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Marble gem of the Paigahs


Ask no questions. Instead, look forward to enjoying a soothing, and rewardingly aesthetic, experience in Hyderabad.

TODAY, we made a discovery. One of the many striking rewards of our generally rewarding lifestyle, is the startling little discoveries we make, occasionally. We were delighted when we identified a, so-called, "Naga tribal drum" as a replica of a sea-going boat: evidence that the Nagas' believe that they came over from Borneo is more than a legend. Then there was that shrine to the Goddess of Navigators that we reasoned must be situated in the Indus Valley's town of Lothal: and we found it long before any archaeologist did. And our theory that the Australian aborigines had sailed and paddled in from India, during the Dreamtime of the last Ice Age, found confirmation in Canberra. There, in the Opal Museum, we linked separate displays of "Tribal Ritual Objects" as Indo-Austric lingams and yonis.


The serene mosque-facing facade of the tombs.

Today, however, it was a different sort of discovery.

Many years ago, while researching a long-gestated historical saga, we learnt about the "Pagahs". They were, we understood:

"State soldiers, house-hold troops; any body of horse under a commander"

Or so our revered Encyclopaedia Asiatica said. Hanklyn-Janklin, that worthy successor to Hobson Jobson, was more specific. According to Nigel Hankin, Paigahs were

... and the scalloped arch frames and a marble tomb.

"Muslim nobility of the highest rank in the princely state of Hyderabad: originally a title granted by the second Nizam to his army commander and his family, the numbers grew so that in the later years of the State the total of the Paigah was several hundred." Now, we left, we were getting somewhere. The Paigahs weren't just a legendary band of lances-for-hire, as we had once presumed. They were the tough and tightly-knit noble bodyguard of the world's richest man: the Nizam of Hyderabad. They were much more than today's Black Cats, even more than the magnificent Swiss Guards of the Pope. The Paigahs of the Nizam were so highly regarded by their monarchs that they were given royal titles, grants of land, and permitted to marry into the Nizam's family. The rulers probably felt that, while those of their royal blood might plot and scheme to overthrow the monarch, in-laws very seldom become outlaws.

But though these references made us reasonably familiar with the background of the Paigahs, we still didn't have anything concrete on which we could peg our imagery. Yesterday, when we were listening to a talk given by Andhra Pradesh's enthusiastic Director of Archaeology and Museums, Dr. J. Kedareswari, to a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) conference on Tourism and the Heritage, we learnt that there was a monument built by the Paigahs in Hyderabad. And from the photographs in the exhibition, they looked exquisite.

We've just returned from visiting them and we're enchanted.

They are tombs built of white marble and plaster, so delicately fashioned that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins, unless you touch them. The marble is a shade cooler and smoother than the plaster, but only a shade. The tombs stand on the same platform as a white mosque and virtually in its forecourt, separated from it only by the obligatory ablutionary pond reflecting both the tombs and the mosque. The reasoning behind this juxtapositioning of the mosque and the tombs, we were told, was that the sanctifying sound of the prayers from the mosque would wash over the tombs.

In typical Islamic style, scalloped arches access encircling verandahs, stretch in cool symmetry down corridors leading to the actual tombs. Fretted screens diffuse the light, and wooden doors and panels are delicately carved. There are 27 tombs in the main complex starting from that of Nawab Taig Jung Bahadur also called Shams ul-Umra. His actual name was Abdul Fateh Khan but he was better known by his titles which, we were told, meant "Sword Warrior" and "Sun of the Nobles". The translation of Jung Bahadur as "Sword Warrior" seems to be a trifle florid. "Heroic in Battle" would be a more down to earth translation if, indeed, honorifics can ever be down to earth! This Nawab was, and always remained, a warrior. Legend has it that when he was offered the job of Prime Minister to the Nizam, he declined saying: "I am a soldier and I want to remain a soldier all my life. I do not intend to become a politician!"

Reflecting his attitude to life, his tomb is simple. But, as we walked from tomb to tomb, we could see the increasing prosperity of the Paighas. The decorations became more elaborate, the material more expensive, the carvings more intricate. The tomb of Hussain un-Nissa Begum was enriched with pietra-dura: inlay work in precious and semi-precious stones in the Mughal manner. The last resting place of Nawab Asman Jah is throne-like but it is open to the sky, the asman, in keeping with his name. But, for all the elaboration of the motifs, everything is in extremely good taste and conveys an abiding of serene grace.

The only features we found a bit too assertive, and verging on the grotesque, were the minor domes encircling the major ones. They rose atop curved pillars which looked almost reptilian. One explanation given to us was that they represented the stalks of lotus buds and the devices that looked like scales were an architectural depiction of water. Possibly, though this does seem a little contrived.

We were also very intrigued with the repetitive pineapple motif. In England we once lived in a manor where the balustrades leading down to the gardens were decorated with stone pineapples. When we asked our host about them, he said that they were Islamic emblems brought back by the Crusaders, and they indicated hospitality. According to the official guide book to the Paigah tombs, the pineapples here are also symbols of hospitality. Why should a tomb offer hospitality? But then attitudes and mores vary from age to age. If one really believed that death is merely a transition to a far better existence, then the welcoming icon of hospitality would be appropriate.

But these questions should interest only those who wish to look beyond. For most visitors, however, it is enough to enjoy the soothing, and rewardingly aesthetic, experience of Hyderabad's little known Paigah tombs.

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