Golconda Fort is long dead. Gone are the Kakatiyas who built it in 11434, gone are the Bahmanis. Gone is the Qutb Shahi dynasty which built the fort again in impregnable stone: 11 kilometres around, its outer walls, with spikes that dared war-elephants and Aurangzeb himself.
It took that particular emperor eight months to penetrate the unrelenting fort (it must be added: and only with the complicity of one of the Qutb Shah’s men). In the Siege of Golconda of 1687 Abul Hasan Qutb Shah was duly imprisoned and became his dynasty’s last king, his wealth and power ravished.14
In the Fort and its city there were once fountains of diamonds, gold, incalculable wealth- Golconda was a wellspring of real fable, the confluence of travellers and adventurers and merchants from around the world.13 The diamonds have left for museums halfway across the world; Golconda’s kings, their ministers and their court dancers live only through legends today. Yes, Golconda is quite dead.
On the bright side, the Fort is reanimated in a Sound and Light Show from 6:30 pm to 8 pm every day except Mondays- it is said to be rather entertaining.
I am embarrassed to confess that having lived in Hyderabad for two years, I had never been to Golconda Fort before I needed to write this essay. We live so near it that we always put off going, and so ended up never visiting it at all. Only six kilometres away, Golconda is a constant, avuncular presence. I saw it from my school window every morning during break-time, a lopsided brown square on the hill in the near distance, sometimes shrouded in mist.
Without my ever having seen its insides (or maybe precisely because I hadn’t), Golconda Fort stopped being impressive after a while. So I really didn’t feel that jazzed about it when we finally went. My only consolation was that this was better than watching movies to kill the time during Dussehra break. (But in retrospect I’m glad I watched Jodhaa Akbar the week I went to visit the Fort- sometimes one’s cinematic imagination of a place is more true to its spirit than what is left behind after an age of abandonment.)
We went on a hot Saturday morning. For such a simple trip, it proved quite a headache. To make things easier for my (busy) parents, I suggested that I go to the Fort myself. But this raised a veritable storm and my parents and I argued- one of those Feminism vs Safety arguments- and we all got extremely annoyed. I had lost my interest in the expedition by the time we got into the car.
We all had copious amounts of sunscreen on, and our caps and water bottles, and my sister wore her safari hat (how I wished I could pull that off without looking silly.)
We drove to the fort, where everything was still a little sleepy. There wasn’t much of a queue for the tickets (five rupees for Indians, a hundred for foreigners). There was a boy in front of us silly enough to come in his school uniform, and a security guard shooed the truant away.
Already we began to be accosted by tour guides and we declined them all firmly. It would have been a good idea, in hindsight, having a guide. But it seemed to us too much of a commitment (Especially, perhaps, because they were so intimidatingly persistent.) We had our tickets’ bokodes scanned by someone (I was impressed: all this technology for a five-rupee ticket), then we entered directly into the Clapping Portico: a dome with a metal gong at its inner tip, which reverberates when you clap right under it. The signal can be heard a whole kilometre away at Taramati Baradari.
One of the guides invited us with great ceremony to try the thing out. We were in the trap before we knew it- he offered us a tour. When my mother demurred, he said, impressively dismissive: “Bina guide kya dekhenge aap? Sirf paththhar aur diwaren hain.” Stones and walls. This was true. The thought occurred to me several times later.
As you approach the fort you can see the stone blocks that made up the wall, all irregular, but perfectly fitted together. You can imagine the builders of the fort from a yesterday some five hundred years ago, choosing each block to form part of the puzzle. Maybe after their lunch break, maybe with the sun warm on their necks.
Throughout the trip you feel this sense of temporal continuity, this just-yesterday-ness. It is a strange mixture of- you hardly know what: gentle awe at the passing of time; an awareness of the subtle aliveness of the place after its physical and atmospheric degradation; and also a sort of disillusionment- disappointment in, repugnance of, even scorn for the skeleton of what had been. Why should you be awed by these broken-down stones and walls? Any wonder you can conjure seems merely a construct of some collaborative imagination of some glorious past. You do not always want to play along.
I am reminded of the wonderfully irreverent poem “Heart of Ruin” by Arun Kolatkar, on a temple he visited:
“The roof comes down on Maruti’s head.
Nobody seems to mind.
Least of all Maruti himself
May be he likes a temple better this way.
No more a place of worship this place
is nothing less than the house of god.”
When you go to Golconda Fort, the projected pinnacle of your trip is at the top of the granite hill- the three-storey Durbar Hall is, where the king held court. You walk past buildings and ruins of varying interest and importance, all the while impatient to get to the Hall. When you do, you stand there a while, savour the view a little, begin to get bored, and come back down the other way past the Mahakali Mandir3, the two-minaret Ibrahim mosque, and the mortuary baths. If you are the typical tourist/traveller, you will also enjoy yourself with a family picnic in some shady corner on the way up, and maybe a celebratory ice cream during the descent.
A lot of visits to major tourist attractions have felt this way to me- like some sort of grocery trip that everyone thinks will be exciting, despite repeated evidence to the contrary.
Anyway, there are several genuinely interesting (if minor) buildings to look at on the way: chambers and courtyards beautifully cool and silent, with the percussive beating of pigeons’ wings in the alcoves, and harsh light streaming through the cracks in overgrown walls. There are the residences of the ministers; the elegant Taramati mosque, its emebellishments embodying that history-textbook phrase, “Hindu-Persian architecture”; the Rani Mahal, or queen’s chambers; and the Shahi Mahal, or royal bedroom. You find out interesting tidbits of information- there was a diamond at the foot of a rose-water pond in the queen’s courtyard, and little niches studding the walls, to light candles or lamps in.9
These details offer some scope for imagination (picture the brilliancy of the royal chambers at twilight, lit by a hundred candles and perfumed, probably, by some luxurious Arabian fragrance)- but the rooms are so plain and forlorn that it takes real effort to see them as having housed real people once.
History, then, inevitably becomes inseparable from legend, as in the case of the famous Bhakta Ramadasu. A Ram devotee and tax collector of the last Qutb Shah, Ramadasu later became well-known for his devotional compositions, and for building the famous Ram temple at Bhadrachalam. He was thrown into jail for siphoning off the treasury funds to build this temple (clearly there seems to have been a bit of a misunderstanding) and languished there for several years, till saved by divine intervention when Lord Ram and Lakshman themselves came to repay his debt to the king.11,12 Today, you can visit the cell where Ramadasu was jailed, and view the mythical carvings he apparently chiseled into the walls.
More concrete is the story behind the extensive and complex network of waterways at Golconda. There is a short, boring plaque about it at the Fort- but really this does not adequately describe how exquisite the engineering was. The excellent water supply was a major reason for the fort’s being so secure, with carefully (and ingeniously) concealed waterways, and stringent security at various parts of the network. A Persian water-wheel pumped the water up for use by the royalty, at an impressively high pressure: 22 lbs per square inch just outside Rani Mahal.10
As you walk through the buildings (pretending, perhaps, to be Hrithik Roshan from Jodhaa Akbar, for dramatic effect- the background score should also at this point conveniently play in your head), you see intersecting arches, and domes designed to amplify the sound of the nobles (specifically, treacherous nobles).
You go up onto the spacious terrace courtyards, and wonder suddenly: who did the laundry, and what did they chat about as they hung up the royal raiments? Again you feel a sense of the everyday even in this ruined grandeur, and you wonder, ridiculously, if the emperor ever felt particularly thrilled by his own kingliness, as he strode down his corridor to breakfast.
From a distance you see the Durbar Hall poised magnificently at the top of many, many steps snaking up the hill. It is like one of those Chinese pagoda paintings, and your famished eyes make the most of it. At the moment, you are not worrying too much about those stairs.
The safari hat, bobbing up and down as you begin the ascent, says, “You know, they had people carrying the king up and down the stairs in a palanquin whenever he wanted.” You are mildly surprised- not so much at the Qutb Shah’s being such a jerk, but at your little sister knowing something as random as this. How many other things like this haven’t you yet suspected her of? Does unfamiliarizing yourself with new places also unfamiliarize the people you travel with?
The steps tilt uncomfortably backward. There is a landing halfway up, and you stop there to drink in the view. It’s amazing- you don’t realize from up close that the fort walls are so high. Outside the walls lie the little white boxes of modern-day Hyderabad, melting into the smog in the middle distance. Inside them you can see all of the vast square of buildings at once- squat, decaying, majestic, and everything spangled with an emerald tangle glinting in the sun. Nature is such a good landscaper. You’re glad you came.
You start to climb again, and now are about to reach the summit; already there is a sense of anticlimax.
The Durbar Hall is nice enough. The wind runs strong through your hair, and the views are pleasurably vertiginous. If you are Hyderabadi, you try to spot places on the ground.
The graffiti reaches such high places on the wall that it seems to have grown by itself, like some impudent fungus; a man shouts on his phone against the wind; a flight of swallows swirls above you. You wonder what exactly you came looking for. Maybe it was all of this: even the graffiti, the shouting man, the sweet wrappers and the plastic bottles. They were all just people, these Shahs and queens and their long-suffering palanquin-men. These are all people too: these families and canoodling couples and graffiti gangs.
There is no reason to be much disappointed. You begin your descent.
“…No more a place of worship this place
is nothing less than the house of god.”
Deepika Pradeep (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Photo credits: Pradeep Gopalakrishnan
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- “Golconda Fort to have monthly show of Quli…”, The New Indian Express http://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/hyderabad/2016/oct/19/golconda-fort-to-have-monthly-show-of-quli-1529774.html
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- “Plumbing the Golconda”, The Hindu http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/plumbing-the-golconda/article328095.ece
- “Golconda Fort and the Legend of Bhakta Ramadas”, http://desitraveler.com/bhakta-ramadas-golconda-fort/
- “The Legend of Ramdas”,http://narendralutherarchives.blogspot.in/2006/12/legend-of-ramdas.html
- “Manu Pillai Delves into the Rich and Bloody History of Golconda Fort”, The Hinduhttp://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/manu-pillai-delves-into-the-rich-and-often-bloody-history-of-golconda-fort/article9309587.ece
- “The Siege of Golconda”, www.wikipedia.org https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Golconda
- “Visit to India- Telangana State – Hyderabad City- Golconda Fort – I”http://gkscoins.blogspot.in/2014/10/visit-to-india-telangana-state.html
- “Heart of Ruin”, Arun Kolatkar http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/heart-of-ruin/