Why the City of Pearls is also the heart of modern India
Hyderabad, it seems, is destined to live in the lap of luxury. The 421-year-old capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh, in India’s southeast, made its riches on the trade of diamonds and pearls. The 105-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond that’s set atop the Queen Mother’s 1937 platinum coronation crown was excavated in the ruined city of Golconda, 11 kilometres to the west, and, today, 90 percent of the world’s pearls are still pierced and strung in Hyderabad, a city of seven million Hindus and Muslims. The craftsmanship of their jewellery is unsurpassed (save up your shopping rupees!), but, as anywhere, some people’s principles are not.
Fake gems are rampant so buy from a place like Kedarnathji Motiwale Jewellers (22-7-17 and 22 Pathergatti; kedarnathji.com), a business founded in 1908 and passed down from father to son to grandson. The shop is so well-known that there are knockoffs of the store itself. To make sure you’re in the real McCoy, look for a pic of one of India’s past President’s handing an award to the owners. Then and only then, can you shop for your satlada (or seven-strand pearl necklace set with diamonds, emeralds or rubies) or jugni (strands with a large, central pendant) in peace.
Krishna (6-3-883/2/3 Punjagutta, and at airports and some upmarket hotels; krishnapearls.com) and Mangatrai (5-9-46 Basheer Bagh, plus three other locations; mangatraijewellery.com) are also reliable, with well-to-do locals favouring the first.
Hyderabad’s new wealth comes from the biotech, drug and IT industries. The latter has entrenched itself in the aptly coined Cyberabad district, about a 30-minute drive northwest of the city’s gritty downtown. Microsoft, Oracle and other giant’s of the software world have campuses at HITEC City (ltinfocity.com), a 60-hectare, US$375-million IT park that includes a colossal glass-and-steel cylinder that is the Cyber Towers as well as an equally futuristic-looking giant arch that is Cyber Gateway; both are office spaces. HITEC City also includes the 13-hectare “Serene County:” 10, 14-floor apartment buildings with a club house, rec facilities and shopping complex to boot.
Indeed, Cyberabad has, for many, become the new Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore). This December, it’ll be big with MDs too. The WAO conference is being hosted at the city’s 5000-capacity convention centre, adjacent to modern India itself.
Experience the HI
Swallowing an up to seven-centimetre, live snakehead murrel stuffed with a secret herbal medicine might seem like a zany respiratory-disorder treatment to you, but that’s what thousands of asthmatics have been doing for 167 years every June in Hyderabad. (Check out bathinifish.com for details). It (sort of) makes sense then that the WAO’s “Severe Allergies, Severe Asthma” conference is happening there this winter, when temperatures are at their coolest and average 21°C in December.
The Westin Hyderabad Mindspace (Raheja IT Park; westin.com/hyderabadmindspace) in HITEC City will cost conferencing MDS about $180 a night, but by all accounts it’s worth it. TripAdvisor users have ranked it second out of all the hotels in Hyderabad and it was one of the winners in the Travellers' Choice Trendiest Hotels in India category. (The former home of past Nizams, the European-inspired palace now the new Taj Falaknuma, is number one, but it’s not a conference hotel and nightly rates are between $300 to $400).
Cyberabad’s hottest new restos are also in the Westin. Among them is Kangan. There, chef Rakesh Singh dreams up his take on the creamy and spicy Peshawari cooking traditions of the former North-West Frontier Province (of British India and later Pakistan). Expect the hotel’s lounges (like Mix) to be full of 20- and 30-something techies who work nearby.
But it’s not all highbrow in HITEC City. Shilparamam (near the Cyber Towers; shilparamam.org; admission less than $1) is a 26-hectare outdoor arts and crafts village where artisans peddle their handmade wares from baked clay and thatch huts. Expect a mélange of pottery, wood- and metalwork as well as beautiful, brightly coloured woven textiles, and jewellery and accessories like shawls. Prices are more down-to-earth than those in malls (Cyberabad got a new InOrbit mega mall in 2009), but that doesn’t mean that bargaining for your souvenirs is taboo. One (important!) thing to note: the market’s bathrooms leave much to be desired so bring your own toilet paper and maybe even a little hand sanitizer.
This old Hyderabad
Save your full, post-conference days to explore Hyderabad’s old quarters, first by heading 20 to 30 minutes south of HITEC City to the afore mentioned Golkonda Fort (six kilometres west of Hyderabad itself; admission about $2.50). The 13th-century citadel was fine tuned over 62 years and was the seat of the Qutb Shahi dynasty through the 16th and 17th centuries (their domed tombs are nearby). It fell to Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1687, and he, believing that there were hidden diamonds and gold there, ripped the place apart. Today, visitors can tour what remains of the stronghold (“GPS video tours” will launch soon) and take in an evening sound-and-light show projected against the ruins. (Contact Andhra Pradesh Tourism at 011-91-40-2345-1065 for English show times).
Chowmahalla (20-4-236 Khilwat; chowmahalla.com; admission about $4) is 15 minutes down the road. Built in 1750 (and apparently modelled after the Shah’s residence in Tehran, Iran), its four palaces played host to elaborate parties thrown by the Nizams of the Asaf Jah dynasty. The Grand Khilwat (or Durbar Hall) is its pièce de résistance: 19 Belgian chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling.
Slightly north of the palace is the Laad Bazaar (for more shopping and to experience the real hubbub of the city) and the Charminar monument (admission $2). Built in 1591 by the fifth sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty to honour either his wife or a promise he made to Allah in exchange for keeping the city safe from plague, the imposing Islamic-style landmark features arches, domes and four minarets with 149 steps in each (but upper floors are not open to the public). Most interestingly, the centrepiece that is the heart of Hyderabad includes both a Hindu temple and an Islamic mosque too.
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