The ancient city of Hyderabad was once the centre of the pearl industry. Today it’s India’s thriving technology capital

 
Damien Gabet

"Hey! You’re not supposed to be in here!” The last time someone spoke to me like this I was 13. My school friends and I had crowbarred open the back door of a dilapidated Victorian hotel in the name of adventure. The security guard was angry. I was frog-marched home and grounded for a month. But age makes a man brazen. ‘Why not?’ I replied. The person addressing me was a young woman in jeans and bright blue running shoes – a little casual for security. ‘Because we’re working in here,’ she replied.

Apoorva, a precocious architect from Delhi, was in charge of the ongoing restoration of the crumbling mansion around us. Our exchange gave me time to look around. I guess this was once a ballroom. Heavily rusted scaffolding towers run up the double-height space, preventing the collapse of its painted stucco ceiling and several vast chandeliers. Sooted giant mirrors flanked us on every wall; the parquet underfoot creaked enough to make nervy pigeons fly to the next room.

The British Residency in Hyderabad – once a symbol of colonial might, now the disused part of a women’s college – does not feature on TripAdvisor’s list of the city’s hotspots. This is because access, as Apoorva was keen to impress, is limited to arranged visits, organised through the Deccan Heritage Foundation. But if you do organise to go – which you must – you’ll be smug in the knowledge that you were the only wayfarer through the doors that week.

When her team’s work is complete, in “three to four years at least”, the crowds will come. Until then it remains a fine, but little known, example of Raj architecture. And a place for colourfully dressed students to chill out. Desperate to see more, and confident a few crumpled rupees wasn’t going to sway my admonisher, I pleaded for a tour. She obliged. Neoclassical good looks make you feel small at the front door; the Corinthian edifice is said to be the spit of Mr Trump’s White House. Its innards are a ready-made mise-en-scène for a Bollywood Beauty & the Beast. At least, that’s what I thought when Apoorva and I descended either side of a grand staircase with accidental synchronicity. Nearby, a team of professionals were poring over damaged artefacts in a room lit only by the setting sun.

The building was once home to a succession of East India Company top brass. At first, their aim was to gain imperial ground over the French in what was then the richest of India’s princely states. Besides adroit military manoeuvring, that meant currying favour with Hyderabad’s monarch, the Nizam. Their efforts bore fruit: the French were sent packing and the Nizam came ‘under the protection’ of us Brits.

Hyderabad, today, remains a colourful canvas for the enduring story of India’s economic jockeying with the West. Its HITEC City quarter – or ‘Cyberabad’ – is the country’s undisputed IT hub, employing some 300,000 people. New imperialists Facebook and Amazon are already established here and Google will open a ‘campus’ next year. Big pharma calls it a home from home, too.

And yet, of what I saw, prosperity’s trickle is yet to properly permeate. Public infrastructure projects are few and far between, with a long-promised metro-line extension only recently restarted following a hefty hiatus. India’s mammoth garbage problem is also laid bare in Hyderabad, as evidenced by two roadside cows I passed, knee deep in rubbish and chewing on plastic bags. If there is a silver lining, it’s that the region’s slow progress has stymied modernity’s consumption of a destination with a rich past. To the history-hungry traveller, this remains an under-the-radar, if occasionally rather filthy, eden.

Amid this benign mayhem, a teenager wearing black eye kohl quietly offered me paan. It’s a preparation of betel-leaf, areca nut and tobacco that gets you high. I had chewed one such parcel a few days earlier on a dawn visit to the Sassoon Docks in Mumbai, but found it foul, so politely declined.

An appreciation of this city’s architecture begins with a look into the Nizam dynasty properties. This includes erstwhile royal seat Chowmahalla Palace and the 15th-century Golconda Fort ruins. The latter is the highest – and most evocative – viewing platform in town and the location of a magnificent set of recently restored royal tombs. For time-travelling immersion though, there’s Falaknuma Palace. Restored and run as a hotel-cum-museum, this ‘Mirror in the Sky’ sits improbably at the apex of a 2,000ft, 32-acre hill in the middle of the city.

The arrival ceremony is choreographed to make you feel on par with dignitaries of yore: a horse and carriage carried me over cobbles, weaving through manicured gardens strewn with peacocks taking shade under fruit trees. Departure anxiety took its grip before I’d even body-splashed the bed. Unlike the mildew patina of the British Residence, this Palladian beauty looks boxfresh with a Farrow & Ball-esque French-grey paint job. The extravagance continued as I walked in: rose petals fell from above, showering the entrance steps ahead. No crowbars necessary.

Ebullient in-house historian Prabhakar gave us a champagne tour that evening. Once you acclimatise to its weapons-grade opulence, there is enjoyment to be taken from the palace’s east-greets-west style. In the Jade Room, for instance, you could be mistaken for thinking the heating had been cranked up thanks to the thick British-style carpets. But walk down a neo-classical colonnade or two and you’ll be confronted with turrets and arches that flex Islamic muscle.

Dinner revolved around a posh biryani (for which Hyderabad is famous) on the palace’s ornately fringed terrace. A fine spot to take in the endless cityscape, it doubled that night as the stage for a group of sufi singers performing hypnotising qawwali music. After dessert, I danced to their percussive sounds like a charmed snake. Eventually, I was invited to sit in and sing along – the fifth Indian Beatle.

A hefty tranche of the Nizams’ wealth was comprised of their jewel collection, a result of owning a series of now defunct diamond mines to the east of the city. The seventh (and final) Nizam would use the Jacob Diamond – still the fifth largest in the world – as a paper weight. Pearls too were a favourite gem, and as Prabhakar pointed out, “they had enough to pave Piccadilly”. This predilection saw Hyderabad become the centre of India’s pearl industry. To this day, traders hawk their wares in Pathargatti, the city’s centuries-old bazaar.

On my last outing I was dropped off on its edge, outside the famous Charminar mosque, which sits on a roundabout beset by fruiterers, silversmiths and agents of tat. As with any Indian city, the people are many, but somehow the aggro associated with crowds is absent. Amid this benign mayhem, a teenager wearing black eye kohl quietly offered me paan. It’s a preparation of betel-leaf, areca nut and tobacco that gets you high. I had chewed one such parcel a few days earlier on a dawn visit to the Sassoon Docks in Mumbai, but found it foul, so politely declined.

His friend was quick to present me with a string of iridescent beads, holding a lighter flame under them to persuade me they weren’t plastic. Not convinced, I turned him down too, but was now committed to the idea of buying something shiny. Maybe a bangle or two; the other commodity these teeming streets are known for.

At nearby jeweller Shaandar, I settled on a pair of pearl earrings that came with a certificate of authenticity. That was enough for me to feel I’d got my money’s worth. Perhaps these could be a present to my mother, I thought. A long overdue ‘sorry’ from her vandal son.

JetAirways (jetairways.com) offers thrice daily international flights from London to Mumbai starting from £466 in economy per person return. A return from London to Hyderabad costs from £430 per person

Jetair Tours offers sightseeing, ground handling and guiding as part of a week’s tour to Mumbai and Hyderabad with prices starting from £410 per person. To book, visit jetairtoursindia.com or call +9111 4323 4406

Rates at Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad start from INR 24,000 (approx. £280) per night on a B&B basis and at Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai (Palace Wing) they start from INR 17,000 (approx. £198) per night. For more visit tajhotels.com

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