Delving into the rich and bloody history of Golconda

(Originally published in The Hindu, November 06 2016)

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Photo by Manu S Pillai

When I walked into Golconda Fort, where great kings once reigned, amassing treasure and unfolding tragedy with well-oiled consistency, I was greeted by the sight of clapping tourists. It was, frankly, an idiotic exercise. A guide invited me to join in and experience the wonders of ‘acoustic architecture’, where a clap in the portico could be heard a kilometre away in a certain upstairs pavilion. “This is how they warned each other of danger,” the man proposed. I told him, perhaps too bluntly, that if danger had breached the inner portico of the fort, clapping wasn’t going to be of particular relevance — it was probably a method to communicate the arrival of friends, not foes. I dismissed the guide and ventured into the ruins on my own, feeling a little superior to those clapping tourists shepherded by men talking drivel.

Golconda was among India’s sturdiest forts till centuries of neglect reduced it to a magnificent pile of stone. When it fell in 1687 to Aurangzeb, it was not the heavy granite walls that betrayed the Qutb Shah but the treachery of his Afghan gatekeeper who did for the Mughals what an eight-month-long siege failed to achieve. The Eighth Shah, also the last of his line, enthroned himself in court — a hall of audience at the pinnacle of the hill — on the walls of which boys called Sunny and Adil now profess eternal love for the Anitas and Shalinis they will not marry. The Mughals wound their way up and met the vanquished Shah, sitting in state in all his regalia. With equal ceremony, they pensioned him into exile. I saw a tomb with a broken dome outside the fort, thinking it had been ruined. It was, in fact, never completed — the Eighth Shah had begun work on his mausoleum, but defeat meant it remained half built. Today he lies in faraway Khuldabad, ironically also the resting place of his nemesis, Aurangzeb.

The First Shah migrated to the kingdom of the Bahamani Sultan from Iran. After the Bahamanis imploded, the man declared for himself and became king of Golconda. It was he who replaced the old mud-fort and built much of what we see today, though whether he also built the waterbodies, rotting with garbage and plastic now, is not known. He died, apparently, at the grand old age of 99 after many battles (with a horribly mutilated face to prove it) but in the less grand circumstances of being murdered by his own son. Like their contemporaries, the Qutb Shahs had an appetite for blood and drama — the Fourth Shah cheerfully poisoned his eldest son and drowned the second, while another deported his father-in-law. Yet another slaughtered a large scoop of his soldiers after a failed coup — he had set out for a hunt only to find the gates of the fort shut behind him. The result of putting the Shah through the inconvenience of having to besiege his own capital was wholesale massacre.

It wasn’t clear if the men, women, and children panting their way up the hill with me were aware of much of this colourful history. But there was a little bit of a rush to look out at a certain hill where the dancer Bhagmati is supposed to have performed. I had no clue what hilltop we were looking at, for the landscape is all rock and mountain, but this is the founding romance of Hyderabad — the Qutb Shah who built a new city and named it after his beloved. It was called Bhagnagar till courtiers persuaded the king to favour a more dignified name than that of a courtesan. Thus came about ‘Hyderabad’. (Another version says that the lady was called Hyder Mahal and so, in the end, this name too flatters the ruler’s lover.) Of course, it was actually built to accommodate masses spilling out from a teeming fort — a little bit like a 16th-century Gurgaon, with the difference that it actually worked. And where Gurgaon sets towering standards in bad urban management, Hyderabad dazzled the world with its markets of gems and diamonds.

The Koh-i-Noor was once guarded in the vaults of Golconda, alongside heaps of other riches. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, renowned French traveller and jeweller, claimed to have seen a flat diamond called ‘The Great Table’, worth 500,000 rupees at the time, while to Jean de Thévenot, another French traveller, the Qutb Shah “surpasse[d] all the Kings of the Indies in precious stones” — if he encashed all he possessed, “he would have prodigious sums of money”. Even in decline, after numerous failed military ventures on the eve of his exile, when the Eighth Shah surrendered Golconda, he gave with it six million gold pagodas, two crore silver rupees, 115 crore copper kasus, and oceans of other valuables to the Mughals. I went through the dungeons in the heart of the fort where, presumably, some of these treasures were preserved. Today they are home to generations of bats, all of whom hang above tremendous heaps of dung, wafting smells not even criminal vandals should have to endure.

Hyderabad, where one imagines there is no such community of bats, has fared better. The new city was famous (and I quote a 17th century English merchant) for its “sweetness of ayre, convenience of Water, and fertility of soyle”. My weekend there was a rainy one with the ‘soyle’ swirling into muck and the ‘ayre’ singularly unsweet — garbage and filth on the streets left a pungent heaviness, especially in the older quarters, where encroachment upon encroachment chokes lovely buildings from another time. In its heyday, the city, a short distance from old Golconda, attracted people and adventurers from around the world — traders, mercenaries, diplomats, and others. It had 20,000 ‘public women’ licensed to practise their profession by the government, and among them too were foreigners with attractive career trajectories. The Italian traveller, Niccolao Manucci, on the run from the Mughals, reached Hyderabad and found his way to the Shah’s harem to bleed an inmate — a Georgian woman of immense proportions. And after treating her, he fled the moment Mughal bugles were heard outside Golconda, preferring a calmer setting to write his famous travelogue.

Among those who died during the Mughal siege was a man whose grandson would become the first Nizam of Hyderabad, representing imperial Delhi in the Deccan. The Nizams were not particularly interested in the citadel, except to use it as a prison to house ‘obnoxious members’ of their family. Golconda was abandoned and the bats moved in. The glorious tombs of the Qutb Shahs, once well-endowed, too were forgotten — Aurangzeb, during the invasion, settled soldiers here and mounted guns aimed at the fort. The Nizams brought to Hyderabad another culture and style, building palaces and stamping their own identity on the city. I went to Chowmahalla and Falaknuma and the other palaces raised by this last dynasty in Hyderabad. They were lovely buildings, but as I passed the Charminar, a monument of staggering beauty in the midst of overflowing bazaars, it was nostalgia for those before that I felt, those whose names and deeds might have endured had it not been for the betrayal of a gatekeeper. I didn’t linger for long on the thought though — after all, all kings are destined one day for oblivion, their forts and halls home to such unlikely visitors as tourists who clap like idiots.

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