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Things to do on the weekend in Hyderabad: The vast Qutb Shahi necropolis

The necropolis of the Qutb Shahi kings—also called the Qutb Shahi tombs—is over 400 years old, and still shows you something new with every visit.

The Qutb Shahi tombs near Golconda Fort are one of the most popular tourist spots in Hyderabad, and most Hyderabadis have visited them at least once. But learn a little about the four centuries of history that surround them, and you’ll see them in a different light.

View-of-Golconda-from-the-tomb-of-Hayat-Bakshi-Begum-by-Raja-Deen-Dayal
A photograph of Golconda fort taken from Hayat Bakshi Bagum’s tomb, ca. 1880 (reprint of original by Raja Deen Dayal)

Most Hyderabadis call this necropolis ‘the seven tombs’, probably because the seven largest royal tombs are the most visible from the distance. The entire layout actually has forty-odd separate tombs, around 20 mosques, five step-wells and other buildings. And even more are still being discovered today.

The necropolis was neglected after the Qutb Shahi dynasty fell in 1687, until a Hyderabadi nobleman—Salar Jung III—made some restorations. Today the government, together with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, is doing some great work in restoring the necropolis again, and plans to develop it into a heritage park by 2023.

Also read: The Paigah tombs, Hyderabad’s other magnificent necropolis

Seeing the tombs up close

At first glance, the entrance just off the main Golconda Fort road doesn’t look like much. Once you drive through the narrow gateway, you’ll buy tickets at a shoddy little ticket counter manned by uninterested staff, and be waved on by a surly security guard. But keep going down the narrow road, and that’s when the magic begins!

The first thing you’ll see is the massive tomb of Abdullah Qutb Shah, the seventh Qutb Shahi king, to your right. Most photographs can’t really do justice to the sheer scale of the tombs, and this one is one of the largest. It’s also one of the best examples of the blend of Persian and local styles of architecture that Golconda was known for. Look closely, and you’ll see plenty of Hindu influences in the decorations, like the lotus petals at the base of the dome and the temple-like finials at the top of each dome.

minaret and dome of abdullah qutb shah's tomb, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
The minaret and main dome of Abdullah Qutb Shah’s tomb show the fringe of lotus petals at their base

Further up the road, past Abdullah’s tomb (and that of his daughter Fatima Khanum opposite) is where the second gate to the necropolis is. It’s also where you’ll need to park your vehicle and show another security guard your entry ticket. Before you do, you might want to take a quick look at the mournful unfinished tomb of Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed, husband of Abdullah’s daughter Fatima, and his initial heir.

Aside: Abdullah was eventually succeeded by Abul Hasan, the last Qutb Shah. He died in Daulatabad, a prisoner of the Mughal empire.

unfinished tomb of mirza nizamuddin ahmed, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
The unfinished tomb of Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed, initial successor to Abdullah Qutb Shah

Deceptive size and scale

On through the gate, and the true size of the necropolis hits you. Acres and acres of tombs big and small, ornate mosques, multi-level step wells and other buildings open up in front of you. Walk up the main path and you’ll see the most impressive tomb of them all, that of Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah. Mohammed Quli was the founder of Hyderabad, the builder of the Charminar, and the greatest of all the Qutb Shahi kings. No wonder his tomb—with a sprawling garden in front, and the royal ‘ghusl-khana’ (mortuary bath) opposite—is the biggest and most popular.

Aside: Most sources refer to the mortuary bath as ‘hamaam’. In local Urdu, though, a ‘hamaam’ is a public bath. A ‘ghusl-khana’ is a building in which a body is given a ritual ‘ghusl’ bath before burial.

tomb of sultan muhammad qutb shah, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
The tomb of Sultan Mohammed Qutb Shah, seen though one of the arches of the ghusl-khaha

The further you walk into the complex, the older to buildings get. It’s easy to forget that all the tombs, mosques and pavilions weren’t all built at the same time, but over one-and-a-half centuries. The first building was the tomb of the Qutb Shahi dynasty’s founder Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk, built around 1530, and closest to the Golconda Fort. Over the next 150 years, his successors built their own tombs further and further away from Golconda, creating a necropolis spread over more than 100 acres. And if you’re the somewhat adventurous kind, you might want to stray off the main path and explore a little.

infographic of the qutb shahi tombs and when they were built
These are the approximate times when the tombs of the Qutb Shahi kings were built (click to enlarge)

Interesting experiences

A sense of mystery hangs over this ancient burial ground. Start wandering around, and that mystery deepens further with every interesting sight and story. Gaze on the two (relatively) modest tombs of Premamati and Taramati, courtesans who charmed the king enough to have them buried with the royal family. Admire the ‘Badi Baoli’ (great step-well) with its rows of below-ground galleries, and try to imagine the royal family using them escape the summer heat below ground. Or search Muhammad Quli’s tomb for the hidden stairs that lead down to the actual burial chamber below, and see if you dare to follow them (hint: make sure you take a torch).

Sadly, a few parts of the necropolis are being restored and are closed to the public. But there are still lots of wonderful things to see among the 400 year-old buildings.

badi baoli step well at qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
The Badi Baoli step well; the tip of the main arch on the second sub-level can be seen just above the water
sunset behind premamati's tomb, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
The sun sets behind the tomb of Premamati, a beloved courtesan

The Qutb Shahs: A South Indian dynasty from Persia

The Qutb Shahs ruled most of the Deccan between 1512 and 1686, and the mixture of Persian-Islamic and Telugu-Hindu cultures they brought about lasts until today.

Sultan Quli: From Persian tribesman to South Indian king

In in the early 1500s, a young Persian-Turkish tribesman called Sultan Quli fled to India with some members of his family to escape inter-tribal conflict in his homeland of Persia. He arrived in Delhi, and later moved south to the Deccan, settling down in the Bahmani kingdom ruled from Bidar. There, he proved himself a good statesman and military commander. He rose through the ranks quickly, and was finally became Qutb-ul-Mulk (roughly translated as ‘governor of the realm’). When the Bahmani kingdom began to fall apart, he declared himself independent and set up his capital in Golconda. There, he founded the Qutb Shahi dynasty that would rule the Deccan for close to 200 years.

Restored-Qutb-Shahi-tombs-with-Golconda-fort
The tomb of Sultan Quli (center) surrounded by those of his immediate descendants (image courtesy the Aga Khan Development Network)

Jamsheed Quli, the impatient and cruel

Sultan Quli spent 30-odd years consolidating his kingdom’s hold on the Deccan. During this time, his second son Jamsheed apparently become impatient for his turn on the throne. Eventually, Jamsheed had his father assassinated, blinded his elder brother, and forced his younger brother to flee to the neighbouring kingdom of Vijayanagara. He then declared himself Jamsheed Quli Qutb Shah, the second Qutb Shahi king. His reign ended just seven years later, when he died of tuberculosis.

tombs of jamsheed quli qutb shah and sultan quli qutb shah, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
The unique octagonal tomb of Jamsheed Quli seems closer to his father’s tomb than it actually is.

Ibrahim Quli: The beginning of the golden age

After Jamsheed’s death, his seven year-old son Subhan ruled for a year. During that time, Subhan’s regent persuaded Jamsheed’s youngest brother Ibrahim to return from Vijayanagara and assume the throne. Since he had grown up in the Vijayanagara court (present-day Hampi), Ibrahim had absorbed much of the kingdom’s Telugu culture and language. It was during his rule that the kingdom of Golconda combined the Persian culture of his father Sultan Quli with that of the local people, and became a true South Indian kingdom. His 30-year reign began the golden age for the Golconda kingdom and its Qutb Shahi rulers.

the tombs of ibrahim quli qutb shah and muhammad quli qutb shah, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
Ibrahim Quli’s tomb (right) is more modest than that of his legendary son, Mohammed Quli (left)

Mohammed Quli, the founder of Hyderabad

Ibrahim Quli Qutb Shah passed on the throne to his son Mohammed Quli. This was the most famous of all the Qutb Shahi kings, and founded the city of Hyderabad in 1591. Legend has it that Mohammed Quli first named the city Bhagnagar, after Bhagmati, a local Hindu girl whom he had fallen in love with. When he later married her and she changed her name to Hyder Mahal, he renamed the city Hyderabad. Mohammed Quli also built Hyderabad’s iconic Charminar, which some say he did as a monument to his love for Bhagmati. Others say that he did it to mark the end of a major cholera outbreak in Golconda. Still others say he built the Charminar to mark the start of the second millennium of the Islamic calendar, and the foundation of Hyderabad.

tomb of muhammad quli qutb shah with golconda fort in background, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
The massive tomb of Mohammed Quli catches the setting sun, with Golconda fort in the background

Sultan Mohammed, the peace-loving scholar

After 30 years on the throne, Mohammed Quli made way for Sultan Mohammed, husband of his daughter, the legendary Hayat Bakshi Begum. Not much is known about the relatively short reign of Sultan Mohammed, except that he was peace-loving and very well-read. His wife, on the other hand, known for having had enormous influence in state matters during the reigns of her father, husband and son. Sultan Mohammed’s death 14 years later ended the golden age of the kingdom of Golconda.

tomb of sultan muhammad qutb shah, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
Sultan Mohammed’s tomb was the first to have the wide arched gallery at its base
tomb of hayat bakshi begum and great mosque, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
The tomb of queen Hayat Bakshi Begum, with the Great Mosque behind

Abdullah: The beginning of the end

Abdullah Qutb Shah ascended the throne of the kingdom after the end of his father’s reign. But 10 years after Abdullah became king, Golconda was invaded by the Mughal prince Aurangzeb on behalf of his father, emperor Shah Jahan of Delhi. Aurangzeb laid siege to Golconda fort until Abdullah agreed to a peace treaty, supposedly brokered by his mother Hayat Bakshi Begum. Abdullah was forced to recognize the supremacy of Shah Jahan, and accepted a Mughal representative at his court. He ruled for 50 long years, but his reign marked the decline of Golconda.

tomb of abdullah qutb shah, qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
Abdullah Qutb Shah was the last Qutb Shahi king to be buried in the royal necropolis

Abul Hasan, the last Qutb Shah

Abdullah’s eldest son-in-law Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed was to succeed him to the throne, initially. Instead, another son-in-law, Abul Hasan, nicknamed ‘Tana Shah’, became king. During his reign, Abul Hasan tried to throw off the yoke of the Mughals. This made Aurangzeb—who had become emperor by then—invade Golconda again. After a long siege, Aurangzeb conquered Golconda and took Abul Hasan prisoner. Abul Hasan died a prisoner in Daulatabad fort, and was buried there in a modest grave.

The seed of a new dynasty

Interestingly enough, the two commanders of the Mughal armies that conquered Golconda were father and grandfather to Mir Qamar-ud-din Khan. Qamar-ud-din went on to become Nizam-ul-Mulk (‘administrator of the realm’) of Hyderabad, carve out his own kingdom, and found the Asaf Jahi dynasty that ruled Hyderabad until 1948.

Top tips

  • The Qutb Shahi tombs are close to the Golconda fort, and you can reach them via Toli Chowki. Use this Google Maps location for navigation.
  • The necropolis is open to visitors all week, from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM.
  • The entry fees are Rs. 10 for adults and Rs. 5 for children (for non-Indian nationals, it’s Rs. 50 and Rs. 5 respectively). Taking a still camera in costs Rs. 20, and a video camera Rs. 200. Parking is Rs. 20 for a car, Rs. 10 for a bike, and Rs. 50 for a bus (!).
  • You can take in the essentials in about an hour. But if you’re curious and like exploring, you could easily spend half a day here!
  • There’s a small snack shop inside the complex, and maybe a few pushcarts selling corn-on-the-cob and coconut water. If you need something more substantial, either carry a picnic, or head back out onto the main road to a typical Hyderabadi roadside café.
  • The grounds are a little unkempt and overgrown, but that just adds to the mystery.
  • For a better idea of the real size of the necropolis, climb to the top of Golconda Fort. The view is impressive, in spite of the surrounding buildings.
  • Be warned, though: it’s not easy to combine a visit to the tombs with a climb up Golconda Fort. The climb to the top of the fort is tiring, and the heat can be intense. Doing more sightseeing might not sound very appealing once you get down again.
  • Instead, consider visiting the tombs in the afternoon, and then heading to the fort in the evening for the fabulous sound-and-light show. Carry mosquito repellent, though.
historic photograph of qutb shahi tombs from golconda fort taken in 1902
View from the Golconda fort ca. 1902 shows the true scale of the necropolis (image courtesy Nathan Hughes Hamilton via Wikimedia Commons)
Restoration at qutb shahi tombs, hyderabad, india
An artisan and his assistant work on recreating the top of a minaret
arched gallery at qutb shahi tombs
The evening sun shines through the arched gallery at the base of Abdullah Qutb Shah’s tomb

Sources

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