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Glory of the gates


Part of a sultan's dream city, the Char Kaman is now beset by encroachments

Photo: Mohd. Yousuf

WHEN THE fifth Qutb Shahi poet-king, Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah conceived the plan for the new city of Bhagyanagar - later Hyderabad - a few miles from the overcrowded Golconda Fort town, he wanted it to be "a replica of paradise, unequalled in the world".

Among the chroniclers of the time, some described it as mythical, some saw in it a poetic metaphor - the Sultan being the first Urdu poet to boast of a diwan - and yet others, that he really meant it. After all, sultans dream big and this section of chroniclers vouch that he came close to achieving it at least in creating that aura. The piazza, gardens, fountains, boulevards, palaces, sarais all set to a grand scale lent the city a breathtaking image in the late 16th Century, leaving a lasting impression on foreign travellers and traders who visited the city. For Abul Kasim Ferishta (1570-1623), who came after seeing the great Mughal cities of Agra and Lahore, there was "no city as grand and as impressive as Hyderabad". French traders and travellers like Tavernier and Thevenot had similar impressions.

The city's plan itself looked mythical. In tune with the Sultan's imagination, the city was planned on a "grid-iron" pattern in the form of a giant double cross with two main intersecting roads, 60 feet wide running north-south and east-west. The intersection of two main roads, marked the city centre where Charminar was built in 1591, the city's enduring landmark. Giving shape to the Sultan's dream plan was his trusted poet - prime minister, Mir Momin Ashtrabadi, who introduced elements of his native Iranian city of Isfahan.

After the completion of Charminar, about 250 feet to its north, the great piazza of four lofty arches known as Char Kaman was built in 1592, in perfect symmetrical scale. These arches are separated from their centre by 375 feet and the space between two arches facing each other is 750 feet. The dimension of each of these arches is simply gigantic. Each of them is 60 feet high, 36 feet wide at the base and six feet in thickness. So imposing are they that in the past a huge caparisoned elephant carrying a canopy could easily pass through them. The effort that might have gone into their building was stupendous. The Char Kaman and the Charminar formed part of a "conscious urban design scheme of the Qutb Shahis. One cannot be separated from the other".

Each kaman had a different name and at least two of them had folk tales to narrate. The northern arch (the first one after crossing Madina cafe) is the Machli Kaman or the "arch with a fish", so called, as in olden times, a big fish made of bamboo and a paper aeroplane, were hung in the centre on every new lunar year day, as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity. The southern one, facing Charminar is the Charminar Kaman.

The eastern arch is the Kali Kaman from where royal musicians, played the shehanai and drums, five times a day, or heralded the arrival of important visitors on special occasions. The western arch was the grandest, most significant and has an interesting legend attached to it. Called the "Kaman-e-Sehar-Batil" (the arch of the magic breaker) now corrupted to Kaman Sher-e-Batil and Mitti-Ka-Sher, it was the gateway leading to the fairy tale royal palaces of Dad Mahal, Kudadad Mahal, Lal Mahal, Chandan Mahal, Sajan Mahal, Nadi Mahal and Jinan Mahal on a vast triangular area extending up to the river Musi. Unfortunately none of these palaces exist today.

It was owing to its importance, that Mir Momin had erected a large stone pillar by its side and inscribed on it certain Quranic verses, to ward off evil spirits and neutralise the effect of black magic on the king and the royal family. Built in the "pillar and lintel style", this lofty arch's shutters were made of expensive ebony and sandalwood studded with nails of gold and rich in-lay work with precious stones. The inside of the arch was decorated with a screen made of cloth with gold work, maintaining the privacy of the palace complex.

Then the vast area between the arches (now shrunk, with buildings and part of Patterghatti built much later, taking over the space) was square and called "Jilu Khana" or the guard's square. In the centre of the square was the beautiful "Char-Su-Ka-Hauz" (the cistern of four cardinal points), which later came to be known as "Suka-Hauz" and now Gulzar Hauz. In the past it was said to be an octagonal reservoir that was intended for quenching the thirst of the army. It was because of the historical and architectural importance of the "kamans" that they have been protected under the heritage regulation, after the State archaeology department in 1975 surprisingly denotified them.

Much water has flowed down the Musi or should we say Gulzar Houz, since royalty left behind a rich legacy. With the fading away of the Qutb Shahis, the Mughals and the Asaf Jahis, the "kamans" have fallen on bad days. Though a half-hearted attempt by authorities restored a part of their glory during the last two years, they continue to be besieged by encroachments of the worst kind. If Charminar Kaman has petty vendors using it to showcase slippers and jewellery, pearl shops encircle the Kaman-e-Sehar Batil. Perfume vendors and newspaper shops turned into kabab joints occupy Machili Kaman. A newly built place of worship obstructs the view of this arch. A sanitaryware shop functions from the Kali Kaman.

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