Fortified and flirtatious

I’m not used to young men, either on their own or in groups, blatantly giving me the eye. Initially it was a little disconcerting but two cities and myriad sights later, I was becoming used to it. The girl who still lingers in me preened a little in response and, on occasion, when the mood was right, even threw the eye back. I was safe. They were children. Relatively speaking.

I’m not used to 20 questions about my age and marital status, and the accompanying shocked ‘Why?’ that inevitably followed my saying no, I’m not married. But that, too, found its own level of amusement. Apparently I neither act nor dress appropriately for my age. That was me told and put back in my box.

IMG_1783 (800x600)I was in Hyderabad, in Golconda Fort, a very impressive structure built back in the mid-twelfth century atop a 120 m high hill. So much of it is still standing (wasn’t I just talking about this yesterday?) that it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture how it might have been in the day.

IMG_1786 (800x600)Back then, there was no intercom, no mobile phone, no doorbell. There was no way of announcing yourself to those inside except by clapping. Yup. Clapping. If you clap your hands while standing near the domed entrance of the Fateh Darwaza (victory gate), you can be heard 1 km away on the top of the hill. Pretty amazing, given how long ago these architects figured all this out.

IMG_1788 (800x600)The place was pleasantly full. I was struck, not for the first time, but how much monument sites are used in India. They’re not just for school tours and tourists, although busloads of kids are to be found every day at one or all of them. Ditto the tourists. But couples, families, groups of friends venture out, too. They sit, they read, they have a picnic. Some simply sleep in the sun. And it’s nice, nice to see these age-old places still be enjoyed for what they are.

IMG_1789 (800x600)There were two separate groups of lads who seemed particularly intrigued with me. Perhaps it was because I was on my own. Guideless. Manless. Clueless. They followed me, doing a very poor job of trying to make it all look as if it was by chance that we ended up under the same arch at the same time. Hilarious. I was waiting to be asked for a photo, but it would seem that they couldn’t decide amongst themselves who would do the asking. And while I was enjoying the attention, indecisiveness drives me demented.

IMG_1802 (600x800)So I wandered – not at all sure at what I was looking at but enjoying it immensely nonetheless. It fascinates me to think that all of this was built by hand, hewn out of the granite hill on which it sits. It’s an amazing mix of Hindu and Muslim styles (not that I’d know either one of them if they bit me) but I bow to those who do know. It’s very, I dunno, very … well …. there. It’s as if it belongs. As if it is growing out of its environment, spewing forth.
IMG_1804 (800x600)I quite liked the little mosque, still standing, still peaceful, still requiring silence from those who walked by. I read later that it’s a city within a city. And today, it’s famous for its diamonds. So famous that it is from here that celebrity diamonds like the Regent Diamond, the Hope Diamond, and Kohinoor are thought to have come from. Who’d have thunk it…

Golconda-Fort-at-NightLike the Charminar, it’s at night it needs to be seen – for the disneyland effect. But I missed it. So I have to go back. Not that I need an excuse. Hyderabad is one very impressive city.

Next stop, Delhi.





Smile and say ‘Charminar’

I’m not a fan of having my photo taken. I will avoid it when possible and while lately it hasn’t been as arduous as in the past, I’d still prefer not to be captured digitally or on celluloid or in any way at all.

I was in Hyderabad – a city that ranks No. 2 in places in the world to visit, if you believe the billboard in the arrivals hall at the airport. Am not sure about No. 2, but it has certainly made it to the top of my list of favourite cities in India. Yes, it’s a short list, I know, but it did bump Chennai from the No. 1 spot.

IMG_1707 (800x600)The city, in particularly the Old City, is predominantly Muslim and seeing so many women blacked out took a little getting used to. My ignorance of world demographics reared its head: for me India was Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, with a little Baha’i thrown in for good measure. Islam just didn’t figure. I need to go back to school.  

IMG_1711 (600x800)Anyway, at its heart is the Charminar (Four Pillars), built at the close of the sixteenth century by Quli Qutb Shah when he moved the state capital to Hyderabad. Its four, 4-storey minarets are nearly 50 m high. Had I done my homework, the whole Islam thing mightn’t have come as such a surprise as the four minarets are said to represent the first four Khalifas of Islam.

After I’d figured out how to get in (special entrance and special price (about €1.40 or $1.50) for foreigners, of which I was the only one), I was just aimlessly wandering around the ground floor. A guide approached me and tried to sell his services. He started to barter down his price to the point where it was nearly nothing, but I still wasn’t buying. I knew I couldn’t absorb any more facts. So I asked him how his tour would change my life for the better… we had quite the exchange. All the while, a group of 5 (2 women, 2 girls, and a young boy) were looking on, giggling away. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I eventually freed myself of yer man and started to take some photos. The older of the crew came over and said something in rapid-fire Indian English. I caught the word ‘photo’ and assumed she was offering to take a photo of me, an offer I quickly declined.  But then it became clear – she wanted a photo with me!

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The rest of the crew surrounded me and dragged my arms around them. We all smiled and chatted as I was shot to death. All lovely, if somewhat bemusing.

I noticed a couple of men hovering and thought – no, no more guides. But they, too, wanted me to pose for a photo. This time with their mother and their grandmother, the latter a tiny woman whom I dwarfed even more. I was shot some more. It was like my own public photo shoot.  I saw a queue of sorts forming and mild panic set in. Krishna (my driver) had told me I had 30 minutes and I still hadn’t started climbing the 149 steps to the top.

Thankfully, he had felt a little concerned about letting me off on my own and had parked the car and come to find me. My knight in a white Toyota. My 7.5 minutes of fame were explained. It wasn’t because I looked like anyone famous, it was because people in the city are fascinated with foreigners. A first for me.

IMG_1701 (800x600)IMG_1705 (800x600)But back to the Minar. There’s supposed to be an underground tunnel that links Charminar to Golconda Fort: an escape route for the royal family should they be in need of one. I don’t think anyone’s ever found it, though. To get to the top, I climbed the 149 steps, steps that are about twice as deep as a usual set of stairs. Quite the workout. And very, very narrow. It would play havoc with your claustrophobia.

At the very very top, apparently, there is a mosque, with its 45 prayer alcoves and a great open floor in the middle. And had I not decided to do without a guide, I might have realised this. I didn’t. Anyway, I didn’t even try to go in because I didn’t know it was there, but I didn’t see anyone else climbing any higher either. As close to the top as I could get was a fabulous space, with  alcoves, and an amazing ornate ceiling. Stunning. And built hundreds of years ago. Mind boggling.

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IMG_1690 (800x600)IMG_1706 (800x588)The views out over the city are spectacular. The fruit markets, Laad Bazaar, the pearl market, a hive of activity. I felt a little like Gulliver in Lilliput.

Back on the ground, Krishna was a little taken aback at how nonchalantly I walked through the traffic, even stopping in the middle of the street to take a photo. But I’d had training. Many years ago, on my first visit to Bangalore, a local colleague, Lakshminarayana, had made me cross Mahatma Gandhi Street 11 times. It took me that long to get used to the traffic and the chaos and the madness and to realise that although it might seem random, everyone knows what they’re doing. 

IMG_1692 (800x600)I felt right at home in Hyderabad, even though I was turned away from the massive Mosque next door, Mecca Masjid (the oldest in the city). [Sixteen people were killed when it was bombed back in 2007.] I was refused entry because I was not in traditional Indian dress. Their loss, I said, knowing that my photo would soon pass though the hands of hundreds of people as my new friends took their token foreigner home.

charminarI will have to go back though, because I didn’t get to see the Charminar at night, in all its glory. And that’s something I’d like very much to see for myself. With that in mind, I have sowed the seed of a possible flat swop with an Indian colleague who spent time in Budapest. And you just never know what might come of it. I could spend time in Hyderabad. A lot of time.