On Saturday, Ishmeet arranged for us to be picked up around 1:30 for our partial tour of Hyderabad, beginning with an authentic South Indian meal.
For those of you who don’t know (me before about 2 weeks ago) South Indian food and North Indian food are pretty different. I wish I could describe to you how they’re different- yet a lot of the time I have no idea what I’m eating and it all just tastes vaguely spicy. The one thing I notice most is that we had more naan up north when we were touring; the lack of it here has been devastating. I have been told that dhal, which is the lentil dish we eat at least twice a day here, is a South Indian staple. I had no idea it was even made out of lentils at first, so I was glad to learn something I was eating had a legitimate, consistent source of protein.
What Ishmeet was very insistent on us trying was a large meal that is served on a banana leaf. She showed us a picture of it on the menu, and explained that typically, one person eats it entirely on their own. I was shocked. It appeared to be enough food to feed someone for one day- especially when you take into account that at this restaurant it was an unlimited dish. We ordered one to split, along with a plain dosa and another dosa with vegetables cooked into it, some idly, plenty of poori (a type of puffy, fried bread. yum), and a wide variety of chutneys and sauces. And about five pounds of rice (or so it appeared).
A lot of this food I’d had before: they serve idly and dosas at breakfast occasionally, and many of the curry dishes looked similar- though I can’t say positively. However, the best things I ate were some sort of yam curry dish, eaten with rice, and a coconut chutney, eaten with the plain dosa. I’d had coconut chutney before, but this far surpassed any expectations I might have had. I could have eaten it plain. It was perfectly sweetened and super-“coconutty.”
Ishmeet also showed us the “correct method” for eating with our hands, which is the custom here. It was weird at first. I felt like I was playing with my food as I used my (right) hand to mix the grains of rice into the fragrant curry, before scooping it up it up with my middle three fingers, and using my thumb to push the bite into my mouth. I am quite sure I looked utterly ridiculous- Ishmeet and all the other Indians I’ve seen eat all do it with a wonderful grace that I can only hope to achieve some day. She also told us to sit cross-legged, as then you are feeding your soul, not just your body (which will now be my excuse whenever I’m craving something sweet- it’s good for the soul!)
As “all meals need to finish with something sweet,” we of course finished our meal with some masala chai and a treat called barfi (alternate spelling: burfi), which sounds kind of gross but is made of condensed milk, coconut, sugar, almonds, pistachios, and topped with an edible silver leaf. It was divine.
Battling a food coma, we left the restaurant under a slight drizzle, but decided to try to visit the Buddha Statue anyways. After a quick boat ride over, we were dropped off at the feet of the Buddha. A few fast facts:
- Weighing 320 tons and standing about 55 feet high, the statue is the world’s largest monolith (meaning a statue carved out of a single piece of stone) of Gautama Buddha
- It sits in the middle of Hussain Sagar, which is a lake created in 1562 by Hazrat Hussain Shah Wali, and is located in the center of Hyderabad
- The installation of the monolith was tricky, however: in 1990, when an attempt was made to install it, the statue fell into the lake, and tragically killed ten people
- After two years of extraction, it was finally installed correctly in 1992 and was consecrated by the Dali Lama in 2006
- The Buddha’s right hand is raised, palm facing outward, in a gesture that means reassurance, safety, and blessings. It is formally called Abhayamurdra; abhaya translates from Sanskrit as “fearlessness.”
Our other stop on the tour was to Birla Mandir, or the Birla Temple. Built in 1976, it is a gorgeous structure made out of white marble that sits atop a hill called (according to Wikipedia) Naubath Pahad. When we arrived at the temple, we had to remove our shoes and store them in a free shoe check area, and also hand over our phones and all other electronic or recording devices (no photography is a strict policy). We crossed through a metal detector, had our bags searched, and quietly climbed the smooth marble stairs. We meandered slowly around the various shrines- Ganesh, Shiva, and Hanuman. Ishmeet explained what each god stood for and the different colors of kumkuma (a colored powder Hindus typically put on their foreheads after worshiping at the shrine or temple).
The place between the eyebrows is considered to be the most holy, because it is the “third eye,” the location through which the human spiritually connects with the divine beings.
What was fascinating to me was that although Ishmeet is a member of the Sikh religion, which is a totally different belief system, she was a wealth of knowledge about all of the various Hindu gods and what they stood for.
We climbed more steps and paused at a railing overlooking the city. Ishmeet had told us that the temple is most beautiful when the sun has set and all the lights are on, so we waited for about 10 minutes until darkness settled around us. I wish I had photographs, but at the same time I’m not sure a picture could have captured the beauty. The sky was a dark indigo with soft plum clouds, there was a (very welcomed) cool breeze blowing, and the marble was shining, absorbing the bright white lights and radiating a warm glow. Below us, the city was lit up (we were 275 feet above), and from a distance we could see the Buddha Statue illuminated in the lake. The road all around the lake is known as “Necklace Road” because of the dazzling lights from the buildings and cars at night- indeed, it did look like a glittering jewel necklace surrounding the darkened body of water. Below us, a bright sign delicately spelled out “Welcome to Hyderabad, the Pearl City,” and rain began to softly fall.
I’m not sure if it’s coincidence, but whenever I find myself at a gorgeous, white marble architectural masterpiece, two things seem to occur. I am always brought to tears by the sheer beauty of what I am seeing, and am in awe at the work that has gone into such a creation; and then the overwhelming realization that yes, I am here, in India.
It also always seems to rain. Despite the rain, we leaned against the balcony for several more minutes, basking in the beauty of it all. However, the light drizzle soon turned into an actual monsoon, and we hurried, as quickly as we could down the slick marble steps, grabbed our phones (returned safely!) and shoes, and raced back to our waiting car.