The Charminar (Image by Santosh Kumar Velamala/ CC 4.0)
The Charminar (Image by Santosh Kumar Velamala/ CC 4.0)

Hyderabad, popularly known as the ‘city of pearls’ or ‘city of Nizams’, is the only city in the world where I can have a good plate of biryani without crying. Since its inception by the Qutub Shahi Dynasty, it has been the center of a vibrant historical legacy. Even though it had been conquered and destroyed by the Mughals, it never lost its charm. Charminar is a witness to every one of these events — it has seen the vibrant markets and the burnt houses. It is that one old tree that has seen the birth, death, and rebirth of this city.

Irani Chai and Biscuit
Irani Chai and Biscuit

Irani chai biscuit is the one thing I’ve always taken for granted…

I only started to understand its importance once I moved out of the city. The one thing everyone who visits Charminar loves is Irani chai. Many of us natives have taken it for granted, forgetting the cultural importance of the Irani migration to Hyderabad a century ago. Hyderabad was the ideal city for Iranians to migrate to since the language in use, Dakhni, was very much similar to Persian. What is ironic is that this famous Irani chai is not what Iranians drink. This decoction of milk and leaves is native to Hyderabad even though it carries a foreign name.

There is a funny, yet, exploitative story of how chai was introduced in the city. Tea was a staple drink for the British. The establishment of the British army cantonment in Secunderabad attracted many high-level officers and officials to Hyderabad. Hyderabad and Secunderabad are called twin cities but they are non-identical twins as the culture, architecture, and history are entirely different, except for the chai. The British then started distributing the lowest quality tea used to their Indian servants and locals for free, which got them hooked onto chai. Thus emerged the Irani chai.

The Nimrah café near Hyderabad is famous for its chai, although the natives would swear it’s not the best. This was the same café that was once rumored to mix opium instead of sugar in their tea to attract customers.  

Hyderabad has a unique blend of faith, cultures, and languages. The local language Dakhni, which was spoken since the Qutub Shahi era, is a unique blend of Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, Marathi, and Kannada. This dialect is often mistaken for a variety of Urdu, whereas Urdu, as a language, was born after Dakhni. The roots of Dhakni can also be found in Dehalvi. It was a language used in Delhi, especially by the Sufi saints. While laying the foundation stone, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the ruler of Golconda, performed a prayer and inscribed this Dakhni couplet into the monument:

میرا شہر لوگوں سے مامور کر

راكهيو جوتو دريا میں مچھلی جيسے

Fill this city of mine with people as,

You filled the river Musi with fishes O Lord.

Charminar is the one monument that connects the city to its older brother, Golconda. Hyderabad was born because of the Qutub Shahi rulers’ ambitions, who wanted to build a new city for its growing trade. The Charminar is the first structure to be built in the new city. and one of the few structures spared by Aurangzeb after the destruction of a vibrant city. 

Hyderabad under the Qutub Shahi rule was one of the wealthiest cities in the south because of its Kollur diamond mining and Machilipatnam port on the Krishna river banks, one of the reasons Aurangzeb attacked Hyderabad. It wasn’t easy for him to conquer the city. The nine-month-long siege ended when Aurangzeb bribed one of the gatekeepers, Abdullah Khan, of one of the eight gates, Bahnagar Darwaza, which was renamed Fateh Darwaza after his victory.

Charminar, which is usually mistaken for a mosque partly because of Wikipedia, was actually a School (Madrasa) established for the local children. It has heard the echoes of the Quran verses and the desperate cries of its people. Bonanu (local Hindu festival) and Ramzan are celebrated with the same joy. And its chai and biryani are savored equally by everyone regardless of their faith. Today, it is a happy place where people shop, eat and celebrate the city’s unique blend.

Hyderabad as a city is so profoundly engulfed in its history, that one cannot separate it from its past. It is a blend of different cultures, faiths, religions, and customs. All the monuments, especially the Charminar, have millions of stories to tell. If only they could. Each and every element, foreign or local, is a part of this city. The city isn’t Hyderabad without them, just as biryani is not biryani if it isn’t Hyderabadi.

Divya Gaddam is a cat mom, a hodophile, and an intersectional feminist with a Master’s degree in English with Communication studies.