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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.
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.
Popular legend says Muhammed Quli built the Charminar on the spot where he first saw his future wife.
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.
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!
Once we walked through the arch, we could better appreciate the scale of the Charminar.
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!
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.
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 say the central arch was built from bricks made with soil from Mecca, which is how the mosque got 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 the faithful 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 coincided with summer this time, 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.
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.
We were more than happy with our breakfast of Udupi-style vada, idli, masala dosa and filter coffee at Anand Bhavan
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.
IQ’s top tips for visiting the Charminar
- 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 (Ramadan).
- If you want to see what the upper levels of the Charminar look like (and take in a bird’s-eye view of the Old City), the stairs leading up open at 9:00 AM.
- 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 spoiled 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.
- 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.
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.
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