The Many Faces of Hyderabad

by Geoffrey Clarfield (July 2013)

Four months ago when the evening crowds of the Dilsukhnagar, a bustling densely populated suburb of the Indian city of Hyderabad, were at their peak, two terrorist bombs exploded, killing 16 and injuring 18 people. Indian authorities suspect the possible hand of homegrown Islamic terrorists and have pursued a number of suspects, but the perpetrators remain at large. The bombs exploded near a movie theater and close by the Sai Babu Hindu temple. Experts believe that the temple was the original target but that in order to avoid police surveillance, the terrorists set off the bombs nearby, as Dilsukhnagar has one of the biggest fruit markets in Asia.

As I drove into the city of Hyderabad I passed by the Dilsukhnagar fruit market and decided to spend whatever spare time I had in the week ahead during a World Bank sponsored conference I was attending, to explore the many faces of this ancient city. This is what I found.

In order to understand Hyderabad you must start at the Golconda fort. It is a fairy tale looking edifice that rises steeply from the plain. To enter you walk through enormous gates and then climb steep stone stairs where you can explore the ancient citadel, its deserted mosque, storage, reception halls and living quarters. It also contains the remains of a Hindu temple for although the former rulers of Hyderabad, the Nizams, were Muslim, like many traditional Indian Muslim princes during the Raj they did not persecute their Hindu subjects. From the top of the fort you see out over the dusty plains. Clearly, it was the commanding military presence of the region until the 20th century.

Despite the fact that the urban sprawl of Hyderabad has grown right up to the walls of the fort, most of the area around it is home to a military base of the Indian army. Originally a Hindu fort, Golconda was conquered by Muslims from the north of India, the Qutbi Shahs, then by the Mughals under Emperor Aurangzeb and finally came to be ruled by the ancestors of the Nizam of Hyderabad, who managed this princely state first under the declining Mughals and then under the rising British East India Company cum British Empire. For centuries the fort contained the enormous financial treasure that these pleasure loving Muslim Indian princes accumulated and, the precious diamonds and gem stones which come from the mines of the region. The famous blue diamond, the Koh i Noor, which is now part of the crown jewels of England, comes from the treasure of the rulers of Hyderabad who before the rise of the oil sheikhs, were among the richest men in the world (Hyderabad has a school as well as a bakery by the same name.)

In 1948 when the new Republic of India was declared, Hyderabad was under the authority of the second to last Nizam whose followers fought and eventually lost a guerilla war against the state authorities that lasted over a year. Finally, they capitulated and Hyderabad became part of India. The Nizam retained much of his wealth and holdings. In 1968 his son, the last Nizam, Mukaram Jah, was crowned in the palace. Over a period of thirty years Jah lost control over much of his fortune, squandered much of it, became a sheep farmer in Australia and now lives as a relatively impoverished recluse in Turkey while he, his former retainers and many of his relatives argue with lawyers over access to his real or imagined fortune. In 2005 his ex wife provided the funds to refurbish the Nizam's world famous Chowmallah Palace complex in Hyderabad, where the two of them had been married back in the sixties.

The Chowmallah is a grand series of low lying buildings set around an enormous water tank with fountains and birds who take refuge from the pre-monsoon heat of the city and which on some days reaches 50 degrees centigrade. People regularly die of heat stroke in this city and during my stay the papers reported the tragic case of a young high school student who, after writing his exam, took the bus home and arrived dead.

I strolled through room after room, with their high ceilings, marble pillars, silverware, uniforms, swords and armor and was stopped dead in my tracks by a large black and white photo of the Nizam and his guests in the palace entertaining British aristocrats or administrators at a state dinner, probably some time during the nineteen thirties. I felt as if I could step into the picture and time travel. But that Nizam is no more and whatever authority he once had, religious and/or secular, is gone.

As I went from the palace back to my lodgings I passed by Abid road. It was built during the reign of the sixth Nizam and is one of the commercial hubs of the city. It got its name from the Jewish valet of the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, whose name was Albert Abid and who had set up his shop there. It now sports fancy restaurants and most the city’s best hotels can be found there.

I spent most of my time in Hyderabad in the pleasant grounds of the Administrative Staff College of India. The main building is the former grand residence of one of the Nizam;s relatives, there are photos on the wall of gatherings of these men watching Nautch dancers before Indian independence, the traditional dancing and singing courtesans of North India (immortalized in Indian Canadian novelist Vikram Seth's novel, A Suitable Boy) facing a series of portraits of mostly Hindu administrators, who have run ASCI since independence.

These men were and are the followers of Nehru who wanted to build a socialist, secular Indian state where Indian Muslims were allowed full freedom of religion but not as a fifth column for Pakistan. One evening the director of the institute hosted a dinner in the inside garden complex of the former mansion where we drank whiskey, talked politics and feasted on Hyderabad’s great specialty, a biryani based on the recipe of the Nizam’s cooks. For me it was a literal taste of past greatness.

Despite the very friendly relations with the Pakistani members of the conference, each day at five pm sharp they quietly left the proceedings to show themselves at the local police station, as a security precaution. One evening as I was reading the paper in the enormous dining hall I noticed that an Indian university, in the spirit of regional cooperation, was giving an honorary doctorate to Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan. The next day I read that a bomb had gone off beside the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

If you take a taxi away from this “new” city of Hyderabad and which is a commercial, administrative, urban conglomeration that retains the flavor of India during the second half of the twentieth century with its crowds, broken sidewalks, hanging electrical wires, hordes of auto rickshaws, beggars and street hawkers, all competing for the same space, you will arrive at Cyber City or what some local pundits call Cyberabad.

This is the new hi tech center of Hyderabad with its smooth, hyper modern glass complexes of IBM and Indian companies sprinkled among beautiful high rise complexes with manicured lawns and signs that read “Join our community.” I was told that the apartments there are very expensive. The roads are perfect, the sidewalks paved and nearby there is a park called the “Biodiversity” complex. I could not see a beggar and very little litter. There are shopping centers there that are doubles of those in Canada’s big cities and, I noticed that the prices were the same – no bargains here.

This is where India’s young, new, upwardly mobile (largely Hindu) elite is creating the financial power of this reviving world civilization. They are supplied with their own vision of the good life through films in the local language of Andrah Pradesh, Telugu. The Film City of Telegu is about an hour’s drive beyond the city limits where their regional equivalent of Bollywood (which they call Tollywood) has its outdoor sets and indoor film studios.

These new high tech Indian cities like Gurgaon near New Delhi, are also giving birth to a new generation of independent scholars like banker maven Sanjeev Sanyal, whose new book Land of the Seven Rivers provides a refreshing and nuanced non-Marxist history of India. Nevertheless, despite all this newfound wealth and leisure, there are still metal detectors at the entrance of most malls and many shops, a grim reminder that this new India is still the target of radical Islamists such as those who perpetrated the attacks in Mumbai.

The Char Minar is a unique building. It is a raised edifice with four magnificent attached minarets that faces the four directions and from whose upper floors you can see the four royal gates, which were used by the Nizam for his ceremonial entrances and exits from the old city and the Laad bazaar, which is still a Muslim enclave within the city. I was the only Westerner visiting the building on that day and seeing the enormous line up to get in, paid a few extra rupees for a government tourist guide to take me up what looked like a secret turreted staircase, to the second floor from which I could look out at the city. Every hour a French clock from the 1880s struck a note. If it was two o’clock, two chimes, if three, three chimes. The balcony was filled with local Indian tourists and my guide lamented that he could not take me up one floor to see the old mosque, as too many love struck Hyderabadis in years past had used it to jump to their deaths.

One afternoon my wife and I hired a vehicle and driver to take us to see the sights of the town. Our driver Omar is a young Muslim from Hyderabad who had managed to get a job in a high tech firm without a diploma or degree. He was eventually sacked for lack of proper credentials. He now makes his living as a driver. He is the sole support of his family and his ill father, instead of seeking proper medical attention, wants to use his money to go on a pilgrimage to Mekka. Omar is what the Booker Prize winning Indian novelist Aravind Adiga calls a, “half finished man,” neither traditional nor modern, with limited schooling and limited economic prospects.

It would be easy to conclude that Indian Muslims like Omar are ready to be radicalized given the fact that their ancestors were once the rulers of Hyderabad city and its largely Hindu hinterland, and now as a religious community they make up less than 42% of the city’s inhabitants, having been overtaken by Hindus in the last sixty years of Indian independence (many of the old Hyderabadis migrated to Pakistan after independence). Yet Indian Muslims have not joined Al Qaeda in any significant way and just a few years ago a number leaders of India’s Islamic communities visited Israel, made pro-Israel statements and encouraged Indian Muslims to come to Israel to see for themselves the facts on the ground.

Despite the active engagement of Pakistan in recent Indian terror attacks and the possibility of local Muslim radicalization, the majority of Muslims in India have so far avoided the embrace of radical Islam. That may change. As we can see from the recent terror incident in Boston, the formula for radical Islamic terror is just a mouse click away. Whether Cyberabad will influence the life style of an alternative Indian Islam, which echoes the tolerant times of the former Nizam of Hyderabad, or falls into the ideological arms of Al Qaeda and Pakistani infiltrators, only time can tell. Given the rising economic tide of this country that is lifting so many Indians out of poverty, time may indeed be on India’s, and on Hyderabad’s, side.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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