KNEW India was going to be an ‘experience’ but little can prepare a subcontinent newcomer for the cultural and sensory blitz that’s Hyderabad. Never sleeping, the sprawling metropolis of 9 million people is a bustling mass of dusty roads packed with motorbikes, motor rickshaws, cars, lorries, buses, litter, potholes, cattle, pigs, dogs, goats and countless people all moving to a round-the-clock soundtrack of engines, shouting and, above all, horns.
Swanky private hospitals stand next to ramshackle shops, and temples and mosques neighbour houses, half-built blocks, hotels, restaurants and car showrooms.
Countless stalls line pavementless streets and women in brightly coloured sarees walk alongside Muslims in black veils – all going about their business under endless advertising hoardings as children play cricket and football on parched earth.
It includes glimpses of grinding ‘Slumdog’ poverty but the frenzied city, with its gleaming hi-tech business district dubbed Cyberabad, seems to work. It may not be everyone’s cup of chai but stick with it because the rewards are exceptional.
Located in south central India, Hyderabad was a capital of empires long before the British arrived – including two Muslim dynasties that invaded from Persia.
In 1591 the imposing four-minareted Charminar Mosque was built to celebrate the end of the plague and as a centre piece for the super-rich Qutb Shahi dynasty’s new city. Their original seat of power is a few miles west at Golconda Fort – a partiallypreserved citadel built amid pink granite boulders with nearly 5 miles of outer walls containing 87 towers.
There’s 360 steps to the fortified hilltop which offers hazy views of the sprawling city and the domes of the Qutb Shahi tombs less than a mile away.
Massive and majestic and constructed until the dynasty’s defeat by Delhi Moguls in 1687, each domed tomb would alone be a tourist attraction in any other city. Here there’s more than 30 of them, complete with a great mosque.
With Hyderabad done, we headed west on a magical history tour through the vast dusty state of Karnataka where tourists are so rare we were bombarded with selfie requests.
Our trusted steed was a comfortable bus complete with air-conditioning, curtains and fans and crucially, built like a tank. Incapable of great speed, it was wrought to ride the rough terrain of India’s hazardous highways.
After many hours we reached Bidar – at first sight an unremarkable town but containing a ruined medieval university and a wellpreserved fortress.
From Bidar we headed nearly 200 miles and over six hours to Bijapur – through a stark rural landscape stripped of forests but studded with electricity pylons and mobile phone masts; symbols of a new India.
We were travelling with Explore and one of the joys of its guided bus tours is stopping when something peaks your interest such as… thousands of painted bulls, wearing ribbons and tethered in fields as farmers traded at an age-old cattle market.
So to bustling Bijapur which includes the stunning mausoleum of Gol Gumbaz. Built over 23 years by 20,000 labourers as a tomb to the city’s ruler, it was completed in 1656, just 30 years before Bijapur fell to the Moguls.
For centuries, the majestic dome was Asia’s largest and high above the mausoleum floor it features a whispering gallery which echoes and magnifies the slightest sound.
Just 80 miles down the road is Badami – famed for its four cave temples hewn into a fortified sandstone cliff above the town’s 1,400-year-old reservoir.
All feature walls, pillars and ceilings packed with ornate deities carved by skilled sixth century craftsmen.
Passing through the town’s narrow streets among roaming dogs and livestock, we reached a man-made rock platform at the far end of Agastya lake that serves as a foundation for low-rise stone temples. They were built by a Hindu kingdom that ruled most of southern India while Britain languished in the chaos of the Dark Ages.
It was January and mid-20 degrees but we were extremely chilled as the sun set to the drifting sound of women washing clothes in the murky waters.
After taking in the nearby Unesco World Heritage site of sandstone temples at Pattadakal, it was to Hampi, the famed capital of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire,