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.

Getting around

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.

Paraphrasing history

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.

The palaces of Hyderabad

Camera battery failure on day one is not good, so I’m borrowing photos here.

Mecca Masjid street view from Charminar (Wikipedia)

The centre of Hyderabad is great. Four ceremonial gates surround the Charminar, a four towered mosque/memorial/gateway built in 1591. It’s surrounded by textile and bangle markets and the Makkah Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. It’s a vast building (1694) of soaring granite arches and keystone bricks baked of soil from Mecca. Kim didn’t get past the security with her ‘fashion trousers’ while tummy exposing sari wearers breezed through. The complex houses a simple row of tombs of the the Nizams and their families.


Nearby but hidden behind modern decay is the Chowmahalla Palace, the main palace of the Nizams and reopened in the last few years.  There’s a series of courtyards surrounded by corridors of storage rooms and servants quarters. A durbar hall of marble and chandeliers has display photos of the family and the visits from the Viceroys. There are the usual collections of arms, the European rooms decorated in Edwardian taste and collections of textiles and costumes. Like so many other Indian Prines, there’s a collection of carriages and cars, including a perfect 1914 canary yellow Rolls Royce, now housed in one of the Victorian bandstands. At its peak the palace had 6,000 employees including 38 just to dust the chandeliers.

The Chaumhalla Palace at Hyderabad, photographed in the 1880s (Wikipedia/British Library). You can see the Makkah Masjid and the Charminar in the background on the right.

Purani Haveli

Another palace was the Purani Haveli, where the last Nizam lived. The complex is now a school but there’s a museum in one of the wings. It mainly contains a set of ornate gifts given for his Silver Jubilee in 1937, including many silver deco architectural models of the modern buildings the ruler brought to the city. But the highlights were the 150 year old hand-cranked lift and the world’s largest wardrobe; 70m of teak cupboards.

The most stunning sight in the palace, the Nizam’s wardrobe


We failed to get into the most sumptuous palace, the Falaknuma. Locked since the 50s it was leased to the Taj Hotels chain, restored and reopened in 2010. Furniture and artworks restored, the only realistic way to visit was for afternoon tea. But failing to reserve our car was turned away at the gate.


The Golkonda Fort dates from the 16th century and sits on a hill in the outskirts of the city. Or it used to. Fortunately the extensive land run by the army – sports grounds, parade grounds, golf courses – has stemmed some of the development in this direction. We’ve picked Sankranti, the harvest festival to visit and the place is packed. Three or four sets of walls defend layers of the hill up to a pavilion on the top. The acoustics are said to be so good that a clap at the lower gate can be heard at the top of the hill, though was presumably not tested with so many visitors. There’s a view to a series of domed tombs to the north of the fort and of the largely intact 11 km lower wall. Beyond this are the while tower blocks of the city.

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The site is heavily ruined. It fell to a siege by the Mughal emperor Aurangazeb in 1687. You’re left with massive and impressive blocks built into the natural granite boulders of the hill. The royal quarters have the remains of vase-shaped niches for lamps, stucco ceilings, fountains, water course and toilets.



Ashtur tombs

Spotting some domed mausoleums close to Bidar we got the driver to change course to find them. In a valley outside the city walls is a line of 7 or 8 massive tombs. The Ashtur tombs are the resting palces of a dynasty of 15th century sultans. There are solid cubes deorated with layers of arches, carved basalt trimmings, the remains of bright ceramic tiles and topped with domes. Inside there are simple tombs to the rulers.

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Ahmad Shah I lies under an canopy embroidered with words like ‘Allah’ and ‘Mohammed’. (OK, along with ‘halal’ these are the only words I recognise in Arabic.) His tomb is the only one painted on the inside, the walls covered in painted geometries in orange, gold and cobalt. The carved stone windows let light pierce the cool interiors. The guardian gradually opened up the other tombs for us.

Just up the road was the tomb of a sufi saint. Visiting school kids were excited by our arrival and the promise of some and the promise of some group shots. A number of women were praying at the tomb.


Bidar is surrounded by a vast, and from what I could see, a largely intact wall. The old town is unspoilt and in its centre an elegant 15th century madrasa. The mosque is still in use though the school it suffered from an explosion after the Mughals captured it 2 centuries later. The minaret is covered in the remains of bright tiles in a zigzag design.

Bidar Fort

The town leads on to the fort. The fort is one of the largest in southern India. The walls are impressive and largely intact though the palaces and buildings inside are fairly ruined. The buildings that were impact – the mosque and parts of the palace – were closed and the museum was being rebuilt. Cannons and carvings sat in the remains of the Islamic gardens. Guards with whistles made sure you didn’t get too close to anything. There was great outdoor restaurant in the grounds.

Main entrance to Bidar Fort
Massive ditches still surround the fort

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We didn’t get a chance to explore much else of Bidar. The hotel was well away from the fort in the modern part of town. It was notable for a couple of things; our vast 70s -style suite and the hotel drinking den.

The Indian relationship to alcohol is a bit unpredictable. In rural towns like this, even in what was the most expensive hotel in town, the bar needed to be a little discrete. In a place with few obvious eating palces we were attracted by the idea of a beer garden behind the  hotel. The hotel staff pointed it out as particularly risque place to visit. We worked round the building to a seperate and hidden entrance where we embarassed the staff by exploring every possible room. I think to their relief we settled for a curtained and very dark booth where we could order whisky, beer and decent Chinese food without scaring their other customers.  Kim was almost certainly the only woman. It was both very innocent and terribly naughty.


In another life Bijapur could have been one of the great tourist cities of India. There’s a truly world-class sight, a wonderful collection of vast and crumbling ruins, picturesque mosques and temples, more than their fair share of tombs and the remannts of city walls and canals.

Gol Gumbaz


The Gol Gumbaz is the key sight. Visible for miles as you approach the city, it’s the vast 1659 mausoleum of the Sultan of Bijapur; a pumped-up version of the Islamic tombs that we’ve been seeing since Hyderabad. The guidebooks get very excited when they claim it is the 2nd largest dome in the world. (Wikipedia suggests that it may be true; it’s slightly smaller than the Duomo in Florence, still the largest brick and mortar dome in the world.)

Contemporary with the Taj Mahal it impresses by size rather than elegance. No slim minurets here, the towers are like pagodas. And no marble; grey basalt and white stucco.  But the interior takes your breath away; a vast empty space soaring to the dome and a line of simple tombs on a raised plinth.

Visiting on Sunday afternoon wasn’t the best idea.  The gardens were packed with picnicking visitors and the guards in the museum were under pressure, blowing whistles at the slightest infringement of the generous  list of museum rules. The Gol Gumbaz was the world’s noisest tomb as packs of school kids testing the spectacular acoustics of the whispering gallery on the interior of the dome. And we could barely walk a couple of yards without been inviting to be in someone’s photos.

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Ibrahim Rauza

Ibrahim-Rauza1The other great tomb in Bijapur is the earlier Ibrahim Rauza. This is said to have inspired much of the architecture of the Taj Mahal, especially the minerets. Two buildings on a plinth that conceals a labyrinth of arched corridors; the tombs and a prayer hall, both covered in geometric and calligraphic carvings, perforated screens and faded paintings. The tomb consists of a line of minimalist polished dark basalt structures.

We visited some smaller tomb complexes – the saints still being prayed to – and a memorial tank.  There was also the Barakaman, a third massive mausoleum that was never complete but might have exceeded the Gol Gumbaz. A high platform and a series of huge arches is all that is left. Construction stopped after the sultan was murdered by his father.

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The citadal

The centre of Bijapur contains the remains of the palaces and administrative buildings. It’s made up of some ruins carefully tidied by the Archaelogical Survey of India and set in flower gardens, other ruins still in use as local government offices, mosques or the Gymkana Club, some perilous ruins on the cusp of collapse and other medieval buildings occupied as housing. It’s an odd mixture of the picturesque, the squalid, the mysterious and the over-curated. My favourite was the Mecca Masjid; no signposts, took some looking for. Behind some plain high walls was an old mosque. The guardian let us in, chillis were drying in the courtyard where her young daughters played. The walls suggest that it was a women’s mosque.

Other sights included the large 16th century Jama Masjid (Friday mosque) with its elaborate painted mikrab. High up on a defensive tower is a bronze cannon, the Malik-i-Maidan. The mouth is shaped into an open lion’s head; its jaws crushing an elephant to death. (Wikipedia lists this as the 3rd largest cannon in the world.) It played its part in the siege of Bijapur by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

The Friday Mosque
Old building now the Gymkhana Club


The Women’s Mosque, hidden behind high walls and now inhabited by a family who guard the building
Vegetable market