Hyderabad: A Day in a Life | Jay Hansford C. Vest


Following my presentation at the Global Seminar styled Exploring the Cultural and Literary Nationalism of Fourth World Literatures hosted at Acharya Nagarjuna University in the Guntur District of southern India, I took Raja up on an offer he had made. Chair of the English Department and our conference host, Raja had promised to show me Hyderabad and accompanied me to the city for a day of sightseeing. With a diverse population – Muslim, Hindu and Dalit communities – Hyderabad contains over twenty million people and getting about there can be very difficult. The traffic is madness from mid-morning until midnight with the same aggressive traffic patterns and unprotected pedestrian crossings I had noted earlier in Vijayawada.

Our first stop was Charminar; dating to the late sixteenth century, it translates as the “Four Towers” and features four ornate minarets with a distinctive Islamic arch opening to each of the four directions. Here in the “Days of the Beloved,” there is an account of an enamored Muslim king – Qutb Shah – who constructed the Charminar on the very spot where he first glimpsed his future queen, a Hindu woman named Bhagmati, and after her conversion to Islam, Qutb Shah renamed the city Hyderabad. It was said, each morning he swam the Musi River so as too be with his beloved; eventually, when she converted to Islam, they no longer had to hide their love although she had to then cover her charms. The tower contained one hundred forty-nine steps, although we engaged only fifty of them to reach the second floor. On the way up it was very claustrophobic in that it featured a narrow spiral stairwell with high and steep steps which demanded much care in negotiating the internal climb from someone so large as myself.

At the top, our guide addressed the four directions – an event which always comes home to my Native heritage. In the brief moments of reflection afforded me, I could not help but see in the tale a reversal of the enamored Muslim princess narrative common to the West since the twelfth century. In this tale, as I had known it from folklore study, the Muslim princess on first sight falls in love with the Christian crusader and then betrays her father and brother to free him. She subsequently marries her paramour and converts to Christianity while giving him the treasures of the kingdom. In a brief interlude, I attempted to explain this tale as a taking narrative like the one created by the English in the Pocahontas story. The Muslims, in this case, were the third level of occupation after the aboriginal Dalits and the usurping Aryan Hindus; hence, the enamored Muslim king variation fates the king to love a Hindu woman who converts to Islam, and suggests Muslim suzerainty in a taking of the land as represented by the alluring Hindu woman. It is thus another variation of a conqueror’s desire to have a place foreign to his culture. There is much in common with the Pocahontas figure’s infatuation with John Smith that leads to a giving of the land to the English according to the sixteenth century romance crafted by the Virginia Company to justify their taking of Tsenacomoco (Powhatan, Virginia).

Our day gave me pleasure in meeting many prominent Dalit leaders, which included having lunch with a local tax official. Raja spoke of them as warriors and it was good to see the so downtrodden indigenous people rising from the ruins of discrimination.

Proceeding to a central imminence known as Golconda – Shepherd’s Hill – we were not through with the Muslim occupation of Hyderabad. As early as the thirteenth century, a fort had occupied Golconda and it included a temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kakatiya. In the sixteenth century, however,

Shiite Muslims from Iran conquered the city and, as a means to hold it, they constructed a massive granite fortress on the Golconda site extending some five kilometers in circumference. This huge open space was trespassed upon in recent times by the impoverished masses that built shacks and other housing that served to squander the countryside. The inner gate to the fortress includes a false disguise so as to confuse and slow any attacking enemies. After penetrating this maze, there is a gatehouse with unique acoustics designed to warn anyone atop the hill at a quarter mile distance from the entryway. In addition, massive waterworks were developed with pumping stations designed to sustain the population of the inner fortress and keep it habitable even under siege. Hence, the clever alarm system and waterworks made the fortress secure.

Unlike the story of Charminar, the Muslim king in this earlier period imprisoned his Hindu advisors and, in one case, a holy man who was trapped in a dark store room with only an opening at the top through which his essentials were passed to and from the chamber. Inside there was a second landing with stairs to what may have been his sleeping quarters? Here he had found the Hindu god Rama, personifying light, and painted the image onto the walls so that the site was once again affirmed as a holy place to the faith.

With a palace at the summit including a mosque, the captive Hindu holy man’s discovery of Rama and liberation with the king’s respect gave new meaning to the fortress as the Hindus, some many years later, came to construct a shrine nearby on the hilltop. It thusly appears that with the construction of the Hindu shrine, there is a reversal of possession favoring a new co-existence between the two faiths and cultures. Adjacent to the Hindu temple, there is a ravine used today to contain all the refuse of gifts given in pilgrimage to Rama over the course of a yearly cycle. It nonetheless seems an odd way to commemorate the sanctity of a sacred place.

Turning to the eastward descent, there was a series of very steep steps that bring you down from the summit in a great hurry; one almost falls upon the harem quarters where there is also a nearby mosque for use of the king following his visitations of the ladies.

Golconda had an earlier meaning, however, with the legend of a shepherd boy herding flocks about the primordial hill. One wonders if this legend is a memory of the primal in a pastoral guise, reflecting the indigenous Dalit regard for the axis mundi of their world. Hence, the urban fort replaced a shrine, which had replaced a pastoral way of life and perhaps an earlier primal tradition replete with nature persons and visions of the sacred. In reflection, I am reminded of the biblical story of Rebecca who favors the second son Jacob, a pastoralist over the first born Esau, as a means of taking the original birthright to the land. In my mind, the transitions of primal to pastoral to urban and post urban were written largely on the Golconda landscape.

My visions of Hyderabad were, however, not yet finished as we raced through the endless traffic stream to a lake containing an illuminated statute of the Buddha rising from the waters. Said to be the second largest Buddha image in the world, workers installing it were made sick from the sulfur-smelling fumes rising from the lake. Giving off this horrid stench, the lake, filled with agricultural chemicals, made it impossible to appreciate the aesthetics associated with the Buddhist tradition and its compassion for all living things; in fact, I could not but think its purpose in conveying Omni-benevolent compassion was defeated in the pollution of the lake. And above it all, there are the Banjara Hills, once sacred to the Dalit, but now home to the Bollywood stars.

In a land of diverse and conflicting religions, I found myself adding one more tradition to the cultural milieu when declaring: “Come my shadow, go with me” as I departed in the wee hours of the new day.

Jay Hansford C. Vest is Professor of American Indian Studies specializing in Native American Religious Traditions at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. A Native American, he is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation and he is also a direct descendent of 17th century Pamunkey leader Opechancanough who took Captain John Smith captive as a murder suspect. In addition, he was given a name and ceremonially adopted as an honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) by the late Joe Crowshoe of Brocket, Alberta in June 1989. Since 1980, he has taught American Indian Studies at universities in Montana, Washington, Arizona, Alberta, Minnesota, New York and North Carolina. Twice awarded Fulbright Fellowships, he was a 1992-93 lecturer in Bamberg, Germany and a 2005-06 Research Chair at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He has also held scholarly fellowships at the D’Arcy McNickle Center for the History of the American Indian, Newberry Library in Chicago (1995) and the Oxford Round Table for religion at Jesus College Oxford University in the United Kingdom (2008). With interests in Native American religious traditions, oral traditions, cultural studies, ethnohistory and literature, as well as comparative world mythology, environmental ethics and the philosophy of ecology, his scholarship includes more than one hundred peer reviewed publications and more than one hundred formal presentations world wide. He is author of Will-of-the-Land: A Philosophy of Wilderness Praxis and Environmental Ethics (2011) and The Bobtail Stories: Growing Up Monacan (forthcoming).

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