Telangana Tales

“Horizons of the bountiful India are framed in gold and pearls”

Hassan Abd-ar-Rahman ibn Hattab, aka “The Old Hottabych”,
a 3000-year old Jinni

Where in the world is Andhra Pradesh?

“There is one place… where once a year they hold a bazaar and whereto the whole Indian country gathers to trade”

Afanasiy Nikitin, “A Trek Over The Three Seas”

Thus wrote an adventurous but hard-luck merchant from the Grand Principality of Tver. The name of the merchant was Afanasiy Nikitin and the year was 1474 C.E. Afanasiy was robbed by the pirates of the Astrakhan Khanate, while crossing the Caspian Sea. He had gone barely a third of the way from his native city in central Russia to his final, albeit unintended destination: the Malabar Coast of India and the sultanates of the Deccan. Scholarly authorities differ on whether he reached the legendary Golkonda. The contemporary Indian press covering a reenactment of his trip a few years ago was more indulgent in allowing that he got there, but then sensation is bread and butter of today’s media. There is no doubt, however, that we made it that far and possibly crossed Nikitin’s path on the way. But first things first.

The city of Hyderabad (Lion City) was founded a century after Nikitin’s voyage. It was located 10 miles east of Golkonda to relieve the latter’s severe water shortage. Fast forward to the 21st century. While Bangalore is more famous as the silicon capital of India, Hyderabad is just as big a high tech center with an additional slant towards pharma. In fact, a large district of the city is officially called Cyberabad. And that’s why we ended up there.

Chechnya and Ossetia fall behind on the monitor. The plane has skirted the realm of the late Turkmen-Bashi and is flying now directly over the Taliban lands – northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Maybe Mullah Omar is gazing up at the dark sky as we streak across. Maybe Osama himself is sitting down there in one of his caves, letting us pass while he is pondering another hellish prank. Lashkar-e-Taiba, next door in Kashmir, is still as obscure at this time as bin Laden used to be – Taj Mumbai terror attack is three months in the future. Udaipur, the residence of James Bond’s gal-pal Octopussy, pops up on the plane’s itinerary screen and then we are about to land in the great State of Andhra Pradesh (soon to become Telangana).

Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (Shamshabad)
Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (Shamshabad)

The gleaming, brand-new (opened in March 2008) Shamshabad Airport, officially known as Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, has a striking space-age look, efficient design, and is still only a fourth of  the size it’s going to be eventually. Immigration is simple and quick. A driver from the hotel is already waiting for me with a name sign. We go by highway for a few miles, but soon get off on a city street. It’s 2 am, yet we see lone figures or even clutches of people now and then. The lone walkers are mostly women in saris carrying something, navigating the edges of the roadway. It is indeed navigation, since huge puddles abound. The driver says I am lucky: monsoon rains were scarce this year, but a couple of days ago they came with a vengeance. Had I arrived earlier, a passage between the two 21st century islands, Shamshabad and Cyberabad, would have been much more problematic.

I roll my head frantically from side to side, trying to take in as much as I can in this first gulp of seeing: the color of buildings, architecture, state of repair, hovels, signs in local languages. It’s hard to form an immediate impression. Either it’s too dark or I am too tired after the exciting Talibanistan flyover. As we rush along, there are no sky-high twisters of dust that stunned Sonya so much when she arrived a week earlier – monsoon incursion took care of that. And I don’t see any cows. Lounging in a puddle in the middle of the road at 3 o’clock in the morning may be their privilege but not a duty. I try a few Hindi words on the driver. It’s hard to tell whether he is amazed or amused that a visitor took the trouble to learn that.

The hotel is located inside its own compound. There is a guard booth at the entrance to the driveway. The car, even though it has the hotel logo on the side, is stopped and inspected all around with a detector wand. Obviously, terrorism at elite hotels is impossible in India.

Security check at the hotel entrance
Security check at the hotel entrance

In the morning, I am still dizzy from the jet-lag. The time difference is 9.5 hours. India decided to go fractional, but has nothing on Nepal: that former kingdom now turned Maoist democracy is 5h. 45min ahead of Greenwich time. I can’t resist, however, taking part in the morning commute and hitch a ride in Sonya’s hotel-provided cab. By this time the cows are back on duty. Their raven-black hides glistening, they peacefully graze on green patches by the roadside, not really interfering with the traffic. Those patches are bound to shrink very soon succumbing to the furious growth of construction sites interspersed with flimsy shacks and makeshift kiosks. Most signs are in English. A few, to my dismay, are in Telugu, something I was told would be rare and to which I was not able to prepare properly. I discover later, that many signs in various local scripts are actually transliterations of English texts. Cows aside, the main bulk of the traffic consists of motorbikes and auto-rickshaws. While the former carry at most four riders a piece – usually a father and three kids, the rickshaws hold twice as many souls. They are three-wheelers the size of a Volkswagen bug, but taller, without doors, painted black and yellow, and when they carpet the length and width of a nominally four-lane roadway, it’s a true swarm of hornets. Occasionally, flatbed trucks break the low-rise monotony of the flow. No need to hang on straps for the back-of-the-truck commuters: standing room only packing is so tight that falling over is a physical impossibility. And of course there are buses. I mentioned lanes, but they are a purely abstract notion not related to anything material, and our driver is both hampered and empowered by the chaotic freedom of movement.

The cows of Cyberabad
The cows of Cyberabad

Central square – Mecca Masjid

Back at the hotel, I am still good for a stumble around the compound. It’s empty, except for a couple of women in grasshopper-green saris and elegant straw hats, slowly strolling along the immaculately landscaped paths. Their graceful gait is dignified and I wonder what these ladies are doing here at an incongruous midmorning hour – until I notice rhythmical swings of the brooms, color-matched with their hats. Although tamed today, dust still needs to be swept.

Surveying Nizam’s domain

“And here, this is the Indian country, and all people walk naked… And men and women are all naked and dark. And wherever I go, multitudes follow me, all in wonderment over a white man…”

Afanasiy Nikitin, “A Trek Over The Three Seas”

The next morning, Satish, the hotel driver, promises to show us “all Hyderabad” in one day. The traffic is thick, but not quite the same as the early morning rush hour. We see many women on motorcycles, all of them wearing long colorful scarves matched with their saris and picturesquely flowing in the wind. But something is troubling in this picture. Sure enough, an article in the local newspaper bemoans numerous accidents caused by scarves, many fatal. A traffic department official argues for the prohibition of scarves on motorbikes, or at least for using common sense precautions. A consumer activist, on the contrary, calls for changing the design of the bikes! We mark it down as “Isadora Duncan syndrome” (she was done in by her long scarf in a car accident) and wish the locals best of luck on either proposal. 

Mobile grandma
Mobile grandma

As we pull up to the top of a hill, Hussain Sagar, a lake with a giant statue of Buddha in the middle, lies below, while the white confections of Birla Mandir rise above from a granite Deccan rock. It’s the first Hindu temple we ever see. It’s not old at all and is actually part of a chain! Birla is one of the two families which own almost everything in India, the other being Tata – the proprietors, among other things, of Taj hotels. Birla temples, Birla centers, institutes, planetariums, etc., etc., are found in almost every major Indian city.

We have to take our shoes off, the first time for this ritual with many more occasions to follow. We can keep the socks on and, with a mild non-monsoon-like rain falling, wade through puddles up the marble stairs and walkways of the temple complex with the flow of the masses. We seem to be the only non-pilgrims, certainly the only non-Indians. A Hindu temple, as we learn, is a collection of structures, and there is not much of an inside space in any of them, no matter how imposing the exterior. But it’s very educational with lots of pictures and reliefs, and in case of Birla explanatory inscriptions. This is where Hindi comes handy. Reading the captions aimed at pilgrims, rather than tourists, helps distinguish Krishna from Rama, Parvati from Sarasvati, and especially Sugriva from Hanuman. I emphasize the last pair, because those two are monkeys, and may be confused by an inexperienced observer. There is also Arjuna, the super hero of Mahabharata, riding in a chariot steered by Krishna – a scene that made a big impression on Robert Oppenheimer, when he presumably read it in the original Sanskrit. The story of this excellent ride and the informative conversation of the rider and his coachman was recorded under the hip title of “Bhagavat Gita”. Oppenheimer was later rather freaked that he himself may have become “the destroyer of worlds”, according to the self-styled moniker used by Lord Krishna. No pictures are unfortunately allowed inside.

Birla Mandir
Birla Mandir

The very center of Hyderabad is marked by Charminar – a tall square tower with turrets on the four corners (thus “char minar” – “four towers”). The architecture of it and of most of the buildings around is of an Islamic flavor: there is a large Mosque – Mecca Masjid, a hospital, several  monumental gates spanning the streets, and blocks after blocks of bazaar rows. Mobs of people, swarms of rickshaws, beehives of stalls with fruit, bangles, fabrics, rugs, spices and endless other wares. Satish urges us not to stray into the thickets of the “chowk” and to head straight to Charminar in the center of a wide roundabout for safe sightseeing. We barely manage to dodge the rickshaws to cross the street. There are no non-Indians anywhere in sight. As we walk up and circle the tower’s inner balcony, people smile at us and try to speak English. Some ask permission to take our picture. We smile back and say yes.

Charminar chowk
Charminar chowk

Next stop is the “Winter Palace” of Hyderabad. When after the death of Aurangzeb at the beginning of the XVIIIth century the Great Mughals degenerated into wimpy Mughals, the Nizams, initially ruling as their vassals, took their chance and became independent lords of Hyderabad. In 1750, the building of Chowmahalla Palace, the ruler’s new residence, started. It’s a blend of Hindustani styles and European baroque. The Durbar Hall (the throne room for audiences) is splendidly done up in marble and crystal and reminds us of the Czar’s Pavilion Hall with its Peacock Clock, in St.Petersburg. Nizam’s hall is much bigger, but only one other tourist family is there besides us. They immediately ask if they could have a picture with us. Somewhat puzzled, we politely agree. It’s midday, and Nizam’s gardens don’t shield us from the tropical sun. To get back to our fancy air-conditioned Tata “limo” we are clinging to ornate palace walls in search of a sliver of shade.

We have been “friended” at Chowmahalla
We have been “friended” at Chowmahalla

No mercy from the tropical sun

We have to cross the whole city to get to our next destination. Yet, the most exotic sight on the way is a huge billboard by the Hyderabad Police, highlighting the main crimes they protect the citizenry from. Pointing to their web site, it lists some items a casual visitor may expect to find in India. “Pick Pocketing” and “Cyber Crimes” come to mind. But what about “Dowry Harrassement (sp)” and “Eve Teasing”? The first is likely to end up in an “accidental” killing of a newly married woman if her family does not deliver enough dowry to the family of the husband.  The second is the Indian English term for heavy duty sexual harassment, often on the street.

Hyderabad Police is on the case
Hyderabad Police is on the case

The Treasures of Golkonda

Countless diamonds are hidden in rock-bound caves, countless pearls lie deep in the South Sea waters, the marvels of distant India

Song of the Indian Guest, from “Sadko” by Rimsky-Korsakov
(also Tommy Dorsey’s “Song of India”)

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’ed caves of ocean bear

Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Before the Nizams, Qutb-Shahi sultans reigned here for almost two centuries. They sat in the formidable citadel on top of a granite hill called Golkonda. The diamond mines they possessed produced the Koh-i-noor, the Orloff, and numerous other legendary jewels, thus the word Golkonda became synonymous with fantastic treasures. Mughal Aurangzeb conquered the fortress, deposed the last Qutb-Shah and installed the first Nizam. The Shahis were gone, but their onion-domed tombs near Golkonda remain to sustain local tourism. This is where we went when Satish managed to extricate his Tata from the mad Hyderabad traffic and headed west of the city.

Decay of the mighty
Decay of the mighty

Except there were no tourists there, besides us. An overgrown field with occasional trees and several dilapidated structures in the shape of salt and pepper shakers is the end-station of the fabulous rulers. Each tomb is 60 to 80 feet high and consists of a sphere put on top of a cube. The cubes and especially the onions are in dire need of repair. A melancholy sight suitable for the fans of Shelley’s Ozymandias. Much more cheerful is the view of the not too distant Golkonda that opens up on the edge of the compound. Live local children dressed in bright colors play some shoeless game on that spot.

A glimpse of Golkonda
A glimpse of Golkonda

The last of the Qutb Shahi, Abul Hasan Qutb Shah, a refined and cultured ruler, must have been very attenuated to yield the Golkonda fortress. Even so, it took the nastiest Mughal Emperor 8 months to capture it.  Walls climbing up the mountain are so high and thick that Harry Truman would consider sending Enola Gay to destroy it an exercise in futility. The tropical sun is dropping fast painting the fortress silhouette somber gray. We almost run up to the summit to catch the view that’s about to disappear in the twilight. But a more interesting sight is there right in front of us. It’s a small Hindu temple next to the seat of a mighty Shia lord (to be sure the Qutb Shahi had lots of Hindu subjects, relied on Hindu ministers and were quite tolerant). Two huge boulders at the entrance to the temple are literally quite a picture. Each bears a multicolored image of a powerful goddess. Clad in red, 8-armed Durga is finishing off demon Mahishasura with her trident. Although each of her remaining arms wields an additional weapon, and she is riding a tiger, she looks somewhat benevolent, aided by the blue background. And after all, that demon was reportedly not very nice. Like the Greek Titans, he aimed to rub out the gods. By contrast, her neighbor on the next boulder, Kali, has blue skin (yes, she is an avatar [!] of Shiva’s consort Parvati, just like Durga) and her picture’s background is blood-red. She has 10 arms, wears a necklace of 8 sculls, and she is dancing. But wait, who is lying down there trampled by her dancing feet? That’s Shiva himself! Battle-drunk Kali went berserk and did not even notice her life-partner relaxing in the field. What a cuddly pair of emancipated ladies are these Thelma and Louise of Golkonda.

Kali – Durga team
Kali – Durga team

Following the sun, we need to go down too. And here again we feel like celebrities. Domestic tourists are coming out in force for the soon-to-begin sound-and-light show, and they all want a piece of us, i.e., our image, preferably with them. We oblige a few, but this Brangelina act is getting a bit tiring. The last several paparazzi suitors are out of luck. But why do they all want it? With the help of Satish we finally figure it out. This is not Delhi or Mumbai. Just like Kali for us, a European person is exotica here for them. They want to show their friends that not only have they seen those quaint aliens, but got into actual contact with them. We should have read Afanasiy Nikitin as a guidebook.

No escape from paparazzi
No escape from paparazzi

 

Telangana Boyars

“In the Indian land, the princes are all from Khorasan, and the boyars are all from Khorasan, but the Hindustanis all walk on foot, … walk swiftly, and all are naked and barefoot… And the land is peopled much…  And the boyars are verily mighty and splendid.”

Afanasiy Nikitin, “A Trek Over The Three Seas”

A rush back to the hotel is on. We need to be there by 9pm. We are staying at the “executive” (i.e., business) floor, which means that we are entitled to a free cocktail hour (7 – 9 pm) at the lounge of that floor, which includes free grub. Satish makes it in time, saving us from starvation. The lounge is a virtual club of business-trippers and temporary expatriates. A lot of them work for Deloitte Consulting. The lounge is the only place in Hyderabad where we see European-looking people. Most road-warriors are here not for the first time. They don’t go outside their offices and the hotel anymore. Conveniently, in-room mini-bars on the executive floor are also free.

Some are in the area for a longer term. On the flight from Amsterdam, Sonya met a family with two small kids who live in Hyderabad on a 2-year assignment for Deloitte. In their huge and beautiful house power goes out on average twice a day. Offices and hotels have back-up generators, but residential houses have only small ones, enough for a fan in the main room but not for the AC.  Americans have their own club and a swimming pool, and a few specialized restaurants where it’s safe to eat. It’s double-gated living. Among other quirks, Deloitte India employees undergo special training to streamline their weekly financial reports, because Indian accountants surround numbers and info with very lengthy and flowery language.

Boyar world
Boyar world

Are we then the new “boyars” from the present day “Khorasan” – the Anglo-Saxon world? If so, we are only at the lowest rung of the hierarchy. A couple of days before my arrival, Sonya was looking out the window at the main entrance of the convention center attached to the hotel. It was early evening, and countless stretch limos were queuing up at the porte-cochere of the center. Men in formal attire, women in evening gowns or gorgeous saris were pouring out of the arriving carriages. This procession kept going, and going, and going… Intrigued, Sonya asked the concierge what event produced such a showy parade. “Oh, it’s a wedding,” he said. The son of the owner of half of the real-estate in Cyberabad was getting married. This had to be held at the convention center. Any other place was simply too small for the 6000 invited guests. (The father probably owned the convention center, too). Several maharajas were in attendance (there are still over 70 maharajas around – not as formal rulers, yet living very nicely). There is no doubt, however, who was the real maharaja at the party.  It’s hard to believe that the wedding cost only $2 million, according to the same source, but life is cheaper in India.

The hotel has a jewelry store. And the main attraction there? Why, of course pearls and diamonds. For the first time we could see and compare big pearls with jumbo ones, and off-white or yellowish beads with blindingly gleaming snow-white spheres. And, just like the wedding, they are priced at the Indian level.

HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle)

HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle)

Satish takes us to the airport in the morning. We are to fly to Mumbai, but only to change planes there – no previews of the ill-fated Taj Mumbai Hotel for us. The driver proudly points at the new highway to Bangalore. It’s very narrow and has only two lanes, but no matter.  Up next – an elevated road across and around Hyderabad. The Deloitte acquaintances confided to Sonya that they would be scared to drive there. People drive randomly on any side of the road and therefore can fall or push others over the ramp – not a cheery prospect when the road is elevated to the three- storey level. (Two years later, the road apparently has not been built yet).

Highway of the future (still in the future)
Highway of the future (still in the future)

We are somewhat used to the landscape by now, but an enormous billboard by the roadside dwarfing the effort by the Hyderabad police is hard not to notice. On it, amidst cheering multitudes, a benevolent face with a meticulously trimmed mustache looks straight at you, as if trying to hypnotize. A Mona-Lisa-like half-smile and a military style salute complete the striking image. Something tells me that this may be an aspiring Big Brother. Looking at the picture later I figure out that the impression was not far off the mark. (I did not master Telugu, but was able to read the text with the help of what little materials I could scrounge on that language). The man in the sky is Chiranjeevi, a fabulously successful Tollywood movie star. Tollywood is the Telugu-language Bollywood, and according to Wikipedia (which of course is never inaccurate), it produces the largest number of films per year of any movie industry in any language.

Chiranjeevi is watching you
Chiranjeevi is watching you

Chiranjeevi was advertizing the founding of a new political party, Praja Rajyam (People’s Rule), with himself as the top ruler. The historic event was to take place on August 26, 2008, at 3:00pm sharp, in the holy city of Tirupati, in the south of Andhra Pradesh. In other words, as we drive by, it’s already yesterday’s news. But one million (or as they say in India – 10 lakh) people showed up. They were of course attracted by his mega-celebrity, but to nail down massive support, Praja Rajyam announced an irresistible program, almost as good as the one the Communist Party of the Soviet Union adopted at its XXII-d Congress. At that congress, Khrushchev promised that a full state of Communism with the abundance of everything for nothing would be achieved in Russia by the year 1980. The program was later amended to say that the Olympic Games would be conducted in Moscow in that year, instead, as a popular joke had it.  In turn, Chiranjeevi’s outfit announced such lofty principles as “clean governance and transparency”, “change and revolution”, and most importantly “happiness in every home”. They were not short on specifics either. If in power, the Praja Rajyam Party would deliver free grocery items worth Rs. 100 per month for every poor family and also supply a cooking gas cylinder for Rs. 100. To top it off the PRP promised creation of half a million jobs in 1,000 days (this is, remember, only in one state).

The airport is around the corner
The airport is around the corner

One would think that with this excellent approach the PRP could garner an eternal mandate to rule, yet it had trouble getting more than a handful of seats in the state legislature, so has not had a chance to deliver on its promises.  Not to mention other parties coming up with even better governing programs, like free color TV’s for the poor from the Telugu Desam Party, or rice at 2 rupees per kilogram from the Indian National Congress  ($1 is worth 45 rupees). An additional political controversy tripped up the inexperienced contender from Tollywood. It was the case of Telangana.

Telangana, a historic northern region around Hyderabad, was merged with Andhra to form the state of Andhra Pradesh in 1956. By 2009, a Telangana separation movement succeeded in getting the central government to agree on creating a new state of Telangana, although the exact shape and procedures have not been finalized. Chiranjeevi, taking a page from the ill-fated presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry, was for Telangana before he was against it. For – probably because everybody else swung to the pro side, and against, because his electoral base in the southern town of Tirupati would not be included in Telangana. The contest to be the next Nizam of Hyderabad is still on.

We arrive at the Rajiv Gandhi airport. At the security checkpoint, they tell us that there is a knife in Sonya’s carry-on laptop bag. That makes no sense to her and she vigorously denies it. Her being an honorary VIP, the checker dismisses the suspicion and we are waved through.

Good-bye, Andhra Pradesh! See you later, Telangana!

P.S. Only a couple of flights later, at the provincial Aurangabad airport, do security people demand to see all the pockets of the bag, and sure enough the knife is there. It’s a knife from the Hyderabad hotel Sonya would take to the office to peel apples – a recommended health precaution. She forgot all about it.  The rural post office-sized airport prominently displays the list of VIP travelers not subject to the security check, starting with the president of the republic. American tourists or even business visitors are not so privileged, and we are stripped of our cold weapon. Good for Aurangabad, but what about Hyderabad and Mumbai? The consequences of lax security were only too quick and forceful less than 3 months later.

P.P.S. Telangana indeed came into being six years later, in 2014, splitting the former Andhra Pradesh into two states. But Chiranjeevi had no hand in it.