Art & Culture · Photography · Travel Writing

A summer afternoon in Hyderabad


On a summer weekend, braving the heat, I set out towards the old city of Hyderabad to visit the incredible Salar Jung Museum. I cannot do justice to that collection in a brief post so I’d rather not describe it here. Suffice to say that I wanted to see it since my father came down here in the 80s and later, described in glowing terms the veiled Rebecca and the musical clock. I spent three hours of the afternoon taking an audio tour, making my way through the terribly crowded rooms and emerging into the early evening sun (still quite strong) a bit hungry.

My choice was to take an auto and go towards Husain sagar lake or to find the iconic Charminar – the symbol of Hyderabad. I had no idea how far it was and had left behind my only map in the hotel room. The cloak room at the Salarjung is free and also manned by rather helpful people who recommended that I bear left as I walk out the gates and visit the ‘Shadab‘ hotel for a cup of tea. ‘Ask for Madina‘ they said.

I walked for a little less than a kilometer, thirsty and weary and turned a corner and Shadab hotel came into the view. It’s not a new establishment – several decades old at-least- and it shows.

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As i stepped inside, I was struck by how all too familiar the decor looked – it has an uncanny resemblance to Raju tea stall in Bhopal for some reason. I have no idea why. That establishment is primarily known for it’s tea but Shadab serves Biryani, Haleem and Nihari, among other things – none of which I could partake (being a vegetarian).

It’s a busy place – waiters rush into the kitchen area busily bringing out trays laden with tea, Osmania biscuits and – given that this is the summer season – glasses of Kulfi ice cream. The first look has one deceived into thinking into thinking that it’s a run down India coffee house.

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That’s not the case. Look again, the patrons have been sitting at their tables for a while – the waiters never rush them. Life goes on the same way it has for decades. Regulars sit down with no care for who else might be occupying that table and order tea. Those who are done sometimes keep standing there unmindful of crowding the aisle.

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The tea is called ‘irani‘ (Persian) tea – it is a thick mixture prepared by mixing tea liquer out of a decanter through a faucet and boiling hot, sugared creamy milk from a vat. It is said that tea was introduced here by Iranians during the times of the Nawabs but today, it’s a uniquely hyderabadi way of making tea. It’s served with either fruit biscuits or another confectionery item called Osmania biscuit.

I looked up to level eyes with the man sitting at my table. He had a gap toothed smile and a genial demeanor. He was eating something unusual. The waiter said that it’s called ‘Lukmi‘ (pronounced look-me) – a savory baked pastry usually prepared with a mince filling. This particular variant had a potato and peas filling. It was served with coconut chutney. Of course I had to have it.

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I followed it up with more conventional items like Khubani ka meetha (lit : Apricot sweet) that was a bit too sweet for my liking. It was served with a garnish of thickened milk cream .

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The lone familiar (and edible for me) item on the menu was a sheer-mal. Sadly, I was a bit early for it. So, I walked towards the back where the tandoor (oven) was getting fired up and the cook’s helper was kneading through a dough heap about a foot high and three across and equally wide.

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I started clicking a few photos and faced my first real question (the cook fired away)-

“Where have you come from – Pakistan?”
“No, I’m from Jaipur”
(a bit disappointed) and then he beamed up again ‘Oh yes, Jaipur, Gujarat!’
“No, no it’s in Rajasthan

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A puzzled look on his face indicated this was a bad topic so i politely inquired about the sheermal and bade farewell making false promises of returning soon.

Minutes later, I was walking towards the Charminar – the iconic symbol of Hyderabad. The traffic here is so thick and the fumes so terrible that one cannot walk more than a minute or two before feeling a burning sensation in the eyes. I therefore didnt capture a lot of photos.

The market is insanely busy – the shops are mostly clothes and gems and jewellery. The pushcarts sell fruits, vegetables and bakery items. This vendor was drowning in a sea of burqas.

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I continued to walk, looking for the icon and it turned out to be further and further away. I did find another icon though – the baganapally. It is said that this mango, now shipped nationwide from the state of Andhra Pradesh was crossed with the Safeda from the state of Uttar Pradesh a few decades ago. Since then, sometimes one is sold Banganapallys in the markets of Delhi as well. The hybrid variety has almost no fibers inside though (it’s smooth). They were stacked so neatly here.

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I walked further to a point there the traffic was thick and i was surrounded by a swarm of autos, blaring sirens from the passing traffic police bikes and innumerable pedestrians, hawkers , men and beasts all trying to enter the medieval gate. I was about to give up, finding myself in an impossible human jam for a few minutes and then looked up to find Charminar coming into the view from behind the doorway.

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“The charminar was built by a cigarette company that had to build an association for their logo” –  as I was told by a senior student in the engineering college I graduated from.
“When you go there, look closely, it’s made of lime and done hastily. It doesn’t even look real. Such shoddy construction. No one doubted him for a minute – he was from hyderabad and since he chain-smoked, it gave him an air of confidence and ‘don’t mess with me’. I suspect now that there was surely something mixed in whatever he was smoking.

This medieval monument, built in 1591 to commemorate the eradication of a plague, is a symmetrical and fun to photograph. I captured a few shots. But mostly, I spent time observing what was going on around the minar (tower).

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Pushkarts stocking mangoes, sapotas, pomegranates, palm-fruit, fresh figs, oranges and bananas competed with each other by shouting and quoting a price lower than what was written on a black slate board hanging over their cart. Banganapallys were between rupees 25 to 40 per kg. A stone seller was very interested in obtaining my custom.

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Fresh sugarcane juice is squeezed and sold from the stalls at rupees ten per glass. It’s sickeningly sweet – without ice is an extra 5 rupees per glass. The place is swarming with flies and beggars. Yet, this very chaos is a picnic spot for hyderabadis. They descend upon this area to sit down, enjoy cut watermelons, fritters, ice cream and other eats while gazing at the monument that’s a lot smaller than I imagined it to be.

The chaos and the din is maddening and I couldn’t muster the courage to go to the laad bazaar or the madina masjid. Another time, I’ve promised myself. I did look back and by the fading sun, captured this from the center of the road, the mad traffic whooshing past inches from my skin on either side.

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It was worth the trouble. It is the heart of Hyderabad

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