The taxi winds around the narrow maze of roads leading up to the fort. It's a very democratic cross-section of the population that lines up to enter the grounds: at Rs.10 per ticket, this is a poor man's park, not just the haunt of the well-heeled. The lawns near the entrance are surprisingly green, well-watered even as an extended dry spell has been hovering over the city and suburbs. But further inside, the parterres look parched and dusty red.
(The photo above is by A.Gopalratnam)
As we climb the steps, we dip off to the side, under the erstwhile stables/bodyguard barracks. At the far end, a couple of cauldrons are cooking and a largish group of picnickers are seated in a row, partaking of the feast. (Is that the famed Hyderabadi biryani that I smell?)
We pass on, further up the steps to the main fort. A couple are marked with what I suspect to be red and yellow paint- it's too bright to be kumkum and turmeric. I wonder why, until a few steps later we are treated to the unexpected spectacle of a man cutting the head off a white rooster in front of a small make-shift altar at the step. Maybe a sacrifice to the goddess Jagadamba, who has a temple, even in this fort which was last controlled by the Muslim Qutb Shahi dynasty.
My kids and friends are shocked by the blood spilling out onto the step, and walk gingerly around the altar and rooster head, bemoaning the barbarianism. The man carefully washes the blood from the steps, and walks quickly away, clutching the rooster's body, that likely will be cooked as part of the Bonalu festival.
We stop the walk to the top of the hill, and retrace our steps towards another area where a Light and Sound show will be held. This is for the bonafide wealthier tourists, cost Rs.100 for an ordinary ticket and double that for the VIP Executive class ticket, which comes with free soft drinks. The path to the seats is fraught with the perils of Bat-smell and Bat-droppings, echoes from the cliff-swallows swooping around the cavernous ceilings, as we wait in line for the security queue. A uniformed policewoman diligently peeks into our handbags before nodding us in.
As we swelter in the last rays of the setting sun, batting mosquitoes and ticks away in vain, a couple of scrawny cats rush towards the nearby garbage can, disappearing almost entirely inside as they rummage for leftovers.
A squeal from the loudspeakers, and then a booming voice announces the start of the show. It is a well-written and re-enacted history of the occupants of the fort, starting with the Kakatiya kings who built it, to the Qutb Shahi rulers who maintained the longest control over it, tales of kings and singers and lovers and saints, all wiped away in the final blast of war for control of the fabled fort. The Golconda is impregnable to all onslaughts but that of treachery. The lighting is wonderfully synced with the stirring narration and dialogues.
The audience is alternately captivated by the narration, or nodding off when the too-long musical interludes commence.(I'm sure they must have paid the singers handsomely for their efforts, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the whole songs be played in their 6 -or-8-stanza entirety!)
We escape during the final soulful paean to the glories of the Telugu people, just minutes before the remaining mass of the audience tries to ooze through the narrow pathway back, through the Bat-zone.
Walking outside the fort towards the taxi, squeals of horror from the kids punctuate our path: We have just managed to step on masses of teeming cockroaches that are out for the evening's dinner, congregating in the manholes.
The verdict from the kids: Unmitigated disaster of an excursion, since they didn't like the sacrificial rooster, or the bat-smells or the cockroaches.
My verdict: A reminder that beyond all the tourist trappings, there is still an underlying India that is worth seeing in all its glory and squalor.