Of the forts of the Deccan, Golconda is one of the most famous—and it’s one of Hyderabad’s major tourist attractions. We’d decided this had to be among the first sights we visited, so after we’d seen the Qutb Shahi Tombs, we headed for Golconda (a bad idea, actually, since we ended up trudging up to the top of the fortress around noon, with a broiling sun beating down on us!—Golconda is best visited as early as possible during the day).
‘Golconda’, as the sign just inside the main gate of the fort informed us, is derived from the Telugu golla konda (‘shepherd’s hill’). Which shepherd used this hill to herd his animals isn’t mentioned, but what is mentioned is the history of the fort: originally controlled by the Kakatiya dynasty, then the Bahmani rulers, who took over in 1363 CE. They were in turn ousted by the Qutb Shahi dynasty, who reigned until the Mughal forces under Aurangzeb invaded Golconda and decimated much of the fort.
The actual spread of the Golconda Fort is over a diameter of about 7 km; from the summit of the hill on which the fort stands, you can see the remains of the outer walls, which are pierced by several stone gates. We drove through one of these on our way to the inner fortifications, which is the main tourist area.
Having bought entry tickets at the counter outside, we were immediately accosted by one of the many guides here. This one, a slim young man in a pink shirt, was called Salim. He spoke the usual Hindi (what’s known as ‘khadi boli’) which we know in North India, but every now and then a little Hyderabadi Hindi/Urdu would creep through, which for me was especially endearing. Salim told us that a walk touching on the most important aspects of the fort would take about two hours and would cost Rs 750; my husband bargained a bit and got it down to Rs 600, to which Salim agreed. And so, having bought a bottle of water to see us through, we began our tour.
1. Balahissar Gate and the Clapping Portico: The tour begins at the entrance, the Balahissar Gate. This formidable gate (wood, with daunting iron spikes) is protected by a barbican, and acted as the main entrance into the citadel. The gatehouse itself is in the form of a large pavilion, open on three sides (the gate is on the fourth), and with a high vaulted ceiling. This ceiling plays a major part in the acoustics of this spot, causing it to be known as the ‘Clapping Portico’. We were told that clapping one’s hands at a particular spot in this space made the sound travel right up to the top of the hill (where stands the palace that used to be the Sultan’s residence).
The Clapping Portico, said Salim, therefore worked as a signalling device. Whenever visitors arrived at the gate, a man stationed here would communicate it—to the Sultan’s guards atop the hill—by clapping. Codes were used: one clap for a friend, two for a foe (in which case, the gates along the outer walls would be shut at once), three for an honoured guest, and so on.
Today, the Clapping Portico also houses a cannon that was gifted to the Nizam of Hyderabad by Queen Victoria.
2. The Guest Areas and Secretarial Rooms: Further up from the Clapping Portico are two fairly unimpressive areas: low-ceilinged rooms, open on both sides, where guests or their servitors could stay and do their cooking. Beyond this are the secretarial rooms, where the many clerks and lower officials serving at the fort had their offices and maintained the fort’s records.
3. Nagina Bagh: From the Secretarial Rooms, the paved pathway curves right, going uphill past a four-sided area of lawns, low hedges and pathways. This, said Salim, was the Nagina Bagh, which used to function as a marketplace for diamonds (Golconda was famed as a centre for precious stones, from which it drew much of its fabled wealth). Also part of the Nagina Bagh is a small mosque that was built for the use of the diamond merchants who came here to trade.
From the Nagina Bagh, we wended our way up the hill, with Salim pointing out interesting things along the way: water reservoirs that were filled through water channels snaking across the countryside; pipes made of lime mortar, used to transport the water further up to the top of the hill and the buildings there; and views of the outer walls and their gates. We were also informed that the organic mortar used in this construction included, as its organic elements, chickpeas and red lentils, eggs, and gum; the stone used is mostly granite.
4. Ramdas Prison: The Ramdas Prison, as its name suggests, was where a man named Ramdas—a tax collector found guilty of embezzlement—was incarcerated for 12 years before being released. Ramdas’s captivity must have been pretty arduous, because the prison (once a granary) housed only him, and even food and water used to be let down through a hole in the roof. Fortunately for his sanity (and perhaps to encourage him to repent?!), Ramdas was allowed a temple—a series of 16 idols, today painted red, which adorn a wall at the top of a short flight of stairs within this large chamber.
Going further uphill from Ramdas’s prison, we passed the Ambaar Khaana (the royal granary), the Ibrahim Masjid (a small mosque, unfortunately covered over with graffiti before being closed off to the public) and finally to the Darbar Hall, at the top of the hill.
5. Darbar Hall: Also known as the Baradari (literally, a ‘twelve-arched pavilion), the Darbar Hall was the royal hall of audience. It’s a double-storeyed structure, the lower storey functioning as the Diwan-e-Aam (the Hall of Public Audience), the upper as the Diwan-e-Khaas (the Hall of Private Audience). While it’s large—and the wooden beams set like lintels in the arches are original—this isn’t terribly impressive or extravagantly decorated. The terrace upstairs offers a good view of the rest of the fort spread out below.
Just below the Darbar Hall, Salim guided us to the edge of the overhang to show us that we were now diagonally above the Clapping Portico. “Wait a minute,” he said, while another guide, with a family in tow, arrived. Everybody clustered around, and Salim, turning towards the Clapping Portico—which is 400 mt below this point—waved. A few seconds later, we heard, unmistakably, the sound of three distinct claps. The Clapping Portico, demonstrated.
From the Darbar Hall, Salim led us down back towards the Balahissar Gate, but not the way we’d come up (which, he explained to us, was the ‘aam raasta’, the route followed by visitors to the fort, including nobility as well as commoners). The route we now took was the ‘shahi raasta’, the ‘royal path’, along which the palanquins of the Sultan and his family would be carried between their apartments and the lower sections of the fort and beyond. The shahi raasta consists of series of stone staircases, which look deceptively easy to traverse but actually can be treacherous because the steps slope down slightly: go very slowly here, and hold on to the wall.
The shahi raasta comes down to the women’s area, the zenana, of the fort, including the quarters of the women bodyguards; the zenana mosque; and, finally, what Salim cheerfully told us were the ‘makeup rooms’ of Taramati and Premamati. These are two adjacent chambers, vaulted ceilings and arches, airy and recently restored, which Salim said were once embellished with tiny mirrors on the walls. “The two women would dress and put on their makeup with the help of the mirrors,” Salim explained. (Highly unlikely, and a tale guides will tell you all the way north to the Sheesh Mahal in Delhi’s Red Fort. The mirrors typically used to decorate these rooms were so tiny, they’d have been no use at all functionally).
Taramati and Premamati, by the way, were famous dancers who converted to Islam after being married to the Sultan; their tombs are to be found in the QutbShahi Tombs complex near the fort.
6. Amphitheatre: Beyond the ‘makeup rooms’, the path opens up into a large amphitheatre, with a fountain in the centre of it. This amphitheatre was where Taramati and Premamati would perform for the Sultan (who would be seated on a large stone platform—with now-ruined pillars jutting up from it).
7. The Hall of Whispers: Near the amphitheatre, up a wooden ramp, is another of Golconda’s examples of amazing acoustics: the hall of whispers. Salim informed us that this room was used by the royal ladies to entertain guests. The Sultan, to keep tabs on what was discussed, could even listen in on private conversations because the walls were designed to amplify sound.
We were made to experience it for ourselves. Salim sent my husband off to one corner of the room, me to the other corner, at least 15 feet away. I was asked to turn my face to the wall and whisper something. Sure enough, my husband (with his ear pressed to his wall) was able to hear clearly what I’d said. And whisper back to me for me to hear! Fantastic.
8. The Court and Execution Hall: Next up was another example of acoustics. The Execution Hall stands below a high balcony on which the Sultan would sit to pass judgment. If a criminal was found guilty and ordered to be executed, the order would be carried out right under the high vaulted roof of the hall, at a particular spot which amplified the sound of the stabbing and the last gasp of the criminal, for all—especially the Sultan, a good 30 feet or so away—to hear. Gory (and I’m not sure I believe this).
9. The Sileh Khana: Past the court, the Taramati Mosque (a small structure, dedicated to the dancer-turned-queen) and the Naqqar Khana (the drum house, of which only two walls—both arched, and reminiscent of the ruins at the Forum in Rome—remain), we came to the Sileh Khana. This, the armoury, is one of the largest buildings still extant in Golconda. It’s a large, closed multi-storeyed hall, which Salim informed us consists of 150 rooms. A couple of very long guns, with a few cannonballs under them are displayed in one of the large arched windows here.
The Sileh Khana, since it was essential to the defence of the fort, is situated close to the Balahissar Gate. Near it, too, and adjacent to the ramparts, Salim showed us a small stone room with arches on all sides. Oil was boiled here in a large vat, ready to be poured onto invaders.
10. The Mortuary Bath: Back at the Balahissar Gate, we had a peek (a very cursory one, since the section is closed to visitors) at the Mortuary Bath, where the corpses of dead royals would be ceremonially bathed and prepared for burial.
In the gatehouse, just before we exited through the Balahissar Gate, is a very small and rather dusty collection (in glass cases) of artefacts recovered during excavations at Golconda. We had a quick look through these, paid Salim (or, rather, paid at the central collection point, where fees for all guides are collected), and decided this was one of the more satisfying forts we’d visited.
Golconda is open to visitors all days of the week. Entry tickets for Indians cost Rs 5 per person; photography is allowed all across the fort. You can do the tour without a guide, since there are signposts at all the major sights, but some of the demonstrations of acoustics will be lost unless you know where to stand and what to do.
Do make sure you’re wearing sensible footwear to visit Golconda; the descent from the top can be slippery and steep in places (the climb up to the top isn’t difficult, fortunately; the rise is gradual, and the path dotted with sufficient attractions here and there to merit stops). Also, take along a bottle of water—the tour can make you very parched. (Note, though, that there’s a small stall outside the Darbar Hall where they sell bottled water, soft drinks and packaged snacks).
To read about the other sights we visited on our tour of Hyderabad, click these links:
The Deccan’s largest necropolis: the Qutb Shahi Tombs
The mosque with a link to Mecca
Charminar, the four pillars of Hyderabad
Unfairly underrated: the Chowmahalla Palace
The Veiled Rebecca and More: Salarjung Museum