Two underground arches found near the Charminar may have been destroyed, but the idea of a secret tunnel between the Charminar and the Golconda fort lives on.

The Charminar and the Golconda fort are the two great leitmotifs of Hyderabad, giving the city a continuous history of 424 years. The lore of the city abounds with tales of a secret tunnel between the two monuments, which are 8.5 km apart. Despite the abundance of lore, the passage has never been found although there have been plenty of discoveries of old structures that might lead to it.

The curiosity of Hyderabad’s history buffs was stoked yet again last weekend, when contractors building new barracks for policemen at a site just a stone’s throw from the Charminar stumbled upon two underground arches. The stone masonry could lead to anything, but around the Charminar, any such discovery quickly stokes the mythology of the tunnel to Golconda. As eager residents swarmed the site to see the Golconde ka surang it was decided to refer the find to the state archaeology department.

I landed up at Charminar on Monday morning to ask the policemen there for directions to the site. I asked for the way to Chelapura, the site of the barracks, and a constable smiled broadly at me, a rather unusual, if welcome, thing for a harried cop to do amid the frenzied traffic around the monument. “You’ve come to see the tunnel? It’s about one kilometre that way. Just follow these people,” he waved. “They are from the Archaeology Department.”

When I arrived at the construction site, squeezing past bangle vendors and knick-knack sellers lining the streets of Charkaman, I found a police picket keeping onlookers and media crews at bay. I craned my neck to see the site and found only the rubble of old, maybe historic, masonry. An earth mover was busy tearing down the remnants of a foundation.

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It didn’t matter that the Archaeological Survey of India and the department of Archaeology had wrangled over jurisdiction, because staff of both agencies were denied permission to even inspect the site. They had been turned away by the policemen, told to go to the DCP saab’s office to get permission, while the police performed a fait accompli by demolishing the structures.

Timeless tunnels
Around the site, residents told me nonchalantly that yes there used to be tunnels passing underneath their locality. Their grandfathers used to tell them about it. Maqsood Ahmed, the owner of the building opposite the police barracks site, told me, “Houw saab, yahaan pe surang rehte the. You find traces of them whenever you dig up the earth to build the foundation for a building.” I asked him whether he found any trace of a tunnel when he built his own building. He wouldn’t say.

At this site, in a locality called Chelapura, just a turn from the crumbling 400-year-old Sher-e-Batil Kaman, one of the four archways around the Charminar, there used to be until a few years ago some decrepit Nizam-era police lodgings which were demolished down to build modern amenities for policemen. The structures below could have been bunkers built for the Nizam’s constabulary. Or even the Golconde ka surang.

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Disappointed by the policemen’s lack of interest in what they had unearthed, I trudged over to Laad Bazaar, the famed bangle market just off the Charminar. As I examined some of the dazzling varieties of bangles for my daughter, a shopkeeper chuckled at my story. “Saab, woh zamaane mein bahut saare surang the. Ek Golconde ku jaataa tha. Ek Falaknuma (the last Nizam’s fabled palace) ku, ek Gosha Mahal ku. Beshaq, ek surang to Laad Bazaar ke neeche se hi jata tha. [Sir, there were many tunnels in that era – one went towards Golconda, another to Falaknuma, and yet another to Gosha Mahal. Indeed, one tunnel went under Laad Bazaar itself]”

Past continuous
Later in the afternoon I called up the archaeology officer I had met at the site and asked what he had found. He told me the policemen had turned down his request to see the site. The discovery would have been interesting to probe but, alas, it has now been torn down. “You know, it may not have been the Golconda tunnel but it could have been a serai destroyed by Aurangzeb’s troops when they finally conquered Golconda in 1687. Surely, even that would be 350 years old, and would have added to the history of the city, I suggested.

“But the police must have thought: ‘Why involve these archaeology fellows? They will just stop our construction, saying history and all that. Let’s just build our barracks.’ ”

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Not unlikely, and quite in character for Hyderabad. As with other such places, the walled city of Hyderabad takes its past for granted, like it were a familiar neighbour who can be counted upon for a cup of sugar when needed. Around the Charminar, history is everywhere: the bazaars along the four approach roads teem with the same Brownian motion today as they must have when Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah built it.

The monument itself is a living entity to the people who conduct their trade around it. Until a fence was erected around it a few years ago, one could touch the monument through the window of a bus, feeling the smoothness imparted to it by lime mortar fortified with egg white. It’s a friendly structure, tall but not looming. Vendors busily mill around it, but always pause to tell you a nice story. Directions are always given, helpfully if not correctly. The tunnel to Golconda is real to them, nothing that has to be certified by the archaeological department : “It passes right beneath the Charminar, right below that fountain there. Wo time ke Qutb Shahi kings would come here to visit the markets,” a vendor of Korans told me.

It reminded me of my last visit to the Golconda fort several years ago. Pointing to an archway buried to its neck in plastic refuse, a guide told me in flawless English, “That there is the entrance to the tunnel that takes you straight to the Charminar.”

Why look for something you already have? #KhabarLive