The Tombs of Hyderabad – Part 1

 

 

I went to Hyderabad to see a graveyard. 

It was no ordinary graveyard. 

There were 12 tombs built on a stretch of land at the outskirts of the city. They were old, the oldest constructed 5 centuries ago and the most recent, 2 centuries. They were built to house the remains of a succession of Moslem shahs (and their wives and children) who had ruled Hyderabad until the arrival of the British in the early eighteenth century.

Each tomb was a scaled down version of the Taj Mahal (which is another way of saying that the Taj was an adaptation of an architectural idea long in existence before it was built). There was a big dome supported by a solid, rectangular building with arches and columns. The size and grandeur of the dome reflected the wealth, power and pretensions of the Shah who reigned at the time. The smallest dome was 20 metres high, the largest, over 40. On the floor inside each building, directly under the lofty ceiling of the dome, there were stone coffins on the floor. In the bigger domes, there were galleries of recessed alcoves.

Most of the inner sanctum of the dome was space, emptiness, shadow and silence. These tombs were classic examples of the genius of Middle Eastern Islamic architecture transposed to India; there was a beautiful combination of elegance and disarming simplicity. They were impressive architectural works especially considering when they were built and the technology available.

I imagine that during their construction, they were cocooned with the same network of bamboo poles tied together with rope which you can see today on any modern construction site in India – and were plied by the same army of workers, emaciated village peons, moving back and forth across the precarious looking structure like ants. 

These dome tombs were the relics of Islamic rulers who spent a good part of their lives preparing – and building – for their deaths.

Westerners often romanticised the Taj Mahal and saw it as an expression of love; inside the sanctum were the graves of the Shah Jahan and his favourite wife. But in reality, the Taj was at least as much about death as it was love. It was the most magnificent example of an Islamic tombstone from the hundreds of them scattered around India.

And it cost so much to build that it bankrupted an empire.

 

 

To reach Hyderabad’s tombs, I had to get a scooter rickshaw and travel from one side of the city to the other.

It was not a pleasant trip.

Like in every big Indian city, the traffic was chaotic and noisy, and the air pollution was stifling. A day spent breathing the air in Hyderabad was equivalent to smoking a packet of cigarettes. In more than a few Indian cities today, the air pollution is worse. 

It took me an hour to reach the tombs.

On the way, I passed dilapidated buildings and apartment blocks, dusty shops and stalls: a chaos of squalid structures of every size and shape devoid of anything remarkable or elegant. I covered my face with a handkerchief in a vain attempt to filter out the pollution.

Sometimes the scooter rickshaw pulled up next to a bus or a truck and I got covered in a thick black cloud of diesel exhaust.

Finally I got there.  

There was an ancient stone wall and behind it, trees. The trees were a welcome sight after the urban desert of the city. I found myself in an oasis of green and, relative silence. Following a shady road, I came to a metal box which was the ticket office, where I paid an entrance fee. Rounding a bend, I saw my first dome. There was something mesmerizing in the size and symmetry of that massive half globe, garlanded with carved lotus petals around its base, a spire on top, rising high above the tree tops and illuminated by the bright sun. This was the first tomb – there were eleven others back among the trees. 
 
Centuries ago, the domes had been set in a garden Paradise. Between the tombs there had been tended gardens and hedges, pools and canals. It was a different scene today. There were no gardens. The pools and canals were dry. Scattered about was the detritus left by Indian tourists; paper plates, plastic bottles and wrappers, styrofoam cups etc. There were lower caste women whose job it was to sweep away the leaves that fell on the paths and in the immediate area around the tombs. But it wasn’t their job – it wasn’t anyone’s job – to clear away the trash. So it didn’t happen. 

It was hot, near 40 degrees Celsius; I took it easy and spent my time walking from one tomb to the other and taking long rests in between.

 

 

One tomb which interested me was the first one ever built; it was a good 30 metres high and housed the remains of a certain Sultan Ibrahim. He was a Turk, raised and educated in Persia, who turned up in the present-day Hyderabad (then known as Golconda) in 1520 with an army and defeated the local Hindu kings and started building the fort. He also played a leading part in bringing down the powerful neighbouring Hindu kingdom of Vijenegar, the remains of which are today one of the most famous tourist attractions in southern India. So this Ibrahim was where the Muslim domination of the Hyderabad area began. Dotted on the stone pavements outside his dome were flat black slabs of marble marking the graves on his favourite wives. I cannot imagine that this Ibrahim, despite his classical Persian education, was a particularly savoury sort of character. The Islamic invasions of the subcontinent were extremely brutal. The force he represented was one based on the certainty of his cause, his religion, and his absolute conviction that the infidel deserved to die or be enslaved. 

Those who came after him, foreign invaders, built exquisitely beautiful architecture – and administered a reign of terror upon the majority Hindu population including the systematic abduction of their young women to fill their harems. This continued for a good 400 years until the British appeared on the scene. Men like Ibrahim who swept in the from the west and occupied large sectors of India, brought with them an energy and fanaticism which was missing in an India paralysed by the caste system and depleted by endless dynastic rebellions and wars. 

In time however, the Moslems fell prey to the same disease – and were easily pushed aside by the British. 

 

Going from tomb to tomb, one problem which I kept running into was young Moslem couples who had chosen a tomb as a lover’s rendezvous. The young men were dressed in short sleeved shirts and trousers and had sports shoes and cool sunglasses. The young women were clad in long black cloaks with a black headscarf – or black burkas.

What was it like wearing a long black cloak and headscarf or a burka in the Indian heat?

In the centre of Hyderabad, I had seen many women wearing burkas. I’d stopped at a few shops selling burkas and related ‘modest’ clothing and noted that they were made from nylon or a mixture of nylon and cotton.

Black Nylon? In this climate?

In Hyderabad the temperatures hovered around the high 30´s – and higher – for most of the year.  

Wearing black nylon in that sort of heat must have been, at the very least, uncomfortable – if not outright torture.

Most of the women also wore black gloves.

This garb seemed to me akin to the old Chinese custom of binding women’s feet – or in Europe and America – when women had to wear whalebone corsets, fastened tight, to give them an ‘hour glass’ figure. It reeked in other words of something belonging to another era – the era of Ibrahim, for example.

I continued my trip around the tombs of Hyderabad and as I did so, my thoughts turned to a scene from the day before at the hotel I was staying at.

Suddenly I found myself in the modern world, rather than the ancient, turning over a whole plethora of questions confronting the Moslems of Hyderabad today – and not only them, but the world’s Moslems in general. 

 

 

Welcome to India!

 

My flight into Mumbai was delayed by two hours in Singapore.

Arriving at Mumbai airport after midnight, my plane had to bank for twenty minutes before it could land. In the airport, there was a breakdown at the baggage belt. It was 3 am when I got through customs. I bought a ticket for a prepaid taxi.

Emerging from the airport, passed hundreds of people, I found myself alone staring into the warm night holding a piece of paper for which I’d paid four hundred rupees but now seemed worthless.

In the distance, under the dark silhouettes of trees were rows of dilapidated, beaten up taxis. There must have been fifty of them.

I walked over there and looked for the number plate of the taxi on my piece of paper. Finally found it and after the driver ostentatiously welcomed me and put by bag in the boot, he announced that he couldn’t start the car.

Could I get out and help him to push start it?

 

On the way into Mumbai, the driver had to stop to get more fuel.

Why he didn’t have enough petrol in the first place was something I would have liked to ask him if he had spoken more than a few words English and I, more than a few words of Hindi.

We pulled into a ramshackle looking place with a few beaten up looking petrol pumps covered in dust. Nearby, cows peered at us dolefully. The driver turned off the motor before getting out of the car and so of course, after he had put more petrol in the car, I had to get out whilst he got in – and push and push to get the car running again.

It was 4 am in the morning and I had a long flight behind me and I was not fucking amused.

 

Arriving in Colaba, we drove down narrow streets lined with old apartment buildings. He lost his way.

Of course at the airport he had given me the impression that he knew exactly where my hotel was. In actual fact, he had no idea where it was. He stopped at regular intervals to ask for information from the few individuals still wandering around on the abandoned streets at that ungodly time of the morning.

And yes, of course, at one of these fact finding stops, the car conked out again and I had to get out give my driver another push start –

I was having to push start his taxi because he didn’t know where to go…huh?

 

At 5 am, I finally arrived at my hotel, very jaded and very tired. 

On the pavement stood a young man whose job it was to stand there all night watching everyone who came and went in and out of the hotel. 

My first reaction was to be very short and direct with him.

But he spoke good English and he was very nice. 

I struck up a conversation with him.

He was from Orissa, one of the poorest states in India. Like so many others, he had come to Mumbai to find work. Every night, from 8 pm to 8am, he stood on the pavement. He shared a room with nine other young men. He said it was ok, five of them worked at night, five during the day, so the room was never too crowded. He had no education, but within five months of arriving in Mumbai  and meeting westerners he had learned enough English to hold an extended conversation. He asked  me the normal Indian questions – how old I was, whether I was married, how many kids I had and so on. He was amazed to discover that I had no  caste, wasn’t married and had no kids (‘don’t you like children? who will look after you when you get old?’).

After talking to him for quite some time, I went inside the hotel. After filling out some forms – ‘some forms?’, one hell of a lot of forms – I climbed narrow flights of stairs up to my room on the fourth floor, had a shower and passed out…..

 

Two hours afterwards I was wrenched out of a much-needed sleep by ungodly noise, a terrible cacophony.

What the bloody hell?!

I was not a happy man. I was in a mood to kill someone. 

I looked out the window. 

I couldn’t see anything. To the left of my window there was a dingy apartment building  with rows of barred windows and on the flat roof, a bevy of crows dancing around.

To the right of the building was a clear view of a major road. My eyes  focused on the road – and then I saw the cause of my misery: marching along the road were young Indian men dressed as Scotsmen with knee-high white socks, yellow kilts, blood-red shirts’; some were blowing bagpipes and others, bashing drums; still others were blowing horns, trumpets and trombones. 

My anger evaporated. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. 

After the Scotsmen came groups of school kids, immaculately turned out in their uniforms: blue trousers and dresses and white shirts.

After them came an elephant. 

Even in my tired, depleted state of mind I had to smile and wonder: 

Where else in the world this possibly happen? 

Welcome to India!!!