From the window of an apartment in Banjara Hills, I look at a scene that harks back to a time before Hyderabad transformed into Cyberabad. A handsome peacock preens in a small park filled with gulmohar and neem trees, while the sound of the azan from the neighbourhood mosques fills the air. The locality gets its name from the gypsies or banjaras who lived in its rocky, forested terrain at a time when the Nizams visited it only to picnic or hunt. Eventually, a Nizami house—Banjara Bhavan, the residence of Nawab Mehdi Nawaz Jung— was built in the late 1920s, but designed so that the natural landscape remained unchanged. It is said, not a single boulder was moved from its place.
Today, for most visitors, the city that was once the richest in the world is defined by three clichés: biryani, the Charminar, and pearls. However, despite many changes, Hyderabad holds onto its past with grace, retaining a distinct flavour that piques the traveller’s curiosity. Stores called Cyber Wines, Hi-Tech Stationery, and Computer Haircut Saloon coexist with institutions devoted to preserving the Dakhni language. It isn’t uncommon to come across large wedding pandals at busy crossroads with speakers blaring out qawwalis from noon to night. In addition to well known monuments like the Charminar and Golconda Fort, the city has a strong literary history, and activities that entice the traveller to dig deeper.
For 423 years, the Charminar has stood tall, though its beauty has now been marred by the fumes of vehicles that clog the streets around the landmark. It was built by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah to mark the founding of the city. A stroll up its dark staircase is worthwhile for the view from the first floor balcony. Separated from the Charminar by half a kilometre and almost two centuries, is the Chowmahalla Palace, the seat of the Nizams (who are not to be confused with the earlier Qutb Shahi dynasty). The four palaces are an interesting mix of architectural styles, and were lying in disrepair until the early 2000s, when the current title holder’s former wife put in a prodigious effort to restore them (chowmahalla.com). Perched atop a hill in the neighbourhood is Taj Falaknuma Palace. No experience of Nizami opulence is complete without a visit here. It is not open to the public, but visitors can partake of a royal experience—and soak in panoramic views of the city—by indulging in a seven-course dinner at Gol Bungalow or high tea at Jade Terrace (040-6629 8585; tajhotels.com).
Nine kilometres northwest is the legendary Golconda Fort, the erstwhile Qutb Shahi capital that once housed the famous Kohinoor diamond. An african baobab tree (82 ft in circumference, and 79 ft high) in the sprawling compound is thought to be over 400 years old. Seven of the eight Golconda rulers are buried at the Qutb Shahi tombs, just north of the fort through Banjara Darwaza. The mausoleums merit a visit for the chance to appreciate history amidst landscaped gardens devoid of crowds. The oldest domed tomb was built in 1543.
Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, credited with being Hyderabad’s founder, has another equally impressive achievement to his name—compiling the first published anthology of Urdu poetry. As the Mughal era came to a full stop, Urdu scholars from around the country migrated to Hyderabad seeking refuge under the Nizams, who were also patrons of poetry. The result is a potent legacy of Urdu and Dakhni literature.
Today, that literary tradition is experiencing a heart-warming revival due to the efforts of organisations such as the Idara-e-Adabiyat-e-Urdu. The Hyderabad Literary Festival held in January, concluded with a mushaira, an age-old tradition of poetry recital that lives on to this day.
Mushairas are regularly held in the city, though the events are advertised only in local newspapers. Lamakaan in Banjara hills is a performance space that promotes the arts and a good place to begin (lamakaan.com); Zinda Dilan-e-Hyderabad organises programmes of humorous poetry at the Numaish Masnuaat-e-Mulki (exhibitionsociety.com), the annual 46-day consumer exhibition held in the city.
For a deeper understanding of the city’s literary heritage, visit the Salar Jung Museum, India’s third-largest museum, housing 38 galleries featuring rare artefacts collected by Nawab Salar Jung III. He was an art connoisseur who also made a significant contribution to promoting literature. The library here has one of the world’s most impressive manuscript collections, in languages ranging from Urdu to Oriya (salarjungmuseum.in). Complete the literary tour with a stop at Best Book Centre at Lakdi-ka-Pul, which has the largest selection of second-hand books in the city. This inconspicuous shop has a floor stacked with rare, multiple editions of vintage classics and another dedicated to Indian literature, including lesser known titles (040-23235187).
“These days you need only say ‘mashallah’ to be labelled ‘Sufi,’” rues Adil Hussain Khan, who descends from a long lineage of Sufi qawwals. He leads the well-known Hussain Group along with his father Ustad Ahsan Hussain Khan, who was lauded as the Best Qawwal of Andhra Pradesh in 2007. The city is also home to the famous Warsi Brothers, the Bandanawazi Qawwal family, and many other established qawwals who regularly perform at international Sufi music festivals. However, Sufism has more to it than popular culture would have us believe. Most reputed musicians are quick to point out that what Bollywood passes off as qawwali is little more than standard song sequences sprinkled with Urdu words. While festivals such as Ruhaniyat and Bhakti Utsav have brought the 700-year-old music tradition to mainstream audiences, the essence of the form still lies in its origins in the dargahs, or shrines of Sufi saints.
Barring the Deccan Festival organised by the state tourism department in the last week of February, there is no official platform promoting the resident virtuosos of Hyderabad. But the tradition is kept alive in the numerous dargahs of the city. Classical renditions of Amir Khusrau, Kabir, and Rumi compositions come alive at Nampally’s famous shrines of Dargah-e-Hazrat Yousufain and Dargah-e-Hazrat Shah Khamosh, as well as in Dargah Pahadi Shareef close to the airport. Of these, your best bet would be Dargah Yousufain, where qawwali sessions are held every Thursday and Friday from 10 p.m to 1 a.m. Scour the local newspapers to keep track of the dates of urs ceremonies. These celebrations, marking a saint’s death anniversary, often have extended qawwali sessions.
As in several metros today, Hyderabadis cherish their city’s natural spaces and are working hard to conserve them. There are 2,857 lakes in the Hyderabad metropolitan region, and 49 major nature parks within the city’s periphery. The most prominent amongst the lakes is Hussain Sagar, built in 1562 and encircled by the famous Necklace Road. The Secunderabad Sailing Club has been organising annual regattas here for over three decades. The Nizams especially enjoyed excursions to Osman Sagar Lake for its quiet surroundings. Lotus Pond in Jubilee hills and Shamirpet Lake north of Secunderabad, are known as major birdwatching spots. Kasu Brahmananda Reddy National Park is a serene oasis in the city centre. Visitors can enjoy a rest by a lake inside its 390-acre premises. Mrugavani National Park in Chilkur is a well-protected, 700-acre forested area and Jawahar Deer Park, also known as Shamirpet Deer park, has its share of deer and peacocks; both include butterfly parks.
The 2,500-million-year-old granite rocks, standing tall amidst cacophonous traffic and concrete towers, are a distinctive feature of Hyderabad’s landscape. The Society to Save Rocks, headed by eminent historian Narendra Luther, conducts guided Rock Walks around the city (040 23552923; saverocks.org). Active travellers can join the Great Hyderabad Adventure Club for closer interaction with the rocky landscapes. The rock-climbing chapter of the club offers beginner and advanced lessons in boulder-strewn areas such as Khajaguda (040-68888197; climb.ghac.in).
The revival of outdoor spaces has been accompanied by a spurt in al fresco dining options. there was a time when going out meant going to a friend’s house for biryani, but today the city makes the most of its ten months of pleasant weather. High on popularity charts is So, a terrace restaurant known for its seafood and relaxed ambience. The garden rooftop overlooks K.B.R. Park (Film Nagar; 040-2355 8004; daily noon to midnight, break menu 3-7 p.m.; meal for two ₹1,500). One storey below is MOB, which is a hit with the city’s beer enthusiasts. There are 16 Belgian brews on offer, four of which are on tap. The food is good, the cocktails potent, and the prices justified (040-4020 3311; daily noon to midnight; meal for two ₹2,600; approx ₹450 for a pint of beer). Less than two kilometres away is Coco’s Bar & Grill, one of the city’s oldest watering holes and definitely its favourite rooftop. Think sizzlers, grills, live music, and evenings packed with a young, lively crowd (Road no. 2, Banjara Hills; 040 33165079; daily noon-midnight; meal for two ₹1,700).
In the heart of the city is the Taj Krishna’s Al Fresco, a poolside restaurant that serves pizzas, pastas, and grills. Gazebos are set up in the sprawling landscaped garden for special occasions and food festivals are organised regularly (Road no. 1, Banjara Hills; 040-6629 3326; daily 7.30 p.m.-11p.m.; meal for two approx ₹2,500).The al fresco restaurant in town is Olive Bistro. the restaurant overlooks Durgam Cheruvu, also known as Secret Lake, and is surrounded by leafy greenery that lends it the ambience of an isolated getaway. The Sunday brunch, priced at ₹2,000 (including unlimited booze by the bucket) is especially popular (Road 46, Jubilee Hills; 040-6999 9127; daily 12:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m.; on Sunday brunch 12-4 p.m.).
• Karachi Bakery has been serving the city’s best dilkhush (pie stuffed with dry fruit, grated coconut, and nuts) and fruit biscuits since 1953 (karachibakery.com). The legendary bakery’s multiple branches often have long queues of customers through the day.
• Outlets of Paradise Restaurant are considered the ultimate destination for all biryani cravings (paradisefoodcourt.com). Typically, Hyderabadi dum biryani is made by slow-cooking rice and meat together.
• Hyderabad has numerous Irani cafés in the Charminar area, serving chai, Osmania biscuits, traditional lukhmi (mutton-mince samosa) and during Ramzan, haleem. Locals favour Farasha, Nimrah, and Shahrah cafés.
• Hyderabad’s pearls are sought far and wide. The collection at Mangatrai Jewellers is pricey but reputed to be of very good quality (mangatraijewellery.com).
• Shilparamam in Madhapur (www.shilparamam.net) is a great place to buy textiles and handicrafts. Besides shopping, the complex also has a rock garden, sculpture park, and a museum of rural life.
Appeared in the May 2014 issue as “The Pearl of the Deccan”.
Updated in November 2017.