It’s been quite a busy day today, a day in which I have covered a number of places of interest. What I can say of Hyderabad is that it is a wonderful mix of the old and the new. Of the old, Charminar is a unique monument from the 16th century. Of the new, the Birla Mandir dedicated to Lord Venkateshwara is truly a modern marvel which takes its inspiration from centuries of temple art and architecture.
I approach it from the west against the early morning light through streets waking up to the daily grind. The four corner towers catch the eye first with their distinct projected balconies. Attention then moves to the main arch surrounded by its smaller arches. As I walk around, the light changs the views constantly. Once under the arch, it seems a world away from the busy traffic and constant noise. I can still hear the noise and smell the pollution in the air but I am at the same time awed by this 16th century monument right in the middle of modern Hyderabad that seems to move along nonchalantly.
The main arches are like an English Tudor arch, coincidentally from the same period. They open up the view of the monument. The arches in the North-South direction are continued with arched gateways along the line of the main throughfare. At least two such gateways are visible to the North. Perhaps by North is the right way to approach the Charminar. The gateways lead the visitor to the monument, framing it beautifully at times and in a way integrating it with the city landscape. These gateways are places of messy traffic where each one thinks the way is his alone.
What really makes Charminar stand out are the little arches that frame the main arches. Arches encircle balconies that project out of the towers. Arches in horizontal tiers top each main arch. Even on the inside, there are many ways of looking at the arches, one framed by others. Each of the four arches are in their turn decorated with smaller arches as they rise to their pinnacles. They are blind, open or simply contain a perforated screen. As I climb the monument to the viewing gallery it occurs to me that the reason for its creation is somewhat obscure and generally believed to celebrate the end of plague.
There is no dome on top on the outside but a clear circle closes the monument on the inside. Thus, the Charminar starts from the ground as a square in man-made fashion, changes to an octagon, then a 16-sided structure and finally a natural circle at the top. Sixteen arches surround the balcony on the inside. Of these, only one is a perforated screen. Corner arches have a further inset of a smaller arch. The walls at the higher levels are spoiled with lots of graffiti.
There is a small temple at the base. Finding a temple in a medieval Islamic monument is as much a surprise as it is eccentric. The temple does not belong here. It completely spoils the overall mood of the monument. Everywhere there is evidence of Muslim domination, Hindus are clever enough to impose their beliefs.
This is a beautiful temple situated on a hill. The views from here reach out across the Hussain Sagar Lake. The lights of Hyderabad flicker under the bluish skies of twilight. I am informed that the temple is relatively new. Construction started in 1964 and completed in 1984. The esteemed skills of our ancient artisans are not altogether lost. They are many even today who are able to create such beautiful work in stone.
It is completely in white marble from stairways and balustrades to walls and shikara. As it stands under bright white lights, it is pure poetry and full of beauty. It is perhaps Hyderabad’s equivalent of Bangalore’s ISKCON temple. The temple has elements of South Indian, North Indian and Jain temple architecture. Wall are covered with narrative marble reliefs set into panels. Arches are serpentine with exquisite decorative work. The shikara in rekha nagara style is as elegant as it is simple. A long flight of stairs passes under a gateway that resembles a mini gopuram in the South Indian style. The interior of the sanctum is packed with wonderful sculptures. Had not this been an active temple, tourists and art lovers would flock in numbers. As such, people have darshan and swiftly move out with the crowds, many without as much as a glance at art enshrined here.
A notice at the footwear counter clearly says that this service is free, attendants are not to be given tips. But attendants will still ask for tips and people will still dish them out; except me.
I am sitting absent-mindedly in the bus and simply taking in the passing scenes. I miss my stop. A little later the conductor shouts at me. He suspects I am trying to go farther than my ticket would allow. I get off and walk to the High Court building.
‘This is not open for the public,’ says an officious guard at the entrance gate. A sweeper is cleaning the walkways around the buildings inside. Morning light is slanting through at a steep angle. A fire engine is parked within the grounds.
‘I will just take a look at the building,’ I tell him.
‘Come back at ten o’clock. The offices will open then.’
‘I have come from Bangalore for a short visit. I will look at the buildings from outside.’
He relents and allows me to enter.
This is a wonderful old building with domes, turrets, arches and arcaded galleries. Perspectives are numerous. In one of the main entrances, a giant arch is set within a rectangular frame which at its ends rises in octogonal towers to domed kiosks. This sort of an imposing facade is formally called pishtaq. The arch frames three smaller arches at ground level, equivalent jharokas at a higher level and a wider jharoka at the top. Behind the top line of crenellation, the main dome rises above an octogonal base. The dome is surrounded by turrets topped with domed kiosks.
I hardly know how old it is or who built it. For all its architectural glory, these buildings are not well maintained. A similar building stands across the river. It houses today the Osmania General Hospital. As I leave the High Court I ask the guard about Purana Haveli Palace. I point him to the map in my hands. He is clueless. He has never heard of it.
Salar Jung Museum
Said to be the largest one-man collection of objects, this museum has many wonderful exhibits. The building itself is beautiful and access to all the galleries is easy. Crowds will stroll in, ignore the majestic entrance hall, be blind to navigation maps and before anything else, head straight for the Musical Clock, the most famous object in the museum.
The Musical Clock isn’t exactly a masterpiece. Made in England in the 19th century, it has dials for the month and the day of the month in addition to telling time. A few minutes to the close of each hour, the clock gets ready for some drama. At the hour, a dwarf pops out of a cubicle and strikes the bell. An ironsmith is busy at work with a hammer in the other corner. Indians are well-known for not keeping time but at Salar Jung Museum they are early. Crowds will gather at the concourse where the clock is placed. They will take their seats and wait patiently even twenty minutes before its time. A camera displays a close-up of the clock face on two large LCD screens on the sides. When the action begins, everyone watches with excitement. Grandmothers will point their grandkids to the dwarf and his striking of the bell. The amplified sound of the bell fills the concourse amidst excited whispers. Like a moment in eternity, it is just a little fraction of the hour that cannot be missed. When it is all over, the clouds will clap and disperse. So the clock is not a masterpiece but it is entertaining for sure.
My mother told me of a half man and half woman statue that I should not miss at the museum. I assumed this must be a statue of Ardhanarisvara, with Shiva making up the right side of the body and Parvati the left. I have seen such sculptures in some of the temples, particularly at Pattadakal. So I am not exactly searching for this sculpture when by chance I come across it in a gallery dedicated to Western art. It is nothing close to what I had imagined. Unlike Ardhanarisvara, this lacquered and polished wooden statue is fully male one side and female on the other. The statue is ingeniously conceived and executed beautifully. The figures are full length. The male figure wears a clock that covers the head and drops the length of the body. It is this cloak that effectively frames and separately the two figures, hides one from the other.
The other notable exhibit in the museum is yet another Western masterpiece. This is Veiled Rebecca, a full length marble statue. Rebecca is a Biblical figure who stands here with a veil that covers her face. Through this veil her delicate face, demure smile and shy downward glance are visible. This may seem common but we must remember that the veil itself is in marble. Each thread of the veil is delicately carved. In the solidity of marble, the sculptor has created the transparency of cloth.
This is right next to Charminar and lies somewhat in the neglected shadow of its popular neighbour. Bags and cameras are not allowed even in the open forecourt. Visitors have to pass through a metal detector which doesn’t seem to work. The security guard is chatting with a stall owner at the entrance. They are busy fiddling a mobile phone. I enter the forecourt. Security is too busy to stop me. This is the place that was bombed some years ago.
The main building has five bays in the East-West direction and three in the North-South direction. Square piers rise to wide arches through plain capitals. Spandrels have simple arch netting. Little domes crown each space but none of these domes can be seen on the outside from ground level. A pillared corridor containing tombs at the southern end leads to the mosque. A pool is next to it for ritual cleaning before entering the mosque. Visitors are feeding pigeons who flock in great numbers at this mosque.
The bays are closed on the eastern end with a wire metal frame. This must be a recent addition for reasons of security. A guide brings two foreign tourists, opens a gate for them, enters and closes it behind them. Meanwhile I am contented in looking at the mosque from the outside. Each arch interplays with the curves of another. Depending on how one looks, an arch frames other arches in perspective. It closes as well as opens space. It sings its note while the building is the song. Every pier, arch and domed ceiling is painted white. It gives the interior lightness of mood.
Narrow carpets are laid out along the length of the mosque. They have a design of cusped arches pointing to the qibla at the western wall. A man is sweeping the carpets with a long broom. The broom is made of little feathers of some sort. With each slow and sweeping motion he traces his curves on the carpets. His movement is repetitive, almost meditative in the silence of the mosque. It is like a time-honoured dance.
Chandeliers hang many feet from the high ceiling. They are all covered with brown cloth. Perhaps they will see the light of day on some special occasions. Covered in this way, they appear enigmatic. They are like the nests of weaver birds hanging in the shades of palms.
Light is slanting through the open bays and casting sharp shadows. Green bracketed shelves lining the piers catch this light cheerfully. It is almost a prayer in itself, an obeisance to the light of nature. Prayers books are stacked on these shelves. Little prayer caps made of cane are stacked neatly on a stepped platform. A grandfather clock ticks. With each tick, I sense pause, movement and pause again. It seems an age for a second to live to its full purpose.
Along with Charminar, the mosque stands in an old part of town. Here I find exotic shops and trades not easily found elsewhere. In a workshop men are preparing thin plates of gold and silver, almost like paper. It is called waraq. A small shop displays in its glass cabinet an array of glass bottles containing colourful perfumes. Some of these perfumes may be quite old and exotic. The bottles themselves are works of art. This is a piece of Nawabi Hyderabad. But from everything there is of old Hyderabad, Mecca Masjid was truly like a dream to me this morning. It has taken me to medieval India.