To some extent I was disappointed with Hyderabad. Perhaps inevitably for a city of 7m it sprawls to the horizon, and its fascinating history feels hidden in the development. It’s India’s 4th largest city and has grown much faster than its rivals; the population has doubled in the last 10 years.
Sleek elevated roads take you from a brand new airport into the wealthy commercial centre. A new metro system is being built on concrete piers above existing packed roads. Below, in the usual Indian road chaos, we’re choked during our auto rickshaw by the most incredible levels of air pollution. It’s probably the worse I’ve ever seen.
There were immediately some fun bits. The National Fisheries Development Board is housed in a large fish-shaped building next to the elevated motorway. And we spent a few hours on the first day visiting an annual handicrafts fair which featured a great travelling funfair.
It takes a couple of days to get used to the traffic. Crossing 9 lanes of fast-flowing traffic in the dark is not fun. One time a traffic policeman felt a call of duty to escort a couple of foreigners across , but he was completely ignored in his attempts to slow anything down!
The first days in any new country are always fraught. We have no idea of distances, directions, or transport prices. We don’t know what to call the places we want to go to. I make assumptions that big restaurants or major (and pronounceable) roads are known to the auto drivers, but spend much of the time directing them based on my GPS. And that makes me dependent on vagaries of Google Maps or Open Street Map.
The appeal of Hyderabad partly lies in its fabulous wealth built initially on the Golkonda diamond mines which in the 13th century were almost the only source of the gems in the world. The mines produced jewels like the Koh-i-Noor. The Mughals appointed the first Nizam of Hyderabad and the prosperity of the family led it to be the most senior of all the princely states in the British Raj. In the 1930s and 40s the Nizam was said to be the richest man in the world and the family claimed the heir to the Caliphate, following the fall of the Ottomans.
But the fall was fast. At independence the Nizam declared his intention to remain independent rather than become part of the Indian Union. The Indian Army then invaded the State of Hyderabad annexing it into the Indian Union. Reports that only emerged in 2013 said that 40 to 200,000 civilians may have died during these events. William Dalrymple documented how the wealth was lost, stolen, and seized. The last Nizam died in 1967 and his heir now lives on a sheep farm near Perth. The latter’s first wife is credited with paying off the debts and beginning to rescue some of the crumbling palaces.