Anuradha S. Naik examines the architecture and architectural history of Hyderabad and discovers the spirit of a bygone era, which persists in the city, amid its fading glory.
When the moon was in the constellation of Leo and Jupiter was in his own mansion, Sultan Quli Qutub Shah ordered architects and masons to prepare the plans of a city, unequalled the world over and a replica of paradise itself.” Ferishta (1560-1620)
The fifth sultan of the Qutub Shahi dynasty, Muhammad Quli, founded the city of Hyderabad in 1591. Designed in classical fashion, the city was laid on a grid with a central square. The Sultan ordered the construction of shops, schools, mosques, caravanserais and baths. When everything was ready, his court moved into the new city.
Hyderabad was built as an extension to the fortified capital Golconda, which had become too small for its burgeoning population. By then the capital was synonymous with luxury; the world’s only known diamond mines were situated in its nearby lands. The famous story of the Arabian Nights, in which Sinbad the Sailor descends into the Valley of Diamonds, is believed to be set in the rocky hills to the east of Hyderabad. Visitors were fascinated by Golconda and it inspired not only writers of fiction, but also intrepid traders from across the globe.
Golconda stands today as a majestic, albeit partly ruined, fort. Gazing down from its ramparts, the vista includes the monumental tombs of the Qutub Shahidynasty. Originally from Iran, these sultans imbibed and assimilated local traditions, and their architecture reflected this syncretism. Cusped Indian arches were decorated with ceramic tiles, and the large colorful domes had lotus motifs at their base. In its day, Golconda was a kaleidoscope of oriental splendor.
The growth of the Sultan’s new city was equally spectacular. It attracted migrants from far and wide and became a trading center for pearls, diamonds, ivory, steel, silk and printed cotton. It was a vibrant, cosmopolitan, thriving city, replete with Persian, Arabian, Armenian, Dutch, English, French and Portuguese traders.
From 1687, Hyderabad was briefly occupied by the Mughals, until a viceroy of the Emperor declared its independence in 1724 and established a new rule under the Asaf Jahi Nizams. Fabulously wealthy, the Nizams built several palaces in Hyderabad where Bohemian crystal chandeliers sparkled alongside the perfumed fountains of oriental courtyards. The architectural marvel that is Chowmahalla Palace, a museum today, is where grand durbars and coronations were once held. The elegant Falaknuma Palace hosted royalty from across the world.
Over the course of the 19th century, the East India Company established itself as the paramount power. The Palladian British Residency became a second node of authority, and the fabric of Hyderabad incorporated European architectural elements as the skyline changed dramatically.
But despite this western infusion, Hyderabad continued to be a deeply oriental city until the turn of the 20th century. Elephants were used as transport by boys going to school, and it was not uncommon to see nobility mounted on gorgeously caparisoned horses with rich trimmings, surrounded by armed guards in procession as they wended their way along the narrow streets. The exquisitely intricate lime stucco at the Paigah Tombs, which served as the final resting place of Hyderabad’s nobility from the early 1800S to the ’50s, is visible testimony to the confluence of cultures in Hyderabad.
Today, the spirit of a bygone era persists in the city of Hyderabad, amid its fading glory.