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Sandwiched between the past and present, the rural and urban, and the wilderness and human settlements lies a space that doesn’t belong to either side. These thin spaces often vanish or transform, beyond recognition, during the pace of urbanisation. On one side of this borderline, a dark wilderness sleeps silently, while on the other side a sea of lights and humanity stay awake. Sitting at these thin borderlines and looking towards the urban landscapes in front, one would feel that the past is just lying behind, awaiting to be woken up. It is a past that doesn’t belong to us, but can only be pondered upon. Exploring these unique spaces, especially at night, gives an idea about the two contrasting worlds they separate.

With centuries-old history, the burgeoning city of Hyderabad is ideal for finding edges. Famous for lakes, hillocks and rocky topography, Hyderabad has been undergoing rampant urbanisation for the past two decades thanks to the information-technology boom. However, there are places here which still refuse to surrender to the invasion of concrete. They form the thin, but unique, border lines in Hyderabad. Landscapes around Maula Ali Dargah, Attarah Seedi near Golconda Fort and Pahadi Shareef Dargah, and the wild outdoors of Osmania University are among the last frontiers of a forgone era. From here, the city will seem to be away and close at the same time. 

High-rise buildings slowly conquering wilderness

Playing with fire near Attarah Seedi. In the background is Qutb Shahi tombs

Away from the attention of tourists who throng the Golconda Fort, a narrow mud path from an urban settlement leads to a stone structure. The structure marks the rear border of the fort, from where a swathe of thick forest grows west. Here, one can have a panoramic view of the city, with its thousands of buildings lit up. Lying not very far from the edge, the magnificent tombs of Qutub Shahi royals (built from 1543 CE onwards) dot the skyline. People say shepherds used to camp near this wilderness, where only tiny grass and interspersed rocks remain now. On cold winter nights, those shepherds would have sat on these rocks and watched the night sky. The fire they made could have reflected on these rocks. In the dancing flames, they would have seen the silhouettes of royal tombs. This edge remains largely undisturbed to date, but a burgeoning population is knocking at its gates.

A concrete box borders Osmania University's classrooms and the outback

Among the unusual spaces of Hyderabad’s cityscape, an abandoned concrete structure inside Osmania University deserves special mention. Set up on rocky terrain, the ‘box’ served many purposes. It acted as a water tank during rain, an informal performance arena for university artists during peak summer, and many other unknown purposes. In ruins, this structure lies precisely in the middle of a thin border which separates modern buildings of this prestigious university from a thick growth of trees. When no humans are nearby, the box is usually occupied by peafowl. Sitting inside the box, with a small fire lit up, one could watch the shades of buildings on one side and of trees on the other side. It makes one feel as if the world is divided into two.

Pahadi Shareef Dargah gives a sense of separation from the bustling city

A series of winding stone steps from a narrow road leads to the hilltop dargah of Pahadi Shareef (Traced to the grave of Sufi Saint Syednah Baba Sharfuddin of the 13th century CE). Except for the noise of aeroplanes, which land and take off at the nearby international airport, the atmosphere is mostly silent. One can feel the cool breeze wafting through the hundreds of graveyards here. A few pilgrims and homeless wanderers share the space with the dead, making it the meeting point of past and present.     

A night at Maula Ali

Upon a small hillock that nestles Maula Ali Dargah, the sound of blowing wind slowly overpowers the noises from busy streets and speeding vehicles below. On the top, where only the rustling leaves can be heard, a sudden sense of dislocation creeps in. This island of tranquillity belongs to no one, yet it gives an irresistible pull. Even a speck of grass here dances to the tune of the wind. Sitting on the edge of a rock and looking down, one can see a large sea of humanity floating like ants amid the orange-yellow hue of street lights. How was this space left out from the clutches of earth movers? Why was it not conquered by steel and concrete? It could be because of the barrier formed by the boulders or the spiritual aura surrounding the dargah. However, the serenity of this space may not remain the same since a concrete road is being laid to half the distance to the hilltop, to provide easy access to the dargah.

An island of tranquillity

Produced in collaboration with Gaurav Rachamalla, a Hyderabad-based architect and filmmaker 

Published in 2017

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