When one mentions Hyderabad's Old City area, most either picturize jam-packed lanes with heavy traffic and pedestrians surrounding Charminar, respond with a reference to the cuisine (Biryani!) or make reference to the language (Deccani/Dakhini Urdu) spoken in the area.
However, if you would have visited the area a little over a century ago, you would have come across a massive wall that was 18 feet high and eight feet wide.
What many don't know is that Hyderabad was once a walled city, with the wall running roughly six miles around a part of the area in Old City, with 13 gates (darwazas) to enter it.
The walls also had smaller entrances called 'khidkis' or windows, through which one could enter at certain points.
"The wall was built over a long period of time. The construction began during the Qutb Shah period, (1518-1687) and was completed during the Asif Jahi period (1724-1948). The gates used to be controlled from sunrise to sunset. The khidkis would also let people enter," says historian Anuradha Reddy, convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
"Cities in those days would need a protective wall to safeguard their population. Similarly, when the city of Hyderabad was proposed around 1591, the demand for a wall was not far behind," says MA Qayyum, a city-based historian, who also worked for the state's Department of Archaeology and Museums.
"Proposed and started in the 1680s, the wall was made of granite large blocks which were abundantly available around the city," he added.
(A shapefile of the wall as it existed. Credit: Harsha Devulapalli)
The wall initially had 12 gates — Purana Pul Darwaza, Chanderghat Darwaza, Champa Darwaza, Yakatpura Darwaza, Dabeerpura Darwaza, Aliabad Darwaza, Lal Darwaza, Gowlipura Darwaz, Fateh Darwaza, Doodhbowli Darwaza, Dilli Darwaza, and Mir Jumal Darwaza.
The Afzal Darwaza was added later, due to the construction of the Nayapul.
Today, only two gates still stand — the Purana Pul Darwaza and the Dabeerpura Darwaza — which are under the jurisdiction of the Telangana State Archaeology and Museums Department.
(The Puranapul darwaza. Image: Madhu Gopalan)
"The wall's construction started with Abul Hasan Qutb Shah (also known as Abul Hasan Tana Shah), the last ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, following which the Mughals took over," says Qayyum.
Abul Tana Shah refused to surrender to Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's forces in the 1680s, which led to the infamous eight-month long 'Siege of Golconda'.
"The Mughals also built a portion of the wall, but they ruled for a relatively short period, following which, the Asaf Jahi dynasty took over. It was during the 1750s and 1760s that the wall really picked up pace," Qayyum adds.
Historians say that the wall varied in thickness, as it crossed various locations. Some places were wide enough for sentries, while other places could even accommodate horses. At strategic points, where there could be threats, there was an opening for canons to be mounted.
After sunset, the entire city would be officially shut off, and any weary travellers arriving late would have to seek shelter outside the fortress.
"This had given birth to several 'sarais' (rest houses) outside the city, where travellers could spend the night with their animals and belongings. Some of these included the Shaikpet Sarai and Hayathnagar Sarai. Dargahs and mosques would also have facilities for people to stay," says Anuradha.
(The Aliabad Sarai)
Anuradha also says that there used to be equivalents for 'milestones', called Kos stones. A Kos is a unit of distance that was used in the Indian subcontinent during that era, and was around 3.07 km long.
"These stones would tell them where to stop, how long they had to travel and other details like that. These have also disappeared with time," Anuradha laments.
The Great Musi Flood
Like most other cities, Hyderabad was built near a water body — the Musi river. Today, the river is known to be the dividing stream between the Old City area and the newer areas of the city.
On 28 September 1908, one of the city's greatest tragedies struck, which is now known as The Great Musi Flood of 1908.
The city witnessed a high amount of rainfall within a short period, with water breaching the Purana Pul at around 2AM, before the flood rose to 16 feet within three hours.
While the total death toll is disputed, the damage of the flood was estimated to be Rs 20 crore. The residents woke up to a city that had been washed away.
Another major victim of the flood, besides all the connecting bridges to the city, was the wall.
According to historians, postcards from the early 1900s still showed the wall as it existed. It was only after the flood that everything went downhill.
The flood is often credited with being one of the main reasons that the cause of city planning was advocated. Two reservoirs — Himayat Sagar and Osman Sagar — were built to prevent future flooding.
A drainage system and other major civic revamps were also put into place, but this came at a price.
While the last Nizam of the Asaf Jahi Dynasty Mir Osman Ali Khan left the remaining part of the wall and the gates largely untouched, things changed after Independence when the state government took over.
Activists say that most of the damage happened in the 1950s and 60s, when large parts of the wall were brought down in the name of developing the city.
Built during 1859-1861, Afzal Darwaza at Nayapul was bulldozed in 1954, much to the dismay of heritage activists.
"I personally remember seeing the Afzal Darwaza as a child, until it was demolished in 1954 by the City Improvement Board. It was a huge loss to our heritage," says Anuradha.
"There was unchecked migration of people into the city, resulting in a shortage of space, that has ultimately resulted in a lack of lakes, green spaces and intrusion into open spaces," she adds.
(Today, the Purana Pul hosts vegetable vendors)
Historians say that there are still some protected remnants of the wall from that era at Hussaini Alam and Aliabad, but authorities have since dropped the responsibility of looking after them.
"Successive governments lacked a value of history and just left encroachment of historical structures unchecked. We are still using a drainage system that was constructed by the Nizam after a survey in the 1930s," Anuradha says.
"This is the tragedy that has come to our historic city. We must retrospect, take stock, mourn the loss," she adds.