Unexpected surprises in India’s southern megatropoli*: Hyderabad

We rattled into Hyderabad’s Deccan train station right on time at 8.30am, having just had our first Indian Railways experience of the trip. It was pleasant; we travelled in pseudo style: AC 2-tier, which means your carriage is fully air-conditioned, you’re seated in curtained compartments comprising two benches that transform into two bunks (hence the two tier), and you’re very much travelling with India’s middle classes. It does not, however, guarantee a clean toilet by morning; nothing ever does. That’s just a bonus, if it happens.

We shared our compartment with two young people, who it appeared were travelling for work. It may have also been their first time travelling AC 2-tier, such was the novelty value they were seemingly getting from the experience. There was little interaction between us, though, and an early night led to a surprisingly good night’s sleep (surprising because I usually lie awake for an age worrying that each bump & rattle might be the train careening off a bridge or some other such unlikely, overly-Hollywood scenario!).

Decamping from our sea blue and dark blue liveried bubbles, Hyderabad was immediately unexpected. The platform was clean and empty, almost eerily so. It was also cold; locals were buttoned up like they were in the mountains. Out onto the street, we expected hustle, we expected bustle, we expected to find somewhere where we could hang out for a bit and have breakfast, while waiting to check in at 10.30am. Instead, by India standards anyway, the streets were deserted, shops mostly closed. Had we stepped into a parallel dimension?

Fortunately, as in Chennai, food set all in order, as we stumbled across a place buzzing with locals, which turned out to be a bit of an institution and serving up deliciousness since the 1930s. It was our first taste of Hyderabad’s famed cuisine, its rice, biryanis and curries so sublimely fragrant, fused with an inexplicable je ne sais quoi, that we returned not once, but every night we were in town.

There are two other key impressions that Hyderabad imprinted in us. Its Islamic-ness came first, unsurprisingly, having undergone a succession of Muslim rulers since the 14th century. Under the last of those rulers, the Asaf Jahis, made hugely and fabulously wealthy from a bounty of precious resources, the state of Hyderabad rose to become the centre of Islamic India’s cultural, educational and artistic development, and although effectively under British control, retained nominal and proud independence right the way through to 1947.

This history is imprinted on the city’s landscape, from historic architecture to contemporary architecture, from the names of businesses lit brightly, to its people and their dress. There feels an absence of the Hindu nationalist narrative here, minimal Hindu templage, and I sensed this was not a mere coincidental quirk, but rather more deliberately planned. As you might expect.

On our first day, we headed west to the incredibly impressive tombs of the Qutb Shahis, the third-to-last of the Muslim dynasties. The 21 tombs and mosques (and a few tanks/water channels) are currently in the process of being renovated and transformed into an historical park. If done right, it could be one of Hyderabad’s major attractions of the future (if not India’s), and it felt quite a privilege to wander about and see the transformation in motion; some before, some after.

Adding to the possibility of its future popularity, the tombs sit only two kms north of the Colconda Fort, the remains of a giant citadel atop a granite hill, built by the Qutb Shahis in the 16th century. From the top, you look down on its crumbling old palace walls, mighty ramparts, and further fortifications that ring around it for 11kms. You also get sweeping views of Hyderabad, the Deccan hills and the nearby tombs. The crazy degree of Insta-selfie-ing going on was somewhat understandable given its breathtaking panorama.

Day two added to the first, as we took in the old city around Charminar. The giant landmark from which its name comes, was built in 1591, by one of the Qutb Shahs, to commemorate the founding of Hyderabad, and the end of water shortage-induced epidemics that had undermined Golconda’s continued existence.

All around it, the city’s Islamic past-present continues, in its lanes and bazaars, 10,000 worshipper mecca masjid (mosque), and the Chowmahalla Palace, from where the city’s final Muslim dynasty were evidently quite fabulous!

If Hyderabad’s mighty Islamic independence represents one face of the city, then its more recent emergence as an IT super-centre is its other. On our last full day, we headed northwest, not to see a Karkrashian, but to HITEC City (its actual name, an acronym for Hyderabad’s Information Technology and Engineering Consultancy).

It was probably not as gleaming glass towers as I was expecting, but the scale of the existing IT ‘campuses’, as well as all the industry and services surrounding them, and the scale of ongoing construction, was pretty mind-blowing (so wild that we just had to stop at the equally gigantic IKEA for sadly only the normal-sized famous meatballs, done Indian-style). At ground level, it was still urban India, but rising everywhere are concrete and glass behemoths, indicators of where new dynasties are being formed.

It’s no surprise, then, that the scale of wealth being created is super vast, enormous, completely eclipsing what we were expecting to see in Cyberabad, as its become known. Most tellingly, and illustrating its creep, it’s visible in the seemingly endless procession of malls, giant boutiques, car dealers, and all the other ‘experience industries’ that have popped up to soak up disposable income, which followed us along the under-construction and equally vast metro system, all the way to the edge of the city, as we left on our overnight, beach-seeking bus…

* I’m aware that megatropolis comes from metropolis, and metropolis in plural form is metropoles. Megatropoles doesn’t work for me and, since this my party, megatropoli it is, so don’t @ me, ‘mmmkay?!

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