This weekend I went out with Jann, Chad, David, Natasha, and a collegue of Jann’s husband named Debbie. We drove down to the “old city” to visit Charminar, which is a major landmark in Hyderabad.
The CharminarCharminar translates to mean “four minarets.” It is located in a very Muslim part of town. Hyderabad is about half Muslim and half Hindu, and Christianity is gaining hold. Unlike many parts of India, the Hindus and the Muslims co-habitate really harmoniously here. The monument was built in the late 16th century supposedly to thank Allah for answering a prayer of the king. On Fridays the area is flooded with devotees who come to the area to worship. Charminar is a square structure, with towers on four corners, and arches on each side. It’s beautiful.
Surrounding Charminar is a huge market which extends about a kilometer in all four cardinal directions. The street on the south side is jam-packed with shops selling fabrics, and glittering bangles. And when I say glittering, I mean glittering. Jann and I went into one of the small shops to purchase a pair of bangles. David followed to try and get a picture, and we all almost had a seizure. The bangles are brightly colored and set with rhinestones and glitter that has been enameled over. The shopkeepers really play this up, installing bright lights that beam down into the counters. The intense light refracts in the rows and rows of bangles and sends sparkles everywhere. My bangles are blue, green and gold. I liked them because they reminded me of the peacocks in india.

The east side of Charminar was full of vendors selling everything from pocket watches to handmade perfumes. We stopped to watch a man grinding ginger and gardenia flowers down, making a sweet smelling extract. We also saw many beggars, most of which were terribly disfigured. I really struggle with the homeless and destitute out on the street here. Mostly because I don’t understand how to effectively help them, or how to emotionally process the magnitude of poverty and suffering. I looked to see if any of them were notably afflicted with leprosy, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

The Pom! so good.

The north side of Charminar is a huge fruit market. I loved all the noise and the color. Vendors pushed carts piled high with guavas, oranges, mangos, grapes and pomegranates! (I looove pomegranates). The fruits, like oranges, were often stacked in pyramids or piled high in baskets. On the top of the display there were fruits that were cut open, exposing their sweet interior, in order to tempt hungry shoppers. I found myself inevitably drawn to the shiny red pomegranate seeds (but ultimately opted to wait and eat the poms waiting in my refrigerator for me at home.) Some men carried long stalks that still had bunches of bananas attached to them. These men would unsheathe a large knife and slash off a bunch, bargaining with a customer for the best price. For the record, the fruit in india is amazing. It will be hard to adjust to the produce back home, especially the pomegranates (can you tell I’m fixated? I’m going to need a 12 step program to get off the pom).

The west side of Charminar I found to be pretty strange. Its “dental row.” We walked up and down just to see it, because trust me, none of us was about to get a root canal in the old city. Dental row is hard to articulate, but imagine an open air market hybridized with a dentists office. But not a clean, sterile, professional dentist’s office. They were kind of dark and creepy dentists office, like you might see in a haunted house, or Little Shop of Horrors. Oftentimes the “offices” would be about the size of a garage, open in the front so you could see inside. Inside I’d see an old dentists chair, and some faded posters advertising braces or cavity filling.  Behind the dentists chair would be a table containing dental tools.  In one of the corners of the room, waiting patients could sit on a wooden bench. Most of the offices were empty, but I caught the eye of a few people sitting on those benches. The anxious look of waiting for the dentist seems to be pretty universal. That whole strip was pretty bizarre.

With the exception of the west side, the whole market was packed with people.  Kukatpally, where I live, is a traditionally Hindu area and is starting to undergo some growth and renovation due to the nearby “high tech city” which is spilling over into the suburb.  The result of that is boutiquey shops (like where I bought my dresses), new businesses, a growing local economy, and a more cosmopolitan perspective.  Prior to my visit to Charminar, I haven’t had a ton of exposure to the Muslim culture in Hyderabad. And certainly not the like that of the “old city.”

Most strikingly, a large majority of the women I saw were wearing full Burqas. Black. So in addition to the long cloak that reaches down to their shoes, the women’s heads and faces are covered by thick, dark cloth.  Tiny slits allow for visibility.  When I looked at these women’s eyes, they usually showed surprise.

I would imagine they were looking me in surprise because while  they were fully burqa-ed, I was wearing long capris and a t-shirt (which might as well have been a bathing suit by the looks I was getting.)   I’d also like to point out that the temperature was over 90 degrees today. How these women don’t pass out from heat stroke is beyond me.

I’d rather not get into the whole discussion of culturally oppressed women right now, because I recognize that the burqa is (in theory) for the protection of the woman’s dignity. Rubina and I talk about it alot. She is very devotely Muslim, but refuses to wear one. She claims that in many cases, strict Muslim marriages are a form of slavery. Consequently she also refuses to wed anyone.  I think its fair to say that for the most part, the women out here don’t wear burqas based on their own free choice, but rather at the dictation of their male family members. (Have I mentioned, by the way, that I think Rubina is a really amazing woman? She’s inspiring.)

I was glad to be flanked by Chad and David on each side, who gave glaring looks back at the men who stared at my arms and ankles. At one point we (half) jokingly talked about buying me a burqa, which were available for purchase all around Charminar. The good news was that whenever we needed to cross the street, the traffic all but came to a halt.

At the end of the long afternoon in the Old City, we all piled in the car and went out for dinner. We ate at a beautiful italian (italian!!) restuarant, and I ate my dinner with a fork. It may seem inconsequential to you, dear reader, but this is the first fork I have used in over a month. I was really excited!

So to sum it all up: another day, another adventure in India!

lots of love,