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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hyderabad

I had to go to Hyderabad for work for two weeks in March. The kids stayed with Paul in Delhi but the three of them came to visit me on my first weekend there and we did some sightseeing. I didn’t know what to expect of Hyderabad but was pleasantly surprised. It is in South India and is the capital of Andhra Pradesh (an Indian state). It is substantially smaller than Delhi, which has about 22 million inhabitants. But it’s  not exactly small because it has 8.5 million inhabitants, which makes it India’s 4th most populous city. It also has about a million more people the whole country of Bulgaria (where I was born).  It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess.

The city has a rich and interesting history and was the seat of several very wealthy dynasties. I had read White Mughals by William Dalrymple and was really intrigued by Hyderabad. The book is about the British Raj in Hyderabad and the relationship of the Hyderabadi Nizams (Rulers) with the British. It’s a sad book but I found it quite interesting and couldn’t wait to explore the city.  But Hyderabad is not all about history and the past. As a matter of fact it is a large IT hub where many of the world’s largest IT and consulting companies have offices, hence its nickname Cyberabad. The employees of those companies are a large part of our visa applicant pool as they travel to the US quite often for client meetings, conferences, trainings, work (H1B visas) or tourism, so we see many of them each day.

Hyderabad is also famous for Char Minar, Golkonda, diamonds, pearls, lacquer bracelets and its biryanis (rice dishes). We saw most of those things, bought some bracelets and ate biryanis.

First, we went to the old city and saw Char Minar (four minarets) and Mecca Masjid. They are located in a bustling area with a lot of historic buildings and markets. As interesting as it was, however, we didn’t spend a lot of time there because both kids wanted to wander (chasing goats, pigeons and whatnot) and the area was very crowded – not ideal for a casual stroll with kids.

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That was not enough time in the old town for me, so I went back there after Paul and the kids left for Delhi and did some more sight seeing and bracelet shopping. There is a whole street it the Char Minar area dedicated to bracelets and jewelry – it was pretty overwhelming. I am not much of a bracelet person but Hyderabadi bracelets are pretty awesome. They are said to be made of lacquer, though I am not quite sure what that is, and they have small colored pieces of glass embedded in the lacquer in really neat designs. Most Indian women buy them in sets that go almost all the way to the elbow, which is a bit over the top for me but you can buy individual bracelets too if you like, which is what I did. I bought a few for me and a few as gifts, which turned out to be entirely not enough because Max broke some of them. I clearly need to go back for more. Here are a couple of pictures of bracelet stores and a picture of some men eating a fruit/vegetable I’d never seen before on bracelet street.

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But I digress - back to the story. After old town, we went to Golkonda, an expansive fort about 10 km outside Hyderabad, which had been the capital of an old kingdom (c.1518–1687). It had also been one of the first diamond mine and markets in the world and is the source of some of the most famous diamonds in the world, including the Hope Diamond (a deep blue diamond, currently in the Smithsonian in the US),  the Koh-i-Noor Diamond (Mountain of Light - currently in the Queen of England’s crown) and the Darya-i-Noor Diamond (Sea of Light - the largest pink diamond in the world, currently in Iran’s Treasury of National Jewels). The fort is quite large and mostly in ruins but you could see that it had been really impressive in its day.

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Some of us may have been quite exhausted by this point and may have zonked off on a chair in a café.

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From there, we headed for Falaknuma Palace, formerly one of the palaces of Nizams (the local rulers) but currently a luxury hotel. It was designed by an English architect in a blend of Italian and Tudor styles. It had a very European look and feel. In it is what is considered to be the world’s largest dining table with 101 seats as well as one of the largest collections of Venetian chandeliers, a unique Jade collection and a huge organ,  among many other interesting  and fancy things. 

Falaknuma was private property of the Nizam family until 2000, when it was bought by Taj Hotels. After 10 years of renovations and restoration, it “opened to the public” in 2010. It is not really open to the public because you can’t just waltz in there unless you have a reservation at the hotel or one of the restaurants, all of which are quite spendy. Several of my colleagues at the consulate in Hyderabad recommended going to Falaknuma, s0 it was high on my list but I was also told that you can’t get in unless you have a reservation. So I called and tried to make a reservation at the Indian restaurant on the property because I had heard that it was excellent, albeit pricey. The woman on the phone told me that children under 10 were not allowed in the restaurant. I wasn’t going to leave my children behind, so I said that I would have to cancel. The woman suggested we come for tea instead and so we did – we had High tea and Nizami tea at Falaknuma, which was plenty of food and drink but a lot less money than a full dinner and we got to enjoy the luxury of the palace, which was pretty neat.

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During the trip to Hyderabad, I also got to meet in person and hang out with fellow blogger Stephanie from Where In The World Am I and her lovely family. I have been following her blog from the day we found out we were coming to India. She was the only Foreign Service person blogging from India at the time, so I spent a lot of time reading her posts and looking at pictures trying to imagine what our lives might look like. I mentioned to Stephanie that I wanted to try authentic Biryani and she took me to a small restaurant called Bahar, which was very simple and unpretentious but their Biryanis were delish. We had vegetable and chicken Biryanis and they were both yum – Thanks, Stephanie!

I will leave you with a picture of the throne room at Chowmahalla, a palace complex located in the old city, which is where the Nizams and their families used to live.

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