Monasteries and Minarets

Contrary to my initial speculations, it turns out that Andhra Pradesh (AP) is India’s foremost tourism destination, welcoming 155.8 million tourists in a single year (2010). Of this horde of travellers, 99% were domestic—devout Hindus flocking to the famous Tirumala Venkateswara Temple far to the south, on the border with Tamil Nadu. Between 50,000 to 100,000 pilgrims daily descend on the temple, reputed to be the most visited place of worship in the world. Income, via donations, is said to reach 10 billion rupees ($2 million) annually.

But of course, I am not a domestic tourist, and thus not privy (for the most part) to the priorities and mores of local lore. Most foreign travellers I had spoken to had no interest at all in Andhra Pradesh—after all, there was nothing there, was there?—so I felt much as if I was forging off into the hitherto unexplored wilds of the country.

In fact, I was heading into newfound lands in a way, because while I was there AP bifurcated: the dusty, impoverished, cotton-strewn plains of the north-west splitting off from the prosperous coastal areas of residual Andhra, to form the new state of Telangana. The split was not achieved without quite a lot of haggling (over a period of, say, sixty years or so), and the occasional fun pepper-spray meltdown in India’s parliament (last month), but the legislation was finally pushed through while I was in the state capital. From this point on, firecrackers and gunshots became a regular soundtrack to my wanderings: I was officially in Telangana, and people seemed mostly chuffed with their newly recognised statehood.

But my first few days were spent solidly in residual Andhra (where public sentiment is generally much less positive about the split). After eight hours on a train from Chennai—passing mindlessly straight though Chittoor, region of Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, for which I am now kicking myself—I arrived in the dusty, charmless city of Vijayawada, on the rubbish strewn banks of the massive Krishna river. But I wasn’t there for the metropolitan atmosphere: I wanted to see some of the neglected pockets of Buddhist history that pucker the state—the more remote the better—using Vijayawada as my base.

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Having arrived in town after a day spent munching on cashew nut pakora (best invention ever: cashews dipped in spiced chickpea batter and deep-fried) and watching the world go by, I couldn’t even be bothered exiting the train station. Instead, I found lodging (after a lot of wandering around platforms miming that I wanted somewhere to sleep and causing deep consternation among the Andhra Pradeshians) at the “railway retiring rooms”. My friendly hosts refused to give me a single room—because it was in an “isolated area” at the other end of the station and thus for my “safety” I’d better not try it—but my double still ended up being half the price of any hotel in town and probably twice the size. Thus I ended up sleeping just above the main passenger concourse with a view looking out over the platforms to the far-off hills above the town.

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I went on occasional forays down to the hectic ground level for vendor supplies, feeling a little odd about being at a station and quite purposefully staying rather than going. It is rather a surreal and unsettling experience to walk past hundreds of people sleeping in ragged bundles on the ground outside, and indeed on the stairs on the way up to your room, when you know you have a double bed the size of a small island nation awaiting your return. I awoke to the sound of train whistles and the persistent and not altogether dulcet tones of the female train announcer lady, helpfully blasting out the early morning departures.

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I jogged thankfully out of the station and off to another transport hub: the venerable bus stand. (I do love a good Indian bus stand, and the necessary ritual they entail: crazily dashing around, frantically mispronouncing the names of my intended destination to the joy and delight of various Indian souls who have to witness my frantic ordeal, until finally the correct vehicle is pointed out to me. The place names, you see, are all in Telugu, which is an entirely different alphabet from the Latin one, and which I seem to be very slow to pick up.)

I take a one-hour bus to a small town by the name of Eluru, then quickly jump on another to Karmavarapukota (whose name made for some great facial expressions among my interrogatees). The buses in AP, I slowly realise, are radically less crowded than those in Tamil Nadu, which makes for a rather relaxing ride. Having arrived at Karma, I am bundled off the bus by the conductor and passed into the safe hands of the “Bus Stand General,” as I begin to think of him. This fellow clearly feels great responsibility for me, and when I wander off to buy a banana he looks positively frantic. It is about a one-hour wait in the hot sun, and during this time I manage to see two little girls in identical dresses, bangles, and thick kohl eye-makeup; and a man pulling a live, distressed chicken out of his shopping bag to show a friend his purchase. Safe to say, I have not seen a single other tourist, domestic or foreign, so mission appears to be accomplished.

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Finally the General scoots me onto a bus, and I travel 10km before being kicked out again, into the dirt. I turn around, and an elaborate arch with Buddha on top greets me. I walk through, and along a long dirt track through scrubby bush, to the archaeological site.

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For a millennia following the 6th Century BC, AP (then Andhradesa) was a hotbed of Buddhist culture—a place where monks from all around the world congregated to learn from renowned teachers. In the 3rd Century BC, Buddhist-convert Emperor Ashok promoted the religion by sending monks around the empire to teach the ways of Buddha, and build stupas (commemorative monuments usually housing sacred remains). Then, during the first centuries AD, AP was ruled by a succession of dynasties who continued to patronise the religion, making the state a popular place of Buddhist pilgrimage—in part because of the sea trade along the Krishna river from (Sri) Lanka. As a result of this history, AP is speckled with the ruins of a great Buddhist culture.

Guntupalli is a modest example of these ruins, but a beautiful one nonetheless: several stupas, monasteries and cave dwellings spread across a rocky hill overlooking forests and paddy fields. When I arrived, there was only a sprinkling of local tourists, and a goatherd or two, wandering the site of the former monastic compound—active from the 2nd Century BC to the 3rd Century AD.

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Having made my way back to Karma (a journey which involved a thrilling ride in a shared autorickshaw), I popped into a small roadside place for lunch. Ignoring the stares, I ordered parota—because that’s what everyone else seemed to be having—and gobbled down one of the best meals of my trip: perfect flaky flatbreads with a fiery pappucharu (a spiced, tamarind, tomato and lentil-based sauce). It was so delicious that I went on to order chapatti as well, just to make sure the kitchen hadn’t fluked the first course. (It hadn’t.)

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I spend one more night in the train station, before moving on to AP’s biggest attraction after the Tirumala Temple: its capital, Hyderabad. The city is a heady mix of Hindu Andhra/Telangana culture, and the remains of what was one of the richest Islamic Princedoms in the world. The city was established in 1591 by the Shi’a Muslim Qutb Shahi dynasty, after their original capital of Golconda was beset by plague. A century later, the Sunni Mughals swept down from the north, vanquishing the former rulers and establishing a Mughal viceroy in their place. In the 18th century, as the strength of the Mughal Empire waned, a Hyderabadi viceroy named Asif Jah rose up against his former masters and proclaimed his own sovereignty. This move instated the rule of a new dynasty, the Nizams, who remained in power even after the British arrived—governing Hyderabad as a princely state through a series of treaties with their Occidental invaders.

The area ruled by Hyderabad was the only known producer of diamonds in the world until the new world mines in southern Africa were discovered, and it offered up both the Kohinoor and the Hope diamonds. The state’s mineral riches, plus its strategic position, resulted in a flourishing cultural and economic life. Hyderabad became, under the Qutb Shahis and then the Nizams, a center of Islamic learning and scholarship, and a bustling, luxurious court, where people from all across the Islamic and Christian world gathered to trade materials and ideas. Thus modern Hyderabad is a strange island of soaring Islamic architecture, complex mutton-based cuisine, and Urdu signage, set among the Hindu hinterland of the Dravidian south.

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It is easy to trace this many-layered heritage, woven through the modern fabric of the city. Golconda Fort, the initial home of the Qutb Shahis, is only a 40minute bus ride from the centre of town, and its colossal walls and intricately laid-out grounds—although now incorporated into the metropolitan spread of Hyderabad, and housing an Indian army barracks—are beautifully preserved. Nearby, just outside the ancient walls of the fort, is the resting place of the Qutb Shahi kings. Elaborate, monumental tombs dot an uneven lawn of scrubby bush and violently colourful bougainvillea to create an alien landscape of marble bubbles; surreal sepulchres commemorating long-dead rulers of a defunct empire.

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In the centre of Hyderabad’s old city—down from the Golconda hill, across the river, nestled into the plateau to which the Qutb Shahis fled after the devastation of the plague—is the Char Minar: a gorgeously symmetrical example of Deccani architecture that was erected to celebrate the founding of the new city. Close by is the Mecca Masjid: one of the largest mosques in India, built in the seventeenth century,  supposedly with earth from Mecca blended into the massive stones on its façade. Clustered around these two buildings are market vendors and autorickshaws, and tessellating out from this centre are the snaky streets and crumbling buildings of the bazaars and bungalows that made up the old city.

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In this decaying metropolitan jumble, the Chowmahalla Palace and HEH the Nizam’s Museum are testament to the transfer of power from the Qutb Shahis to the Mughals. These residences reveal the opulence of the Nizams’ regime: wardrobes the size of ballrooms, buttery yellow Rolls Royces, rooms lined with priceless princely daggers. The stately homes rest amid the Laad Bazaar, a market which has traditionally sold jewellery—pearls, sparkly bangles, layers upon layers of gold—and still does, the beef market (unusual in India), a burkha tailoring area, and a thousand other specialised commercial centres. To the north-west is the Purana Pul: the oldest crossing of the Musi that leads directly to Golconda (which the Nizams continued to use as a martial stronghold). All around Hyderabad, one comes across ancient old tombs: dilapidated but intact, some growing topiaries from their crowns, others inhabited by modern businesses.

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Everywhere in the old city, Urdu is spoken and the majority of the population seem to be Muslim. Women in full-length black chadors populate the areas around Golconda and the Charminar. In this city obsessed by beauty, pearls, silk saris, flashing jewels and strange but seductive bidriware (a type of silver-inlaid metal house-ware) spill from shops. The food differs radically from the comestibles found in the rest of the south. Lassi (a sweetened yoghurt drink, made here with pink ice-cream, garish red syrup) and faluda (a drink made with milk, ice-cream, rose syrup, tapioca pearls and nuts) are advertised everywhere. Naan shops proliferate in the old city (whereas rice is the common staple of the south). Desserts like qubani ka meetha (a translucent, preserve-like apricot pudding topped with almonds and cream) and Osmania biscuits (cardamom-flecked shortbread said to be a favourite of the last Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan) are redolent of the city’s Muslim heritage.

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So, too, is the classic Hyderabadi dish: biryani. The traditional biryani uses lamb but, being a conscientious vegetarian, I tried the non-meat version. The recipe calls for immensely long-grain basmati rice, mixed vegetables, spices, and paneer (Indian curd-cheese). Where I ate it—a classic biryani spot in the old city called Hotel Shadab—it was served with a piquant, peanutty sauce and a cooling onion raita.

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Despite this obvious Mughal influence, Hyderabad is also full of more normal (to my eyes, fresh from Tamil Nadu), bustling, modern, majority-Hindu life. In Secunderabad—the old British cantonment settlement which is now part of Hyderabad’s metropolitan area—every second building seems to be a temple in honour of Kali (the fierce, warrior-woman avatar of Shiva), and the streets are a higgledy-piggledy mess of dabas (snack-stalls), sweet shops, chemists, produce markets and metalworkers. In the fancy, up-and-coming Western suburbs on the Banjara hills, I shop for organically-printed, hand-woven cotton and get a haircut in “Vogue Salon.” Stopping for a traditional Andhran meal, I order river fish cooked in a spicy, sweet-sour tamarind sauce. It is served with rice, pappad (a non-puffed version of pappadum), pappachuru, pickle, ghee, and dhal—a meal reminiscent of others I have had in the south, but with an exponentially greater kick of spice.

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On a hill overlooking the city’s large artificial lake (the Hussein Sagar), is the Birla Mandir—the most ethereally beautiful Hindu temple I have yet seen. It is relatively modern, cut out of glowing white Rajasthani marble. The temple’s management allows in no shoes and no cameras, but explicitly welcomes people of all faiths. I go at sunset, as the marble begins to cool but still retains the warmth of the day, and am rewarded with a wonderful 360˚ view of Hyderabad. Just below here, set on the banks of the lake, is a multiplex where giggling modern youths in western dress go to eat fried chicken, get their nails digitally-printed, and watch movies. I saw Highway, a recently-released 2½ hour long Hindi film with no subtitles, and which I heartily recommend, not for its artistic qualities but for its intriguing dramatisation of India’s bizarre gender relations.

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Perhaps the most fascinating and endearing aspect of Hyderabad is the syncretism between these different worlds: Hindu and Muslim, old and new. I take a bus from Secunderabad out to Maula Ali Dargah: a shrine that is dedicated to Ali, Muhammed’s son-in-law, believed by Shi’a muslims to be the rightful heir to the prophet. Long ago, a courtier dreamed that Ali touched this hill, and an elaborate shrine was built. Although the sacred site is ostensibly a Muslim place of worship, many of the people I see wending their weary way up the 484 steps are clearly Hindu and no-one blinks an eye when I make my approach. Just to the east, a tomb commemorates Mah Laqa Bai (d.1824): a poet, courtesan, and one of the most powerful women in the courts of the second and third Nizams. The modern city scrabbles at the base of these hills, effortlessly incorporating old stories into the modern machinery of a metropolis now driven by a powerful tech industry.

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Hyderabad is effectively the last stop in my trip thorugh southern India, but I still need to somehow make my way 1,564.7km north to New Delhi, to catch a flight home. A whirlwind hitch-hiking adventure would have been fun, but perhaps risky (time-wise, and maybe other-wise as well), so I opt instead for the train. It is a 27hour trip and I book tickets on relatively comfortable (dare I say luxurious?) 2nd Class AC. I am dreading the drawn-out, claustrophobic hours in transit, and have a harrowing walk to the station in the pre-dawn hours of the morning during which I am convinced some sort of knife-wielding maniac is going to appear from the shadows and lynch me. Luckily, plenty of chaiwallahs are already out plying their trade, so I just buy a coffee and skip between street lights.

Lucky, too, is my seating on the train: I land up in a 4-bed carriage with three generations of a Hyderabadi family: a grandmother (in shockingly elegant pink and gold cotton-printed sari), her son and daughter-in-law, and their 18 month year-old whose pet name is Minu (in Indian families, it is typical for members to have both an “official” name for use on birth certificates, at school, at work etc., and a “pet” name, only for use within the family and among close friends).

The family promptly adopt me, and proceed—over the course of the day—to feed me vast amounts of homemade food: lovingly made and carefully packed into a series of bag and boxes. In the morning they eat spongy homemade dosa (fermented rice pancakes), idli (steamed fermented rice balls) and crispy wada (savoury lentil-flour doughnuts) with coconut chutney. Then at lunchtime, they pull out homemade chapattis, tamarind rice, three vegetable “wet” dishes (what we might call curry), and delicious spicy pickle. After this, I am served plain rice and curd (yoghurt), as a palate cleanser. In the afternoon we have a snack of special spiced chai and delicate, syrupy pastries made by the grandmother. I am practically force-fed a special variety of banana—the most expensive and sweetest version of the fruit, which my adopted family tell me is only available in Andhra Pradesh. And then in the evening, I am again plied with rice and vegetables. I eat so much food that by nightfall I am exhausted and sleep soundly, waking only as the train crawls into the nation’s capital, the sun blazing red through the morning mist.

I spend two short days in Delhi, just long enough to realise how exquisite the old city is, and to be shocked by how different this structured, tough, glamorous northern metropolis is from the slow backwaters of the south I have been wending my way through. Women wear exquisite salwar kameez (an outfit of long-sleeved tunic and billowing pants, often worn with a dupatta [scarf]), brightly coloured and bedecked with jewels and sequins. Many more than I have seen in other cities wear modern western dress, but all are covered in bangles and rings, delicate nose-studs and elaborate necklaces.

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It just so happens that the day I leave India is also the day on which the Hindu festival Maha Shivaratri is celebrated. As I wander the streets of central Delhi, I pass huge queues of people standing patiently outside temples, buying up flower garlands, sweets, bananas and coconuts, eager to offer their respects to Shiva, God of Destruction. Somewhere in the twisting, atmospheric alleyways of Chandni Chowk, in the shadow of the Jama Masjid, a jewellery seller and his friends are drinking homemade bhang from a large water bottle. They offer me some, which I duly accept. The drink, made with milk, ground up nuts, spices, sugar, saffron and bhang (a preparation of the leaves and flowers of the female cannabis plant) is utterly delicious—and traditionally drunk in deference to, and celebration of, the god. I take only a few mouthfuls, explaining that I’m catching a flight later. “You sure will be flying,” chuckles one of my new friends, “after this.”

Shaking my head and watching my purse, I make my way back to the metro.

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