The Charminar is to Hyderabad what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Hawa Mahal is to Jaipur. It is its signature monument. The former Hyderabad state had the Charminar on all its coinage. It is as old as Hyderabad itself.
Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah (1580-1611 CE), the fifth sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty of Golconda, laid the foundation of the iconic Charminar to symbolise the founding of Hyderabad. He was a contemporary of both Akbar and Jehangir. Hyderabad was intended as a citadel of Muslim power in the Deccan. Qutb Shah was an accomplished poet and wrote his poetry in Persian, Telugu and Urdu. His famous ghazal “piya baaj pyaala piya jaye na, piya baaj ek din jiya jaye na” is still a favourite at soirees today. While laying the foundation of Charminar, Qutb Shah recited a couplet in Dakhni: “Mere shahr logon se mamoor kar, Rakhiyo joto darya mein machhli jaise (Fill this city of mine with people as You filled the river with fishes, O Lord).” Clearly the Lord listened to his prayers, for now Hyderabad is India’s fastest growing metropolis, and was listed by National Geographic magazine in 2015 as the second best place in the world to visit.
How Hyderabad came to be called that is a now a legendary love story that begins with the young prince falling in love with a beautiful Hindu woman he espied at the exact spot the Charminar stands today. More contemporary versions have another Salim-Anarkali tale in the Deccan. Only this time beauty was rewarded with a city. In 1589, Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah married the Hindu woman, Bhagmati, reputed to be a courtesan, who remained with him as his queen till his death in 1611. The sultan bestowed the title of Hyder Mahal on Bhagmati, and hence the name of the new city came to be Hyderabad. Bhagmati’s lowly origins evoked some harsh opinions. Shaikh Abu al-Faiz ibn Mubarak, popularly known by his pen name, Faizi, who was the Malik-ush-Shu’ara (poet laureate) of Akbar’s court, after a visit to Hyderabad wrote to Akbar that the place commemorates “a hardened whore”.
According to Jean de Thévenot, a French traveller of the 17th century whose narration was complemented with the available Persian texts, the Charminar was constructed in the year 1591, to commemorate the beginning of the second Islamic millennium year (1000 AH). The event was celebrated far and wide in the Islamic world, thus Qutb Shah founded the city of Hyderabad to celebrate the event and commemorate it with the construction of this building. Due to its architecture, it is also called the Arc de Triomphe of the East.
There is now a sectarian conflict brewing out of a plan to expand the Bhagyalaxmi Temple growing out of the southeastern corner of Hyderabad’s iconic Charminar. One must relate the name of this temple to the demand in certain rabid RSS quarters to rename the city as Bhagyanagar. A BJP MLA, Raja Singh, from the nearby Hindu-dominated constituency of Maharajganj, has been quite shrill about this. Given Bhagmati’s questionable antecedents, the likes of Raja Singh need a better genealogy for Bhagyanagar, hence the concocted story of a temple of Bhagyalaxmi. The existence of this shrine and its expansion now threatens the syncretic culture of Hyderabad. Contrary to a widely held misconception, the monument has no religious overtones. It has never been used as a mosque. To me it is a rare instance of secular Islamic architecture in India. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the current caretaker of the structure, mentions in its records: “There are various theories regarding the purpose for which the Charminar was constructed. However, it is widely accepted that the Charminar was built at the centre of the city to commemorate the eradication of cholera", a deadly disease which was widespread at that time.
True, there is a mosque on the top deck. But that was par for the course in all Muslim structures. Even the Taj Mahal, a maqbara, has a mosque. This reflected the socio-political reality of the era.
About the temple named Bhagyalaxmi Temple, that is now located at the southwest base of the Charminar, the ASI, which manages the Charminar, has in no uncertain terms declared the structure as an unauthorized construction. The Hyderabad high court has stopped any further expansion of the temple. While the origin of the temple is now disputed, the current structure that houses the idol was erected in the 1990s.
Several magazines and newspapers have published old photos that show the temple never existed. A temple became visible in the Charminar photos only after 1990. I have been visiting the Charminar since I was a child and have also seen the small stone with vermillion applied, which grew from a passerby’s whim to a small shrine, and now a full-blown temple. It is also said that a stone was placed in that corner as a RTC bus doing a turn around the Charminar brushed it, and the stone was placed to protect it from future errant drivers. In time the stone gathered vermillion on it. The present governor, a RSS appointee, even visited the temple to offer prayers, further sanctifying its illegality. It has grown like a giant carbuncle and right under the nose of the Charminar police station.
Over the years I have been asking various people in authority to demolish it. Neither the police, nor any chief minister or even the Majlis (MIM) leadership care about it or dare to do anything about it. Now the temple’s builders are claiming it was the Charminar that came up around it. This is a travesty, and an outright lie. This temple must be removed and the Charminar restored to its original conception. The two “then” and “now” photos tell the truth.
Over the years we have a tacit understanding that religious encroachments on public spaces and even property will not be removed, even if it causes the people much dislocation and distorts the original pristinity. Thus, we have mandirs and mazars rampantly encroaching on public space and our sensibilities. We need a serious conversation on this. Secularism does not mean indifference to lawlessness. It actually means greater respect for the law. Now that is something for the courts to once again define.
I wonder how the courts will view the Charminar’s desecration. Maybe they will give the people of Hyderabad five acres of land elsewhere to build a new Charminar?
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy....