Sightseeing highlights: Part 1

Trip Start Oct 13, 2004
Trip End Nov 16, 2004

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Friday, October 29, 2004

:: Char Minar and Char Kaman ::

The Char Minar (means four minarets) is a striking monument set in the heart of Hyderabad and is one of the best examples of South Indian Islamic architecture. The founder of Hyderabad, Muhammad Quli, built this ceremonious gateway in 1589. Four gates (means Char Karman) mark the intersection of the city's four major roads. Fruit vendors and merchants surround this unusual building, which serves as part triumphal arch, part mosque. It stands over 180 feet tall and 100 feet wide and is dwarfed by the enormous crowd that surrounds this popular agora.

:: Falaknuma Palace ::

Falaknuma Palace (translated to "Star of Heaven") is truly magnificent. You'll have to just trust me on this since its interior beauty cannot be photographed. The palace stands prominently on the highest hill overlooking Hyderabad. At night, its illuminated fašade reinforces its "star-like" qualities. The edifice had the same importance in Hyderabad in the near past as the Palace of Kremlin had in Moscow.

This gorgeous palace was designed by an Italian architect for the Prime Minister of Hyderabad and purchased by Nizam VI in 1897. It took nine years to build and served as a royal guesthouse for the rulers of Hyderabad, called Nizams (ruled from 1713-1950), and for King George and Queen Mary.

From a bird's eye view, this grand marble structure resembles the body of a scorpion with its two stingers spreading out as wings to the north. It is believed the design was the source of many misfortunes; the palace proved to be fatal to those who visited for great lengths. The southern section of the building houses the harem quarters -- a mere 150 wives all told!

The grandson of Nizam VII now owns the palace, which sat unused from 1911-2001. The Taj Group, a luxury hotel corporation, manages the facility. I was only able to visit this city jewel because I'm a guest at a Taj hotel here in Hyderabad. The palace is not open to the public. Starting in January 2005, a two-year renovation of the south wing will produce a 7-star luxury hotel. It's estimated the cost of a nightly stay will be close to 1 lakh (Lakh = 100,000 ruppees or $2k dollars)!

:: Neighborhoods ::

My friend, Santosh, invited me to have lunch at his recently purchased home outside Hyderabad. He lives approx. 15 miles from the city, which took over an hour to reach due to crazy roads and even crazier drivers. Houses in India, much like the suburbs in the US, are less expensive on the outskirts of the city. Most homes are concrete, often painted bright pastels, consist on 2-4 small rooms and cost around $20k. They have "modern" amenities built around a simple and efficient community design. Indians typically live with their nuclear family and very seldom live on their own. This is due in part to expensive apartments but also I get the sense that families are bonded together like sticky rice out here.

My friend's mother cooked us a tasty traditional Indian meal. As a host, you serve your guests, cater to their every whim and do not partake in the meal. One can't even reach for a spoon without the host taking over the task. This attention took some getting use to but I soon realized that you must honor their custom or you look like a complete jerk. Of course, I was very nervous taking my first bite, as I feared Death by Spices. One does not want to be rude and refuse food especially when my host knew I was a "negative zero spicy gal", as my friends like to call me. Even with that knowledge, the food was insanely hot. I'm still sweating from its heat! I thought for sure after I spilled a little sauce on the floor that I'd see a massive hole worn through the marble from its fiery touch. Thankfully, cooling ghee and yogurt aided in my digestion.

It's been a real honor to be so generously welcomed into my friend's homes and to share in traditional Indian culinary experiences but I sometimes I feel I'm on an Indian "Fear Factor" show that dares me to eat what one hates the most. Stepping up to the challenge doesn't always reap positive rewards like the Hollywood ending but it's all part of the experience that I embrace. The phrase "Spice of Life" definitely has a whole new meaning for me.

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