Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Stumbling around sarcophagi...doesn't have to be morbid!

A green-flagged gateway marks the entry to Paigah Tombs, a group of forgotten graves that lie in an oasis-like bubble off a major vehicular artery on the southeastern fringes of Hyderabad. Then, stepping through a veritable hole in the wall of untidy urban sprawl, we walk into space waiting to be discovered by the occasional tourist who draws her travel maps from memories left behind by others, now so easily archived on the world wide web. The intricacies of the delicate stuccoed walls shading and protecting the numerous sarcophagi are not immediately apparent, curtained as they are by several mango and neem trees that populate this irregular quadrangle, bounded by a mosque (with its own reflecting pool) on the west (predictably), an older, brown walled building (sheltering the oldest graves) on the south, and a dilapidated complex on the north that has been turned into dwellings for the caretaker family. The shaded pathway directs you inside, across marble steps where you leave your footwear and your tired-tourist skepticism, to the long line of archways bordering the entry to the tombs.

The Paigahs seem to have been a large and (by the standards of the day) illustrious family. Their generational connections branched wide and deep, across lines of royalty and power that trails off into an indistinct delta with streams so finely drawn they cannot be seen in the present. The Paigahs were nobles of the highest order, next only to the ruling family (the Asaf Jahs or the Nizams) in the hierarchy of the old kingdom of Hyderabad. Their sons married the daughters of the ruling family, and many were offered positions of power and prestige, handling the coffers and managing the estates of the Nizams. The Paigahs reached the zenith of their power under the sixth Nizam, Mahboob Ali Pasha (the "Beloved"), when their influence over matters of the court and its assets was unquestioned. During these years, from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, the Paigahs consolidated their wealth in real estate, building large mansions (havelis) and populating them with art and furniture from Europe. The famed Falaknuma ("the eye in the sky") Palace, the Asman Garh Palace, and the Paigah Palace complex in Begumpet were built during this period. Vicar ul Umra, who built Falaknuma (and the Spanish mosque on the grounds of the Begumpet Palace complex), and sold it to Mahboob Ali Pasha for a mere Rs 35 lakhs. Asman Garh Palace, built by Sir Asman Jah Bahadur, was also handed over--gifted--to Mahboob Ali Pasha who had commented on its beauty.

So it is perhaps only to be expected that the Paigahs conceived of and commissioned a final resting place that reflected their taste for architectural and artistic beauty.

The Paigah Tombs are located just off the very busy 6-lane Santoshnagar highway, but are still quite difficult to find. They are now a crumbling complex of marble and limestone, visited only by the most committed tourists and history buffs.

So how did we find ourselves here?

The enthusiasm of the student group mentioned in the last post had dwindled in the face of an increasingly hot summer and end of semester commitments but three young women decided to brave a burning Tuesday morning to make the visit.

We met at Charminar bus stop and hired an auto-wallah to take us there and back for Rs 300. (Don't believe the maps, the distance from Charminar is not as small as it seems!) It took us a good half hour to get there, driving past Falaknuma on the hill (now newly painted a bright white), and making many stops to ask for directions. We finally found the green-flagged arch diagonally opposite the large Owaisi Hospital. Once we turned into the lane under the arch, there were signs leading right up to the compound. We entered the complex through a small green gate and then, it was a different world.

Many generations of Paigahs are buried here, in at least three separate enclosures. There may have been more, but encroachments on the southern and eastern side have eaten into the compound. The long building directly facing the mosque houses most of the graves, the oldest dating back to the early 1800s. The more important members of the family such as Asman Jah, Kurshid Jah (Amir e Kabir, whose grave has an ostrich egg suspended over it) and Vicar ul Umra (whose grave, though simpler, has a couplet written by the last Nizam, Osman Ali Khan, over the doorway) have their own enclosures, as do the senior wives of these men. Others are in groups of two or three. Each of the enclosures is bounded on all sides by walls of exquisite jaali work, each one a different pattern. Heavy wooden doors elaborately carved in styles reminiscent of Rajasthani jharokas lead into these enclosures. Some of the gravestones are still inlaid with semi precious stones, while the others are more weathered.

After spending many minutes gazing longingly at the doors, particularly (and wondering if it would be possible to replicate one for our own home fronts!), being suitably impressed by the mid-day reflection of the mosque in the pool outside, and wandering through the other two less impressive buildings, we made our way back to the busy-ness of the outside world, where our auto-wallah awaited us and his fare.

I first visited the tombs in 1988, on an assignment to write a tourist guide to Hyderabad city, and at the time, had struggled to find the tombs, just as I did 22 years later! The tombs were in slightly better condition then, with more of the stucco intact. Although the complex has now been declared a heritage site and has been taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India, restoration and even preservation seem to have been put off indefinitely.

Friday, April 23, 2010

rediscovering the old city

Walking down the lanes of the old city of Hyderabad can be either a nightmare or an adventure, and of course one of the many variants and mixtures in between. If you live or work in Lad Bazaar or Patthergatti of course, it's no more than routine. A group of uncomplaining (actually, enthusiastic) students from the MA-Communication program at the University of Hyderabad agreed to join me on a walk through the old city, giving up a precious Sunday of sleeping in. The Heritage Walk conducted by Andhra Pradesh Tourism invites one to discover history in the routine, by unpacking for the unfamiliar walker, the layers of history that lie beneath the grimy walls of these crowded, dilapidated, yet vibrant marketplaces. Beginning at Charminar, the 16th century monument that has come to symbolise the city's heritage, the walk takes you through the lane known variously as "Lad Bazaar" (the market place of indulgence) or Chudi Bazaar (bangle market). The early morning commencement saves the walkers from the hawkers and the enthusiastic bangle and ittar sellers, and allows you to glimpse under the garishly painted awnings, a bit of the outermost walls, now destroyed, of the Chowmahalla Palace complex. Our walk, on April 11, was led by the articulate and knowledgeable Manisha Gadhalay, who peeled away the present to show us what the area may have looked and felt like when the Qutb Shahis and Asaf Jahis (dynasties that ruled Hyderabad between the 14th and 20th centuries) held court.

I've been through the old city, and this route, many times, and each time I cannot hold the excitement I feel when I notice a small piece of stucco work I had not seen before, or catch a sense of space that tells me something about how life was lived. And when you share this love of a city that has grown on you, with a group of young and receptive minds, it's doubly exciting. Cameras clicked and notes were taken as Manisha led us through Lad Bazaar to the north wall of Mecca Masjid, then again through what used to be the jilau-khana (stables) to Mahbook Chowk and the 19th century clock tower that is now surrounded by a bird market, locksmiths selling every conceivable shape and size of lock, a maze of meat stalls, to the front courtyard of what remains of a once grand deorhi. Then out again, to walk down another pathway to Kurshid Jah's baradari, its large compound now taken over by Sunday cricket teams and footballers, to a brief pause in the archways of the grand portico, now watched over by a family of goats and a woman cooking the morning meal in what may have once been a mirrored parlour, an aina-khana.

Bemoaning the disappearing sense of historicity, we pass a tight discussion group who turn out to be members of a civic group interested in the preservation of the heritage sites in the old city. Hope, maybe?

Manisha points out the front of another mansion--a panel beneath the roof holds symbols of a cultural unity; the face of Surya and the crescent of Islam. And finally, the gates of Chowmahalla, the complex of four palaces that housed the Hyderabadi royalty. The Chowmahalla has been written about extensively in recent times, interest in its treasures renewed when Princess Esra, wife of the older grandson of the seventh and last Nizam, decided to throw open its gates to the public and restore its interiors. Restoration is a work in progress, and every visit reveals a new facet of a culture overtaken by time. The Heritage Walk ends with breakfast in one of the shaded courtyards of the palace, and Manisha leaves us with some final stories of the old city, and a desire to see more, learn more.

So we decided not to stop there, and continue, a few days later, with a visit to the Paigah Tombs, another forgotten landmark on the map of the old city. But that's another story.