Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Hyderabad Diaries: Visiting The Charminar

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.

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