India: Hyderabad

Estimated read time 14 min read

The Birla Mandir

I took an instant shine to Hyderabad, but I’m not entirely sure why. My first impressions when I got off the train were of insanely busy traffic, a blisteringly hot climate and auto-rickshaw drivers who steadfastly refused to use their meters, but the place had something strangely enticing about it. Powering from the station in Secunderabad down to Hyderabad – the two are twin cities, with about 10km between the two centres – I got the thrill of my life leaning into the curves and sucking in my breath as we narrowly avoided yet another bus seemingly hell bent on flattening us into the bitumen. I found a hotel, dumped my stuff and found a place to eat, totally thrilled to be somewhere new.

A marble frieze in Sri Venkateshwara Temple in Hyderabad
A marble frieze in the Birla Mandir
A stadium in Hyderabad
The stadium where the BJP held their noisy political rally

The Planetarium

The Mecca Masjid
The Mecca Masjid is one of the largest mosques in the world

Not only was there a great view from the top of the hill, but it also housed a planetarium and science museum, and interested to see what an Indian science museum might hold in store, I paid my 18 rupees for a combined museum and planetarium ticket and marched through the doors. It was more interesting for the people than the displays; most of the science area was given over to the sort of hands-on exhibit where you press a button, pull a lever, look through a hole and try to work out what on earth you’re supposed to be looking at, and not surprisingly the place was teeming with kids. Interestingly the adults were having just as much fun playing with the exhibits as the kids, but as soon as I walked in, things changed. Apparently a western tourist is much more fun to play with than a bunch of scientific experiments – look, the funny white man shakes your hand if you hold it out to him, what a blast! – and I spent most of the time shooing away persistent urchins, who would delightedly push the buttons and pull the levers for me, and then have the cheek to ask me for ten rupees for their efforts. The only place I got any peace was in the basement.

Charminar Gate from the courtyard of the Mecca Masjid
Charminar Gate from the courtyard of the Mecca Masjid
The Birla Mandir
The intricate gopuram of the Birla Mandir

Museum Madness

The Birla Mandir from the Hyderabad Observatory
The view of the Birla Mandir from the Hyderabad Observatory

The next day I visited the Salar Jung Museum, a huge, rambling building full of dull rooms of paintings, pottery, metalwork, jade, clothes and all the other exhibits that you expect to find in local museums, except everything was presented in a way that only Indian museums can manage. Everything looks as if it was set up in the days of the Raj and has been left exactly the same ever since, without a hint of upkeep: dust accumulates, colours fade, displays get slowly destroyed by meddling Indian tourists… it’s a sad sight, but tucked away in the bowels of this lumbering beast are some beautiful gems, such as the incredible collection of ivory carvings from all over India, and the room of ancient manuscripts in Arabic languages, detailing the holy scriptures of Islam.

The Birla Mandir
The Birla Mandir appears to reach towards the heavens from atop its hill
A vegetable market near Charminar
A vegetable market near Charminar
Charminar Gate
Charminar Gate
The Buddha Purnima
The Buddha Purnima spent two years at the bottom of the lake
The Buddha Purnima
The Buddha Purnima overlooks the lake in the middle of Hyderabad

How many other places can you see a scraggly old git sitting on a dirty red rug, which he’s laid out on the pavement and covered with various yellowing sets of false teeth, a couple of mirrors on sticks and a selection of rusty and semi-sharp instruments that would put the ship’s surgeon at the Battle of Trafalgar to shame, all of which is tucked away behind a hand-scrawled sign reading ‘Teeth Dentist’? It made my root canal throb just to look at it.

Baksheesh is a uniquely Indian concept. A strange combination of bribe and tip, baksheesh isn’t viewed as a luxury that only rich people can afford, it’s simply the way to get thing done. If you’re waiting at the bus stand and every bus that goes past is hopelessly crowded, slip the conductor some baksheesh and you’ll end up with a prime seat. If the train is full, some judicious baksheesh will get you a seat and, if it’s humanly possible, a berth. If you’re staying in a hotel for a few days, surreptitious use of baksheesh can ensure you always get served promptly and courteously; without, you may end up not being served at all. If you get arrested, baksheesh often works instead of an official fine. Baksheesh is an integral part of life, and although it strikes westerners as strange to have to bribe your way through life, here it’s the social norm, and you’d better get used to it. The problem is that there are plenty of people who demand baksheesh for doing nothing; the skill lies in intelligent and inoffensive discrimination.

The boat departed from a recreational garden set next to the lake, which wasn’t notable so much for its landscaped gardens or amorous couples canoodling under the neem trees, but more for its rubbish bins, the first I’d seen in 16 days in India. But don’t get the impression that Hyderabad is any cleaner than any other Indian city; on the way back from my walk, I wandered past a man from the council who was trying to unblock the drains. In the West this would all be hidden behind one of those cute little stripy tents that gives the workmen enough privacy to drink as much tea as is humanly possible in the working day, but in India there’s no need for privacy; the concrete slabs that passed for manhole covers were slid to one side and the man, clad only in a short dhoti tied round his midriff, was trying to shift the blockage by sticking his leg down the hole as far as it would go and wiggling his foot. Just as I walked past he pulled out his leg, all smothered in faeces the colour of the outback and the consistency of porridge, and just down the pavement a man was pissing against the wall, under a sign declaring the nearby shop to be a pharmacy. Is it any wonder the mortality rate is so high?

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