We were here to see and explore the sights and history of Hyderabad. And, despite landing at three o’clock in the morning, we came alive in the fresh night air. Excitement nullified our overseas jet-lag haze as we made our way to the waiting car. No matter the time of day, it’s always a thrill to land in a new destination. Especially, if that destination is in South India.
Alert now, we initially caught glimpses of the city’s twinkling lights against the black of a moonless night. Then, we were whisking along at warp speed thanks to non-existent predawn traffic and a multilane freeway. A mere twenty minutes and the car glided to a stop at the 5 star Trident Hotel in the heart of Hyderabad’s HITEC district (more on that in a bit).
As eager as we were to explore, lying horizontal between crisp cotton sheets was, admittedly, an immense relief. A few hours later we drew back the thick black out curtains to find floor to ceiling windows. The view? Modern city high tech campuses against a crisp clear blue sky. Not what we were expecting! But, all the more inspiration to go exploring and get to know this place.
We met Baskar, our local Hi Tours guide, in the sleek marble lobby of the hotel. And, we were off. Baskar briefed us on a jam-packed day of plans. We didn’t want to miss a thing. The first thing we learned is Hyderabad is a city known for many things.
Since ancient times, it’s been the city of Shahs, love, pearls and diamonds. In modern times it’s known as Cyberabad and Tollywood. The Cyberabad definitely explained our morning view. We asked Baskar to explain the rest.
Hyderabad is known as the City of Shahs because it was Iranian (Persian) Shia Muslims that established this city. They ran it for the first 200 years. The moniker City of Love comes from a very romantic story. According to local lore, the founder of the city, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, fell in love with and married a local dancing girl. As the story goes, she converted to Islam and adopted the title Hyder Mahal. The city was named Hyderabad in her honour. According to official historians there’s not a lot of proof for this story. But romantics, like Baskar, love to keep it alive.
Hyderabad is known as the City of Pearls because the Shahs brought the best pearls here from all over the world. They established a very large pearl drilling industry that is still world renowned. And, yes, we definitely made time to shop for pearls.
The name City of Diamonds is apropos because the biggest diamonds in the world were sourced just 11 kilometers away. Have you heard of the legendary Golconda Diamond Mines? Maybe not. But, we’re sure you’ve heard of some of the diamonds from here. The most famous example of the size of the diamonds found here is the centrepiece of the British Monarch’s crown. That diamond – known as the Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light) – weighs 105.6 carats. We decided to stick with pearl shopping.
Now, the modern city of Hyderabad is famous for making both movies and megabyte moguls. This in turn has earned it a few new nicknames. The cinema crowd call it Tollywood (T standing for the Telugu language the films here are made in), the latter refer to it as Cyberabad.
This information gives you some hints about Hyderabad’s history. But, each story left us wanting more details. Baskar was happy to take us on a deeper dive.
Geography and Political Details
Hyderabad is located in the centre of South India’s Deccan Plateau. At about 1500 feet (550 metres) above sea level, the altitude relieves the residents of some of the humidity the rest of South India experiences. The weather is very enjoyable. The mean temperature is about 21 degrees Celsius and the maximums are in the mid-30s. There are two rivers nearby for water supply.
The area is considered North to South Indians and South to North Indians. And, it’s now the state capital of the South Indian state of Telangana. But, this is a relatively new development.
When we visited in 2017, the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh were peacefully separating. Telangana had been a part of Andhra Pradesh for six decades. The division was mainly language driven.
As Hyderabad is located in the heart of Telugu-speaking Telangana, Telangana was able to keep it as its capital. Andhra Pradesh recently designated a new capital. They chose Amaravati which translates literally as ‘the place for immortals.’ Sounds like it will work out well for them. But, upon arriving in the beautiful and bustling heart of the city, it was easy to see the sacrifice all the same.
The Old City
At the center of the old city is the four-pillared Charminar mosque. Here, we noticed a distinct lack of foreigners. Men with white kufi caps and kurtas and women in burkas were going about their errands. The various businesses and market stalls were thriving.
Our guide explained the lack of travellers saying Hyderabad doesn’t make it on many itineraries. If you’re visiting India from overseas, Hyderabad means adding not only an extra flight but an extra commitment of time. “Time is a precious commodity,” he said with a laugh. “Especially when you’re already trying to squeeze a whole continent into your agenda.”
Another reason is the city seems like a great big unknown. India’s tourism marketing favourites tend to be the famous Golden Triangle of Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra. And, Hyderabad doesn’t even try to compete with the assets of its southern neighbours.
Kerala has natural beauty, spices and Ayurveda health spas. Tamil Nadu has ancient temples and UNESCO sites that must be seen to be believed. We learned that the government of Telangana doesn’t invest much money in tourism marketing. That’s because they’re busy selling the region’s other merits. Enter Cyberabad.
Hyderabad is an information technology force to be reckoned with. And, it has a mega movie business, Tollywood, that rivals any of the “woods” – Hollywood or India’s famous Bolly (Hindi-language movies) and Mollywoods (Mallayallam language movies).
Many global tech corporations do business in the neighbouring state of Karnataka’s cyber hub, Bangalore. It’s known as the Silicon Valley of India. But now, they’re also making their way to Hyderabad.
It’s fast becoming a rival city. The reason? Hyderabad is reportedly expanding its tech base with better city planning than bursting at the seams Bangalore. And, part of that master plan is the area near Cyberabad known as HITEC City.
HITEC is an acronym for Hyderabad Information Technology and Engineering Consultancy City. Information technology, engineering, health informatics and bioinformatics businesses plus the financial district are all located here.
The area has integrated townships for IT professionals to work and live. Modern infrastructure and amenities include housing colonies, shopping complexes, auditoriums, showrooms, health clubs, cafeterias and banks. The design makes the area a magnet for technology giants.
Our hotel was across the street from Oracle. Companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft also have headquarters here. So, it is easy to see how Hyderabad got its Cyberabad nickname.
After that briefing from Baskar, it was back to real time in the old city. Our first destination – near Charminar – was Chowmahalla Palace.
Once through the gates, we strolled a garden filled with manicured green grass lawns, flowering trees and tall palms. Water-filled pools with gently flowing fountains channeled us further. And by design, they kept the temperature of the air cool at the same time.
Soon, we faced some of the prettiest buildings we’ve ever seen. Delicate carvings – like piping on a cake – followed the clean lines of the domes, arches and windows adorning the many facades. Some of the buildings were creamy white on white. Others were soft tones of yellow and gold.
Our guide shared that Chowmahalla translates to “four palaces.” Taking over 100 years to build, Chowmahalla Palace represents many architectural styles. Once on a total of 45 acres, it still maintains 12. That’s quite something in such a densely populated city.
Inside the grounds there are two courtyards and several palace structures including a Clock Tower, Roshan Bangla and the Council Hall. The Northern palace is where the seat of the sultans lay in the Durbar Hall. A grand marble throne is where the Nizams received their guests and held their most important ceremonies. Dozens of elaborate crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings. We wanted to know more about the Dynasty that built this place. Fortunately, our guide was a walking encyclopedia of local history.
The Shahs of Hyderabad
We learned the area where Hyderabad is located on the Deccan Plateau was ruled by Shia Muslim Shahs from Iran (Persia) starting in the 15th century. In 1589, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi Dynasty, selected the present site and established the city of Hyderabad at the banks of the Musi river. He ordered the construction of the Charminar Mosque in 1591. And, the city’s four quadrants were planned with this landmark as the center.
The Qutb Shahi dynasty lasted until 1687. Then, a Mughal Emperor named Aurangzeb led the conquest of it. And, the Sunni Muslim Mughals ruled it from 1687 to 1724. Subsequently, the land was given to Asaf Jahi who had proven himself in Mughal wars.
The Nizams of Hyderabad
Asaf Jahi’s dynasty reigned over the land as a princely state from 1724 to one year after India’s Independence – 1948. Even when the East India Company held supreme power over India, they allowed these Nizams (governors), as they became known, to rule as client kings.
Chowmahalla was built by the fourth Nizam, Salabat Jung, as the seat of the Nizams while they ruled the state. Today, the palace remains the property of Barkat Ali Khan Mukarram Jah, heir of the Nizams. He also owns Falaknuma Palace which is currently leased to the Taj Hotel Group. They spent 10 years restoring it before opening it in 2010. Spoiler Alert: Look forward to a future post about this grand place!
The last ruling Nizam, Asaf Jah VII, was known for his immense wealth. He had a renowned jewel collection composed of 173 jewels. Included was the Jacob Diamond, the fifth largest diamond in the world. He was proclaimed the richest man in the world in 1937, with a net worth estimated at $243 billion. The Golconda diamond mines were the primary source of his wealth.
Back on the streets
Feeling a bit peckish after a morning touring the extensive Chowmahalla we were back on the streets and in search of a snack closer to Charminar. The Makkah Masjid Mosque is adjacent to Charminar. Both were under construction during our visit but are usually open to visitors. After the quiet of Chowmahalla, the markets near Charminar were a sharp contrast.
Lucky for us, we went from gracious architecture to some incredibly gracious hospitality. And, that hospitality came from a completely delightful but most unexpected place. Stay tuned for a post on the sweet face and sweet offerings behind that story.
For the rest of our first day in Hyderabad, we shopped the nearby Laad Bazaar, lunched on heart-shaped Hussain Sagar Lake (City of Love, indeed) before touring Falaknuma Palace and calling it a day. Our second day in Hyderabad was a grand food tour. We look forward to sharing lists of top Hyderabad restaurants for you to try. And, we look forward to sharing all of our adventures.
But first, in our next post, we’ve got a fantastic heritage Hyderabadi Biryani recipe! We know you are going to love it and all the authentic recipes we’ve gathered so you too can have a taste of this place.