The original home of the Kohinoor diamond, Hyderabad’s provenance revolves around a love story between a commoner and a king. Almost 500 years on, the traces of romance still linger on its filigreed past, and you can sense it in every lane of this erstwhile Nawabi city. By Parikshit Rao
“It will be hot!”, said one of my friends. “You can always come to Bengaluru over the weekend,” suggested another. A third smacked his lips, and mumbled something about biryani. A few years ago, I was moving out of Mumbai, and my few trustworthy friends offered opinions that were, but, versions of the clichés that surround Hyderabad—the city of pungent food and sultry weather. None of this deterred me (and neither should it daunt you!). In fact, it only speeded my decision to move—with the aim to unravel more secrets about the city. Very few places in India have charmed me the way Hyderabad has. Given its origins, and despite its status as an expanding IT hub, the city remains a noble and romantic testament to its founder’s vision.
Founded In Love
Hyderabad’s story began in 1591, when plans to build a new city outside the congested ramparts of Golconda Fort were first approved by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah. The fifth king of the Qutb Shahi dynasty was an excellent poet, swordsman, aesthete, and an incorrigible romantic. In his acclaimed book, Hyderabad: A Biography, the eminent historian Narendra Luther vividly describes the encounter between the future king and a village girl that set the ball rolling on building one of the greatest cities of that epoch. Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah spotted Bhagmati on the opposite bank of the River Musi.
The young woman was on her way to the temple in a village called Chichlam. The tinkling of her anklets, and the sound of her voice as she sang caused the prince to fall in love. After a period of mutual courtship, they got married. Meanwhile, a master craftsman from Iran finished designing the ideal new city—one that resembled the Garden of Eden, with Charminar at its centre—on the behest of Muhammad Quli, now the new sultan of Golconda.
On a certain auspicious day, Bhagmati received two gifts: Bhagnagar, a city, and Hyder Mahal, a new name. “I give you this palace. And this city. It is named after you. Let generations to come know that you once lived here, and I loved you,” Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah is quoted saying in Luther’s book.
As the city grew, so did the love between the couple. There was no shortage of funds for Muhammad Quli’s grandiose town-planning ventures either. Palaces, mosques, markets, and hospitals were added to the new town, and people came in droves, partly enamoured by Golconda Fort’s diamonds, and also because the new city looked promising.
The Heritage Trail
The famed affluence of Golconda’s mines—the original home of the Kohinoor diamond—may still inspire folks to dig around the fort’s boundaries after dark, but most of Hyderabad’s treasures are hidden in plain sight. For instance, in the leafy gardens of Qutb Shahi tombs’ complex, where every family member of the dynasty—except the last ruler—is interred. Tucked away in busy Tolichowki at the base of Golconda Fort, these mausoleums are stately and elegant structures with lime stucco ornamentation and granite platforms. A touch of modesty in an otherwise luxurious life is evident when you realise that each ruling king planned and funded the construction of his own family’s tombs. Muhammad Quli Qutb Shahi’s tomb is the grandest and stands 42 metres tall on a raised square platform. There aren’t many visitors here, so you can take your time to explore the tombs, and venture into subterranean pathways that lead to solemn crypts bearing inscriptions in Persian under the massive domes. Then, up on a rocky hill, two kilometres away, the massive Golconda Fort stands wide and strong despite enduring some of the most brutal campaigns to destroy it. Both monuments have been neatly restored and remain the city’s most iconic spots.
After the gradual decline of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, Hyderabad was further ornamented with palaces, tombs, mosques, and shopping plazas built by the Asaf Jahi kings and Paigah noblemen. A grand example of Nizami architecture can be seen at Chowmahalla Palace, located close to Charminar. Built over the course of a century, the official residence of the Nizams of Hyderabad takes you into a time warp that romantics and nostalgia-seekers will admire. The marble-pillared Durbar Hall, which holds the Takht-e-Nishan (royal seat) is adorned with delicate stucco work and crystal chandeliers that accentuate the rulers’ European and Persian design influences. Several rooms inside the palace display artefacts and personal items of the Nizams, offering glimpses of an unimaginably indulgent past.
Twelve kilometres away from Charminar lies the suburb of Begumpet, where I discovered yet another of the city’s unusual monuments, this time built by the Paigah family. Hidden behind a busy arterial flyover, the Jama Masjid Aiwan-e-Begumpet is also known as the Spanish Mosque in recognition of its unique Moorish, Hispanic, and Turkish architecture. The 113-year-old mosque features octagonal domes, pointed arches, and design elements that distinguish it from other mosques in Hyderabad and the rest of India. Apart from regular pilgrims, the few curious visitors who arrive here are often given a friendly personal tour, and treated with the quintessential Hyderabadi tehzeeb.
Hyderabad’s landscape can be romantic, especially around its lakes. A quiet oasis separating the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, Hussain Sagar was built in the 16th century by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shahi’s father, Ibrahim Quli Qutb Shah Wali. Even today, it is a prime spot for Hyderabadis to walk, play, picnic, and spend time on the green expanses of Necklace Road that hems the lake. About 20 kilometres from the city, the twin lakes of Himayat Sagar and Osman Sagar offer charming picnic and birdwatching spots. The landscape here is largely untampered, and it is fascinating to watch nature gleam when allowed to do its own thing. The clear water and boulders around these artificial lakes are best enjoyed on a morning walk or excursion.
The Food Trail
The tehzeeb that defined the city is palpable in its culture, but in newer, more up-to-date forms. Modern Hyderabad has many pleasure palaces built by the neoteric kings of hospitality, who have expedited the evolution of restaurants in a city that barely had a culture of ‘eating out’. The decor, ambience, and location of each place is special and often employs the city’s landscape to help develop its personal character. On the scale of romantic experiences, dining out in Hyderabad would score an amorous 10.
I had set out to find a nice outdoor restaurant I could frequent, but instead began to unravel a string of al fresco dining spots. The Banjara and Jubilee Hills stretch is the undisputed nucleus of the city’s culinary scene. These areas were the old hunting grounds of the Nizams, pockets of which are still covered in lush greenery—KBR Park being a prime example.
In its original form, al fresco dining is all about informal outdoor dining, using fresh ingredients from the farm where the meal is served. So, The Sky Kitchen, in Film Nagar, comes closest to the concept. This fourth-floor restaurant overlooks the sprawling KBR Park and offers indulgent seafood.The ambience inspires languid afternoon lunches or Sunday brunches. In the evenings, sit back for a cosy dinner of Burmese khow suey under swaying lanterns, with live music playing in the background.
On the southern edge of KBR Park is Coco’s Bar & Grill, a snappy Hawaiian-themed terrace restaurant and a Hyderabad institution. Rock, retro, blues, and acoustic tunes go well with sizzlers and grills in the bohemian ambience. Hemmed by large boulders and foliage, and overlooking Durgam Cheruvu—one of Hyderabad’s many lakes—Olive Bistro scores high on location. Although not far from the heart of the city, its chic isolation permits you to believe you are somewhere in the Mediterranean. This multi-level restaurant is the perfect spot to savour sundowners, while enjoying views of the Deccan landscape.
Hyderabadis know that their city straddles the ancient and modern worlds effortlessly. This can be witnessed first-hand at the Taj Falaknuma’s Gol Bungalow, where chefs employ recipes from the Nizams’ traditional cooks, or khansamas, as a retinue of staff helps you sink into comfortable chairs under a stained-glass dome.
When talking about Hyderabadi cuisine, biryani deserves a special mention. It is believed that the city received its eponymous biryani in the early 18th century after Emperor Aurangzeb appointed Nizam-ul-Mulk as the new ruler of Hyderabad. The royal chefs apparently created almost 50 different versions that used fish, shrimp, quail, deer, and even hare meat. This preparation uses bay leaves, cardamom, peppercorn, cinnamon, coriander, and saffron milk, among other spices. However, the aromatic Indian spice, saffron, is the hero ingredient in the dish.
As a man of letters, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah also held the distinction of having published the first anthology of Urdu poetry. When the Mughal era waned in the north, scholars, poets, and artists from across India flocked to Hyderabad, seeking and receiving patronage from the Nizams. The resulting mix of Urdu and Dakhni literature transformed Hyderabad into a city way ahead of its time. The soulful qawwali sessions at Dargah-e-Hazrat Yousufain in Nampally are an experience in themselves. On Thursdays, the musical evening or mehfil stretches well into the late hours, even after the gates close at midnight. It was, perhaps, not a coincidence then that the poet Dagh Dehlvi also lay buried a few feet away. Acknowledging the love story behind building Hyderabad, Dehlvi wrote: “Hazãroñ kaam mohabbat meñ haiñ maze ke ‘dagh’…Jo log kuchh nahíñ karte kamãl karte haiñ…”
(There are thousands of pleasurable tasks to be performed in love Dagh…Those who don’t do anything [love], do nothing.)
The Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad is well connected with major global cities and Indian metros.
October to February