Nearly everyone in India knows the historical association Hyderabad has with the Nizams. The chief minister may have replaced the royal family as the city’s ultimate authority, but there’s no doubt that in terms of culture and heritage, Hyderabad remains wholly theirs. The rich food, the melodic music, the unique language, the famous Hyderabadi tehzeeb… these are all part of a legacy far more valuable than any tract of land.
And when you look at the history of Hyderabad from a general perspective, you’ll see the Mughal invasion of the Deccan Plateau. You’ll recall how the Nizams took Hyderabad to a new level, implementing plans that would lead to it becoming the wealthiest and most developed of the pre-Independence princely states. You’ll see the cultural integration present in the Nizam’s court, the sheer decadence of their kitchens and, of course, the Asif Jahi dynasty itself. Move past the independence era, and you’ll recount the formation of Andhra Pradesh and the city’s subsequent development, and how it has taken that foundation forward.
But there are those who know far more about the history of this city than many of us can even fathom. Guardians of Hyderabad’s fabled heritage, they are treasure troves of information and anecdotes, with thoughts and stories that provide a framework for what constitutes the essence of Hyderabad. You & I has been fortunate enough to speak with some of these intriguing individuals, and what they share is sure to make the past come alive.
Former sports journalist and ex-Hyderabad Cricket Association joint-secretary N. Ganesan is an avid proponent of the glory of Hyderabad’s past. Today, from his home in Narayanguda, he manages a consumer affairs forum. But it is his vast collection of stories, and his penchant for sharing them, that keeps his grandchildren and the neighbourhood kids spellbound, along with any adult within earshot.
“When football was sought to be introduced in Hyderabad during the latter half of the 19th century,” he tells us, “religious leaders tried their very best to prevent the game from taking root. A pamphlet published at the time read: ‘Those who play football become unfit to perform religious rites. They cannot make for good patriots. Football is a good-looking evil that sucks the blood of the players, breaks their hands and feet, and makes them invalid forever.’ Even the upper class looked down on the game, but some Rajas and Nawabs came forward in support of the game. Farkhunda Nawaz Jung, the Nawab of Tarbund, must be mentioned as football’s chief patron; he had a great passion for the game.
“Local players began to make a mark,” Ganesan goes on. “One of those who distinguished himself on the field was Qader Khan. His father Namder Khan, a hafeez who read the Quran in the mosque, was against the game. It is no wonder, then, that he opposed his son playing a game that ‘led one to the devils’. Qader was punished for thinking about football. He wept, not so much because he was prevented from playing his game, but because his friends had seen the punishment meted out to him. But no amount of punishment would deter Qader Khan from wandering to the field to play football. He became one the greatest goalkeepers Hyderabad has ever produced, and every team wanted him to play for their side. The Nawab of Tarbund, who was his patron, was afraid that he might play for a team other than his own and, therefore, used to keep him confined to his house. He was kept bound to a cot until match time.”
As time passed, football’s popularity in the city touched new levels. “In the 1920s,” Ganesan continues, “the game became so popular that even the 7th Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, descended to preside over, and to give away the trophies at, the final of the 1924-25 Majeed Tournament. And when the Rajas and Nawabs were eased out after independence, it was the Hyderabad Police that took upon itself the mantle of patron of the game. Raja Venkatarama Reddy, then-commissioner of police, first promoted the City Afghan team. They created history by winning several tournaments across the country, including the Rovers and the Durand. The players also helped Hyderabad win the national championship.”
But it is not just sports that Ganesan is familiar with; he is well-versed in the cultural history of the city as well. “There are many personalities that Hyderabad can never forget. Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, one of the greatest engineers India has produced, is one of them. The dam across the Musi River has come into being because of him, but there is terrible human tragedy behind the tale. In September 1908, dark clouds enveloped the sky over the city, raining cats and dogs. In less than four hours, 32.5 cm of rainfall saw the waters of the Musi - which divides Hyderabad into north and south - rise by 16 feet, flooding several areas on either side. The flood waters reached where Koti Women’s College is now located. Three bridges across the river were washed away, and the parapet walls and railings of the fourth could not stand the fury of the torrents. Nearly 19,000 houses collapsed, 80,000 people were left homeless and some 15,000 were killed. Such a natural calamity had not been seen before in the erstwhile princely state. To appease the anger of the river goddess, the 6th Nizam, Mir Mahbub Ali Khan, came out and offered puja. He was also gracious enough to throw open the gates of the palace to accommodate some of the homeless.
“Sir Visvesvaraya had become a renowned engineer, working not only in India but abroad as well. Mir Mahbub Ali Khan sent an SOS to him, seeking his help. Sir Visvesvaraya, whose heart went out to the suffering masses, did not hesitate. He immediately left for Hyderabad. He was requested to prepare plans to protect the city from future floods, and to prepare a drainage scheme. He stayed in the city for just seven months and drew up the plans as requested. We owe our safety during the monsoons to this gentleman.”
While Hyderabad’s past is undoubtedly rich beyond measure, eminent historian and full-blooded Hyderabadi Lakshmi Devi Raj laments the current scenario. In her eyes, the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of Hyderabad has withered away. The land of the Nizams, once famous for its impeccably cultured denizens, has faded into quite a different city with no unique stamp of its own.
And one cannot blame Lakshmi Devi Raj for lamenting some of the ways in which the city has changed. For as a child of Asif Jahi Hyderabad, she is entitled to her disappointment with the way things have turned out. In the Nizams’ time, certain aspects of life were clearly outlined as mandatory: manners, public behaviour, respect for your elders, tone of language and respect for each and every individual. To see that modern Hyderabad has not capitalised on its regal cultural foundation is sure to make anyone of her generation feel disheartened.
“The culture of Hyderabad - and culture in general - is something that has been on my mind for a while,” she says. “When I look around today, I don’t see the Hyderabad that I know and love. I don’t see a city of harmony and etiquette. In fact, just the other day a young lady bumped into me and offered not so much as an ‘Excuse me’ or an apology. Such has become the norm amongst today’s younger generation that concepts like manners are alien.
“I see many kids today who blindly ape everything fashionable about the West. But if you want to be like them, why not emulate their knack for hard work? Why not take a leaf out of their book and learn the importance of standing in a queue? Why not observe their lane discipline and overall road sense, and drive properly? Culture makes you who you are, so it is important for parents to keep their kids rooted. Yes, while growing up we went to British schools, learned their language and adopted their customs. Yet we spoke our native languages at home. We retained our festivals and our traditions, and we held on to our uniquely Hyderabadi heritage. Today, something as simple as respect for elders is a very rare thing to see.“
It doesn’t help to have role models who are extremely prominent in the public eye, yet speak no English and have honorary doctorates. You can have all the PhD degrees in the world, but without culture you’re still lacking. It’s like having a car but not knowing how to drive, or vice versa.
The famous social harmony that dominated Hyderabad still exists, says Lakshmi Devi Raj, yet it is not as strong as it was in days past. Muslims still marry Hindus, Jains do marry Sikhs, and Christians continue to marry Buddhists. But thanks to certain events dating back to 1990, and unsavoury social elements, there is always the threat of the powder keg. In the days of the Nizam, and even later in the 1950s, there was constant harmony among the residents of this city. Every festival, from Holi and Eid to Christmas and Baisakhi, was celebrated with a dynamism so very unique to Hyderabad. That is not to say that a similar verve is lacking today, but in Asif Jahi Hyderabad, it was a truly glorious thing to behold.
“Today, what dominates is a growing obsession with money,” she adds. “The Nizams were also in constant pursuit of wealth, yet they did so much for the benefit of the public. They were famed for their generosity and for the things they gave to the city. The roads, the railways and the most basic infrastructure would not have been in place were it not for the philanthropy of the Asif Jahi dynasty. Their lives were based on principles of philanthropy and culture, so they laid a foundation good enough for the city as it was then. But development has not followed up. Roads are dug up and not repaired; our monuments are tarnished, either with gutka stains or by unauthorised construction, or they stand neglected; our civic amenities are often severely lacking and unhygienic.”
Lakshmi Devi Raj expresses particular concern for the city monuments and once-wonderful architecture. “Look at the monuments of Hyderabad. The Hayat Bakshi masjid is surrounded by illegal structures, despite attempts to convince the GHMC to tear them down. I tried to rescue Pathergatti. I held the first press conference and tried to mobilise the media, but nobody was willing to take the time out for Hyderabad. In Abids, a once-famous hospital has been turned into a bazaar where anyone can come and sell their goods. The beauty of Hyderabadi architecture has been ruined, or worse - ignored.
“I was born in a wonderful house near Abids. My neighbours were also my relatives, and every evening around 9 pm, all of us young ones would walk to Tank Bund and play on the bund. You can’t do that anymore, because either the stench or the traffic will get you. Even something as simple as getting a driving licence has changed. I got mine by actually passing the test; you couldn’t buy one in those days. My driving exam took place in an open area of the Old City; you can’t find open areas like that in Hyderabad anymore. Cars back then did not have indicators, so you had to signal manually, as well as reverse and make a successful U-turn. Today, you don’t even have to be present at the RTO.
“Look at what has happened on the way to Santosh Nagar. Look at parts of the Old City. Things have fallen into disrepair, roads are nonexistent, and once-regal structures now stand derelict. Banjara Hills was supposed to be a residential neighborhood, yet it has turned commercial. Is there any one locality in the city that is demarcated specifically as a residential zone? Commerce and money have invaded the quality of life. Malls are not what Hyderabad is about. Even in weddings, money is an issue. Why spend lakhs upon lakhs of rupees on floral arrangements flown in from across the country, only for them to be cut away and thrown out the same day? Earlier, you would use that money to get underprivileged girls married, to build homes for the poor, or to feed the hungry. The concepts of charity and philanthropy have gone.
“There is a couplet in Urdu that translates roughly to ‘A man who has lost his culture is nothing.’ In Hyderabad, we are on the verge of losing our heritage altogether. It is important that the younger generation works to prevent this. I have close friends in Delhi, and I used to fly out three or four times a year. We would be sitting with the famous families of Old Delhi, and whenever I was introduced as a Hyderabadi, the city would command respect. It used to mean something. It is vital that we restore Hyderabad’s lost glory.”
From glorious tales of some of the city’s greatest sportsmen, to impassioned pleas to resurrect Hyderabad’s gracious culture, we come to the average Hyderabad citizen, many of whom have been around long enough to have known a different city. Like 95-year-old Sharmaji, with his intriguing (and sometimes tall) tales, one of which concerns a man’s near-death experience with water.
“The waters of Gandipet, as the Osman Sagar is known, and the concrete roads of Hyderabad were once world-famous. The water of the lake had a taste of its own, and neither the Manjira nor the Krishna was able to equal it. In the old days, the roads of Hyderabad used to be very clean. Horse-drawn tongas were the chief mode of transport. One day, a postmaster belonging to the government of India (Hyderabad state had its own currency and post offices) was carrying drinking water from his home. As he passed in front of the Nizam’s palace, he accidentally dropped his vessel, and the water flowed across the palace gate. The guards immediately pounced on and detained him. ‘You have poured water after uttering a spell, seeking to harm the Nizam. If he has even a headache today, your head will be gone,’ they said. Luckily for the postmaster, the Nizam did not suffer a headache.”
This last story may not be linked to any significant historical events. But it just goes to show you that even if Hyderabad’s small-town charm can sometimes be obscure, you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll always be entertaining. - Ashwin