Mecca Masjid” is no coincidence either, since bricks of this mosque were made with soil bought over from Islam’s holiest city, Mecca.
Pigeons populate the plaza, occasionally flying up in droves, painting the city view of the Charminar in the distance and its reflection in the pond with flapping wings. There were a few of people already here so early in the morning. Ladies with a headscarves tossed seeds from plastic bags to the birds as children ran among the birds.
I took off my shoes at the base of the steps and walked up to the raised platform at the entrance of the mosque. I still felt apprehensive going inside, holding back out of respect, but glanced into the long colonnaded corridor housing the marble-clad graves of the Asaf Jahi rulers, the resting place of Hyderabad’s Nizams and their families.
The mosque, with its still pond and cooing pigeons, feels like a place of tranquility, but only back in 2007 it was the site of terror, when a bomb was planted in the mosque and triggered via cellphone during Friday prayers; 16 people died in the immediate aftermath, 5 of whom were shot by police trying to quell the mob.
Hyderabad might not be as ancient a city like others in India, but it’s one with many memories and a proud unique style. I was sad I did not have much more time, and as the clock ticked, knowing my rickshaw driver was waiting for me, I made my way back to the Charminar.
An old man with a cart caught my attention, as he held up shiny bangles that glinted in the rosy morning sun. Two-hundred rupees for a set ($3), at least I had something to take away with me. I still proudly wear them even though the metal gilding has partially flaked off, but I will always remember where I bought them. Each time they jingle on my wrist I recall slipping the notes into the seller’s hand under the Charminar before returning to my chain-smoking driver and back into the Banjara Hills, where the traffic had finally clogged the streets once again.