Raincoast conservation foundation
Travel Itch logo

The Charm of Charminar

By Louise Feeney Notley

CharminarCharminar © Louise Feeney Notley

When your travel is restricted to a chauffeured car in a complex and crowded city like Hyderabad, it's difficult to get your bearings. I never know quite how far we've driven or in what direction. There is no such thing as a Western grid layout here. A bewildering maze of boulevards, avenues, and narrow streets fan out from Hussain Sagar Lake like the silk threads of a spider's web. They twist and turn, and sometimes split in two, built around sacred Hindu temples and Moslem mosques that claimed this land long before the roads were built.

Knowing when I've arrived at a destination can be elusive, too, even on my daily drive to work in High Tech City, the area of southwest Hyderabad where the world has joined India to provide global IT, professional services, and biopharmaceutical technologies. The immediate reality outside my car window demands my attention. My brain can't process all that I see and keep track of where it's going, too.

CharminarRooting Around for Business © Louise Feeney Notley

I am bewildered by sensory overload: the absolute crush of people, traffic, shops, and billboards; the riotous colour of saris, fruit stands, shop fronts, street vendors and larger than life adverts for Bollywood films and the latest in wedding jewels and finery for both brides and grooms; the distractions of people staring at you; the precocious smile of a child looking out of a crowded three-wheeler to wave at me while his sister giggles; the roaming packs of stray dogs scrounging garbage piles for food and the desperate reality of poverty still visible in Hyderabad's crowded streets. Everything is too new, too different, for me to take in all at once. I often feel lost, and privately thank my employer for the great privilege of having my excellent driver, Ansar, available at any time of the day or night, to get me to my destination safely.

But on this warm, sunny Sunday morning in early December, the best time to visit Hyderabad, there is no doubt where I am. As my colleagues Lori Anne and Farhana and I head south into the heart of downtown, competing with the growing throngs of families out to do their shopping, I can see the famous Charminar in the distance and can't wait to explore the bazaars and mingle in the crowded streets. Ansar drops us off in front of the fruit sellers on the southeast side of the monument, and we set out with a kind reminder from Farhana to "be careful where we step." I look down to the dusty, uneven street and see little rivers of sludgy "who-knows-what" pooling in the potholes and neglected trails of garbage along the broken curbsides. I take her advice seriously as we enter the streets.

Charminar VendorCharminar Vendor © Louise Feeney Notley

The Charminar gleams brilliantly white against a deep blue sky in front of me. Its name is derived from two Urdu words – Char Minar – meaning 'four minarets'. This monumental landmark of soaring granite, sand and limestone arches and graceful minarets was built in 1591 by Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, to commemorate the end of a plague that had ravaged the region. It is said that the Sultan banned the consumption of eggs and sugar cane for several years to ensure sufficient quantities of the ground eggshell, egg whites and jaggery needed as binding agents for the lime stucco with which Qutb Shahi-style buildings of this region were typically faced. The massive arches face the cardinal points of the city, and the corners of the edifice are crowned with gracefully tapered minarets topped with domes that curve provocatively, like tiny tulip bulbs about to shoot. A beautiful mosque occupies the roof of the structure, which is encircled by a double stone balcony delicately carved in classic Islamic style. Although visitors can climb to the top of the minarets for views of the city, we decide to avoid the growing queue and explore the markets instead.

The Laad Bazaar is a vibrant, crowded, noisy, smelly, but above all colourful, place. Street vendors show their wares on loaded carts or on cloth spread out on the sidewalks. Overflowing cartloads of lemons, fruit, flowers, chai porcelain cups, wooden ladles, housewares and hardware crowd the open spaces. Men wander the market with giant platters of samosa atop their heads, and old men crouch low over baskets of neatly stacked betal leaf or paan.

Everywhere in what was once the great diamond and pearl trading centre of the world, Hyderabadi merchants are hawking their wares. The shops along side streets and under the arcades sell pearls and jewelry, saris, and other textiles, but this bazaar is best known now for its handmade chudiyaan, or bangles. Laad means "lacquer" in Urdu, referring to the traditional bangles worn by Indian women that are sold in this market. Lori Anne and I stop at Md. Zaheer Uddin's A1 Bangles and Jewelry to shop while our Indian colleague Farhana stands patiently by to act as our negotiator. The clerk pulls out set after set of colourful, jewel-studded bangles, urging us to try them on. We emerge twenty minutes later successful, each of us carrying a red box full of bling.

Charminar VendorA Grand Entrance © Louise Feeney Notley

Although many Western corporations and businesses have set up call centres and hi-tech services firms in Hyderabad, the Western face is still a novelty among the locals. Everyone stares at us. Many reach out to touch us or take our picture. Two women clothed in dirty black burkas follow us, relentlessly asking for money, the babies on their hips already trained to stretch out tiny, imploring little hands. The most we can do is be patient and firm as we say "No" over and over and over. A single "yes" to these pleas in the bazaar guarantees you'll be swarmed by other hopefuls, and your visit cut short as you run for the safety of your car.

Along every sidewalk merchants send beckoners to approach us with strings of pearls dangling from their hands, running the delicate creamy white beads through a flame to prove they're the real deal. They cajole and try to convince us to "just take a look" inside the shops, hoping to be the one to nab a sale. It's difficult to ignore. After all, who can blame any of them for trying to earn a living or to make desperate ends meet? Of course, some shopkeepers raise their prices at the sight of us. Lori Anne spent a good half an hour carefully selecting some pretty glass beads for a friend back home, only to have to walk away from the sale because the shopkeeper refused to sell them at a reasonable price.

Charminar Our Intrepid Driver Ansar © Louise Feeney Notley

As midday approaches, we stroll the main streets of the market in the hot (for this time of year) sun. The traffic and pedestrians continue to pour in from all directions. There are men in trousers and open-necked shirts or traditional kurta, some women cloaked in black burkas for modesty, others openly joyous in multi-coloured silk and cotton saris or salwar kameez, dupatta fluttering out behind them. The streets reek of the faint smell of sewage and the hot metallic scent of the iron-rich dust from the soil and rock of the Deccan Plateau that the city is built on. The exhaust from vehicles hangs close between the buildings and irritates my eyes. But apart from the handkerchiefs many sport over their noses as they motor through on their scooters or in the ubiquitous yellow auto rickshaws, no one seems to care much. They have families to feed. And bills to pay.

I'm reluctant to leave this vibrant place, but we have other stops on our itinerary and my camera has already overheated from sun exposure and my enthusiasm. I tuck it away in my bag to cool and we follow Farhana's lead, dodging the traffic bearing down on us as we head back to the car. On the drive through town toward Chowmahalla Palace, our next destination, I think about why I'm attracted to places like the bazaars of Charminar when I travel. Although I love the historical and cultural significance of great monuments and landmarks, for me it's the people that make the place. I have a deep desire to know them – how they look, what they do, what their food tastes like, and how they manage their daily lives. People-watching in the heart of Hyderabad teaches me about life beyond my own experience of it, and I can think of no better reason to travel than that.

Louise Feeney Notley is a Canadian writer from Oakville, Ontario. She was born and grew up in Hamilton, Ontario and has lived, studied and worked in Canada, France, Switzerland and India. She is a writer of short fiction and poetry and has learned much about writing and herself in the process. You can read more from Louise at http://myfirstwrites.wordpress.com/author/lulunot/