When someone refers to ‘Golconda Fort’ in Hyderabad, they usually mean the fort’s innermost fortifications. Even though the fort itself is much larger (and though the outer ramparts also have some incredible sights), the inner ‘Bala Hisar’ citadel is by far the most impressive part of the fort. The ruins of barracks, royal palaces, prisons, treasuries, mosques and temples climb their way up its steep granite hill, presided over by the royal court at the very top.
Golconda Fort: A witness to over 600 years of history
They say the Bala Hisar hill had earthen fortifications on it as far back as 2,000 years ago. But only once the rulers of nearby Warangal surrendered the fort to the Bahmani kings in the 1300s did Golconda Fort get defences built of stone and mortar. 200 years later, the governor of Golconda—Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-mulk—declared himself independent, and his dynasty continued building and improving Golconda Fort. Today, the fort’s outer wall is around 11 kilometres long, and the inside is still densely populated.
Also read: The outer ramparts of Golconda Fort
A sunny day at Bala Hisar, Golconda Fort’s inner citadel
I hadn’t been to Bala Hisar in years, and when some relatives visited from out of town, it was the perfect opportunity to see it again. I thought there wouldn’t be anything new for me to see, but I was surprised to discover a few things I hadn’t seen before. And, after all this time, I saw even the familiar sights in a new light.
I thought there wouldn’t be anything new for me to see, but I was surprised.
We got there just as it opened at 9:00 AM, so there weren’t as many people and the road in front wasn’t as crowded. The crossing at the gate was still relatively quiet, and the huge Abyssinian arches on either side loomed over it almost peacefully. It was already getting hot, though, so we hurried on to the gate.
Bala Hisar Darwaza, the fort’s innermost gate
The Bala Hisar Darwaza may be the innermost gate of the fort, but it’s built a lot like the outer ones. The wooden doors are spiked, and the approach is angled, to stop elephants and battering rams from attacking them. The gateway arch is massive and tall, with arrow slits and a vent through which to pour boiling oil on the enemy. But the gate is also different from the others, because it still has the remains of intricate decorations, in both Hindu and Islamic styles.
The gate still has the remains of intricate decorations in Hindu and Islamic styles.
After much photography, we walked through the gate and into Bala Hisar’s unique—and fun—communications system. This is a domed portico with incredible acoustics; if you stand in the centre and clap your hands, the sound is heard right at the top of the fort, a kilometre away. They say people used this system to send messages up the steep hill without having to climb it. I can believe that, though how they sent messages back down is still a mystery.
The Nagina Bagh garden
Through the ‘clapping porch’ we went, and towards the stone stairs leading up the granite hill. This took us past Nagina Bagh (‘jewel garden’), the citadel’s geometrical garden. It must have been beautiful in its heyday, and probably still looks lovely during the monsoon. But when we were there, it was a bit dry. More interesting was the long, vaulted hall next to it, partially below ground level. I’ve heard this described as both a barracks and an elephant stable. It’s probably the former, but the latter sounds more impressive!
Nagina Bagh has interesting, partially sunken vaulted halls to one side.
Further ahead, we saw another series of vaulted halls. These were supposed to have been the administrative offices, presided over by the minister-brothers Akkanna and Madanna. The halls were impressive but a little forbidding. I doubt the clerks working there looked forward to Monday mornings.
Just before we started on the steep climb up the hill, I noticed a sunken archway off to the right. I didn’t remember that from my previous visits, so I decided to take a look. Walking past a large reservoir (with a strangely tilted arch sticking out into it), I got to the sunken arch. And then I realized that this was the Murda Darwaza (the ‘gate of the dead’), which I had heard a lot about but never seen.
The sunken arch was the ‘gate of the dead’, which I had heard a lot about but never seen.
They say that, when a royal died, they were carried through the gate and through an underground passage to the royal necropolis, over a kilometre away. Once they were buried, the passage would be sealed up to prevent their spirit from finding its way back. I had always thought this was just a story, but there’s obviously some truth to it.
Also read: The vast Qutb Shahi necropolis
Up the steep stairs
Having investigated the murda darwaza, I made my way up the stairs to join the rest of our group. After some huffing and puffing past reservoirs and other structures, we arrived at one of the citadel’s more interesting sights. This was the prison of Bhakta Ramdas, one of the kingdom’s prime ministers. The story goes that Ramdas stole a huge sum of money from the treasury to build a temple to Lord Rama, even though he knew he would be caught. He spent 21 years in this domed hall praying to Lord Rama, and when the king finally pardoned him, he gave him the nickname ‘bhakta’ (‘faithful’).
Ramdas was a prime minister who was imprisoned for stealing from the treasury to build a temple to Lord Rama.
The prison was quite impressive, with its high ceilings and skylights, even though it was a granary before Ramdas arrived. But most interesting was the high altar near the entrance. Up a flight of stairs and near the ceiling was a broad shelf, with images of gods and goddesses carved into the stone blocks. They had recently been painted orange (or ‘saffron’, Hinduism’s sacred colour), but it was obvious that people had been worshipping there for a long time. Maybe Ramdas started the tradition?
The highest point of Golconda Fort and the surrounding countryside
Some more stairs led us past Ramdas’s prison and the granary next door, to another of the citadel’s famous sights. This was the Mahankali rock temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali, and so old that it supposedly predates the 600-year old Golconda Fort itself. The temple, and the Ibrahim Mosque next door, still draw a steady stream of worshippers today.
Aside: For those not in the know, the goddess Kali is worshipped as a form of the mother goddess Parvati. According to one myth, Parvati needed to take the terrifying form of Kali to defeat a demon that none of the other gods could. The demon Raktabija (‘blood seed’) couldn’t be killed because, every time a drop of his blood touched the ground, another of him would appear. Kali finally defeated him by drinking all his blood, but this drove her into a frenzy of destruction. She finally came to her senses when her husband, Lord Shiva, threw himself at her feet and she stepped on him by mistake. Of course, this is just one of many stories about Kali.
Past the temple and the mosque, we finally got to the royal court, also called the Durbar Hall. This pavilion sits at the very top of the hill, and is the highest point in Golconda Fort and the surrounding plain. We were looking forward to the spectacular 360O views of the city from its terrace. To our intense disappointment, it was closed for renovation!
A new discovery
In a way, it was lucky that the durbar hall was closed. When we complained to the security guard at the durbar hall that was denying us the view, he pointed us to a path that led off the far corner of the courtyard. We had never been that way before, and we discovered some interesting new sights.
We discovered an ornate cannon, and a spectacular view, behind the Mahankali temple
After some scrambling up and down, we ended up on a large rampart that held an ornate old cannon. It wasn’t as impressive as the Fateh Rahbar cannon on the outer walls, but it was still impressive. More impressive, though, was the view, with the entire north-western side of the plain laid out underneath. It wasn’t as spectacular a view as from the durbar hall, but it came pretty close.
Also read: The outer ramparts of Golconda Fort
Down the other side
It was getting uncomfortably hot out in the sun, so we made our way back to the durbar hall. We took the path past the pavilion and down the steep stairs on the other side of the hill. This was the way to the palace complex and the impressive Rani Mahal (‘queens’ palace’). On the way down, we could see just how stony the hill was. Walls and buildings stood on and around massive granite boulders that, by rights, shouldn’t have stayed standing over the last few centuries.
Aside: Geologists say that the granite boulders of Hyderabad are some of the oldest in the world, and formed when the earth’s crust cooled, 2.5 billion years ago. They used to be a common sight around the city, but many of them have disappeared as the city has expanded. One of the most spectacular surviving examples is at Fakhruddingutta.
Also read: The ancient rocks of Fakhruddingutta
Golconda Fort’s royal palace
At the bottom of the hill, we finally arrived at the palace complex. This was a network of crumbling open halls and chambers that still had a distinctly more luxurious feel to them than the rest of the fort. Wherever there was still some plaster on the walls, we could see complex decorations and stucco. And there were hundreds of niches for oil lamps everywhere. We could just imagine what it must have looked like during its heyday, with bejewelled ladies strolling through richly decorated halls lit up by hundreds of oil lamps, all under the starry night sky! It’s a pity that thoughtless people scribble things on the walls even here.
There were hundreds of niches for oil lamps in the walls, which must have made the halls an incredible sight at night!
The Khilwat (the royal chambers) are supposed to be one of the most architecturally impressive parts of the entire Golconda Fort. Sadly, it was off limits to visitors, though we didn’t see any renovation going on. So we walked through the large quadrangle in front for a bit. This was where the kings and queens were entertained, and where the nightly sound-and-light show about Golconda Fort’s history still takes places.
Out through the Rani Mahal
The way out took us through the huge vaulted halls of the Rani Mahal, the ladies’ chambers. Though efforts have been made to clean the halls up in the last few years, some dark corners still remain the domain of bats and pigeons. The doesn’t mean that the Rani Mahal isn’t interestingly mysterious, though. For the first time, I discovered the amazing acoustics of one of the domed halls: whisper against the wall in one corner, and you can be heard in the opposite one. It’s true. I tried it.
A morning well spent
When we finally got back to the entrance gate, it was lunchtime and blisteringly hot. We had seen and discovered some incredible things, even those of us who had been there before. But who knows what mysteries this ancient citadel still hides? After all, Golconda Fort was the centre of the region’s most powerful kingdom for centuries, and Bala Hisar was the fort’s beating heart.
IQ’s top tips for Golconda Fort’s inner citadel
- Bala Hisar is open from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM. It’s best to get there when the gates open if you want to avoid some of the crowds and the heat.
- Entry is Rs. 20 for Indians and Rs. 200 for non-Indians. Still cameras are free, but video cameras cost Rs. 25. You won’t be allowed to take in ‘professional’ equipment like tripods, camera stabilizers and large video cameras.
- There’s not much shade on the way up to the top, so an umbrella and a bottle of water will come in handy.
- You can buy water and snacks at the basic café in the armoury to the left of the entrance gate, but I recommend you bring your own.
- You might want to hire a guide at the entrance, because there’s lots to see. But make sure they have an official government license. You might have to haggle about the fees, especially if you’re very obviously non-Indian.
- Stay on the lookout for interesting nooks and paths off the main walkways. But be careful, too. Safety isn’t a major priority, here.
- The sound-and-light show costs Rs. 150, and the shows are from 7:00 to 8:00 PM in English every day; 8:00 to 9:00 in Hindi (Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays) or Telugu (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays).
- Check the weather forecast before you go; seating for the sound-and-light show is in the open. And take mosquito repellent against the inevitable swarms. They bite through clothes too, so the spray-on type works best.
- After the show, wait for the path back to the gate to be lit up. The illuminated buildings along the path look spectacular.
- ‘Hyderabad, 400 years (1591-1991)’, by Raza Alikhan
- ‘A guide to the heritage of Hyderabad: The natural and the built’, by Madhu Vottery
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golkonda
My photography equipment
I took these photographs with my trusty Canon EOS 200D DSLR camera, using my new Tamron 18-400mm zoom lens (read my review). I took footage for the video (and some photographs) with my GoPro Hero5 action camera.
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