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This is what it’s like to visit the Charminar early in the morning

Nothing says Hyderabad like the Charminar. The 400 year-old monument and mosque was built when Hyderabad was founded, and is still the symbol of the city today. And though it’s impressive at any time of day, we decided to try and avoid the crowds and the summer heat by going at 7:00 AM in the morning.

We hadn’t been to the Charminar (literally, ‘four minarets’ in Urdu) in Hyderabad’s Old City in a long time, mainly because of the terrible traffic and the crowds. But the area had recently been turned into a pedestrian zone, so we decided to take a chance. And we were glad we did.

Also read: Things to do on the weekend in Hyderabad: The ancient rocks of Fakhruddingutta

The Charminar and the Qutb Shahi kings

The Charminar was built in the late 1500s by the founder of Hyderabad, Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah. Though historians agree that it was built by Mohammed Quli, there are a few theories about why he built it. The most romantic of these is that he built it on the spot where he first saw his future wife, Begum Hyder Mahal (after whom Hyderabad was named). This theory also says that it was built so that it could be seen from Mohammed Quli’s tomb in the Qutb Shahi necropolis. Another theory is that it was built to mark the beginning of the second millennium of the Islamic calendar. Yet another is that it was built to celebrate the end of a cholera epidemic in Hyderabad. This last one is the one most historians seem to agree on. But the first one is the most popular, of course!

Whatever the reason behind its being built, the Charminar is the most popular tourist spot in Hyderabad. Sitting at the heart of the Old City, this is the best place to experience the city’s traditions, culture and historical architecture.

Gulzar Houz, Char Kaman and Charminar, 1880s
A view of Gulzar Houz, the southern arch of Char Kaman, and the Charminar beyond, circa 1880 (courtesy Lala Deen Dayal via Wikimedia Commons)

The approach through Char Kaman

Even though it was early in the morning, we decided against driving and took a taxi instead. Driving through the light traffic was nice. But the piles of litter along the road from the previous night’s Ramzan (or Ramadan) festivities saddened us a bit.

We got off at Gulzar Houz, the landmark fountain in the centre of the Char Kaman crossroads. Strolling up to the southern arch of Char Kaman (literally, ‘four gateway arches’ in Urdu), we were incredibly grateful for the new pedestrian zone. Because though there was still lots of traffic zooming around the fountain, there was none just a few meters further down the road where we were. Of course, there were still a few motorbikes that went past, but that’s to be expected. We still thoroughly enjoyed strolling along that cobble-stoned road without having to constantly worry about being run over!

We were a little disappointed, though, to see that the southern arch was covered with scaffolding. But I suppose every monument needs maintenance. And these arches probably need quite a bit, since they were built around the same time as the Charminar, almost 400 years ago. On the bright side, the scaffolding also did quite a good job of hiding the Charminar beyond. So once we walked through the arch, we could better appreciate the full scale of it. I had forgotten how impressive it is even now, and even with two of its 56 meter-tall minarets under renovation. 400 years ago, with the city just starting to take shape around it, it must have been absolutely mind-blowing!

The littered main road approaching Char Kaman and the Charminar
The littered main road approaching Char Kaman and the Charminar
The scaffolded southern arch and the Charminar beyond seen from the start of the pedestrian zone
The scaffolded southern arch and the Charminar beyond seen from the start of the pedestrian zone
The 56-meter minarets of the Charminar under renovation
The 56-meter minarets of the Charminar under renovation
A view back towards the southern arch from under the Charminar
A view back towards the southern arch from under the Charminar
Antique coins on sale by the roadside behind Charminar
Antique coins on sale by the roadside behind Charminar

An empty Laad Bazaar!

After some time gazing up at the arches and minarets, we walked into the main market street going off to the west. This was Laad Bazaar (‘lacquer market’), also called ‘chudi’ (‘bangle’) Bazaar because of its many shops selling lacquerwork bracelets. This is usually the most insanely busy street in an area of insanely busy streets. But at 7:30 AM, it was totally empty—a completely new experience for us! We spent a happy half an hour taking pictures in the middle of the street, and watching a group of boys at an early morning game of cricket. Of course, this being Laad Bazaar, we had to make way for the odd motorcycle, auto rickshaw or small car. But that was a small price to pay!

It was tempting to stay there and enjoy this strange new experience, but we resisted. We still wanted to take a look at Mecca Masjid, and it was already getting warmer.

Empty Laad Bazaar - Charminar
The empty Laad Bazaar street – a unique experience!
Laad Bazaar - morning cricket - Charminar
Boys at a game of cricket off the main Laad Bazaar street

Mecca Masjid and its flocks of pigeons

I’m embarrassed to say that this was the first time I’d been inside Mecca Masjid, though I’ve seen it from the outside plenty of times. This mosque is one of the biggest in India. And just like the Charminar, it was also built by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah. They say that the central arch was built from bricks made with soil from Mecca, giving the mosque its name.

The first thing we noticed when we went through the gate was the huge flock of pigeons milling around on the floor! It seems the locals love feeding them at any given time of day. There was even a small birdbath built into the floor, with a few pigeons enjoying a quick soak.

The broad stone courtyard in front of the mosque was covered with a temporary canopy to protect worshippers from the summer sun. I suppose it was necessary because this was Ramzan (or Ramadan), the Islamic month of fasting. During Ramzan, the throngs of the faithful at the mosque spill over into the courtyard (and often onto the road as well). And because Ramzan usually overlaps with summer, it’s no wonder they put a canopy up! We were a little sad, though, because the beautiful front of the mosque was half-covered. But we had to make the most of the situation, so we walked around anyway. Luckily, there was still lots to see. The pillared gallery housing the graves of the Asaf Jahi royals was particularly nice. And we found more than enough to keep us busy around the rest of the mosque too.

Also read: 5 great destinations to beat the heat—and the crowds—this summer

Nizamia General Hospital - Unani Hospital - Charminar
The ornate Nizamia General Hospital opposite Mecca Masjid – and the gathering crowds – at 8:00 AM
Mecca Masjid - Charminar
The facade of Mecca Masjid is partly covered by the temporary canopy, but the burial gallery to the left stands out
Pigeons get breakfast at Mecca Masjid - Charminar
Pigeons get breakfast at Mecca Masjid
Pigeons and Charminar seen from Mecca Masjid
More pigeons arrive, as the Charminar looks on
Prayer rugs, Mecca Masjid, Charminar
Ornate prayer rugs inside Mecca Masjid glow in the morning light
Mecca Masjid, Green Door, Charminar
A mysterious green door
Burial gallery, Mecca Masjid, Charminar
The graves of the Asaf Jahi royals in the pillared burial gallery
Grave and Charminar, Mecca Masjid
The gravestone of a particularly respected member of the Asaf Jahi royal family
Cat at Mecca Masjid, Charminar
This cat is not amused at being disturbed

Anand Bhavan – A good place for a quick bite

By the time we were done, it was around nine o’clock, and the day had gotten really hot. We still had a lot planned, but our tummies had started rumbling, so we set off to find breakfast. There were plenty of hole-in-the-wall eateries and traditional Irani cafes around, but those weren’t for us. After all, we wanted a place where we could cool off under a fan (so the first kind was out), and eat a good vegetarian breakfast (so the second was out too). Finally, a kindly shopkeeper pointed us in the direction of Anand Bhavan, back past Gulzar Houz and a little past the northern arch of Char Kaman.

Anand Bhavan turned out to be a modest little place on the first floor of one of the old market buildings along the road. But it served Udupi-style south Indian food, so we were more than happy. And after a big breakfast of vada, idli and masala dosa washed down with traditional filter coffee, it was time of the next part of our agenda: the Salar Jung museum. But that’s a different story.

Also read: 6 unexpectedly great restaurants for vegetarians in Hyderabad

Anand Bhavan, Charminar
We wait for our breakfast to arrive
Staff at breakfast, Anand Bhavan, Charminar
This member of the staff was having breakfast sitting in his little window – six feet off the ground!

Top tips

  • The Charminar is a different experience at different times of the day and the year. If you want to just look at the architecture, go at around 7:00 AM. If you want to shop, around 11:00 AM would be best—just when the shops open, but before the crowds get really bad. And if you want to see it at its best (and its worst!), go after 9:00 PM during Ramzan.
  • There are plenty of things to see and do around Charminar. Laad Bazaar, Mecca Masjid, Chowmahalla Palace, the Salar Jung museum and the impressive high court building are all within walking distance.
  • If you’re looking to try the traditional meat-heavy Hyderabadi cuisine, you’ll be spoilt for choice around Charminar. The well-known Pista House, Shadaab and Shah Ghouse eateries are all quite close. Just don’t expect high standards of luxury here.
  • If you prefer vegetarian things, Anand Bhavan may be your best bet. Or you could visit an Irani café for the traditional combination of chai and Osmania biscuit. And if you can find a pushcart selling piping hot, freshly made Hyderabadi-style naan, I strongly suggest biting into one.
  • For an interesting experience, try looking in at one of the many little shops beyond Laad Bazaar that sell salvaged ‘antiquities’ and other bric-a-brac. You can sometimes find some very nice things there.

Also read: The forgotten Paigah necropolis is a must-see in Hyderabad

Coin seller, Charminar
Portrait of a coin-seller
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