Ramadan Specials: A night in the Old City of Hyderabad.

Pink was the colour of the night.

Red was the colour of the night.

It was 3:30 a.m. on a Ramadan morning in Bangalore when my phone buzzed next to my ear, announcing the arrival of a message. Whatsapp, I assumed, knowing fully well that the cousins would be up talking youngster nonsense till Seher time – the appointed hour when Muslims around the world wake up to eat, pray and fall back into a sleepy stupor. I had forgotten to put my phone on Silent mode when I passed out for the night and reached out blindly to amend my mistake before more buzzing could stir me awake.

It was a message from my mother. Just got back after a night of shopping at Charminar, finished Seher at Shadab, it read. She was in Hyderabad, yes, but Charminar at 3:30 in the morning? Impossible. I thought she was pulling a fast one – I fall for her pranks all the time. When I spoke to her the next day, she couldn’t stop gushing about the night – and all the other nights that she went gallivanting around Old City at bizarre hours. Why would you do that? Is it safe?, I asked. The whole world is out shopping till Seher!, she countered. I didn’t believe her.

Now I do, because I ventured out to the Old City three days before Eid and witnessed the mayhem for myself.

Space was at a premium that night.

Space comes at a premium on Ramadan nights around Charminar – you can see it stand silently in the background.

Let’s just say that I’m a parasite in human form, feeding off of the collective energy of excited, supercharged crowds. The Old City – more specifically, the stretch from Madina building to Charminar and beyond – was a hive, with a sea of black engulfing it, buzzing about haphazardly from one roadside shop to another. Open vendor stalls screamed slogans of encouragement for people to buy from them – “Aaiye, aaiye!” – music blared from the other end of the road and the crowd came in waves and carried one along with it. That frenzy! That madness! That salesmanship! That food! That night! So. Much. Fun.

Not your ordinary stroll in the night, this. The shoppers are in a tearing hurry to get the best bargains out of everything.

Not your ordinary stroll in the night, this. The shoppers are in a tearing hurry to get the best bargains out of everything.

Everything was selling at dirt cheap prices. I bought myself a gorgeously embroidered Georgette saree (against my better judgement) for a measly sum of 1800 bucks. Had I chosen to buy it from a showroom, it would have cost me an arm and half a leg. “The demand for store stuff is a lot lesser now, because everybody buys online these days”, one shopkeeper told my Dad, “So we have to make the most of times like these.” Fair enough, I thought, as I looked around and couldn’t stop smiling at the sales pitches being screamed all around me: “Hello Aunty! Only 120!”, “Hyderabad ki shaan, Paidaan!” (Hyderabad’s pride, a doormat – it sounds much funnier in Hyderabadi, believe me), “Loot lo, chaat lo, ghar jaake baat lo!” (Loot it, savour it, go home and share it! Basically meaning that it’s a steal at the price, so you can buy lots and then distribute it amongst the family.) One man – I’ll call him the Harsha Bhogle of Shopping – even had a microphone and conveyed a running commentary of his shoppers’ activities to the entire market. “Yes, yes, that is an absolutely fantastic piece of cloth you have in your hand! Close your eyes and go for it! Look at that lady eyeing your shopping! Quick, pick it up before it’s too late! Oh no, too late!” It was a sensory overload, but the kind I thoroughly enjoy. My parents couldn’t keep up and left by around 12:30 a.m. The cousins and I continued enthusiastically, but exhaustion washed over us by 2:30 in the morning. It was time to replenish ourselves with some food and water.

Men standing around on elevated platforms, trying out Burqas and screaming, "100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100..." is a common sight. To the loudest salesman go the spoils.

Men standing around on elevated platforms, trying out Burqas and screaming, “100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100…” is a common sight. To the loudest salesman go the spoils.

Even the eateries were crowded. The stalls that we managed to locate were tucked away in a corner and surrounded – again – by droves of people. My camera bag came pretty handy in making some space for us, so we could belt Mysore Bajjis, Boti Shorba, Sheermal and Gosh ke kabab. Delicious and thoroughly enjoyable, especially if you ignored how the plates were washed or the food was made. (None of us fell sick, so not so bad after all.) As we feasted, an ominous voice blared authoritatively over the loud speakers: ‘Please close your stalls by 3 a.m. The area needs to be washed and cleaned for Friday prayers.” The announcement only served to put the crowd on Charlie Chaplin movie mode. That was our cue to exit.

Boti Shorba - a curry made out of spare parts of goats. And by that, I mean things like intestines and stomach and other disgusting things. Boti is considered to be a delicacy among most non-vegetarians.

Boti Shorba – a curry made out of spare parts of goats. And by that, I mean things like intestines and stomach and other disgusting things. Boti is considered to be a delicacy among most non-vegetarians.

Our next hurdle was finding an auto. There was barely space for people to move – autos didn’t stand an atom of a chance. We had to walk to Qilwath, the clock tower near Charminar. The route took us through Laad Bazaar, the infamous bangle shopping lane. Everywhere my eyes rested, they encountered shimmering surfaces and glazed reflections that were occasionally blocked by a bunch of moving, bargaining Burqas.

Who knew even combs could be made to look attractive?

Who knew even hair combs could be made to look attractive?

It wasn’t all glitter and happiness, though. A keychain maker by the roadside, who made etchings on two inch-long glass bottles and sold them at the base of Charminar, counted his night’s earnings as closing time approached. “So much hard work and only 60 rupees to show for it”, he sighed. There was despair and bone-deep exhaustion in his voice. Maybe he would drink it all up. Maybe he would fast and pray for more. There’s no way of knowing.

Waiting for customers to come along minutes before closing time.

Waiting for customers to come along and help him earn some more money minutes before closing time, just like the keychain maker.

What I did know was this, as an auto finally agreed to whisk us home: the sea of living, breathing eagerness and anticipation and excitement for new clothes and hairclips and shoes and bangles and Sherwanis and kurtas and Chadaavi jootas would eventually snap the keychain maker out of his reality. Tomorrow, he would come back. Tomorrow, he would work the same way and wish for more. Tomorrow, he would feel alive and live to celebrate another day of Ramadan in one of the oldest parts of Hyderabad. The crowd’s joy would be his. Their excitement about Eid would be his own – and hopefully, their money too.

Proof that the Old City was a parallel universe - the roads just outside of the radius of Charminar were deserted while the chaos was all around it.

Proof that the Old City was a parallel universe – the roads just outside of the radius of Charminar were deserted while the chaos was all around it.

Getting there: Old City is easily accessible by road up to Madina Building. Be prepared for a massive traffic jam if you’re going during Ramadan.

Go if: You love crowds, bling, bargains, street food and don’t mind staying up all night to see a phenomenon that comes around once a year.

P.S: Another sporadic break of more than three months in blogging – but all for good reason, I assure you. A fair amount of travelling has happened, so be prepared for a string of posts on the blog. Until then, thank you for sticking around and waiting for Potli Baba’s next adventure.

A day at Chowmahalla Palace and Qutub Shahi tombs, Hyderabad.

Grumpy duck, Chowmahalla Palace.

Grumpy duck seeking cover under a fountain, Chowmahalla Palace.

No matter how much I love the city or how hard I try to capture its flavours in one single post, Hyderabad is flat-out refusing to be captured by my words. So, here it is, another itty-bitty snippet on the home of the Nizams.

One of the inner palaces at the Chowmahalla Palace. This one had all the weaponry.

One of the inner palaces at the Chowmahalla Palace. This one had all the weaponry.

Chowmahalla Palace – middle name, Grandeur
An unexpected delight and an architectural jewel of the history of Hyderabad, Chowmahalla Palace is tucked away in the most unassuming corner of the back roads leading away (or to, depending on how you see it) from Charminar. Despite having spent every summer of my growing-up years holidaying in Hyderabad, I heard of Chowmahalla Palace for the first time a couple of months ago. And of course, because I hadn’t heard of it before, I was itching to go.

The ceiling of the main durbar area.

The elaborate ceiling of the main Durbar area.

The place didn’t disappoint. Chowmahalla Palace is like the Inception of palaces – four palaces within a palace. Each more beautifully crafted than the other, with intricate ceilings heavy with spectacular chandeliers stretching towards the ground. And like that isn’t breathtaking enough, every palace is a museum bursting with relics of the Nizam’s reign – photographs that have been framed with great care, an opulent grandfather clock from a neighbouring king, cutlery and chinaware, furniture, clothes, weapons and the most well-maintained vintage cars I have seen in a while.

The Durbar - made of solid marble and flanked on the sides and from the ceiling by crystal chandeliers.

The Durbar – made of solid marble and flanked on the sides and from the ceiling by crystal chandeliers.

The best part about visiting the Chowmahalla is that even on the busiest days, it isn’t bustling with hordes of people. It’s like a well-kept secret among locals, a slice of the past that the tourists haven’t been able to get their hands on, making the pleasure of experiencing the palace more than a tick mark on a checklist of must-see places in a city.

Most of the Chinaware housed in Chowmahalla consists of elaborate pieces that were gifts from neighbouring countries whose kings visited the Nizam. This one was especially pretty because it had an ornate butterfly in the place of a handle.

Most of the Chinaware housed in Chowmahalla consists of elaborate pieces that were gifts from neighbouring countries whose kings visited the Nizam. This one was especially pretty because it had an ornate butterfly in the place of a handle.

Another place, of course, is the Qutub Shahi tombs. Less popular with the tourists and a better-known retreat for the locals, it hasn’t changed one bit since my teenage years spent exploring the tombs and climbing stairways that were blocked by lush bramble.

One of the many tombs at Qutub Shahi Park. One can still see hints of the enamel work in the facade near the dome. When I was a kid, I used to collect the chunks of fallen Enamel pieces, almost as if it were a part of history that I could call mine.

One of the many tombs at Qutub Shahi Park. One can still see hints of the colourful Enamel work on the facade. When I was a kid, I used to collect the chunks of fallen Enamel pieces, almost as if it were a part of history that I could call mine.

Qutub Shahi tombs – where there’s beauty in death
The only thing that doesn’t make the approach to the Qutub Shahi tombs nondescript is the tourist shuttles standing outside the gates of the tomb park. Once you walk through the gates, though, it’s an entirely different story. Tombs of varying shapes and sizes dominate the area, reflecting the Persian, Pashtun and Hindu forms of architecture that they are based on. The kings of the Qutub Shah dynasty – including next-of-kin and important commanders – are buried here. The tomb of Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah offers a pretty decent view of the Golconda Fort, located about a kilometre or so away from the tombs.

Mughal architecture is incomplete without symmetrical archways. So is my set of photographs! There's something almost poetic in framing a picture with arches and having someone walk through it.

Mughal architecture is incomplete without symmetrical archways, and so is my set of photographs! There’s something almost poetic in framing a picture with arches and capturing someone walk through it.

Every tomb has a story behind it, not just about the person/people buried under it, but also the architecture itself. The bigger the king, the grander the structure and the inscriptions on the walls. Excavation of the Badi Bowli – the Big Well – was underway when I went there. From what I could see behind the sealed-off area, it resembled the step wells of Gujarat. It should be open to visitors soon enough.

The grave on ground-level is just an indicative structure built on top of the actual sarcophagus. Although not considered holy, there are still those who pay the graves a visit and seek blessings.

The grave on ground-level is just an indicative structure built on top of the actual sarcophagus. Although not considered holy, there are still those who pay the graves a visit and seek blessings.

As with all places of death, Qutub Shahi tombs is quiet, serene and somehow, more beautiful. There are the occasional light and sound shows that are held on premise, but otherwise the place shuts down after dusk – and for good reason too. Imagine moving around the place in darkness, with at least two dozen dead bodies that are at least four centuries old for company!

A smaller tomb on the Qutub Shahi Park premises, and also one constructed away from the main tombs. It could mean that the person buried here was of lesser stature than the king and his kins. Still, the craftsmanship is fairly elaborate.

A smaller tomb on the Qutub Shahi Park premises, and also one constructed away from the main tombs. It could mean that the person buried here was of lesser stature than the king and his kins. Still, the craftsmanship is fairly elaborate.

Since the better part of the day was spent roaming the Chowmahalla Palace, I couldn’t spend as much time at the tombs as I wanted to. I did leave with an imprint of a gorgeous sunset on my mind – and my camera – though.

Maybe the next post I write about the elusive city of Hyderabad, I’ll be able to add more to my exploration of it and of the other places that are waiting to be rediscovered.

A glorious sunset against the tombs made the short visit totally worth the while.

A glorious sunset against the tombs made the short visit totally worth the while.

Getting there: Hyderabad is easily accessible by road, air and train. I would strongly recommend driving down because the route is picturesque and the roads, beautiful.

Go if: You love food, history, architecture, attention to detail and a little bling.

P.S: Yes, yes, I’m fully aware that Potli Baba was off the radar for a good two months (or more). We are back now, though, and hopefully will be more regular in posting here! Meanwhile, thank you to everyone who hung around, waited patiently for posts to appear and even reminded me to get back. Sending much love and gratefulness your way.

Ramadan Specials: Iftaar at Charminar.

A view of Charminar from the gates of Osmania Hospital.

A view of Charminar from the gates of Nizamia Hospital.

Eid has come and gone already, and I know this post is way behind time – but it’s less than a week since Ramadan ended, so I can be forgiven. I think.

This year, I had the good fortune of being in Hyderabad during Ramadan. Eager to explore what the city of Nizams had to offer in terms of food and colour, I dragged a friend to Charminar for Iftaar – the opening of fast – one evening. And Boy Oh Boy, the joie de vivre there is entirely different from Bangalore.

Jumma Masjid near Charminar, moments before the siren went off.

Jumma Masjid near Charminar, moments before the siren went off.

For starters, the place is so packed that you can’t move an inch without elbowing someone or stamping the odd toe. The approach to Charminar comes with its usual bustle – people hawking hairbands and miscellaneous accessories, while Hyderabadi bikers and car drivers zig-zag across roads like drunk crabs out of water (there’s a popular saying among seasoned drivers, actually – if you can drive in Hyderabad, you can drive anywhere in the world). Once you get closer to Charminar, though, it’s a different story. The centuries-old structure stands guard to the crazy frenzy of mankind. It’s as if thousands of years ago, Time decided to stroll through the streets, came across Charminar and was so taken by its majesty that it completely forgot to move on.

Jumma Masjid after the dusk prayers.

Jumma Masjid after the dusk prayers.

There are tons of shops and stalls and carts with fruits everywhere, but there’s a certain order in the chaos. The roads were so full of burqa-clad women and men in white skull caps that it appeared as if the traffic was stuck in a black and white maze, trying to find a path that would lead to the finish.

Q: Why did the vendors wait patiently for customers? A: Because they knew that their patience would bear fruit. (Yeah, I know. Bad one.)

Q: Why did the vendors wait patiently for customers?
A: Because they knew that their patience would bear fruit. (Yeah, I know. Bad one.)

My friend and I reached at the right time – the siren went off just as we parked the car. Rather than stopping to open their fast, we saw people fly into an even greater frenzy. There were at least 60 fruit carts lined up on one side of Charminar – it gave me a serious complex as a Bangalorean. During Iftaar, us Bangaloreans leap for the nearest fried goodies we can lay our hands on and stuff it down our throats, followed by copious amounts of meat and rice and juices. In Hyderabad, everyone ran for the fruit carts. The carts outnumbered sellers of samosas and fried meats by 60:2 – I kid you not. (Yeah, we found just two non-fruit selling stalls. And they stuck out like sore thumbs.)

 

Dahi Vadas in all their splendour. Please do not miss the deep-fried chillies sticking upright as a garnish!

Dahi Vadas in all their splendour. Please do not miss the deep-fried chillies sticking upright as a garnish!

 

Sesame-crusted Fried Chicken. Superbly marinated in spices and lip-smackingly delicious.

Sesame-crusted Fried Chicken. Superbly marinated in spices and lip-smackingly delicious.

 

Pickle in their blood: Hyderabadis are crazy about pickles. The old city especially is known for its variety of pickles. The most remarkable is the Tarkari ka Achaar - pickled vegetables in a base of raw tamarind paste and spices.

Hyderabadis are crazy about pickles. The old city especially is known for its variety of pickles. The most remarkable is the Tarkari ka Achaar – pickled vegetables in a base of raw tamarind paste and spices.

Hyderabadis have a wicked sense of humour – at least the ones on the old city side. Most of them are charmingly incorrigible, I would say. The salesmen are especially glib, ready with retorts to any queries or conversations you may have with them. While I tried all sorts of weird squats to capture Charminar from different angles, the fruit vendors around me kept nudging each other and giggling, addressing me as aapa – elder sister. Completely unnecessary, considering 98% of them were ancient compared to me! “Kya aapa, konse newspaper ke vaaste hai ye? Arrey photo lere bhai, aake thairo yaan, thoda pose-an maaro!” (So, elder sister, which newspaper is this for? Hey, she’s taking photographs, come and stand here and give her some poses!”) By the end of the night, their glibness had resulted in clearly visible embarrassment on my cheeks that matched the colour of the pomegranates on sale.

Salesmen in Hyderabad don't have the least qualms in draping sarees and showing them off to customers. This young chap here beckoned me over to his shop and asked me to take a picture. "Maidum", said his companion sitting off-camera, "Don't take his face, you won't be able to see anything in print. Or just do some Photoshop on him, make him fairer." He grinned as I looked at him with bulging eyes, then at the saree-clad man. He just grinned too and posed some more for my camera.

Salesmen in Hyderabad don’t have the least qualms in draping sarees and showing them off to customers. This young chap here beckoned me over to his shop and asked me to take a picture. “Maidum”, said his companion sitting off-camera, “Don’t take his face, you won’t be able to see anything in print. Or just do some Photoshop on him, make him fairer.” He grinned as I looked at him with bulging eyes, then at the saree-clad man. He just grinned too and posed some more for my camera.

Once we were done sampling the food, my friend and I decided to move towards Laad Bazaar – another lane branching off from Charminar, home to endless shops selling bangles of all kinds. Walking into the lane is like stepping onto the red carpet – the hide and seek of sparkles from shiny, glittering bangles emulating a million flashbulbs going off. There’s glitter everywhere, making one feel like one’s entered some sort of fairyland. And the bangles? Oh. My. God. Lac bangles with engravings, traditional sona glass bangles worn by brides, the bridal joda, thick bangles studded with shiny stones – the variety is mind-numbing.

Laad Bazaar at Charminar.

Laad Bazaar at Charminar.

 

Shimmer, sparkle, glitter - the bangles of Laad Bazaar.

Shimmer, sparkle, glitter – the bangles of Laad Bazaar.

 

Traditional Sona - delicate glass bangles worn by women with thick stone-studded bangles. A bridal trousseau is incomplete without them.

Traditional Sona – delicate glass bangles worn by women with thick stone-studded bangles. A bridal trousseau is incomplete without them.

As I saw people walk around the food stalls and women walk into the stores and whip out dresses/sarees to match colours of the bangles to their Eid clothes, I was taken back to my summer holidays many moons ago. Every one of my vacations was spent in Hyderabad – fearlessly exploring the tombs, climbing up to Charminar, shopping for weddings of aunts and cousins at Laad Bazar,  and earnestly hoping that this part of Hyderabad would always stand still despite time and preserve all its magic. That there would always be that energy, that shimmer, that madness that can only be associated with this particular part of the world. Imagine my surprise and joy when I went back this time to the comforting knowledge that the pollution levels may have gone up, inflation may have taken a toll, people may have grown more impatient, but there’s one thing that hasn’t changed still: the magic.

Gateway into present-day living from the old city.

Gateway into present-day living from the old city.

Getting there: Charminar isn’t hard to access, but it’s super-difficult to find parking space around here. I would recommend taking an auto or a cab here and going back home the same way.

Go if: You love experiencing moments of magic. And food. And life.