A long-time plan to visit Barkas was realized today. Khadeer was my guide for the day, and his brother Nazir accompanied us.
We met up early in the morning and drove to Barkas. First, some background. Barkas is part of the history of Hyderabad. The Arab soldiers who were part of the Nizam’s army lived in barracks, and their descendents continue to do so – except that the area where they live has come to be known as Barkas – a corruption of the word ‘barracks.’ Today, Barkas is an integral part of Hyderabad. Yet, it retains a stamp of Arabic influence that is distinct.
The first thing we did after arriving at Barkas was get a taste of harees – the Barkas Breakfast! Harees is a roughly smashed-together concoction of beef, soaked wheat and a few spices. By itself it is quite mild-tasting. Two variants make up breakfast – the khari or spicy variant involves a dollop of ghee and a generous helping of korma on top of the harees. The meethi or sweet variant is harees with a dollop of ghee and three large spoonfuls of sugar. Both are delicious, and eaten one after the other, make for the perfect breakfast.
We stopped at Al Hadrami, Barkas’ premier destination for harees since 1963. It is a smallish room with a big platform taking up a fourth of the space. Atop this platform sat two men, who doled out harees (from a large pot around which the platform was built) to a never-ending stream of patrons. Chairs lined the walls, and continued a bit outside the building, and a couple of small wooden tables completed the picture. Every conceivable chair and standing space was taken up by people either eating harees or taking it away for a hearty breakfast. We found seats near the platform, and ordered the khari first. One of the men on the platform slopped a large ladleful of harees on to a black-rimmed white metal quarter plate and passed it to the other, who added the ghee and korma to it, dropped a piece of lime on it and passed it to us. Squeeze lime, mix well and eat – this harees, though it exhibited none of the subtlety of flavouring of the better haleems, was solid breakfast food. Filling, tasty and non-cloying – this was indeed one of the better breakfasts I have had. I followed it up with a plate of meethi – the sugar melded well into the harees for a slight sweetness that was not overpowering.
Following the breakfast, we walked out to Barkas’s main square – this was a large tree next to the bus stand. The tree was surrounded by a concrete platform, and next to it were arranged large water pots with drinking water for the public. Behind the square was a large enclosed football ground – another Barkas favourite. Even though the morning was cold and rainy, there were enough footballers on the field to indicate Barkas’s passion for the game.
Before we get to talking about the square, a description of the Barkas citizenry is in order. The people on the streets were predominantly men. Quite a few had distinct Middle Eastern features, though all of them spoke a typical Hyderabadi Urdu. The preferred clothing was kurtas over fancy lungies. While the kurtas were unremarkable, the lungies were truly resplendent in their design and colour. Khadeer tells me they are imported and can cost up to two thousand rupees each. Many people also wore fancy headgear – a variety of Arab-style scarves in addition to the usual decorated caps. There were also many people wearing beanies – maybe it was the cold weather, maybe beanies are a Barkas fashion statement, but it looked like they were there to stay! I also noticed that many people wore thick-soled slippers of distinctive appearance. Apparently Barkas’s footwear of choice is imported from West Asia and though expensive, very durable and long-lasting.
Let’s get back to the story we left at the main square. Farmers from the surrounding countryside were bringing in their produce and auctioning them off. Organizing the whole thing was a bailiff who was also the auctioneer. He seemed to know everyone, and walked around talking to both the farmers and the buyers, many of whom were local merchants buying produce to sell at their shops. The produce on offer was not much in terms of variety – custard apples by the basketful, papayas in various stages of ripeness, guavas and figs. The farmers stood around in a knot, while the buyers waited around patiently. The bailiff had a notebook in which he kept writing down the transactions. One by one, the farmers’ produce arrived in tricycle carts. As soon as a load came in, the bailiff would oversee the unloading, after which the farmer spoke in his ear. The bailiff would then call out what produce was on offer, sometimes offering his judgement of it as well, and then call for bids, starting out with (what I assume) what the farmer is hoping to get. Most of the time, especially for the baskets, the selling price ended up lower than what was initially asked for. A typical auction starts with the bailiff calling for bids for a lot of eight baskets of custard apples at a hundred rupees each. Since there are no takers, he lowers the asking price to eighty and then to sixty. The bidding then starts off at sixty, and a sale is made at sixty five. This kept happening as the produce kept arriving. After we had our fill of watching the auctions, and Khadeer bought a basketful of custard apples, we moved on.
A nearby tea stall provided us with Suleimani tea for the princely sum of three rupees each. This is a strong black tea sweetened with sugar and served in a medium sized glass. We had our tea, munching on custard apples and watching Barkas go by outside. Unfortunately, the constant drizzle ensured I did not take any pictures.
From Barkas, we drove down to the Charminar, approaching it from Falaknuma. We stopped near the Mughalpura Kaman to take a few pictures, and it was easy to see how the land sloped down to the Charminar. Khadeer narrated the legend of how during the Great Musi Flood of 1908, the Charminar had been submerged – apparently a bird sat on one of the towers and was drinking water. Try as I might, I am unable to find any mention of the Charminar being submerged.
Driving past the Charminar, we turned left at the Gulzar House fountain and headed past the Kaman. Parking in a side street, Khadeer led me to the dargah of the Sufi saint, Hazrath Shaikji Halli Abul Ulai. This was a complex of a function hall and a set of tombs, including that of the saint. The tomb is decorated with finely-worked marble, very reminiscent of the Paigah tombs. An old lady sitting outside guided us in. There was also an old mosque in the Qutub Shahi style attached to the dargah. The function hall, which was where Sufi events and qawwalis take place, was being renovated.
As we were leaving the dargah, the old lady said there was another dargah with a big dome nearby. Our curiosity aroused, we asked her to show us where it was, and she led us through smaller and smaller streets till we came to the dargah – it was quite amazing how such a big structure was totally hidden by the buildings around it. It was the dargah of yet another Sufi saint, Hazrath Syedna Shah Sadullah. In front of the dargah was another functional mosque, also in the Qutub Shahi style. The dargah was built in the typical Qutub Shahi style, with a tall square base and a dome at the top. It was not very ornate, but simple and functional. It had a constant stream of people passing in and out. We went in to find the strangest sight I’ve seen in a tomb. Inside the dargah, in place of the usual cloth-covered grave of a saint, there was a raised platform, on which were three graves sculpted out of loose sand. On top of these were flowers, and people were laying their hands no and touching their foreheads to the graves as they offered prayers. I stood in a corner as Khadeer said his prayers, and the steady flow of devotees kept on. Some said prayers kneeling at the graves, others stood in corners praying while yet others merely passed through. A young man stuck a few joss sticks in one corner of the sand. An old man had several pieces of paper and cardboard, which he placed on the graves, stuck in the sand. Then, he stepped back and said prayers before taking back the papers and cards. Khadeer explained that sometimes, some people were able to communicate with the saint, and get him to answer any questions they might have. Given the number of papers the old man had laid out, it was likely that he was asking questions for a few other people as well.
As we stepped out of the dargah, we saw a really old house at the end of the street. But it seemed to be used as a living space, since I could make out new windows fitted to the old building. It stood rather forlorn at the end of the street with a broken down horse-cart in front of it. It seemed to symbolize the state of heritage structures in Hyderabad – so commonplace that no one really cared about them or took care of them.
With that sobering thought, we finished our morning jaunt and made our way home.