India: Hyderabad highlights

By Greg Bowker

It's a small world. We're at an Indian restaurant in Remuera discussing a forthcoming trip to the Indian tech city of Hyderabad. Our young Indian waiter Santosh can't believe his ears. That's his home town.

Like any proud local he's keen to promote Hyderabad's attractions and gives us a list of places to visit that's as long as your arm.

There's the elegant 400-year-old Charminar mosque, the Golconda Fort, a bangle bazaar, the Bollywood studios, various Hindu temples, the giant Mecca Masjid mosque, a floating Buddha and the amazing new High Tech City.

But what Hyderabad is most famous for, it seems, is food. And especially the dish called biryani.

But, as we discover when we get there, it's not just biryani Hyderabad has to offer. At a coffee house near the Charmindar, just 30 rupees (about $1) buys us three Iranian coffees, sweet, milky, chai flavoured coffee concoctions that seem to mellow the madness of the market which surrounds the soaring mosque.

The price also includes free admission to the amazing juggling display put on by the boys serving the coffee, with cups filled to the brim then stacked as high as they can go and taken on a swerving, jostling, teetering run until amazingly they arrive at your table.

It's a performance that goes well with the organised chaos on all sides. This market sells the world. The fresh fruit section offers everything from mountains of watermelons to bunches of yellow, green and red - yes, red - bananas.

There's a whole street full of shops selling bangles, each one glowing more brightly than the last, and each one with an even better deal. The clothing area's offerings range from the incredibly exotic to the remarkably prosaic ... even a 10-pack of business socks.

Yet, in the midst of this madness the Charminar stands serenely, as it has done since it was built by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah in 1591 as a monument to those who died during a devastating epidemic. Its four famous towers, 56m high, hide small, narrow spiral staircases and for 100 rupees you can climb high above the hustle and bustle to enjoy tranquil views over the city.

Nearby is the city's other famous mosque, the Mecca Masjid, a vast edifice able to hold 10,000 worshippers, surrounded by peaceful fountains and huge open spaces where flocks of pigeons swirl.

Not far away, in the middle of the great Hussain Sagar lake, is another amazing religious monument, the world's largest freestanding stone Buddha statue, 350 tonnes and 17.5m high, which can be visited by ferry.

This isn't an ancient statue, in fact it has only stood here since 1992, but it does have an interesting tale to tell. The giant figure was being floated to its new home when the barge carrying it sank under the massive weight and the Buddha lay beneath the water for two years before finally being refloated and taken to its new home.

There was plenty more to see in in this amazing city but thanks to our Remuera waiter we had different priorities. We wanted to try Hyderabad biryani. And, we were assured, one of the best places to try it was the nearby Bawarchi restaurant.

This famous dish was apparently brought to Hyderabad by the invading Mughal Army of Aurangazeb, having been developed as a way of getting quick food to the troops. That doesn't sound particularly appealing - sort of like an Indian version of bully beef - but its unique blend of meat (though there is a vegetarian version), a special variety of rice and a secret blend of herbs and spices has proved irresistible down the centuries.

It certainly conquered us. We ate so much our stomachs felt as though they might explode. It was delicious.

Did I mention that it's a small world? Who should be in Hyderabad but Santosh, back to see his family, and eager for us to meet them.

Chatting jovially about life in India, he led us through the small and quiet back streets of Musheerabad, passing children returning from school, an old lady cooking freshly picked corn on a small bed of embers, a group of women sweeping the streets and a small corner shack where men worked on old Singer sewing machines.

Home for Santosh, his parents and his grandmother was a small, two-level sky-blue rented dwelling. The walls in the main room told the story of the family's life with lots of photos and a large world map showing off the countries that Santosh had visited.

His mother spoke little English, though her beaming smile was enough to tell us that she was happy her son had brought us home, and like any proud mum she fussed about us and was worried the kitchen wasn't clean enough.

We were encouraged to stay for dinner, but our lunch had left no room for further food, and we decided that afternoon tea was a better idea.

As we moved from the family room to watch Santosh's mum cook a brew of Indian spicy tea in her kitchen we noticed a small shrine the family prays at every morning. Their little home buzzed with warmth and happy thoughts ... maybe because of the good vibes created by the shrine ... or maybe just the fresh smell of Indian herbs.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific currently offers return economy class fares to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Bangalore from $1719 including airport charges.

Further information: See hyderabadtourism.in or incredibleindia.org

Greg Bowker visited Hyderabad as guest of Tourism India.

- NZ Herald

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