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.