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If you had asked me to name one famous thing associated with Hyderabad before we went there it have been the Charminar. It must be on every website and on the cover of every map or guidebook of the city ever printed. It might not quite have the lure of the Taj Mahal or India's great palaces but it pricked my imagination. If you'd asked for two famous things, the second would have been Biryani, the rice-based dish for which the city is famed but the Charminar would have been a long way ahead of the biryani. There's something about the buttery-yellow building that made me want to visit the city, even though I knew little about the building or the city in general.
It took about 30 hours from arriving in the city to actually seeing the famous building. We'd arrived early the day before and we could have asked to see it on day one, but the weather was bad and I didn't want anything to come between me and my enjoyment of Hyderabad's iconic building. My husband pretty much leaves the holiday planning up to me and although I'd waved a few guidebooks under his nose, he'd not been paying much attention. I kept the Charminar up my sleeve - I didn't tempt him with it, I didn't let on that it was even something all that special. I wanted him to see it without the preconceptions I had already gathered.
But first, a little bit about the history of this iconic building. It once stood at the centre of the city of Hyderabad and was commissioned by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, the man who founded the city and whose family tombs are located out by Golconda Fort. It was completed in 1591 and at the time it was built there was a serious epidemic that was killing people in the area and it was intended that the Charminar would ward off the danger and act as a charm.
Lest you get carried away with the idea that it's called the Charminar because of it being a charm, we'd better get things straight. The name Charminar - or Chahar Minar - means 'four minarets' or four towers and it's a purely descriptive name because that's exactly what the building consists of, four linked towers, each of them slightly less than 50 meters high. It's no longer at the centre of the city which has expanded enormously in the last four centuries and locals will tell you that it's not received the respect and care that it deserves. One lady told me that it's just so dirty around there and the impact of the building has been diminished by the streets crowding in around it. I suppose the same can be said of many such monumental buildings.
We left the lakeside Lambini Park and headed south, crossing the river into the part of town where I knew the Charminar was waiting for us. I desperately feared being disappointed and, whilst I'll admit that it would look more impressive if it were given the space and respect of the Arc de Triomphe or even the India Gate, I still felt awestruck when we pulled up across the road from the building.
The Charminar has four-fold symmetry with arches on each side, a minaret on each corner and staircases in each tower. There's a small mosque inside and what seemed to be a small Hindu temple at the base of one of the towers. Our driver paid for our tickets - just 5 Rp for himself and 150 Rp each for us (approx £2/$3). The place was crowded and whilst we waited patiently to enter the staircase up to the viewing gallery I grabbed a few photos of the small fountain in the centre of the arches and looking up to the inside of the building. The steps in the towers were steep, circular and very irregular and would be a health and safety officer's nightmare. I can't imagine that this place could ever be open to the public if it were in Europe. My husband dislocated his knee a year ago (and he doesn't like heights) so I don't think he really enjoyed getting up and down the stairs very much.
After lumbering up the stairs with the man behind me getting much too close to my bottom for my comfort, it was a relief to reach the platform level. Even though the city is more high-rise than it would have been when the Charminar was built, you can still see for a good distance around you. Highlights include the Mecca Masjid which is very nearby as well as the very grand Ayurvedic hospital building but I also enjoyed looking down on the market below with its neatly stacked and polished fruit and on the swarms of auto-rickshaws in their wasp-like black and yellow livery. There were just a handful of other western tourists on the Charminar and we were asked for lots of photographs by the local tourists. This happens a lot in the less touristy parts of the India and I can honestly say I find it quite charming and we never say no, whether someone wants us to take their (or their child's) picture or wants to have a picture of us with them.
Mohin our driver took us round, pointing out the main things to see both inside the Charminar and outside. He showed us the four security rooms, one at each corner designed for the watchmen to observe any danger outside. In the distance we could just make out the fort at Golconda which we'd failed to visit the day before. Within the building we enjoyed the decorative care that had gone into making the building more attractive - the ceiling and wall decorations, the curvy balconies and the gorgeous fairy-tale minarets. Mohin was in much demand from the other tourists up on the Charminar at the same time as us and was getting swamped with questions and we felt quite proud that our modest and rather shy driver and guide was doing so well at helping everyone.
Eventually after about 20 minutes of inspecting everything we could and taking dozens of photos, we headed back down the staircase, taking our lives in our hands on the poorly lit and irregular steps. It's probably not necessary to point out that this isn't an attraction for the disabled or anyone who's shaky on their feet or doesn't have a head for heights.
Our next stop was to be the mosque but we needed to wait for the mid-day prayers to finish before we could go so Mohin found us a bench and we all sat quietly smiling and waving at little children and just watching the world go by inside Hyderabad's most famous four walls.
Hyderabad's most famous landmark, a mosque built in the 16th Century.