Charminar: Hyderabad’s First Building
Few things are more Hyderabadi than Charminar. Located in the heart of Hyderabad, the shared capital of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, this magnificent, 16th-century monument is an inextricable part of the city’s collective consciousness and identity.
Standing plum in the middle of the crossroads of four streets, the Charminar (‘Four Minarets’) is a four-sided monument with its sour signature minarets and a mosque inside. It has witnessed Hyderabad’s birth, downfall and rebirth across more than 400 years.
Greatly cherished by its citizens, the Charminar has meant different things to different people over time. This ceremonial gateway was once a symbol of new beginnings, marking the foundation of a new capital built by the Qutub Shahi rulers. Some claim it is a memorial to love, while for idlers, it has served as a place to pause and exchange gossip. In fact, the countless rumours that have originated here even have a name. Fuelled by steaming cups of spice tea served by the numerous Irani tea houses in the vicinity, these spicy tales have been dubbed ‘Charminar Ki Gup’ (Gossip of the Charminar).
The Charminar was built in 1592 by Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah but the story of this splendid monument actually begins 10 km away, in the great fort of Golconda. Originally a rocky outcrop on the road to the important port of Machilipatnam, Golconda became the seat of the Qutub Shahi dynasty in the 16th century. The founder of the dynasty, Quli Qutub-ul-Mulk (r. 1512 - 1543), was a Turk from Hamadan in Iran, who migrated to the Deccan and took up service with the Bahmani Sultans of Bidar (now in Karnataka). Following the break-up of the Bahmani Empire in 1518 CE, Quli Qutub-ul-Mulk declared his independence and made Golconda his capital.
The famous diamonds from the Krishna Valley that became known across the world as the ‘Golconda Diamonds’ and the textiles from the Andhra coast made Golconda one of the richest kingdoms in the world during its time. In fact, till the discovery of the Brazilian diamond mines in the late 18th century, Golconda was the only known source of diamonds in the world. As a result, traders and merchants from all over the globe began flocking to Golconda, which became one of the most important cities in Asia.
But Golconda’s wealth and prosperity also led to overcrowding, and the city began to be hit by a number of diseases. By the 1590s, the wealthy residents of Golconda began to move out of the city and built large garden houses on the other side of the Musi River. This suburb was called ‘Baghnagar’, after the many gardens here
Hyderabad – A New Isfahan
During this time, Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah (r. 1580 -1611) was the ruler of Golconda. He ascended the throne in 1580 at the age of 15 and ruled for the next 31 years. An enlightened ruler, he was also a poet and the first to publish a dewan (compilation of poems) in the Dakhani language. He was also a great patron of the arts.
Due to the recurring menace of cholera sweeping a now very crowded Golconda, Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah decided to shift his capital to the other side of the Musi River, to a village called ‘Chichalam’. According to contemporary Persian historian Firishta, “When the Moon was in the constellation of Leo and Jupiter in its own mansion, Muhammad Quli ordered the preparation of the plans for a city which the Sultan wanted to be unequalled in the world and a replica of paradise itself.”
The man tasked with developing the new city was Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah’s Peshwa, Mir Momin Astrabadi. A migrant from Iran, Mir Momin was a very versatile individual, being a great architect, a lover of culture and a poet and critic of some repute. He wielded enormous power in the Qutub Shahi court, from 1585 till his death in 1624 CE. Mir Momin had witnessed the development of the great city of Isfahan in Iran under Shah Abbas (1571-1629) and hoped to create ‘Isfahan-i-Nau’ (New Isfahan) in the Deccan.
The plan of the new city consisted of a grid system in the form of a giant double cross with the Charminar as its centrepiece. Four roads were to radiate from the Charminar in the four cardinal directions. This pattern divided the area into four quarters. The north-western quarter was reserved for the royal palaces and state offices, while the north-eastern quarter was set aside for the residences of the nobles. The main thoroughfares were lined with 14,000 shops, mosques, serais (inns), baths and schools. It was given the name ‘Hyderabad’ after Hyder (Lion), one of the names of Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali as the Qutub Shahi rulers of Golconda were Shia and revered Ali.
Charminar – Hyderabad’s Chaubara
Construction of the new city started with the Charminar. There are several theories as to why the Charminar was built, not least among them the story of it being a memorial to Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah’s legendary romance with a dancer called Bhagmati. But most historians who have studied Hyderabad city, like Narendra Luther and Sajjad Shahid, agree that it was nothing more than a ‘glorified chaubara’ or a ‘city square’ that marked the centre of the new city.
Regarded as one of the high points of Qutub Shahi architecture, the Charminar has been built of plaster and stone. Also, it is a perfect square – each side is 18.26 metres long. Each of the four sides has an arch. The minarets rise to a height of 48.7 metres from the ground and each is divided into four storeys. Each minaret has 146 steps that lead up to the top storey.
There are three floors in the main building. On the western side of the roof, there is a mosque. It has five double arches representing the five great personages of Islam held sacred by Shias, viz Prophet Muhammad, his son-in-law Ali, his daughter Fatima, and grandsons Hasan and Husain. According to Hyderabadi historian S A A Bilgrami, the Charminar cost Rs 900,000 to build.
Interestingly, just like today, medieval travellers too complained of ugly shops ruining the beauty of the Charminar. A Frenchmen, Jean Thevenot, who visited Hyderabad a few years after its construction, wrote that the Charminar was completely surrounded by “ugly shops made of wood and covered by straw, which sell fruit”.
In 1687, the Mughal armies of Emperor Aurangzeb conquered Golconda and the Qutub Shahi kingdom came to an end. Political and economic power shifted to Aurangabad, the Mughal capital, and Hyderabad became a city of little importance. The city also suffered a second blow. Its most beloved monument, the Charminar, was struck by lightning, and the south-west minaret was extensively damaged. As it happened, a rich businessman from the city died without leaving any heir. His property, amounting to Rs 125,000, went to the Mughal Subedar in Hyderabad, Bahadur Dil Khan, who apparently spent Rs 60,000 of his windfall income on the reconstruction of the minaret and distributed the rest in charity.
Hyderabad & Charminar’s Rebirth
Hyderabad city saw a rebirth in the 1750s, when Salabat Jung (r. 1751 - 1762) of the Asaf Jahi Dynasty was declared Nizam with the assistance of the French East India Company. He shifted his capital from Aurangabad back to Hyderabad due to frequent attacks from the Marathas. In 1756, the Charminar and the gardens in its vicinity were occupied by the French military commander, Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau and his troops. Bussy was the General of the French East India Company during the Anglo-French Carnatic Wars and had installed Salabat Jung on the throne.
Interestingly, it was under the Nizams of Hyderabad that the Charminar became an iconic symbol of Hyderabad. The first Nizam was originally a Mughal Subedar in the Deccan, who had declared his independence, and the later Nizams wanted to assert their legitimacy by establishing a link with the city's Qutub Shahi past. Under them, the Charminar began to appear everywhere, on coins, on currency notes, stamps, and even on badges of the Hyderabad police. Soon, the Charminar became an intrinsic part of Hyderabadi identity. This beloved icon of the city also appears on the official emblem of the Telangana government today.