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Playing tourist in Hyderabad

Started: 2012-07-21 20:00:52

Submitted: 2012-07-21 22:49:15

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator takes advantage of his trip to Hyderabad to see what he can see in the City of Pearls

After working for a week in Hyderabad, I had the chance to play tourist for a day and a half before heading back home. One of my hosts arranged for a car and driver to take me around the sights. My driver picked me up at my hotel at 09:00 on Saturday morning, 16 July, in a white Toyota minibus. The first thing he wanted to show me, he said, was the front seat (the hotel's doormen had opened the rear door); I readily agreed. My driver was an Urdu-speaking local with a thick accent; he'd attended 10 years of madrassa for his primary education, and now spoke enough English to make a living driving rich foreign business-people and tourists -- like me -- around.

My driver took me from my hotel, on the outskirts of the city in the emerging "Cyberabad" nexus of office parks and tech companies, through expensive leafy suburbs toward the center of the city proper. He pointed out the neighborhoods (and the walled compounds) as we passed. Inside the city he drove a little ways around Hussain Sagar lake, pointing out sites of interest, and up and down the Tank Bund (the dam holding one edge of the lake; it allegedly gets its name from a captured Pakistani tank on display).

Our first stop was Birla Mandir, a massive (and relatively new) temple on a hill overlooking the lake and the rest of the city. My driver identified himself as Muslim, and didn't want to actually enter the temple, amidst the throngs of Saturday-morning worshipers, to show me around, but he was happy to wait in the car park while I looked around. I left my shoes, camera, and mobile phone in the car, joined the queue of worshipers that started lower on the hill, walked through the obligatory metal detector, and climbed the steps past the shrines and idols to the main temple at the apex of the hill. Knowing only enough about Hinduism to be dangerous, I had no real idea of the significance of what I was looking at most of the time. The temple itself was built out of white marble and seemed almost bland against the gray sky. I walked around the main temple, looking out over the city, and looped back to join the queue of Indian worshipers to enter the temple itself. Inside I saw a shrine I couldn't easily identify and offerings involving split coconuts. (I gave an offering in Rupees in exchange for the cultural experience, even if I lacked the context in which to understand it.)

I returned to my driver waiting in the car park and we headed down the hill to the Salar Jung Museum. This museum showed the personal collection of the grand vizier of the seventh and final Nizam of Hyderabad and featured an eclectic collection from all over India: the historical artifacts from the Nizams were interesting, but the broad selection of icons and idols, carved and cast in a variety of materials, caught my interest. The museum was packed with Indians, and my driver played tour guide and explained a bit of what I was seeing as he rushed me through the museum in hopes of seeing my highlight list of Hyderabad. Shortly before noon he ushered me into a large auditorium with seats facing a 19th-century clockwork clock. By the time noon arrived, a large crowd had gathered to watch the clock chime twelve noon. I'd seen clockwork before, but watching the clock was amusing.

We left the museum and headed to Charminar at the center of the city. This ornate sixteenth-century monument is, apparently, the key icon of Hyderabad and is used as a standard establishing shot. I paid the Rs. 100 foreigner admission charge (twenty times the going rate for Indians) and jumped the queue to climb the narrow spiral staircase to ascend to the observation deck halfway up the structure. (The staircase -- and the crush of people climbing it -- might have induced claustrophobia in those inclined toward such things, but while high places make me anxious, confined spaces don't bother me.) The view from the observation deck was not exactly expansive, but I did get a good look at the nearby mosque, and down the narrow streets of the center of the old city.

Jaeger at Charminar
Jaeger at Charminar
Mecca Masjid
Mecca Masjid

My driver dropped me off for lunch at an expensive-by-Indian-standards restaurant (where the curries were Rs. 250 (US$5)) overlooking lake Hussain Sagar. After lunch, we went Lumbini Park and caught a boat to a small island in the lake featuring a giant stone statue of the Buddha. The interpretive signs in front of the statue neglected to mention the two years that the completed statue spent on the bottom of the lake after its barge sank before it was raised and hoisted onto its base. It was difficult to fully appreciate the giant monolith from its base, where I could barely see the whole thing at once.

Buddha statue in Hussain Sagar, Hyderabad
Buddha statue in Hussain Sagar, Hyderabad

Unbidden, my driver took me shopping, which seemed to be a standard part of the tourist itinerary. He mentioned that Hyderabad was the "city of pearls", so, obviously, one ought to go shopping for pearls. (It's several hundred kilometers from the nearest ocean, but apparently that didn't stop the pearl trade.) We parked on a nondescript side street and entered a small shop, where a couple of well-dressed young saleswomen showed off pearl necklaces with practiced grace. I wasn't especially interested (it's rare that I feel compelled to dress up to the point where Kiesa would be justified in wearing pearls -- I live in Boulder, after all, where I can show up to work in shorts and a t-shirt and no one notices) until I spotted one interspersed with some unidentified red stone that seemed to somehow appropriate for Kiesa. I suggested that I might like that style, and saw several others with different colors, but still liked the red the best. The saleswomen showed off various other styles, including one strung with white gold (which was sparkly, and about three times as expensive). I decided to buy the inlaid-with-red necklace, perhaps as an early anniversary present (I've been married to Kiesa for nearly a decade, and the only jewelry I've bought her was our wedding bands, and that's only for a loose definition of "bought"), and resisted the suggestions that I buy multiples for different outfits, or for my sister and mother (and maybe mother-in-law).

Pearl necklace from Hyderabad
Pearl necklace from Hyderabad

The one thing that was on my shopping list was a bronze Shiva Nataraja, showing the creator-destroyer god Shiva destroying the world through dance. After escaping the pearl shop, we visited one handicrafts store that had only a small selection of bronze sculptures and no bronze Nataraja, but they did have Natarajas in several other media, including carved wood. (The bronze was important to me; not only did I like the aesthetics, but it was emblematic of the bronzework practiced by the medieval Chola dynasty in southern India.) We visited another store, that had a massive, meter-high Nataraja in the entrance, which was much bigger than I wanted but seemed like a hopeful sign. Inside I found the bronzes in a back room and found several different sizes, ranging from about nine inches tall to about eighteen inches. I liked the smaller size and tried to figure out the appropriate amount of interest to exhibit; I didn't really feel compelled to bargain hard (especially since the Indian Rupee had fallen even further against the Dollar since my last visit), but I was at a bit of a disadvantage because I'd forgotten to check the price of a comparable Nataraja on the long line of nearly-indistinguishable South Asian import stores on Pearl Street before I left home.

Shiva Nataraja sculpture
Shiva Nataraja sculpture

While I was thinking about the Nataraja, I went upstairs and got a sales pitch on the Kashmiri carpets. I couldn't think of a compelling use case for a rug in my house, especially since my house is already covered in built-in wall-to-wall carpet (albeit carpet that I'm not especially fond of, but that's another story), but as I headed downstairs and bought the Nataraja the salesguy kept dropping the price of the smallest, two-foot-by-three-foot rugs until I figured it couldn't hurt, so I bought it.

Kashmir rug
Kashmir rug

(On my way out I noticed a series of carved wooden figures of Gandhi, distinctive with a bald head, round glasses, and a walking stick, and thought Willy would get a kick out of them, but I'd already spent more money than I'd intended so I managed to avoid buying anything else.)

When I got home, I put the rug in my bedroom, where it seemed to fill the otherwise-bare spot at the base of the bed where nothing else would quite work.

Kashmir rug in bedroom
Kashmir rug in bedroom

The final thing on the tourist agenda for the day was Golconda Fort, which was the seat of government in this part of India until the Mughals invaded in the seventeenth century. The fort was on the outskirts of Hyderabad, in the general vicinity of my hotel (and the office park where I spent the week), so getting there involved a lengthy drive through streets crowded by all manner of vehicles, under elevated expressways that never quite seemed to go where we wanted to go.

We arrived at the fort around dusk, past the official closing time, but I could still pay for "VIP" admission, with a guide for a truncated tour. I saw the main gate, with the cleverly-designed stout wall designed to prevent siege engines from getting a good run at the main gate, and the crumbling ruins within the walls. My guide pointed out the core of the fort, a kilometer away on top of the hill, which is a part of the standard tour but not my truncated edition. He rushed me through the ruins of the palace just as the sound-and-light show was starting. I found a seat in the muggy twilight and watched and listened as the show distilled hundreds of years of history into an hour-long dramatic presentation.

After the show, I found my driver and he dropped me off at my hotel, for a late supper on my last full day in India.

You will always find those who think they know
what is your duty better than you know it.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"