Sometime during the middle of last week, we realized that we had reached the half-way point of our adventures in India. It is hard to believe we have been here ten weeks already! Time is moving more quickly now, and there is so much we still want to see and do. This past weekend, we decided to take advantage of another free Saturday to plan a whirlwind trip to Hyderabad. We chose the city not only because of its striking Islamic architecture and convenience by air (only an hour flight from Chennai), but also because another Fulbright exchange teacher, Greg Hellman, is working here, along with his family. We welcomed the chance to swap stories with him and his wife, Jennifer, and for our kids to meet theirs.
Our trip started off quite inauspiciously (never a good thing in India!) – the hire car to the airport was late, the Friday night traffic was horrible, and our flight was “indefinitely delayed.” Yikes! By the time we arrived in the city it was 11:00 p.m., but our moods brightened with a cheerful greeting from the wide-awake staff at the Marriott, who informed us that the midnight buffet would soon be starting! The hotel was gorgeous and our room was very luxurious – much nicer than at any chain hotel we’ve visited at in the U.S.
On Saturday, after a big breakfast and a swim in the pool, it was time for some serious sight-seeing. Hyderabad was founded in the late 16th century by Mohammed Quli Shah and, unlike most of South India, was under Muslim rule until the early 20th century. In its heyday, Hyderabad was renowned for its palaces, mosques and ornamental gardens, especially since it became the lone outpost of courtly Muslim culture in India after the Mughal Empire collapsed. Now it is a bustling city (the sixth largest in India) and the major hi-tech hub for the South (hence the nickname “Cyberabad”). Our first stop was the royal burial grounds where seven of the Qutb Shahi rulers were buried in large, ornamental tombs. Originally, the area had gardens with water-channels and pools, but now it has become overgrown and the water has dried up. However, the tombs themselves were quite striking – each one was topped with a large “onion” dome with small minarets (towers) around it. Inside the tombs, it was cool and dark, with high, arched ceilings, little niches, and narrow passageways (which James explored, of course). The acoustics were great – we heard one man chanting to Allah and the sound reverberated as though he was speaking through a microphone. It was very peaceful place, with no large groups of tourists, and only one snack-vendor. (I am certain we made his day when we loaded up with soda, chips and ice cream!).
From the tombs, we went on to Golconda, a massive fort which served as the citadel of the aforementioned Qutb Shahi dynasty. Originally built in the 12th century as a mud fort, it was transformed in the early 16th century into a fortified city of palaces, mosques and gardens. The ruins are so large that they cover an area of 15 square miles! As we drove towards the Golconda, we could see the massive stone walls – most of which appear to be holding up quite well. Visiting the fort involved a long climb up to the top, where the ruler had his throne room with a rooftop pavilion. It was worth the climb, as the views of Hyderabad were amazing, even though the city has a layer of smog reminiscent of Los Angeles on a bad day! There were a great many sights along the way, including a creepy jail, mosques, arched brick hallways, and a small Hindu temple, built into a cave. We even saw a film crew shooting a movie that involved four pretty young girls in very stylish salwar khameez outfits, a guy dressed like a maharajah waiting in the wings, and a tense director yelling out instructions in a mixture of Hindi and English!
On Sunday, we ventured into the heart of the Old City, to see Hyderabad’s landmark, Charminar (“four towers”), which was built in the 16th century. At the top, we had a marvelous view of the city in all four directions. From Charminar, we walked to the nearby Mecca Masjid, a huge mosque, built in the same time period, whose vast courtyard can hold as many as 10,000 worshippers! Then it was time for some serious shopping in the Laad Bazaar, known for its pearls, bangles and perfume. I got to try out my bargaining skills, as we bought a huge batch of bangles for Taz and her friends at home. We could have easily stayed in Hyderabad longer, but we left on Sunday afternoon to catch a flight back to Chennai. The kids had a wonderful time, and got along really well with the Hellman twins (Niko and Kaya, age 10). It was great for them to share their experiences with other American kids who know exactly what they are going through. We look forward to seeing them again, as well as all the other Fulbright exchange teachers, when we meet up for the November conference in Pondicherry.