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Hyderabad Can Provide a Kaleidoscope of Sights

<i> Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers</i> .

When the 16th-Century Mogul sultan of the formidable city-fortress of Golconda near here fell in love with a Hindu dancer, he set in motion events that gave this town its name.

Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, then ruler of India’s central and arid Deccan plateau, first took the lovely Bhagyamati as his mistress, gave her the title Haider Mahal, later married her and began to build a new city that he named Hyderabad in her honor.

The Deccan plain was and still is an amalgam of Hindu, Persian, Turkish and Muslim cultures, all in harmony and all adapting the art, architecture, food and dress of each other.

Hyderabad has always been one of the Deccan’s leading marketplaces, its pearls and diamonds from the bazaars of Golconda the envy of all India in centuries past.

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Today, in the shadow of the magnificent 16th-Century Charminar’s four minarets, the old section of town still teems with life. Market stalls overflow with precious jewels and bangles; the aroma of jasmine and spicy kebabs fill the air as Hindu, Muslim and nomadic Gypsy women shop and haggle for fruits and vegetables.

Getting here: Fly British Airways nonstop to London and on to Bombay, Pan Am with two stops, or European carriers with a home-country change. Take Indian Airlines for the one-hour Bombay-Hyderabad flight.

How long/how much? Give the town a day and a night, which should do it. Lodging and dining costs are moderate.

A few fast facts: India’s rupee recently traded at about 15 to the dollar, or .066 each. Because Hyderabad is inland in southern India, avoid the heat from September through May. Also, the June-September monsoon time is no fun. You’ll need a visa. Malaria pills are recommended; stick to bottled water.

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Getting settled in: The Gateway-Banjara Hotel (Banjara Hills; $56 double) recently become a member of the elite Taj Group, with major improvements in the works. It’s outside the city beside a lake, and its three dining rooms and terraces offer a view of the water.

The staff is friendly and helpful, and will even dig up a tailor to make a cotton suit overnight. Dining is a marvelous experience, with a choice of Chinese, continental, Hyderabadi and other Indian meals. Also dining at the lakeside pool.

The Krishna Oberoi (Banjara Hills; $76 double) is higher in the hills than the Gateway-Banjara, and has a beautiful view of the city. Everything in this new hotel features white marble--a majestic lobby with a lovely fountain, the covered walkway over a moat and the detached dining building.

Bedrooms are done in tastefully soft colors, with king-size beds, mini-bars, baths in deep rust marble and more views. A choice of Sichuan, continental and Hyderabadi cuisine offered in three restaurants.

The Ritz (Hill Fort Palace; $38) is a former palace of the Hyderabadi Nizams, a Muslim dynasty that ruled the area from 1724 till 1948, and is built around a central courtyard. Inside, the palace has seen better days, with a mixed bag of decor in bedrooms, lobby and the enormous dining room. However, it has a big pool and a tennis court, and the price is right. Also a no-tipping policy, unusual for India.

Regional food and drink: Hyderabad has a reputation for having probably the best cooking in India, particularly the biryani rice dishes made with lamb, chicken or vegetables.

Achar gosht is a very piquant version of lamb or mutton marinated in local spices, then cooked and served with rice. Murchi ka salan , a dish of green chiles cooked in a base of anise, coriander, dry coconut and tamarind water, is another hot one.

We particularly liked the dum ka morgh : chicken in a creamy white sauce of cashews, almonds, poppy seeds and other spices. This one offers respite from the more fiery dishes, which should be washed down with Kingfisher or Golden Eagle Indian beer.

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Few can resist qubani ka meetha , a local dessert made of apricots, custard and thick cream.

Good dining: Palace Heights (Triveni Complex, Abids) is an 8th-floor restaurant with windows on all sides providing views of the city. There’s a heavy Mogul atmosphere in the decor, with regal chairs, old Indian paintings and statues.

A broad menu offers lots of Chinese ginger and chile dishes, numerous kebabs, selection of tandoors and a few pastas. Most of the main courses are under $4.

The Lambadi Room (Gateway-Banjara Hotel) takes its name from a Hyderabadi Gypsy tribe, with most of the cooking based on age-old recipes. Even the room’s decor harks back to the Gypsies, with patches of hand-embroidered fabrics decorated with seashells and baubles on the walls.

An extensive buffet, which in the evening moves onto the lakeside terrace and also includes tandoors, has such specialties as haleem , a dish of wheat pounded and cooked with bits of meat and garnished with onion rings.

At night you can watch the cooks tossing bread dough, pizza style, high into the air before cooking it in the tandoori.

Krishna Oberoi’s Firdaus dining room also will serve Hyderabadi and Moghlai dishes in a handsome setting of pink and gold fabrics hung against a background of milky marble. Look for the mirchi ka salan chile dish mentioned above. There is a midday buffet and an elegant a la carte menu in evenings.

On your own: First order of business should be a visit to Golconda Fort with its three concentric sets of walls and battlements, the outer ring more than four miles long. It is a formidable example of military architecture.

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Near the fort you’ll find 19 majestic tombs of Golconda’s sultans and kings, each elegant in design. Then return to town to visit the Charminar straddling the main street of old Hyderabad and symbolizing today’s city.

Surrounding the Charminar are stalls and streets where pearls, diamonds, stone-encrusted bangles, baubles and beads, plus gorgeous articles of bidri , a silver inlay technique, are sold.

Visit the Mecca Masjid mosque, southern India’s most impressive. It was built between 1614 and 1667 and can hold 10,000 worshipers. Afterward visit Salar Jung Museum, its 36 halls holding the treasures of a Nizam prime minister, along with 14th-Century illuminated manuscripts, intricate carvings of ivory and crystal, Chinese porcelains and sandalwood furniture.

One of the more pleasant activities in this city is walking through its busy markets, feasting on the sight of mangoes, giant papayas, custard apples and melons.

For more information: Call the Government of India Tourist Office at (213) 380-8855, or write to 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010, for a brochure on Hyderabad, another on India, plus a country map. Ask for the Hyderabad package.


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