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. 

 

 

The Space Rock Part 2

Continues from ‘The Space Rock, Part 1’: https://serioustravelblog.com/2018/06/01/1097/


 

To get to Lonar and see the meteor impact crater, I caught a local bus early one morning from the city of Aurangabad. Distance wise it was not far, 200 kilometres or so. Time wise, however, it took me almost 8 hours.

It was a memorable trip.

Aurangabad was a large city. Heading out through its outskirts before sunrise on a bone rattling bus, I got an intimate view of the socio-economic extremes in an Indian city. In one part of town, I could have almost been in a western country. There were modern shops and boutiques, showrooms and supermarkets, malls and takeaway outlets. 

Outside the city however, it was a different world. The bus drove passed arid land dotted in places with crops of corn and canola and wheat; rectangles of green seemingly pasted on to the wide plains of red-brown. By this time the sun had come up and, with a vengeance. Along the sides of the road there were colonies of low huts made from mud and stones. Little dark men with big bright coloured turbans herded water buffalo and cows and goats. Women awaited their turn at water pumps to fill their shiny brass pots, which they then transported back to their huts by balancing the pots on their heads.

The bus stopped at each little colony and when it did, there was a scene of confusion and yelling; in an already desperately overcrowded bus, people fought to manoeuvre themselves into the thronging mass of bodies squeezed into the aisle. It was an uncomfortable, at times exasperating trip. Sometimes the bus went no further than a couple of hundred meters before stopping again.

And every time it stopped, it got stiflingly hot inside the bus.

 

Lonar was a typical small rural town.

There wasn’t much there; a busy main road lined with small stalls and shops. Most of its inhabitants were poor. 

The meteor impact crater was a few kilometres outside of Lonar.

Near the crater was a hotel built by the state government of Maharashtra; I caught a scooter rickshaw out there from the bus station; I didn’t have a booking.

On the way, travelling over a pot-holed road, the rickshaw passed empty brown fields dotted with huts and a few ramshackle houses. The hotel was really in the middle of nowhere. It was rather run down, but ten years before, when it was built, it must have been an impressive sight in the midst of that arid and impoverished landscape. There were four single level bungalows next to a two- story concrete building with a huge balcony on the second floor. The building was deceptive. From the outside, it looked like it must have had lots of rooms, whereas in fact, there was only an office on the first floor and a dining room on the second. The bungalows were the only available accommodation.

Fortunately for me, there was a bungalow available and it wasn’t too expensive.

Outside my bungalow was a small veranda where a pigeon nested above the fuse box.

 

The only place where it was possible to eat was at the hotel – the village was far too small to have any kind of restaurant. The dining room was an experience in itself. Someone had got the idea into their head to build a dining room as big as a barn with a ceiling as high as a cathedral. Why this was, considering the small number of guests which the bungalows could accommodate – was a puzzle. The five fluorescent lights in the dining room, attached to the ceiling, were far too high to ever be changed. You would have needed a cherry picker to do that. Consequently, only one of the lights was still working and the dining room was permanently dark: fine during the heat of the day, not so useful at nights. It was sobering to think about how much cement had gone into constructing this building (and how many dwellings for the poor could have been built from that cement).

The first thing I did on arriving was to order a meal and a pot of tea. After that long, hot and tedious trip on the bus to Lonar, I was exhausted. The waiter and cook were two cheerful village boys dressed up in some kind of official uniform: blue trousers, white shirts and little waistcoats; these were rather grubby. Both boys got round barefoot. At nights when they were finished, they walked off through the dust and passed the low prickle bushes and spent the night at home in their village.

After my meal, I went and sat on the balcony. 

It was already late in the afternoon. It didn’t take me long to realize that the balcony was the best part of the hotel; it afforded a remarkable view.

The crater was a deep symmetrical hole in the midst of arid, yellow-brown, treeless plains. The sun was nearing the horizon and an incandescent light glanced across the plains, lighting up the steep sides of the crater on the far side.

At the bottom of the crater was a lake, a deep aqua-blue.

Half of it was shadowed and half of it was illuminated.

50,000 years ago when the meteor struck the earth, an enormous quantity of rock was blasted out of the ground and left piled high around the edges of the crater, forming a towering wall of rubble. The thousands of years of monsoon rains and hot summer winds had worn down the wall into a low, gently rounded lip upon which grew a few prickle bushes. Most of the rubble from the perimeter wall had been washed back down into the crater in the process, forming the lake. The original impact crater was much deeper than today – the meteor itself lay 600 meters beneath the lake. But the sides of the crater were still quite steep.

Between the crater and the hotel – a distance of perhaps 200 hundred meters – was a narrow road.

Late in the afternoon, it came alive with local life: old men or alternatively, young boys, with herds of cows, goats and water buffaloes; oxen-drawn carts piled high with fodder; lines of women carrying large bundles of firewood on their heads.

The contrast between this stream of local traffic and the enormous, gaping hole in the earth in the background was sublime.

Yes, here was the magic of India!

 

 

As night descended, the outline of the crater was illuminated under a desert sky patterned with stars. 

Swallows darted in and around the balcony, like magical dancers.

Bats appeared.

 

Early the next morning, I descended to the bottom of the crater following a well-trodden path.

The trip took longer than I thought.

Lower down, on the sides of the crater, were trees filled with birds and monkeys and peacocks.

The path wound its way through the trees until it reached the lake. It then followed the edge of the lake.

At various places, not far from the water, there were Hindu temples. Most of them were old and in ruins. One temple, however, was a recent construction and obviously in regular use. Inside a painted cement cupola there were lots of framed posters of multi-armed, luridly coloured gods and goddesses. There were so many of them that there wasn’t much of the ceiling or walls still visible. One of the posters which caught my attention featured lots of big green leaves; each leaf had a set of brooding eyes. At times, the temple must have seen many worshippers. There was a row of drinking taps set into a cement block connected to a synthetic pipe running out of the crater. To have constructed that temple and connected it to a water supply would have been quite a job. I sat in the shadow of the temple and watched mynah birds and rats feeding on a pile of rubbish left behind by the last lot of pilgrims.

It was on the cards of course: a meteor impact crater in the land of God turned into a sacred site.

It seemed to me that there was something distinctly un-sacred about a meteor crater. Or perhaps what I mean is, un-sacred in the sense of it being irreconcilable with the idea of a Divine Plan. Basic to all religions is the denial of coincidence, chance; is the belief in a Creator and a set of laws behind our lives and the world around us. Science, however, has a different message: there is no set of laws behind our lives excepting those involving the cold logic of physics and with respect to the appearance of life on our planet, the laws of evolution. The image of a lump of rock colliding with the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs suggested that our existence was no more worthy, no grander, no more meaningful, than microbes or dust, than black holes or glaciers, insects or diseases; that there was nothing divine or special about our existence other than its purely freakish occurrence.

Sitting there in the shadow of the temple looking out over the lake and the steep sides of the crater, I wondered how religious people could reconcile the role played by meteors in the creation of the human race with the idea of God. It was not easy. Most of them would not even make the attempt, but rather go into denial. Believers all over the world had a bad record when it came to dealing with science. It wasn’t that long ago that the Catholic Church had insisted that our world lay at the centre of the universe and that it was flat and created by God in seven days. Those who had questioned such self-evident truths were excommunicated and in more than a few cases, tortured and burnt at the stake. Contemporary examples of denial were just as easy to find. In many Islamic nations – including the once secular Turkey – it was a punishable offense to publicly lend support to the theory of evolution – the definition of ‘publicly’ including the social media. In Saudi Arabia, to deny the existence of God was apostasy – punishable by public beheading. Likewise, American born- again Christians – including leading members of the Republican Party – also refused to accept the theory of evolution and insisted instead that behind all life there was an ‘intelligent design’.

Was a ‘space rock’ a part of ‘intelligent design’?

It seemed difficult to suppose that the Yucatan meteor was a divine object representing the will of God.

A temple at the bottom of the Lonar crater seemed a highly inappropriate structure to me.

Far more appropriate would have been an information centre containing up to date information about the Lonar meteor and, meteors in general. And if there were to be any revered images placed nearby, then these would be of the philosophers and writers who through the ages – and also, to this very day – faced enormous persecution at the hands of the true believers for the crime of thinking aloud and daring to put rational inquiry above religion.

 


 

I ascended out of the crater with certain questions in mind.

Why did the concept of our existence beginning with a meteor crashing into Earth cause such consternation in the human soul?

Because it suggested that our lives were meaningless and that there was no afterlife?

That our existence was an infinite mystery?

I thought about the first humans who had inhabited the area around Lonar.

50,000 years ago, these would have been hunters and gatherers.

The desert plains would have been covered in immense jungles filled with all sorts of wild animals. It was perfectly possible that members of these early people saw the meteor which collided with the earth and left the deep impact crater in its wake: saw a blinding flash many times more powerful than a nuclear explosion and heard the terrifying noise accompanying it (which would have been heard hundreds of kilometres away).

How did those early human beings react when they saw the lunar crater – 600 meters deeper than it is today and ringed by towering cliffs of rubble?

What did they think as they scaled those cliffs and peered down into the infinitely deep crater – and saw in its midst a huge space rock?

Their incomprehension must have been overwhelming and even, dangerous – as dangerous indeed as a long toothed carnivore lurking in the jungle. The psychological threat to the sanity of a species able to think and remember must have been formidable. Only the imagination, the capacity to find meaning in dreams, to worship mythical beings, could have saved them – just as it helped them to survive in the midst of the jungles and wilderness.

In time, they found a way to explain the inexplicable.

This was in itself an immense achievement for primordial Man.

Despite our veneer of modernity, we were still like those first hunters and gatherers, who, staring into the abyss of a crater blasted out of the earth in one enormous explosion, were left with nothing to hang on to other than a dreamlike capacity to invent stories about mythical beings.

 

I stayed at the hotel for a week.

The days went quickly, even though I didn’t do much besides reading books – and bringing my diary up to date.

One night on the balcony, only the sound of crickets to be heard, I saw a shooting star. It took some time to burn itself out.

There was a long, bright streak in the darkness like a sky rocket.

I imagined, in the sight of that luminescent flash across the darkness, the end of everything – and perhaps, the start of something new.

 

The Vegetarian Pageant

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 which I’d paid four hundred rupees for. 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 couldn’t start the car and I had to get out and with some other taxi drivers, help 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 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. 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. He was a kind of human alarm system.

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 two sounds which I hate and hate passionately: drums and bagpipes!

If there is a Divine Being and He or She punishes me for not believing in Him or Her, it will not be in a place filled with burning sulphur but rather, in a place where the banging of drums and the shrill whining of bagpipes will resound forever and ever….

Fuck!!!

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 and yes, some were blowing bagpipes and others, bashing drums.

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 with a huge banner draped over its side.

The banner was green and edged with sparkling tinsel.

On the banner were engraved the words, in big red letters:

‘Kindly Observe Meatless Day’.

 

‘Kindly Observe Meatless Day’!!

 

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

Where else in the world could you possibly get a vegetarian pageant?

 

Welcome to India!!!