Let’s start where most stories about India should begin – with food.
During my first visit to India five years ago, my in-laws cheerfully fed me chicken curry mopped up with rotis and parathas in the coastal town where they live, north of Mumbai. After the third, fourth, fifth plate I was so full that I lay on the floor, watching the ceiling fan drowsily beat round and round.
This turned into a rather too predictable pattern. (Too much gulab jamun in Delhi, too much chickpea curry in the Himalayas, too many happy hour drinks in Goa…)
Now I’m in Hyderabad, in India’s southern Telangana state, and I’m still eating. In fact, the only note I’ve written about breakfast at the richly decorated Celeste restaurant, in the 19th century Taj Falaknuma Palace, is ‘feeders’ – underlined twice. (My masala omelette is chased with a breakfast dosa – the chef’s suggestion – smeared thickly with coconut paste, tamarind and a puddle of ghee.)
This excessive breakfast isn’t out of character. The mere act of checking in at Falaknuma involves a horse-drawn carriage, a set of red velvet steps to climb up to it and a slow march to the palace while being doused in rose petals from overhead.
I’m told guests at Falaknuma are ‘treated like the Nizam’ when they check in. Who is this Nizam?
We’ll get to that.
Hyderabadi history begins with Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, who founded the city in 1591 and built the Charminar, the four-minaret monument that, after Mumbai’s Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal, is the next favourite to appear on Indian postcards.
Today, the Charminar is an ornate gyratory, with scooters, autorickshaws and cart-pushing locals flogging strips of gum, cheap colourful bangles and pomegranates wheeling around it.
This Qutb Shah dynasty was usurped by the Mughal empire, which descended on Hyderabad from Central Asia via northern India. This kicked off the Nizam dynasty, ruling the ‘princely state’ of Hyderabad that was once India’s largest and richest. Their wealth built forts, palaces, thrones; and amassed jewels and some rather lovely chandeliers from Bohemia hanging in the Chowmahalla Palace.
More than two centuries later in 1947, as the British Raj fell and modern India rose, only the Nizam of Hyderabad wanted to remain independent. He ruled over the annexed city for the next 13 months before Hyderabad was – forcibly – absorbed into the new Indian state.
The reign of the Nizams also left another important imprint: Islam. Today, official figures state that 30 per cent of Hyderabad is Muslim, a far higher proportion than in all of India’s other big cities.
In the old city, that figure feels much higher – nearly all the women shopping at the Laad Bazaar, known for its brightly coloured bangles, are dressed in the niqab; and the air sings with the calls to prayer.
The city has also taken a high-speed line to industrialisation. After Bengaluru, Hyderabad’s Hitec City is India’s secondlargest tech office cluster, hosting the offices of Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, giving rise to the terrible portmanteau Cyberabad. And like Bengaluru, like Hauz Khas in Delhi and like Colaba in Mumbai, Hyderabad has its share of microbreweries and trendy coffee shops. The difference is that you don’t come here to see any of it.
A recent act passed in parliament promised to protect Telangana’s heritage structures and sites, and private groups like Taj Hotels are restoring centuries-old palaces like Falaknuma. Hyderabad is trying to hold onto its story. I ask my guide
John, a proud Hyderabadi, why Hongkongers should choose this city over Delhi or Mumbai. He says: ‘There’s so much more to see here. There’s so much more history.’
And for a first time, or even fifth or 17th-time visitor to India, Hyderabad is an easy city: more compact than Delhi, less chaotic than Mumbai but with more heritage sights than both.
Add to that an incredibly welcoming population, always ready to push boxes of Osmania biscuits/ dosas/directions into your hands.
Have I mentioned that the food’s great, too?
Here are eight things not to miss in Hyderabad.
1. The view: from Falaknuma Palace
Falaknuma Palace, at 600 metres above sea level the second-highest point of the city after the hilltop Golconda Fort, is translated as ‘just like the sky’. It’s why this palace – a 19th century Nizam’s residence, now a turbo-luxe heritage hotel – is painted duck-egg blue.
Its tiled balcony offers the best view of Hyderabad: stretching past the palace’s mown lawns, over its trotting peacocks and tamarind trees, past the old city with its minaret tips and the Golconda hills to the towers of Hitec City. Faluknuma’s interiors are just as impressive: Nizam-era furniture; paintings of East India Company heavyweights lined up the staircase; and 5,970 books that belonged to the Nizams, including one written by a Titanic survivor.
2. The taste: biryani at Shadab
The lunchtime scene at Shadab: waiters bumping down bowls of biryani onto blue-and-white-checked tablecloths in a dim dining room, complete with majestic grandfather clock.
Hyderabad’s signature dish migrated south with the Mughals and was cooked in Nizam palace kitchens. You’ll find biryani all over town, but Shadab, near the Charminar, is an especially friendly haunt: lively atmosphere, faintly art deco exterior and giant brass bowls of trademark dum biryani – where the meat (typically chicken or mutton) is steamed together with the rice.
3. The sip: Irani chai
Daily from 4am to midnight, Hyderabadis fill the plastic tables at Nimrah Bakery in front of the Mecca Masjid. They’re here to dip hot-fromthe- oven racks of Osmania biscuits into puckered cups of Irani chai: another Hyderabadi speciality.
4. The colour: the yellow of the Chowmahalla Palace
In Hyderabad, everything comes with a story. As the legend goes, the first Nizam bunked with some Sufi saints en route to taking up the city’s throne. On leaving, a saint thrust some bread wrapped in yellow fabric into his hands (can you see a thread here?).
It’s why the durbar hall, now dusty but impressively chandeliered, is painted a pale yellow. Elsewhere this palace, the official Nizam residence that took 119 years to build, is a blend of Persian, European and Rajasthani arches, coconut palms and intricate fountains that once sprayed rosewater.
5. The sound: the call to prayer from the Mecca Masjid
Hyderabad is a study in sound: Asian quails whooping, the throat of a scooter revving, the jangle of bangle sellers through Charminar – and the daily calls to prayer, most reverentially from the slate-grey Mecca Masjid, so-named because soil was brought from Mecca to make the bricks. This mosque, which dates to 1693, is where Hyderabad’s Nizams are buried.
6. The bar hop: Jubilee Hills
The Banjara Hills-Jubilee Hills conurbation has become the social sponge for the Hitec City after-work overspill. Start with a Moscow mule with homemade tamarind syrup at the Park Hyatt Hyderabad’s Italian restaurant Tre-Forni, before following the coders and programmers to bar-slash-‘space’ Fat Pigeon, with roof terrace and graphic art. Onto Free Flow Traffic Bar (which glows red and green) or the Moonshine Project, which comes with the ultimate hipster accoutrement: an Airstream trailer.
7. The shape: Qutb Shahi Tombs
These weathered off-white domed crypts house the kings and Sufi saints of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. From a distance they look like chess pieces. Up close, this tranquil spot has beautifully ornate Islamic arches, floral medallions and archways.
8. The movement: art in Banjara Hills
Fast-gentrifying, leafy Banjara Hills is where you’ll find one of Hyderabad’s new-school pursuits: art. Check out cosy Kalakriti, a spacious art gallery-cum-café decorated with interactive exhibitions, installations and lively watercolour paintings; or nearby Lamakaan, a cultural space with a shaded amphitheatre. Stop by Almari, a breeze-blocked fashion shop, which does modern interpretations of classic Indian clothing: beaded clutch bags, gilded pendants and silk dresses.
Need to know
Park Hyatt Hyderabad is a modern, business traveller-friendly luxury hotel in Banjara Hills. Spacious rooms overlook a tall, plant-filled atrium. hyderabad.park.hyatt.com
The Taj Falaknuma Palace is the city’s grandest hotel, with 60 rooms and suites dressed in Nizam-era fabrics. There’s a daily palace tour at 5pm. taj.tajhotels.com
For tourism information about Hyderabad and Telangana state, visit telanganatourism.gov.in
Until 15 December, Cathay Pacific passengers get 15 per cent off at Hyderabad Duty Free on purchases of over US$50 on departure from Hyderabad and US$150 on arrival. For more details, see cathaypacific.com