Bridging two cultures


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THE twilight generation of Hyderabadis and its diaspora scattered in five continents, suffers from an acute nostalgia for the twilight period of the city of their origin. One has only to browse the Charminar Connection website to appreciate the depth of their feeling and pride in what they call the Ganga-Jamni composite culture of Hyderabad.

The charm of the old-world ambience was still lingering when I arrived in the city a decade after the integration of the old state of Hyderabad with India in 1948.

The origin of this flavour can be traced back to over four centuries. In 1591, the fifth Qutb Shahi Sultan of Golconda, Mohammad Quli (r.1580-1612) built a city as ‘a replica of heaven’. He named it Bhagnagar, after his beloved Bhagmati. In 1983, the German architect Jan Pieper quoted chapter and verse to argue that the city was indeed an architectural metaphor for the Quranic heaven.

Hyderabad is to cities what Taj Mahal is to buildings – a monument to love. Both were named to commemorate the respective beloveds – Taj for Mumtaz, Bhagnagar for Bhagmati. Whereas Taj symbolized a pining for a departed beloved, Bhagnagar was a celebration of a union of lovers . Taj was to enshrine a resting place for a departed queen, Bhagnagar to provide living space for her subjects.

Mohd. Quli was the first saheb-e-diwan Urdu poet of India. He bequeathed a secular legacy to the city. His poetry also celebrated the monsoon season when the city is at its best. Its onset is officially decreed on 7 June though it often violates that injunction with impunity.

In 1724, the Mughal governor of the Deccan, the first Nizam, became independent and founded the Asaf Jahi dynasty. According to legend a hermit prophesied that his dynasty would rule for seven generations, which indeed it did.

Aurangzeb’s hated jaziya – poll tax – was never imposed in the South. On the other hand, a broad streak of secularism runs through its history.

In 1805, a Kayasth noble, Raja Bhavani Pershad, built the first Kayasth temple at Rambagh near Attapur. The third Nizam, Sikander Jah, performed the installation ceremony of the idols of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana. He also granted a jagir of 12000 rupees for its maintenance.

The population of the state of Hyderabad was predominantly Hindu. Its founding dynasty, Qutb Shahi, subscribed to the Shia sect of Islam. The Asaf Jahis were Sunni. Of the ten highest noble families under them, one was Sunni, five Shia and four Hindu. Out of the Hindu families, two were Deccani, and two from North India – one Kayasth and the other Punjabi Khatri, tracing their ancestry to Todar Mal, Akbar’s celebrated revenue minister. This diversity of the ruling elite imparted a distinctive flavour to the Hyderabadi culture.


The British Residency, especially after its completion in 1805, became a powerful source of British influence on a conservative society in various subtle ways including dress, manners, education and living style. Many men of means came out of the walled city and built their residences in the new suburbs around the Residency.

Salar Jung I was the Diwan of the state for thirty years from 1853. In a bid to modernize the administration of a medieval state, he recruited a large number of persons educated in British India. They too brought modern impulses with them.

In 1869 Mehboob Ali Khan became the sixth Nizam when he was not yet three. He was the first Nizam to be educated on modern lines under British supervision. He spoke English and wore western dress. He grew into a dandy and never wore the same dress twice. Unsurprisingly, he had the world’s largest wardrobe – some 70-metre long hall with double-storey almirahs.

Old people used to tell me that the worst floods in the city occurred purson – the ‘day before yesterday’. They meant 1908. In the Hyderabadi lexicon, the term covers all remembered past. To stop the deluge, as advised by some Hindu pundits, Mehboob Ali Khan placated the goddess Bhavani by performing her arti. His subjects venerated him.

The seventh – and the last ruling – Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan (r.1911-48), was reputed to be the world’s richest man of his time. He had no idea of his wealth, not surprising for a man whose personal estate yielded 2.5 million rupees and whose privy purse was five million rupees a year. Besides, in 1919, he published and became the sole selling agent for the six collections of his poems for one guinea each. (Yes, the price was fixed in guineas! It was equivalent to twenty-one rupees). He was also presented a nazar whenever someone was given the privilege of an audience. Every senior official of the state presented him a nazar twice a year – on Eid and on his birthday. The honour of a present of even one mango from his private estate, or a part of his khasa-dinner, sent ceremonially to a noble or a randomly chosen subject had to be acknowledged gratefully with a nazar the next day. The minimum amount for a nazar was one gold and twenty silver coins – twenty-four rupees!


The man who made so much money lived an extremely frugal life. He wore the same cap for years, even when its rim showed stains of sweat and oil. His clothes showed no sign of having been ironed.

Mohd. Quli’s first meeting with Bhagmati.

Osman Ali Khan inaugurated an era of construction that went far beyond the repair of the city devastated by floods. Apart from the Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar reservoirs built to prevent floods, and the broad, concrete Pathargatti Bazaar, a number of new buildings came to dot the city and its new suburbs. The Osmania Hospital, the High Court, the State Central Library adorned the new skyline of the city. The jewel in the crown was the Arts College of the Osmania University built in 1938. Its unique feature was that its medium of instruction was Urdu. The students attended class in formal dress – sherwani, pajama and fez cap. Urdu men of letters thronged to the city from all over India seeking patronage from the court and the nobility. Dazzled by its beauty, they called the city uroos-ul-balaad, ‘bride amongst cities’.


The Nizam’s misfortune was political. The country was astir with new political aspirations. In the state, the majority demanded representative, responsible government. The minority Muslim party, the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Mussalmeen, countered this majority clamour by demanding that Hyderabad be proclaimed an Islamic state. Its fanatical leader, the Razakar ‘Field Marshall’ Kasim Razvi, also instigated him to declare independence. That proved his undoing.

In a swift four-day Police Action in September 1948, the Indian Army put an end to this ambition. The Nizam lived through his remaining two decades in isolated glory still issuing firmans on petty matters, which were published by a faithful Urdu daily, the Nizam Gazette.

While Hyderabad was founded on love, Secunderabad was an offspring of coercive diplomacy. Hyderabad was a quintessential Oriental city renowned for its planning; Secunderabad was a cantonment which grew into a replica of an English town.


The second Nizam signed the Treaty of Subsidiary Alliance with the East India Company in 1798 for his protection, and to be overseen. Accordingly, the Company sent six battalions and stationed them on the north side of the Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. Starting as a tented camp, it grew into a cluster of barracks. The import of consumer goods to the cantonment was exempt from customs duty, making trade and commerce more profitable than in Hyderabad. A number of business establishments came up in the area. In course of time, flourishing markets like the Regimental Bazaar and General Bazaar came into being. In 1806, the new township was given the name of Secunderabad after the ruling Nizam, Sikander Jah.

Till 1858, the cantonment of Secunderabad consisted of barracks and huts extending to a distance of about five square kilometres with the artillery in front on the left flank and the infantry on the right.

The longest wardrobe in the world.

After the Mutiny of 1857, it was decided to build a fortification for the forces. A mud fort with a circumference of about four square kilometres was completed in 1867 at Trimulgherry and was called the ‘Entrenchment’. Its 17-feet high wall was surrounded by a moat. It had four main gates named after famous battles which the British had won in India. In an emergency, the entire European population could be accommodated within the Entrenchment.


The Mudfort Road and Entrenchment Road still exist, but nobody knows about how they got their names or what happened to the original structures. The military hospital and the cellular jail are located within the perimeter of the Entrenchment. Built like a cross with arms in four directions, the jail was nicknamed Windsor Castle.

A shaded avenue from Begumpet to Marredpalle, called the Alexandra Road, divided the cantonment from its civilian appendage. James Street and Kingsway connected it to Hyderabad via Tank Bund. After independence, they were all given Indian names.


Alexandra Road and Oxford Street had the most fashionable European shops. They included Badam Pyle (confectioners), Mapin and Webb (cutlery and crockery), Richard & Co. (goldsmith), Spenser (aerated drinks), John Pile (general stores), Bright & Co. (chemists). John Burton was the most fashionable draper and tailor. A.S. Abdul Khader had a department store. H.M. Hussain had a textile store. J.C. Pinto ran a bookshop. Raja Deen Dayal finally overtook over twenty European photographers in Secunderabad. The nobility of the old city went there for fashionable shopping. The second son of Nizam VII, Prince Muazzam Jah had his sherwanis stitched at Burton’s. When he was there, no one was allowed entry, except European women. He would buy the whole roll of cloth so that no one else would have a similar sherwani.

Percy’s was the main western hotel in Secunderabad. At its rear was a popular dance hall. Close to it was the Plaza Cinema with an attached bar. That was the only cinema hall in the country in which one could sip beer while watching a movie. There were a number of other cinema halls on the cantonment side. They showed only English films. Now they are all gone. Two function halls have sprung up in their place .

The King Edward Memorial – now Gandhi – Hospital was established in 1851. Close by was the old Civil Jail. It is now a thriving retail market. When the Secunderabad Railway Station was constructed in 1874, a predominantly Anglo-Indian colony grew up close by in Lallaguda. It was nicknamed ‘Little England’. Now it is difficult to see an Anglo-Indian there.

As against Hyderabad where earlier Persian, and since 1884, Urdu was the official language, in Secunderabad it was English. Methodical town planning, better civil administration, greater civil liberties and a broader mix of people from all over India and abroad made it more cosmopolitan than the old city of Hyderabad. To cross the Tank Bund was to go from a medieval to a modern city. Of the many communities that stayed in Secunderabad, two – the Anglo-Indians/Christians and the Parsi – were specially concentrated in Secunderabad.


Christianity came to India in 52 AD with the arrival of the apostle St. Thomas in Kerala. In the following centuries it spread to various parts of India. Niccolao Manucci noted in his Storia Do Mogor the considerable presence of Christians in Hyderabad during the 17th century. The ban on the entry of missionaries into British India was lifted in 1813 leading to a spurt in their activities.

Nizam VII as young ruler with his two principal sons.

The first Vicar Apostolic of Hyderabad was established in 1806 with residence at Secunderabad. Since 1882, there has been a bishop in Secunderabad. Various denominations of Christians became active in missionary and educational work. The Trinity Church in Trimulgherry was the first to be established in 1816 followed by a string of other churches all over Secunderabad.

Schools like St. Ann’s Convent established in 1856 have imparted education in the English medium to generations of girls from the twin cities. A number of other schools, both denominational and secular, for boys and girls were also established.

In 1878, Salar Jung gifted his country house to the army for providing a home for the Secunderabad Club. It is now considered one of best five clubs in the country.

Mullah Kavus Bin Rustam Jalal is considered the first Parsi to have come to Hyderabad in 1784. Their knowledge of Persian and English enabled the Parsis to move easily with both the Indians and the British. They became active in commerce and banking, railways and revenue services.

Secunderabad also had a number of modern swanky restaurants. The first Chinese restaurant, Nanking, came up opposite the Montgomery Bar. Both still exist.


In 1945, the British restored an area of 5.6 sq kilometres south of Alexandra Road with a population of about 100,000 to the Nizam. To this the Nizam’s government added, and established the Secunderabad Municipal Corporation in 1951. In 1964, it was merged in the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad. It now comprises an area of about 17 sq kilometres. A decade later when I became the sole administrator of the Corporation, Secunderabad’s distinct superiority in civic standards over Hyderabad was noticeable. Gradually, however, the distinction disappeared.

Some famous names are associated with Secunderabad. Winston Churchill stayed in Bolarum in 1886. Sir Ronald Ross isolated the malaria virus in Begumpet and won the Nobel Prize in 1902. Raja Deen Dayal the world-renowned photographer had his studio there. The 1997 Miss World, Diana Hayden and the god-man, Chandraswami, also belong to Secunderabad.


The essential difference between Hyderabad and Secunderabad is that the former was a feudal Muslim city, while the latter was a cosmopolitan colonial town. Hyderabad was where the Nizam lived; Secunderabad housed the British Resident who wielded the real power in the state. The Nizam’s prime ministers were selected or approved by the Resident before the ruler formally appointed them. Every prime minister first called on the Resident who returned the call. We have a detailed account of the ceremony when Nawab of Chhattari, on his appointment as prime minister, called on the Resident, C. G. Herbert on 30 June 1947.

Nizam VII in old age.

Hyderabad was out of bounds for the soldiery of Secunderabad. The tiny city, Secunderabad, therefore, provided all amenities for a diverse citizenry. Before the rendition of Secunderabad, as it was called, a meeting was held between the Sub Area Commander of Secunderabad and high officials of Hyderabad on 5 April 1945. It was agreed therein that in the transferred area, ‘high standards of services and cleanliness’ would be maintained. Also that the Percy’s, Montgomery and Whitehall hotels would remain open to visiting army officers for accommodation, concerts and parties. The closing time for bars in Secunderabad, 9.30 pm, would be maintained.


The residents of Secunderabad enjoyed greater civil liberties than those of Hyderabad. The Urdu press in Hyderabad was servile. Any poem written by the Nizam had to be published on the front page of the paper. There was no such obligation observed in Secunderabad where the first English papers were published. When the proposal for the rendition of Secunderabad became known in 1945, a memorial was submitted to the president of the Cantonment Board signed by 551 citizens. That it was signed by different persons in English, Telugu, Urdu, Hindi and Tamil attests to the demographic diversity of Secunderabad. The memorial pointed out that they were ‘accustomed to a particular kind of administration, type of life and other conditions entirely different in many respects from those obtaining in Hyderabad. These circumstances pertain to their administrative, commercial and financial interests.’ They, therefore, asked for safeguards and a referendum on the issue.

The ‘Entrenchment’ of Secunderabad.


While Secunderabad was somewhat of a homogeneous entity, Hyderabad has grown by stages into a number of suburbs that have fused together over time. Most modern educational and research facilities were located in Secunderabad. There are no open spaces left in the old city while, thanks to the cantonment, Secunderabad still has a number of them. The annual Republic and Independence Day parades are held in Secunderabad. Hyderabad is a political hotspot while Secunderabad shows little political excitement. Hyderabad has a large NRI presence in West Asia; most immigrants from Secunderabad have gone to the United States and Australia.

The Secunderabad Club and the Nizam Club of Hyderabad exemplify the differences between the twin cities. The former is heavily western in its orientation, facilities and in its mixed cuisine. The latter is best known for its Mughlai food. Hyderabad bears the stamp of Muslim culture; the residual flavour of Secunderabad is a mix of Christian and Parsi. However, these distinctions are fast blurring, both having come closer and grown beyond recognition.

In 1991 a new ‘triplet’ city was born. Christened Cyberabad by its creator Chandrababu Naidu, it represents the new, hi-tech, global face of Hyderabad, its new centre of gravity.


Hyderabad was conceived in the image of heaven. All its gardens and low buildings have been gobbled up by new apartment buildings. Multi-storey malls have sprung up even in the exclusive residential areas. Its arteries are choked, its breath polluted, its heritage all but vanished. The 2.5 billion-year old, fascinating rocks are being recklessly destroyed. Paradoxically, while people’s income is going up, their quality of life is coming down.

Nostalgia is for that lost heaven of broad concrete roads, of a low skyline, and of gardens. It is a longing for a world of laid-back life, of courtesies, of mushairas, qawwalis and chowki dinners. It is a yearning for the sepia tones of yesteryear.

I too suffer from nostalgia. I came to this city five decades ago. I still live in Hyderabad, but where is Hyderabad, O bird of time?


* Narendra Luther is the author, among others, of Hyderabad: A Biography, OUP, 2006; The Nocturnal Court: Darbaar-e-Durbaar – The Life of a Prince of Hyderabad (co-authored with Sidq Jaizi), OUP, 2004; and Raja Deen Dayal: Prince of Photographers, Creative Point, Hyderabad, 2003.