Chennai Journal
Sunday, December 31, 2006
Travels North
Lia and I returned from several days traveling to Hyderabad, Jaipur, and Jodhpur. She left early this morning for the U.S. She got lots of practice with her Hindi in Rajasthan, where English is not spoken very well especially among the working class--e.g. drivers. It is also pretty unusual for a westerner to speak Hindi, so she attracted attention even among the hotel staff---one enterprising hotel manager took it upon himself to teach her more phrases!

Hyderabad is not really on the main tourist circuit, but it has a number of attractions including the Salar Jung museum, Golconda Fort, and Ramoji Film city, which is both an amusement park and a series of film sets. We visited all three, and spent our nights at the Amrutha Castle Best Western, where I met my first hotel mouse since coming to India. The Amrutha was heavily decked out in Christmas decorations, including a doorman dressed up as Santa-ji. We had a great Hyderabadi meal at a Lonely Planet- recommended restaurant called Gufaa, where Santa-ji was also in attendance (see Flickr above).

Salar Jung museum is one of the highlights of Hyderabad, but to me, it is a very mixed bag. Hyderabad is over 30% Muslim, and the Salar Jung family were nobles during more than 200 year Muslim rule before Independence. The family were veritable collectors of stuff from all over the world, and there are more than 40 rooms, each dedicated to a particular area---e.g. jewel encrusted sabres, clocks, dishes, furniture, textiles, Hindu religious statues and items, etc. The highlight is a clock in the center of the museum, kind of like a cuckoo clock, where a little man with a hammer comes out to chime the hour. People gather in the room and on the balcony up to a half hour before the hour, and the clock's motions are shown on two very washed out video screens --which is about the only way you can see them without being practically on top of the clock. No photography is allowed in the museum.

The Salar Jung collection is amazing---it is toute
d as the largest one man collection in the world--and although the museum contains a number of western items, it is the sheer number and variety of Indian cultural artifacts which is most impressive. Unfortunately, the museum is poorly maintained, and because of this, many parts of the collection appear to be in danger of disintegration in the not- too-distant future. The recently opened western wing of the museum is climate controlled and uses recessed instead of unfiltered fluorescent lighting, but in the older wing which dates from 1951, the most basic conservation techniques are ignored (with the exception of signs everywhere, even on inaccessible items, that warn not to touch). There is no humidity or climate control, silverware is badly tarnished, textiles and jade faded almost beyond recognition---what was described as deep green jade was nearly gray. Of course, this may date from the original state of these items when the museum opened, but the conditions there aren't helping. An article in the local paper described labor unrest at the museum as well---despite the addition of a dozen more rooms in the western wing in 2000, the maintenance staff has been reduced from over 250 to 150. Sad.

In the evening we went to Golconda fort for a light and sound show narrated by the King of Bollywood cinema, Amitabh Bachchan. The history of the fort and Hyderabad is impressive if complicated---I confess to not following more than half of it, and certainly could not have passed a test afterwards! The sound byte version is that the fort was built in the 13th century after a shepherd boy found the spot for the ruling Hindu kings, the Kakatiyas. The fort then passed to the Islamic sultanate and then to the Mughals.

We were among the few foreign tourists at Ramoji Film City, which is located about an hour from Hyderabad. The site, which is supposedly more than 2000 acres, contains a theme park and the rest of the area is film sets--the largest in the world, even larger than Hollywood. Lia is pictured below (with one of her admirers) in one of the sets next to the theme park--you can almost picture the dance numbers, typical in Bollywood films, on the large stage-like area in front of the gardens where Lia is standing.

In truth, Ramoji was a fairly weird place to us--we arrived before noon and the crowds at the entrance were overflowing. Our driver, an enterprising fellow, drove us a couple of kilometres up the road where there was another, "VIP" entrance. The attendant said they were sold out of VIP tickets for the day, but gave us general admission tickets---which everyone else was waiting in
long lines for. Feeling a bit guilty about this but not wanting to miss the action, we hopped a bus and in a few minutes arrived at the theme park main entrance, where we spent a few hours exploring. Gift shops had all manner of chazzerai, but little of it related to the park. A "scary house" located in the hole of a ship consisted primarily of video games. There were long lines for the entertainment, although we did catch one dance and acrobatics show that was only average.

I'll post more on the trip to Rajasthan later....Happy New Year!

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