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Charminar is always on the top of the mind of any tourist visiting Hyderabad . To say that Charminar is a major landmark in the city is to state the obvious, to repeat a cliché. The great monument is a synonym for Hyderabad and the pivot around which the glory and history of the city have developed. To imagine this 400-year-old city without Charminar is to imagine New York without the Statue of Liberty or Moscow without the Kremlin. Built by Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah in 1591, shortly after he had shifted his capital from Golkonda to what now is known as Hyderabad , this beautiful colossus in granite, lime, mortar and, some say, pulverised marble, was at one time the heart of the city. This great tribute to aesthetics looks sturdy and solid from a distance but as one moves closer, it emerges as an elegant and romantic edifice proclaiming its architectural eminence in all its detail and dignity. Apart from being the core of the city’s cultural milieu, it has become a brand name.

Charminar is a squarish structure with four towers in the four corners of the square, each of whose sides is 20 metres in length. Every side opens into a plaza through giant arches, which overlook four major thoroughfares and dwarf other features of the building except the minarets. Each arch is 11 metres wide and rises 20 metres to the pinnacle from the plinth. The minarets soar skywards by 24 metres from the roof of Charminar. Each minaret has four storeys, each looking like a delicately carved ring around the minaret. Some Anglophiles call Charminar the Arc de Triomphe of the East. From the ground to the apex, the minarets cover a length of 48.7 metres.

According to Mir Moazzam Husain, a long time official of the UNESCO and a keen student of this historic city, “these minarets may even symbolise the first four khalifs of Islam, but I cannot vouch for this interpretation with any degree of certainty.” At the western end of the roof of Charminar is a beautiful mosque; the oldest in Hyderabad, and the rest of the roof was used as a court in Qutub Shahi times. Atop the great monument are 45 prayer spaces for the devout where they can offer worship in an atmosphere unspoilt by thev bustle of the city. East of this space is a spacious verandah with small and large arches in the middle. The first floor has beautiful balconies from where one has a fantastic view of the historic city and its later accretions.

These are technical details, of interest only to scholars and scribes. For the tourist, Charminar disgorges unlimited architectural wealth exuding from every pore of its masonry surface. The minarets taper off with a bulbous dome, embellished by petal-like motifs, and crowned by a brass spire. Though Charminar has a number of features answering to Hindu architectural usage, the minarets themselves are exclusively an Islamic architectural tradition. Unlike Taj Mahal, the fluted minarets of Charminar are built into the main structure. Inside the four-storeyed minarets are spiral stairways of 149 steps leading you to the top, the highest point one can reach, and providing a panoramic view of the sprawling and amorphous city. Each minaret has four arcaded balconies helping the tourist to imbibe the beauty of the city at various levels.

The essence of Islamic architecture rests in the deployment of arches, minarets and domes in a harmonic whole. This is very much true of Charminar, where apart from the main arches on the four sides; above each arch are horizontal arrays of arches. Not only the four balconies of each minaret have arches but also between the fourth balcony and the crowning dome, you can see arches playing merry-go-round. Even as the arches and minarets of Charminar reflect the influence of Islamic architectural schools, the structure as a whole embodies elements of South Indian temple architecture. Again, flanking each arch are four arched and trellised windows one above the other. The four main arches have thus 32 such windows.

But Charminar actually is a galaxy of prominent landmarks in the city’s history. Its neighbourhood is as interesting a site of cultural heritage as Charminar itself. Around this architectural axis are colourful bazaars, bringing to mind the bazaars of ancient Baghdad and Istanbul, selling pearls, bangles, traditional Muslim gear and Mughlai delicacies. Architecturally significant are theMecca masjid, Jamay masjid, Char Kamaan ,and Miya Mishk mosque. The Nizams too had built a complex of palaces close to Charminar and beyond Lad Bazaar. Among them, more well-known are the Chow Mohalla palace (1750), Khilwat Mahal, the Malwala Palace (1845), the Salarjungs’ Dewan Devdi and Purani Haveli (1803).

The Chow Mahalla palace was built by the first Nizam, Salabat Jah, in 1750 and is presumed to be a more refined version of the Shah of Iran’s palace in Teheran. This is now a heritage building, flood-lit in the night. “The main quadrangle (of the palace) has a beautiful garden surrounding a large marble cistern, the fountains and the splashing waters of which in moonlit nights have been compared by a visitor with one of the enchanting gardens described in the Arabian nights. To the north of the cistern is the grand Durbar Hall, where the Nizams used to hold state receptions and receive official nobles.” Chow Mohalla was built in several phases in the rule of different Nizams.

The pavilion where the rulers held court was known as Khilwat, built in the regime of the second Nizam. Some consider its style extremely baroque. The complex includes Jilu Khana facing Lad bazaar and Daulat Khana-e-Ali, both built by the first Nizam. The four palaces comprising the Chow Mohalla complex are Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, Tahriyat Mahal and Aftab Mahal. Afzal Mahal is the most imposing of them all.

Sandwiched between the Chatta bazaar and Dabirpura main road is Purani Haveli, the home of the first peshwa of Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah. This complex is in the shape of a horseshoe with a single storeyed building in European style separating two oblong wings of double-storeyed buildings tapering off into single storeyed structures with deep arched verandahs. Purani Haveli architecture combines European facades with Indian courtyards. The Haveli today houses a college for vocational training and religious education. Of the 11 buildings in the complex, only the Baradari is open to public.

From the Charminar, it is impossible to miss the Char Kamaan built three years after the grand old edifice was built. The four arches of Char Kamaan envelop a vast plaza with a tank with an octagonal enclosure. This is now known as Gulzar Hauz, flanked by shops, which, in the times of the Qutub Shahis, were antechambers to their palaces. The Mughals destroyed them in 1687.

Some recent buildings, whose architectural trends were inspired by Charminar and Golkonda, and built during the last of the Asaf Jahs’ times, are the Unani hospital, the High Court, and across the Musi the Osmania general hospital. All of them flaunt features of Indo-Islamic architectural styles. Charminar is very much a part of the vibrant life of everyone in the city and its cultural life.

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