At the Charminar, sunrises are for vendors and sunsets are for photographers. Mornings for tourists, nights for locals. But the iconic monument, built to commemorate the end of a plague, is now deserted courtesy the coronavirus pandemic — quarantined in its own splendour.
The bustling bazaars which surround it — which inspired Sarojini Naidu to enquire: “What do you sell O ye merchants? / Richly your wares are displayed” — have been shuttered.
Hyderabad’s Old City, with the Charminar, Mecca Masjid and centuries-old Laad Bazaar, has long been the nerve centre of commerce, shopping and festivities during Ramzan. But these once boisterous streets are eerily quiet during the ongoing lockdown.
The markets around the Charminar are a shopping haven, and the showrooms, small businesses and vendors clustered here look forward to Ramzan as the biggest event of the year.
(Above: The markets bear a deserted look this Ramzan. Below: In previous Ramzans, the streets bustled with shoppers and vendors.)
For many, shopping is incomplete without a trip to the Old City, and bangle sellers to sherwani makers, shops selling attar, costume jewellery, footwear, crockery, upholstery, dry fruits and ready-made garments, all see brisk business during the festive season.
Many of the stores are dependent on the business generated during Ramzan to sustain themselves throughout the year. “I have never seen a Ramzan like this,” says Mujahid, who runs a store selling sequins, laces and buttons near the Charminar. “There is hardly anyone on the roads and the occasional shoppers who come in are all watching their wallets.” Even those who shop with the requisite hand sanitisers and masks (the ‘haves’ sporting ikat and mangalgiri masks and the ‘have-nots’ in stoles and kerchiefs) seem harried and uneasy.
The scenario seems almost a throwback to the Ramzan that followed the 1908 Musi floods that devastated Hyderabad. Back in the present, WhatsApp messages imploring people to spend less and donate more this festive season, opting for charity rather than shopping.
(Above: In Hyderabad's Old City, Ramzan 2020. Below: Ramzan 2019.)
Journalist Malliha Fatima notes that Ramzan is a community festival and socialising is an important aspect of its spirit. “Be it shopping or iftar parties — what are festivities without people? Prayers and iftars are the very anti-thesis of social distancing, but this year it’s the norm so it’s a very different experience.”
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The food industry — the Ramzan-centric gourmet food walks, street food and kebab kiosks — is especially badly hit. Hyderabad’s famed haleem, which was exported to the US and Middle East, has been the worst casualty: A city identified by its haleem finds its most famous haunts shuttered. The degchis are not lit, the masalas remain unground while the brisk service (bordering on rude) has ceased altogether. Last year, haleem worth Rs 800 crore was sold; this year it has been left to home cooks to prepare this once-a-year delicacy by watching YouTube videos.
(Above and below: Missing this year are the queues at eateries selling Ramzan delicacies.)
Ghose Mohammad, a haleem maker in the Patthergatti, noted that for many workers, Ramzan offered a chance to shore up their earnings. “We used to deliver around 450-500 parcels daily last year. This Ramzan, our restaurant is shut down. We used to hire an additional staff of 50 people to cope with the festive demand, so everyone has suffered a loss.”
Home cooks, small bakeries and independent establishments, sought after for festive delicacies like ashrafis (sweets prepared to resemble the gold coins of the Nizam’s era), badam ki jaali (traditional almond cookies), handmade seviyan and jauzi halwa (made from nutmeg), have found no customers this season. Their businesses too rely on seasonal sales to ramp up revenues.
(Above: Iftars are a lonely affair this year, with community celebrations like the one here banned.)
With a ban on congregations in mosques (only five people can pray at a time), religious leaders have appealed to people to pray at home. Sahar (pre-dawn meal) and iftar (meal eaten post-sunset) too must be had at home due to the lockdown. This has meant goodbye to iftar parties in Hyderabad that saw people of all faiths mingling, and a celebration of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.
Politician Aamer Javeed, known for hosting lavish iftar parties, says he is feeling the loss of catching up with loved ones and friends over religiously enriching get-togethers this Ramzan, where “every host displays the best of their culinary expertise with impeccable hospitality and generosity”. “I sorely miss witnessing the joyous spirit of Hyderabad in Ramazan,” Javeed says.
Amidst this unprecedented absence — of crowds, vendors, energy, festive cheer — doubts that life will ever return to what it was before, are normal. But the hopeful counter this possibility: This too shall pass, they say, and Hyderabad’s Old City will come alive for Ramzan once again.
(Above and below: Ramzan in Hyderabad's Old City, then and now.)
— All photos © Vinay Kumar