Insider Q&A: Indian food historian Jonty Rajagopolan shares her top Hyderabad travel tips
Welcome back to Ampersand’s Insider Q&A series where we pick the brains of our special suppliers and ask them to share their tips and local perspective on some of our favourite destinations.
Sharing her insights with us this time is Jonty Rajagopolan, a great friend of ours and, we think, the best guide in all of India. She is extremely bright and cultured, with several libraries-worth of knowledge about India’s history (particularly its food history). Her skills go far beyond historical facts though; she is brilliant at showing you the living, breathing and evolving culture of India and its people. She is also hugely fun to be around and we always have a blast in her company!
Jonty is hosting a special set-date food tour, The Art of Living to Eat, delving into the culinary and culturally diverse north, east south and west of India. Setting off in October 2014 and February 2015, this is a unique opportunity to experience India in an immersive and unforgettable way – food lovers will taste a way of life where every meal is a celebration of life itself. This 13-day tour takes you from the food of the streets to the kitchens of the Kings between the cities of Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Calcutta and Hyderabad.
Here, Jonty reveals her top tips about her bustling home city, Hyderabad.
I’m new here. Please tell me something interesting about Hyderabad…
Hyderabad is the fourth largest city in India and is located in its South Central part. The region has a rich history of over 2000 years though the present city was established in 1591. The city is most known for the rule of the Nizams who were famous for their wealth and grandeur. Culturally, it is a great blend of the North and the South and people from different parts of the country feel comfortable making Hyderabad their own. This feature has been true since the time the city was built when it became home to the diamond and pearl traders from Persia, Turkey, Arabia and other parts of the world. What many people don’t know is that in the 16th century, the Golkonda mines of this region were the first diamond mines to be discovered in the world!
Please tell me a bit about yourself...
I am a business school graduate and decided to give up Corporate life after more than a decade and followed my dream of starting a venture that would get people to experience India in a completely different and a real way. During my own travels, I have wanted to experience a city through its people and everyday life rather than just through the historical monuments. Understanding the food history of any place has also been a passion and this is what I hoped my guests would experience on tours with us.
Are there any do’s and don’ts tourists should observe while in Hyderabad?
The Old City area around the Charminar tends to be quite conservative and it is better to dress modestly. While entering mosques, make sure to carry a scarf and dress so as to cover your legs (both men and women). Also, while people love being photographed, it is best to ask before doing so. Watch out for traffic and try and take the help of locals to cross the busy streets in the Bazaar area! And if you’re in the mood for some bangle or fabric shopping, don’t forget to haggle for a good price!
I’d like to try something off-the-beaten track here – what do you recommend?
Instead of the main market ways, take the bye-lanes of the bazaar where you will see the real life of people. If you get a chance, visit a local family and watch Biryani being cooked at home. Hyderabad has a rich heritage and there are many monuments like the Badshahi Ashurkhana, Paigah Tombs and the Taramati Baradari that have amazing architecture and are much more calmer than the regular touristy places.
Which attraction should I definitely make time to see?
The Golkonda Fort and the adjoining Qutb Shahi Tombs are a must visit for a first timer to Hyderabad. Of course, the Charminar area and the bazaars around are quintessentially colorful and ‘bling’ India!
Which of the “must visit” attractions should I avoid?
Personally, I think the climb up the Charminar is sometimes quite uncomfortable with the teeming crowds and narrow spiral staircases, which don’t help your knees at all!
I’d like to buy an unusual souvenir – what do you recommend?
Hyderabad is known for its lacquered bangles. While there are thousands of designs, they may not be appropriate for Western wear. However, the baby size ones make wonderful napkin holders and the larger ones can be used to keep your curtains bunched up. You can even use them as a stand to place a plain candle to add a bit of color to the space!
Where can I take the best photo of Hyderabad?
I think the best pictures are at the Golkonda Fort.
I’m going to propose to my partner while I’m here – where should I do it?
I would suggest you did that over a nice meal at the Falaknuma Palace. They even arrange dinners in special locations within the Palace and you can enjoy some magnificent views from the top of the hill.
What’s the best restaurant in Hyderabad right now?
Hyderabad has great restaurants to choose from. One of my favourites is Waterfront, which is by the Hussain Sagar Lake. It has beautiful views of the lake and the food is good too.
And where’s best for drinks?
The Park, Hyderabad is again a great location overlooking the Lake. If you want a more lively local watering hole, 10, Downing Street (called TDS by locals) is an old favorite amongst many Hyderabadis.
Are there any cultural events or exhibits I should see while I’m in Hyderabad?
There are a couple of cultural spaces in Hyderabad; Our Sacred Space is a recent addition to the city and hosts several performing art events whereas Lamakaan is popular for the local theatre. The city also has several art galleries and hosts a music festival and a theatre festival usually in Nov-Dec.
Do you support any community projects?
We are associated with several local artisans and work with them to showcase several dying crafts. We also fund school fees for girl children for some of our drivers.
Do you have any interesting new plans on the horizon?
Our All-India food tour is the most exciting thing on the horizon! It is an eating marathon across four cities in India and is scheduled for Oct 2014 and Feb 2014. This is our attempt at discovering India through its food and will trace the history of the culinary influences left behind by the various conquerors. Guests on the tour will get a feel of how what people eat is so deeply linked to their religions and how modern Indian food is evolving rapidly.
Ampersand Travel offers the 13-day Art of Living to Eat tour from £5,860 per person including international flights, domestic flights in India, accommodation, all meals, activities, entrances, road transport and Jonty as your tour leader plus a daily gift.