Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Hyderabad Diaries: Visiting The Charminar

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Here is the History of Charminar as explained by an AP Tourism Department certified guide.

Charminar means ‘Four Minarets’. It was built by Mohammad Quli Qutub Shah around the year 1591-1592. One reason why it was built was to rid the city of the plague that had spread around (one can see the face of a cat in the carvings on the Charminar. Plague is spread by rats and cats are their enemies. Hence, the carvings of cat-faces).

Another reason why it was built was to commemorate Quli Qutub Shah’s love for his Hindu wife Bhagyamati who converted to Islam and took on the name Hyder Mahal after marriage. (Hyderabad derives its name from her name. It is called Bhagyanagar in Telugu, again after Bhagyamati. Apparently, Hyderabad is the only city in India to have been named after a woman). The present location of the Charminar was the centre of the erstwhile city of Hyderabad (old city).

The Charminar has 7 approaching steps on each of 3 sides of the raised platform. The fourth side was from where the Royals would step on the platform and there are no steps there; the royals would step out directly from the horse-carriages, which were about the same height as the platform.

The Charminar has 3 floors and a total of 149 stairs run through each of the minarets. Each minaret is 56 metres high from the base to the top. There is a mosque on the second floor where 45 people could offer Namaz in the earlier days. The mosque has been closed to the public ever since, after some individuals committed suicide by jumping off the minaret.

The first floor was used as a Madarsa at some point in time (around the year 1888).

From the Charminar one can see the Chaar Kamaan (Four Gates). The Kamaan right in front of the Charminar is called the Mewawala Kamaan – that is where the dry fruits market used to be when the Nizams were around. The Kamaan beyond the Mewawala Kamaan and opposite to it is the Macchi Kamaan. Everyday, when the king used to come towards the Charminar from the Royal Kamaan (to the perpendicular right side of the Mewawala Kamaan as seen from the Charminar) a fish used to be hung atop the Macchi Kamaan as seeing a fish in the morning was considered as a good omen in those times. The Kamaan opposite to the Royal Kamaan is the Kamaan-e-Sharif-(a word I did not catch) from where the common people could enter. All the four Kamaans are centred around a fountain.

A few feet away from the Charminar is the Mecca Masjid, the second largest mosque in India after the Jama Masjid, Delhi. At a time, 10 000 persons can offer Namaz in this mosque.

Just beyond the Kamaa-e-sharif-(some word) is the Chowmalla Palace where the Queens and many generations of Nizams resided.

In the distance, beyond the morning fog that obscures the view lies the Golconda fort. On the ground floor of Charminar is a fountain in the centre of the platform. A (previously) secret tunnel runs from under the fountain to the top of the Golconda hill and emerges in the Darbari Mahal of the Golconda Fort. The tunnel is 8 KM long underground and was used in wartimes for escape (it was also used by the King and the Queen to come to Charminar to offer Namaz, as told by the guide at Golconda Fort). By road, the distance between Charminar and the Golconda Fort is 11 KM. Apparently, the tunnel is wide enough to let one horse-carriage pass through. The tunnel was in use for a long time until most of it collapsed and is now closed to the public.

Also visible from the Charminar in the distance are the High Court, the Osmania Hospital and the Salarjung Museum, identifiable by their distinct Islamic style architecture and their obviousness.

On the first floor of Charminar are four clocks, one installed on each of the four faces. One of the clocks has a gong attached to it and it strikes once for every half hour and as many times as the hour every one hour. The clocks were installed by the French commander Bussy in the year 1889.

The architecture of the Charminar and the designs are a fusion of the Persian and Hindu styles. One each of the pillars on the ground floor one can see a pineapple, a flower and the face of a cat (as mentioned earlier) in successive carvings. Apparently, designs with animals are a distinctive feature if Hindu architecture whereas the Persian style expresses itself through the flowers. Even on the first floor, there is a distinct Persian flavour in the two rows of flower carvings whereas just below them, the Hindu influence is seen in the Peacock carvings. A pair of peacocks flanks the three Urdu words for God inscribed in eight similar plates. It is said that the fusion of styles was used to appease both the Muslim and Hindu subjects.

A visit to the Charminar is a visit to Hyderabad’s history. It has a string running through every major event that defined Hyderabad as what it is today. The closure of the top two floors for visitors mars the visit a tad, yet a visit is still worth its weight in salt. One is also pained to see such a heritage of a 400-year old monument being marked by modern day graffiti at the hands of jilted lovers and generally jobless blokes. Yet, any journey to Hyderabad is incomplete without visiting the Charminar, which has today become the symbol of Hyderabad.

Travel notes:
  • Don't forget to bargain with the AP Tourism Department guides who will offer to show you around the place. They will quote anywhere close to INR 150 as their fees but will bring it down to even INR 60 if you persist. Do fix the price before you begin the tour to avoid any conflicts later.
  • Entertain the beggar-women near Charminar at your own risk. If you pay one of them you will soon be gheraoed by at least half a dozen more who will not allow you to leave unless you have a local around to rescue you.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Hyderabad Diaries: Flying the Good Times

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The operative in the phrase ‘Hyderabad Diaries’ is Hyderabad and the prerequisite is for me to be in Hyderabad. And thanks to my employer, I am getting there in India’s favourite airline (2007) – Kingfisher Airlines. I have seen the hype…today I get to experience it.

Bangalore Airport is bustling as usual as I walk towards one of the numerous check-in counters that Kingfisher has lined up. A member of the staff motions for me to move to an emptier counter. She asks for my ticket…I think I missed a smile and a “Good Morning”. She does not ask for the mandatory proof of identity along with my e-ticket…I think she missed a procedure. I show it to her anyway. She hands me my boarding pass…I think I missed the “Any Seating Preferences?” part. I walk off with the pass and a hand-baggage tag. There was no “Have A Nice Flight” either…I think I missed a lot. But then it could just have been me.

I have neither had my regular cup of a morning beverage nor breakfast and I decide to have coffee first (since I am expecting breakfast to be served on-board and I want to be able to form an opinion about it). I reluctantly walk to the Airport Café Coffee Day, since I tried the Grand Ashok coffee the last time I was here and I would rather deal with the caffeine withdrawal symptoms than with their coffee…urgh!. The CCD coffee is not much better and what’s worse, it is even more overpriced than the outlets in the city. I am thoroughly disappointed…it just keeps getting worse between CCD and me.

Anyway, by the time the security check is done, I have a bad taste in my mouth due to more reasons than one, I am hungry and I just want to get on the flight. I am not left waiting for long and soon I am walking towards the Kingfisher bus – a Volvo B7R. And the Kingfisher experience truly begins now…

The bus has leather-lined chairs and great interiors complete with O2H media televisions. It cruises on the tarmac and we reach the rather small plane we are to travel in. The surprise of the day awaits me as I see the airhostess welcoming the guests – it’s my friend! And I think…this is going to be good after all.

We are welcomed with facial tissues, a bottle of water and a pen (What For?!) each boldly flashing the kingfisher logo. The carrier, although small, has been made as comfortable as can be. The chairs are lined again with beautiful red leather and offer a world of comfort. In-flight entertainment is provided through tiny retractable LCD screens. Vijay Mallya makes a guest-appearance in the flight through those screens and proudly talks about his airline and the standards he has set for it. Shortly after, the screens come alive with the antics of Tom & Jerry – not quite in sync with the corporate status of more than half of the guests on the flight yet highly relaxing and an effective stress-buster. The airline pockets full points from my side for this.

Guests have a choice of vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisines even when it comes to breakfast and the food served is delicious. There is variety by way of a fruit-basket, croissants and Idli-Dosa to complete the fare. The Idlis and Dosas are warm, just the right temperature to be consumed at. The portions are well-sized too for a breakfast. Coffee or Tea served is the regular kind with sugar and whitener provided separately, but I found it to be much better than the CCD coffee at the Airport. So I am not complaining.

The only dampener is the fact that a meal on board the aircraft we were in can be quite a cramped experience with next-seat neighbours struggling to keep their elbows from engaging in a fistfight. The tray tables are miniature and so are the trays especially from the point of view of accommodating such an elaborate fare. But I don’t see how that can be helped given the size of the aircraft.

Before landing, Vijay Mallya requests one’s feedback about the Kingfisher experience and forms are passed around (now I see why the pens were distributed!). The form is exhaustive and one can give feedback on everything right from the check-in experience to the captain’s announcements, the staff’s hospitality and even the time of serving the food with respect to the time of the flight. I thought it was a very well designed form and only a business serious about improving itself constantly and being the best will solicit such feedback from the customers.

Before I know, Hyderabad’s landscape is discernible from the sky and we are preparing to land. I am a little sad that the Kingfisher experience has come to an end…I was really enjoying myself. It is the kind of experience that one can easily get used to and long for. I experienced the hype around Kingfisher and I feel that it is completely justified. Vijay Mallya has set high standards for his business and stands by them…

Truly flying Kingfisher is flying the good times.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Paradise Found: Jenukal Heritage Home, Sakleshpur

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A new year, a new place, a new set of friends and a new blog to chronicle it all. I travel...and take you along to explore this lonely planet.
Snuggled high up in the Western Ghats among the sprawling coffee estates of Sakleshpur, Jenukal Heritage Home witnessed a welcome; 14 of us - voyagers seeking a sabbatical from noisy pubs, deafening music, blinding headlights and city madness - had arrived to welcome the new year watching fireflies flit by, gazing at the jet black sky awash with a million stars and listening to the music of the Cicada’s chirp.
Cruising on surprisingly well-paved roads stopping only for a refreshing swig of sugarcane juice at a roadside shack with no address, we came home to tantalizing aromas that continued to waft out of the kitchen over the next four days. What also continued over the next four days was a string of involving conversations – the gamut ranging from conservation and wildlife to books, adventurous trips, India after globalization, Reiki and even Rajkumar!

Interspersing the trip was a trek to Jenukal peak through Shola forests observing funnel spiders and a variety of birds like Minivets, Barbets, Sunbirds, Hill Myenas and Krestels on the way. Once atop the mountain, most of us enjoyed a peaceful forty winks fanned by the pure unadulterated breeze and watched over by a stark spotless blue sky. Some adventurous souls were game for a climb up the Phantom Hill the next day while some others among us ambled on to a nearby pond watching more birds and beautiful butterflies on the way returning only after dangling our feet in the crisp cold water of the pond – a natural spa that drew all the fatigue out of our city-strained bodies. A swim in a stream a little way off was a perfect way to approach the last dusk of the trip. When we were not indulging in any such adventure, the cane swings under the Guava tree, the tree shade, nooks and corners of the exquisite 120 year old house its elaborate sit-outs offered blissfully cosy places to slumber, read a book or just carry on a conversation. Life became bereft of all hurry and slowed down so that we could catch up with it.
A visually stunning presentation from Dag Goering and Maria Coffey – the Kayaking couple - about their 6-week Kayaking sojourn on the Ganges from Haridwar to Varanasi and an insight into the endearing India that they saw was the nonpareil way to approach midnight when we welcomed the new year with lip smacking barbecues, wine and wonderfully stimulating conversations around the fire.

Reluctance overcame each and every one of us when it was time to return. We were leaving peace, camaraderie, contemplation and life behind. We were parting from new yet very dear friends. But the hope that we would all return to paradise made it a tad easier to head back to madness. For quite some time to come, just the memories of this celebration of a new year, of life are sure to bring a smile to our faces and reduce the daily atrocity of routine…memories of our time spent in Jenukal Heritage Home.

This article by the same author was published in the Indian Express (Bangalore Edition) was on the 11th of January 2008 and has been cross-published here.