From the terrace at Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace, I gaze out across the whitewashed balustrades as the din of the city gradually dies down against the darkening sky. In the distance to the right, I see the flickering lights of Hitec City, Hyderabad’s thriving IT hub. And in between, the old city, cluttered with the history, chaos, grime and grit long associated with India.
Here, a multitude of the subcontinent’s faces are jostling for space – the modern, the antiquated, the rich, the poor, the many different religions. In this urban enclave of Andhra Pradesh, the definition of the “New India” is still being thrashed out.
Scorpion-shaped Falaknuma was built in 1894 in an entirely European style by a Hyderabadi nobleman. But its lavish grandeur soon caught the eye of the city’s ruler, the sixth Nizam, Mahbub Ali Pasha who, smitten, made it his home and eventually died here in 1911.
But despite all of Falaknuma’s historic grandeur, just 20 years ago the manicured courtyards were a wasteland, overgrown with towering blades of grass and swarming with snakes and rats. After the sixth Nizam’s death, it was used as a guesthouse for dignitaries and later, left to ruin by the seventh Nizam, Osman Ali Khan, who disliked its ostentation despite being the richest man in the world at the time. It took a 10-year investment by the Taj Hotels group and the Nizam to return its colonnades and porticos to their former glory.
Now, it represents lavish Indian hospitality at its rose petal-strewn upper extreme – from the white horse-drawn carriage that carries us up the winding hill, to the traditional ceremony that welcomes us in through a thin veil of incense smoke.
Taj Hotels and Resorts credits the palace’s rebirth with breathing life into the city’s tourism industry. Admittedly, while its price tag may be beyond many travellers, since it opened its doors in 2010 it has swiftly become one of the world’s iconic hotels, driving Hyderabad back before the eyes of the world.
However, there is little trace of India in these restored bricks. Dawn’s sounding of the muezzin is a reminder of the city that lies 2,000 feet below at the foot of the hill. For here in Hyderabad, 40% of the population is Muslim – a higher proportion that the national average of around 20% – and that Islamic heritage is evident throughout the city.
Monuments from the time of the Qutb Shahi kings spread out from the cool marble arches of the Mecca Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, at the city’s heart to the bulbed domes of the dilapidated royal tombs or the sprawling hilltop maze of the Golconda Fort on the city’s outskirts.
And, of course, there is the Charminar. Built in 1591, the iconic mosque is as old as the city itself and, with a Hindu temple built on the outer corner of its base, is representative of the cohabitation of Hyderabad’s two main religions. Although that cohabitation has, from time to time, produced tension, sparking violence between Hindus and Muslims.
In the orange glare of the early morning light, we line up alongside other tourists at the base of the Charminar to climb its narrow spiral staircase. The local tourists seem almost as entranced by us as they are by the geometric curves of the architecture.
From the top, tight-chested, we gaze down at the swarm of bumblebee-striped autorickshaws that buzz frantically through the dust below as carts laden with fruit, coconuts and sweets manoeuvre around them.
Although fascinating, Hyderabad’s rich history can be exhausting. Thankfully, this city offers ample relief in the form of retail therapy and food.
Known as the city of pearls, Hyderabad is also a city of bangles. We dodge carts piled with green coconuts, resist pre-pubescent wheeler dealers flogging bags of fluorescent cotton candy then find ourselves blinded by the gleaming displays of the Laad Bazaar. Row upon row of glass cabinets line the walls of each shop along the strip, crammed with glass-studded lacquer bangles in every possible size and colour.
Dazzled, I cool down with a tiny cup of irani chai flamboyantly sploshed from a chipped teapot at a nearby cafe. The sweet and almost syrupy spiced tea washes down the dense adballah biscuit that crumbles chalkily in my mouth.
Alternately chewing and gulping, I watch the nimble fingers of the pan-walla at the neighbouring kiosk smear thick red paste across bright green betel leaves, swiftly pack it with an assortment of nuts, spices and seeds before twisting it into a cone and handing it over for a few rupees.
While the tangy parcel, and accompanying spitting, is not to everyone’s taste, few turn their noses up at a steaming copper pot of Hyderabadi biryani. The local speciality of fragrant basmati rice layered with your choice of vegetables, meat or fish, is flavoured with saffron then served with yoghurt sauce and chilli gravy.
I shovel spoonfuls of a tangy chicken variety, followed by buttery soft lamb, into my mouth at Paradise restaurant. Back in 1953, it was just a small cafe but now it is a vast, immaculate dining hall packed with biryani-hungry hordes – a fact that may support its claim that it serves up the best version of the dish in the city.
It has also opened a branch in Hitec city, Hyderabad’s flourishing IT centre, to cater to the 300,000 hungry software professionals that work there.
Second in India only to Bangalore for its IT industry, Hitec is quickly catching up, we learn on the drive across the city, passing rapidly rising scaffold-clad constructions one second, then tarpaulin patchworked shanties the next.
There, we stroll through the watered gardens and cleanly swept pathways of the Infosys campus. The pioneering IT firm began in India but has quickly spread around the world with 150,000 employees and a large number of those in Australia.
But at this campus, one of two in Hyderabad operated by Infosys, around 15,000 workers both live and work. With an average age of 24, many of them considering it an extended part of college life. The company has installed restaurants, gyms, hair salons and launderettes to make it a “self-sustained” set-up and boost its appeal for potential new recruits.
The campus’ pristine gleam is replicated at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport as we prepare to depart. Built in 2008 with annual capacity for 12 million passengers, it will rise to 40 million as part of a phased expansion plan.
With its sparkling surfaces, futuristic design, international retail outlets and wifi capability, Hyderabad Airport could put its counterparts in the US and Europe to shame. It’s toilet cubicles – stench-free, sanitised and immaculate – truly belong in New India.
Some things here will always stick stubbornly in the past, but there is no doubt that change is afoot.