The ‘Soul-melting beauty’ of a 400-year-old gun

An early-morning exploration of a hidden gateway and an abandoned instrument of death

Stepping out in the pandemic without any anxiety is a tall ask – a fact that has kept me homebound for as far back as I can remember now. A heritage walk is a perfect excuse to step out without fear. They are in places that are either out of the way or so spread out that you do not have to be crowded together with others. They attract people who are open to new ideas and experiences, and who will leave you alone if you do not wish to interact. They allow you to enjoy the experience in your own way and at your own pace. And they are early in the morning – especially in Hyderabad, where the day grows hot quite quickly, and the cool of the early morning is a blessed relief from the heat of the day. So I was quite pleased to see an announcement for a morning heritage walk and immediately signed up for it.

We met bright and early in front of the Qutb Shahi Mosque inside the walls of Golconda. As we waited for everyone to show up, the sensory experience was delightful. As we stood in little groups or by ourselves, the inhabitants of the area were slowly going about their Sunday morning routines. A group of young men had gathered in the mosque courtyard to play cricket – two of the bigger boys were hogging the bat and ball – one bowling with way more enthusiasm than skill, while his partner batted with a wilful abandon that was a treat to watch. Since he was going at it more like a Saracen with a scimitar than a cricketer with a bat, most of the balls hit the white wall behind him, on which stumps were drawn with charcoal. Like the multiple pitches you see at Lords or the MCG, the mosque courtyard too had its multiple pitches, denoted by the multiple sets of stumps inscribed on the wall, in various stages of fading away. Two of the smaller boys, obviously wanting to have a go at it as well, kept telling the bigger boys to divide the teams, which they kept ignoring, till a slightly older man stepped in and divided the teams.

At this point, two things happened that diverted my attention. One was that a rooster crowed quite loudly from a level I was unused to – it made me look around and try to spot it – which I finally did. It was standing on the parapet wall on the terrace of a two-storeyed house and crowing its lungs out – which made its crowing way more effective than if it had been merely on the ground. My immediate thought was that it would also have been heard by any raptors in the area, who would then make a beeline (well, a birdline, if you will) for the aforesaid noisemaker. I was distracted from soon-to-be-raptor-fodder chicken by the arrival of Sibghat, our walk leader and mastermind behind Deccan Archive, the organisation responsible for the morning walk.

We gathered around him and he introduced the walk and told us a little bit about what we could look forward to. Now, I’m not going to narrate the whole walk – you can go attend one for the full experience. I will share a few parts of the experience that I found quite fascinating. The walk itself involves a little bit of climbing and uphill walking – I was quite out of breath by the time we finished two of the uphill climbs – so a little bit of physical fitness check is recommended. It is also a good idea to wear comfortable walking shoes and a hat and carry drinking water. Sibghat will of course tell you all this when you sign up for the walk – but don’t ignore these instructions if you want to enjoy the walk!

Sibghat explaining medieval water-management systems

Sibghat is a soft-spoken and thoughtful guide, and at times you can see him pausing as he selects from his storehouse of knowledge something to share with you, or in response to your question. This deliberate and calm manner of narration puts you at ease and makes the information flow much more easily.

Patancheru Darwaza

The Patancheru Darwaza is where the walk kicks into high gear. The ruin is extensive – I say this because when you say darwaza, which literally means door, you imagine a gateway or a door. However, Patancheru Darwaza is no ordinary doorway – it is one of the gates to the city of Golconda, which makes it rather more elaborate than a mere arch of entry. We enter through a half-closed arch behind some rubbish heaps and make our way through some darker-than-outside passageways before emerging into a courtyard before the darwaza itself.

The entrance behind some rubbish heaps

A gateway to a fortified city is also fortified – the path is curved to make it impossible to ram the gate (called a bent entrance). The path is surrounded by high battlements with slits for loosing arrows or firing guns through.

A gateway to a city of trade has customs houses, where the officials can evaluate what you are bringing in and collect the appropriate taxes before allowing you inside.

Golconda being a fortified city of trade, the darwaza has both. It is a fortified commercial complex – you can see by the number of rooms attached to the darwaza complex that it was an elaborate operation.

Patancheru Darwaza – walled off by the Mughals

The main Patancheru Darwaza itself has been walled off – this happened soon after Golconda was taken by the Mughals – the smaller military detachment controlling the fortifications did this to most of the gates, leaving only a few open. We entered through a smaller door to the side of the darwaza and saw the outer side of the darwaza. On both the sides of the darwaza, as well as on the walls, there are bas relief carvings of lions and elephants doing things to each other. It is usually the lion subduing an elephant. In one there is a parrot with its claws dug into a lion, which itself is clawing an elephant, which is taking out its rage on a twisted palm tree. In another, there is an armed man on a horse spearing a large lion or tiger, presumably in the act of hunting it.

The gate itself has lions on either side, with peacocks near the top. Between the lion and the peacock is a camel. While I’ve seen lions and peacocks on the Bala Hissar entrance to the inner fortifications, this is the first time I’ve seen camels in Golconda. Of course, you can find them in droves on the Mahanavami Dibba in Hampi.

Decorated balcony

We also saw the most complete and elaborately carved balconies (the technical term for them is machicolations) from which you could send arrows or bullets into anyone standing below. While you can see similar balconies in the kill zone leading up to the Bala Hissar, they are bare and not decorated. These have carvings in the form of lions subduing elephants by trampling on them, with a hanging lotus bud thrown in for aesthetic effect. Again, this is the first time I have seen decorations on Golconda machicolations.

The Moat

The moat

Part of the moat outside the Patancheru Darwaza is intact and still contains water where the locals catch fish. A stretch of the moat still seems to be connected to its historical water supply – there are only theories as to where and how the water is  supplied, but nothing is actually known about it. We could see a shiny stretch of water curving around the bastion it was built to protect. We could also see the moat from afar, as we climbed to the Petla Burj.

The moat and the bastion it protects

Petla Burj

Easily the star of the walk, the Petla Burj is a roundel with a massive 5-meter gun on top of it. The walk to and up the burj is uphill. Interestingly, the area leading up to it is called, in typical Hyderabadi disregard for factual accuracy, Attara Seedi, which translates to Eighteen steps. I must warn you that ‘Hundred and Eighty Steps’ might be a more accurate description – all of them tall, uneven stone steps. This is the same disdain for accuracy with which Hyderabadis call the Qutb Shahi Tombs, Seven Tombs – there are more than 20. By the same token, the Charminar should be called the Char Sau Minar!

The Petla Burj – the meaning of whose name has several attempted explanations, none convincing – was a roundel built by the besieging Mughal forces of Aurangzeb Alamgir. On top of it, they put a then 20-year-old Fateh Rahbar – a 5-meter long gun that could fire 11-kilogram projectiles at the Golconda fortifications. Clearly, this was not very effective – since the city was ultimately taken by deceit and not by any of the massive cannons deployed to bring down the walls.

The Fateh Rahbar

Maybe that’s why Alamgir abandoned it here instead of taking it back with him. There is an extremely detailed description of the gun in this paper by R. Balasubramaniam in the Indian Journal of History for Science (clicking this link will download a pdf file). Definitely worth a read.

The gun is richly decorated – around its mouth, around its trunions and at its cascabel. It also has inscriptions in Arabic script telling us who made it, who caused it to be made, when it was made, the size of projectiles it could fire, and how much gunpowder to use for firing said projectile. The decorations around the mouth are particularly handsome, and are completed with a poem around the bore that reads like a death-heralding riddle:

Since the flagon learnt smiling from the lips of the sweetheart,
Fire has issued forth from its mouth and encircled the assembly.
The heart is inflamed with passion to obtain union; but it does not know
That the flame of her soul-melting beauty has burnt the rival since she took him in her embrace

Clearly, a lot has been lost in the translation, but there is enough to tell us that it signifies a deadly beauty.

I will leave you here with an exhortation to go to Petla Burj and look at the Fateh Rahbar (maybe take a selfie with it and Instagram it and tag me?). Not only is it an invigorating walk, but it will also give you a new appreciation of the city around you, its history and the events that led up to it becoming what it is today. A special shoutout to Sibghat for showing me a part of Golconda I had never seen before.