Hyderabad’s Charminar
Snapshot
  • Every twist of fate and fortune revealed that there were two cities in one place – the Bhagyanagar of the people and the Hyderabad of the rulers.

Hyderabad was founded with the construction of the Charminar in 1591-2 CE by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, then in his mid-twenties. But the story of Bhagyanagar begins much earlier with his father, Ibrahim Quli Qutb Shah.

These are the circumstances in which Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah was born. Ibrahim Quli spent several years in exile in Vijayanagara (1943-50 CE) while his brother ruled Golkonda. Here, he is said to have married Bhagirathi and possibly learnt Telugu. However, he returned to Golkonda to a welcome by “karkuns, officers, naikwaris, blacksmiths, ‘oddas’, well-diggers, guards, load-bearers, bandsmen, tenants” and many other Hindus and Muslims of the area (Sherwani 1967: 8-9). In other words, he was welcomed by the native Telugus as well as many Muslims.

During his exile, Ibrahim Quli seemed to have acquired love for Telugu, and he invited to his court several Telugu luminaries such as Addanki Gangadhara, Kondukuru Rudra, Ponnaganti Telaganna. Addanki says that his court was thronged by men accomplished in vedas, puranas and cognate sciences (Sherwani 1968: 75). He provided high-ranking posts to Hindus and Telugus, who showered their affection upon him, addressing him ‘Malkibhrama’ and ‘Abhirama’. They seem to have remained with him, even when he joined the other sultans in destroying Vijayanagara, since according to Sherwani, the torch of Telugu literature passed on to him (Sherwani 1967: 9). The Qutb Shahis consciously targeted Telugu speaking areas for suzerainty (ibid: 4 fn 2). These were the circumstances in which Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah was born.

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Bhagyanagar – The Foundation Of Hyderabad

His father had built a bridge across the river Musi (Purana Pul) in 1578 CE. Beyond this bridge, there lay Chichlam, a “predominantly Brahmin” settlement in which a Sufi, Shah Chiragh settled (Sherwani 1967: 14). Near or around this Brahmin settlement there must have been people of other social groups and considerable economic activity, since Sherwani argues that Mohammad Quli must “have been informed of the increasing population of the area” (ibid).

In other words, the place in which the Charminar was built in 1591-92 CE and Hyderabad was founded, already had a growing population, several social groups and considerable economic activity. Thus Hyderabad, although a city inspired by Persian ideas, was not thrust upon a social and economic vacuum, but was planted in the bed of native soil and culture.

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The chronogrammatic title of the city was given in Persian as ‘Farkhunda Buniyad’ which means ‘foundation of fortune or luck’ (Luther 2016). Fortune or luck in Telugu is ‘Bhagyamu’ and in Sanskrit, ‘Bhagya’. According to popular local traditions, Mohammad Quli fell in love with a temple courtesan – Bhagyamati who served at a Bhagyalakshmi temple as a devadasin. Enamoured of her, he named the new city Bhagyanagar.

Evidence For Bhagyanagar

Popular tradition was echoed in a near contemporary letter written by Faizi to Emperor Akbar around 1594 CE, which said: “Ahmad Quli (sic) is steeped in Shiism, and has built a city Bhagnagar by name, after Bhagmati, the old prostitute (fahisha-i kuhna) who has been his mistress for a long time (ma'shuqa-i qadimy)” (quot. Sherwani op cit)

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Mohammad Quli (wrongly called ‘Ahmad’ in the above letter) was aged only 22-25 years when the Charminar was built. Hence “mistress for a long time” would imply that he must have contracted this liaison when he was just in his teens. Bhagyamati was his teenage love, and the city was named after his first passion (by the time he died, this sultan is believed to have had 19 paramours or concubines.)

Writing his Tabqat E Akbar Shahi in 1594 CE, Nizamuddian also testified that “Muhammad ‘Ali [sic) Qutbu’l-Mulk, son of Ibrahim, succeeded his father. He became so enamoured of a Hindu prostitute (patare) Bhagmasi (sic) by name that he founded a city which he called Bhagnagar after her and ordered that one thousand horsemen should always accompany the whore (fahisha).” (quot. Sherwani ibid)

In 1610 CE Ferishta in his History of the Deccan wrote about Mohammed Quli: “This prince, on the death of his father, ascended the throne of Golconda in his twelvth year ... The air of Golconda not agreeing with his constitution, he founded a city at about eight miles distance, which he called Bhaugnuggur, after his mistress Bhaug, a celebrated courtezan; but being afterwards ashamed of his amour, he changed it to Hyderabad” (Scott 1794: 409).

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Sherwani rejects these near contemporary accounts of historians by attributing their root source to Faizi’s letter to Akbar (he laments: “... much moss was gathered round the small sneering sentence of Faizī” and the sentence grew into chapters ultimately” (Sherwani 1967: 143-4). Faizi himself is rejected for not being a historian, for being anti-Shia and anti-Dekkani, and not venturing beyond Ahmadnagar. But he does not explain why a letter to the emperor would be circulated among historians and also from where the additional information in their accounts came. Nor does he say why it was not possible to know about Hyderabad in Ahmadnagar, without paying a personal visit.

A book probably written in 1614, titled, Relations of Golconda, describes a strange custom of Golconda two decades after the foundation of Hyderabad. It states: “Every year in the month of April, the prostitutes of the whole kingdom have to travel to Bagnagar whither they are summoned ... to dance in the celebration of the death of the first Moslem King, a thing which seems to me very strange”. (quot. in Luther 2016)

Such a custom practised under a Muslim king would make sense only if Hyderabad had originally been named after Bhagyalakshmi, a devadasin.

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The Suppression Of Bhagyanagar And Bhagyamati

Ferishta’s account suggests that it was shame that led to the renaming of Bhagyanagar to Hyderabad. Whence this shame of amour?

One reason could be that Bhagyamati had not converted in spite of her liaison with the sultan. Had she had converted and adopted the names of Haider, Mushtari or any other, there would be no shame in naming the city after her. Thus it seems that Bhagyamati, in spite of her royal paramour, continued to be Hindu till her death. In fact, Constable, in his footnotes to Bernier, cites Khafi Khan to say that the change to the name Hyderabad took place after her death (Bernier 1916: 19 fn 2).

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There were also political reasons for the change. The patronage of arts and force of arms had secured the authority and power of Qutb Shahis among Telugus. But new problems emerged in the north. The Mughals had shrunk Ahmadnagar, Chand Bibi died, and Malik Ambar was defeated in 1601 CE. In order to face this growing threat, the support of the more orthodox Muslims was sorely needed.

In 1585 CE, the young Muhammad Quli appointed Mir Mumin Astrabadi, recently from Iran, as his peshwa. Possibly, Mir Mumin’s good offices secured an embassy from King Abbas of Iran 1603 CE. But Iranians were unlikely to be impressed by a sultan whose capital city was named after a Hindu devadasin. Hence, the first coins to be struck by Qutb Shahis after 1584 CE were issued from ‘Darus Saltanat Hyderabad' in 1603 CE. This was the year the Iranian embassy came to the kingdom. Bhagyanagar receded into official silence.

Tradition holds that Mir Mumin suppressed the story of Bhagyamati. Political developments after the reduction of Ahmadnagar, explain why Mumin took almost a decade to use the name Hyderabad and suppress the name associated with Hindu devadasin Bhagyamati. Bhagyanagar was no longer politically convenient. Coinage, firmans and official missives ignored her. Even in the odes of the sultan that spoke of so many unmentionables, she found no mention.

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The natives, however, continued to call the city Bhagyanagar. This commonly happens with renamed cities, and is mentioned by Ferishta (Luther 2016). The contradiction between official practice and popular parlance confused many. Hence, Abdu’l-Baqi Nihawandi spoke of two separate cities: One, “Bhagmati” founded in the youth of the sultan and the other - “Hyderabad” founded towards the end of his reign through the good offices of Mumin (quot in Sherwani 1967: 140).

Why was there no official denial of the name “Bhagyanagar”? Two reasons are possible. First, an official denial would alienate the affections of indigenous people, whereas merely using the new name could be understood by them as a concession to the power of orthodoxy. Second, the sultan may have continued to be faithful to the memory of his first love. This is suggested by the fact that the chronogrammatic name of the city was “Farkhunda Buniyad”, where the Persian farkhunda connects to the Sanskrit bhagya.

Truth, even when politic, cannot be suppressed wholly. Thus, a document of succession dated 1637 CE in the state archives, is found to have been issued by one ‘Zaheeruddin, Qazi of Bhagnagar’ (Luther 2016). In 1672, Abbe Carre called the city Bagnagar (ibid). Also in his travelogue of 1656-1668, Francois Bernier translates a letter by Mir Jumla aimed at betraying the sultan to Aurangzeb, where he refers to the king’s residence “at Bagnaguer ... in as much as his palace of Bagnaguer where he usually lives is unwalled, and without a ditch or fortifications of any sort” (Bernier 1916: 19-20).

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Finally, a Ghorpade letter which is considered to be authentic (Kruijtzer 2008: 289), refers to ‘Bhagnuggur”. Since it is suggestive of negotiations between Shivaji and Qutb Shahis, it may be dated c. 1670 CE.

The Duality Of Hyderabad And The Visit Of Shivaji Maharaj

All this goes to show that Bhagyanagar continued to be a name of Hyderabad, especially popular among the people even though it was absent from official usage, possibly for political reasons. It is this duality of the Golconda Sultanate that explains the negotiations between Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and the ministers of the Qutb Shah, the hospitality extended to him during his passage to the south. Shivaji’s visit to Bhagyanagar, by then officially Hyderabad, is worth recalling.

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Shivaji Maharaj visited Hyderabad and had a “very friendly” interview with the badshah Abul-Hasan on 14 March 1677 according to Dutch sources (Kruijtzer 2008: 173). The visit unveiled the duality of Hyderabad, the cleavage between Bhagyanagar and Hyderabad as it were.

One reaction was hostile and panic-ridden. A report coming through the Dutchman Havart says that Shivaji was “stuffed” with gold to avert plunder. Since the Dutchman found it easier to interact with “the Moors”, i.e. Muslims, than with Brahmins, this must have been the reaction of his Muslim interlocutors (ibid: 42), possibly largely non-Shia.

Shias may have had reasons to join hands with Hindus against the Mughals. Mughal diktat had forced them to replace the 12 imams with the four caliphs in the khutbas in mosques. The result was a literal desertion of mosques. In contrast to orthodox sunnis, Hindus joined Muslims observing the Muharram in rural areas (ibid passim).

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Hence the general populace received Shivaji jubilantly and the badshah went along. One account of the reception says: “the Badshah had adorned the whole city. Streets and lanes were all around coloured with a thin layer of kunkum powder and saffron. Festive poles and triumphal arches were erected and flags and standards hoisted in the city. Krors [literally: tens of millions] of citizens stood to have a look at the Raja [Shivaji]. The ladies welcomed him by waving innumerable lamps around him. Gold and silver flowers were showered upon the Raja.” (Kruijtzer ibid)

Why did Abul Hasan receive Shivaji so warmly? According to a Sabhasad bakhar, it was Shivaji’s idea to pay a visit to Abul Hasan. Received by the sultan personally, he charmed him enough to induce him into financing his Karnatak campaign and got a message from Abul Hasan saying “you are honest”. Frenchman Francois Martin’s says that Madanna induced Abul Hasan to invite Shivaji to conquer a part of the Karnatak for him and surrender to Golkonda, the fortresses thus captured excepting Vellore. While Golkonda delayed paying the second portion of the contracted amount of 450,000 hons, Shivaji held on to Gingee as well Vellore, so that relations soured after the campaign.

After Shivaji died, Aurangzeb’s army approached under Shah Alam, and Akkanna and Madanna were imprisoned and Muslim rioters attacked Hindus, targeting Brahmins especially, and many of whom lost life and home. The magnificent Shiva complex of Maheshwaram 27 kilometres from Hyderabad was destroyed. Subsequently, “Deccan was sunnified” under the Mughals (Kruijtzer 2008 passim)

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From this time onward, every twist of fate and fortune revealed that there were two cities in one place – the Bhagyanagar of the people and the Hyderabad of the rulers.

Bhagyanagar – A Slip Of Tongue?

Even Sherwani who is so strongly opposed to the Bhagyamati “legend”, admits in light of evidence from European travellers, that “while the common people called the city ‘Bagnagar’, the ruling aristocracy and government officers ... called it Haiderabad” (Sherwani 1967: 145). However, in order to exorcise Bhagyanagar from our minds, relying upon Thevenot and Tavernier he advances the “slip of tongue theory”.

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Thevenot said in 1665-66 CE, “The capital city of this kingdom [Golconda] is called Bagnagar; the Persians called it Aider Abad”.

Decades later, Tavernier added: “Bagnagar was founded by the grandfather of the present king. Here the king had very fair gardens — Bagnagar or the Garden of Nagar’’.

From the above testimonies, Sherwani concludes that Bagnagar merely meant a city of gardens or bags, while both Bhagyanagar and Bhagyamati were merely legend born of an inability to pronounce ‘baġ’ – a slip of the tongue as it were causing its confusion with ‘bhag’.

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Several arguments may be advanced against this theory.

First, Tavernier was writing well after the period of shame in which the name Bhagyanagar was bypassed in favour of Hyderabad and the story of Bhagyamati was suppressed. It would be natural in such circumstances to explain away the name Bhagyanagar by word play. Gardens would have been preferable to the memory of a Hindu devadasin Bhagyamati.

Second, as Luther (2016) ably points out, the Frenchman Thevecot missed ‘H’ in Hyderabad as well as Bhagnagar. European travellers had many difficulties with native names. For instance, Qutbshah became Cotebixa with a Dutch merchant, Pulicat became Paleacattee and Mir Jumla became Mir Sumela in the writings of Floris. Thus, the accuracy of the word forms used or explained by them cannot be assumed.

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Third, unlike Europeans, speakers of indigenous languages as well as Persian know the difference between ‘bha’ and ‘ba’. There is no way that native speakers or “common people” could have confused ‘bhag’ with ‘bag’.

Fourth, the ‘slip of tongue’ theory also does not explain the annual event described in the ‘Relations of Golkonda’ c 1614 CE.

Revival Of Bhagyanagar In Public Memory

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The story of Bhagyanagar and Bhagyamati revived in Asif Jahi times.

Syed Hossain Bilgrami and Willmott writing in 1884 say that the city was “styled Bhagnagar after one of the king’s Hindu mistresses ...” and that “After her death Muhammad Quli changed the name to Haiderabad, although to the present day many natives, especially Hindus, stile the city Bhagnagar” (quot Luther 2016).

Likewise, Gribble (1896: 209) also testifies that Bhagnagar was the old name of Hyderabad, named by Mahomed Kutb Shah at the end of the century after his favourite wife or mistress, Bhagmati.

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Sherwani’s rejection of these and other historians on the ground that “the erotic part of the story came to have special appeal to the chroniclers” (Sherwani 1967: 143) is unfair to the historians and does not carry much conviction.

Our study suggests that Bhagyamati was probably a Hindu devadasin who never converted to Islam. She may have died before the name of Hyderabad was used by officialdom to refer to the city once named after her.

The study also reveals that Bhagyanagar lives on in the minds of the people and is the heart of Hyderabad. Although much suppressed over centuries of rule by those inspired by foreign models, it continues to resist oblivion, springing back to manifest life and liberty at every opportune twist and turn of history.

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Bhagyanagar is the people’s Hyderabad that refuses to die.

References

Gribble JDB (1896) The History of Deccan v. 1, Luzac and Co, London.

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Sherwani HK (1967) Muhammad-Qulī Quṫb Shāh – Founder of Haidarabad, Asia Publishing House, New Delhi

Sherwani HK (1968) Cultural Trends in Medieval India, Asia Publishing House, New Delhi.

Luther N (2016) Prince Poet Lover Builder: Mohd. Quli Qutb Shāh – The founder of Hyderabad, Publications Division, New Delhi.

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Scott J. (1794) Ferishta’s History of Dekkan, Shewsbury.

Bernier F. (1916) Travels in the Mogul Empire AD 1656-1668, tr. ann Constable A 1891, rev. Smith VA, Oxford University Press.

Kruijtzer G (2008) Xenophobia in Seventeenth Century India, Leiden University Press.

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