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Chennai is short for Chennapattanam, a town that grew around Fort St. George built by the British in 1640. According to one version, Chennapattanam was named after the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple; the word chenni in Tamil means face, and the temple was regarded as the face of the city. Another version has it that Chennapattanam was named after Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu, Nayaka of Kalahasthi and Vandavasi, father of Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, from whom the English acquired the town in 1639.

The former name of Chennai was Madras and it was short for "Madraspatnam", a fishing village located in the province of Tondaimandalam, north of Fort George in an area lying between Pennar river of Nellore and the Pennar river of Cuddalore. Another version on the origin of Madras is that the Portuguese, who arrived in the area in the 16th century, had named the village Madre de Deus, meaning the Mother of God. Another possibility is that the village's name came from the prominent Madeiros family (variously known as Madera or Madra in succeeding years) of Portuguese origin, which consecrated the Madre de Deus Church in the Santhome locality of Chennai in 1575.

Sometime after the English gained possession of the area in the 17th century, the two towns, Madraspattinam and Chennapattinam, were merged, and the English referred to the united town as Madrasapattinam. Gradually, the city grew into a major naval base and became the central administrative center for the British in South India. With the advent of railways in India in the 19th century, the thriving urban centre was connected to other important cities such as Bombay and Calcutta, promoting increased communication and trade with the hinterland. Madras was the only Indian city to be attacked by the Central Powers during World War I, when an oil depot was shelled by the German light cruiser SMS Emden on 22 September 1914, as it raided shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, causing disruption to shipping.

While most of the original city of Madras was built and settled by Europeans, the surrounding area which was later incorporated included the native temples of Thiruvanmiyur, Thiruvotriyur, Thiruvallikeni (Triplicane), Thirumayilai (Mylapore) which have existed for more than 1000 years. Thiruvanmiyur, Thiruvotriyur and Thirumyilai are mentioned in the Thevarams of the Moovar (of the Nayanmars) while Thiruvallikeni in the Nalayira Divya Prabhandhams (of the Alwars)

After India gained its independence in 1947, the city became the capital of Madras State, renamed the state of Tamil Nadu in 1969. The state government officially changed the name to Chennai in 1996. On 26 December 2004, an Indian Ocean tsunami lashed the shores of Chennai, killing many and permanently altering the coastline.


Hyderabad – The City of Pearls

When you read about Hyderabad, you also have to experience the typical Hyderabadi talk. The essence of this city is wonderfully captured in 'Hyderabadi Baataan' - Part 1 & Part 2.

Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh, India), as we know it today, was established in 1591 AD. Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah laid the foundation of a new city on the banks of River Musi and called it Bhagyanagar after his beloved queen Bhagmati. There are a couple of theories about how Bhagyanagar was renamed Hyderabad. One legend goes that when Bhagmati embraced Islam and took the name Hyder Mahal, the city of Bhagynagar was renamed Hyderabad after her. According to another story, it was named as the City of Hyder after the title of the Fourth Caliph Ali (of the Shia sect).

The city and its surrounding areas have a long history, even before the period of Quli Qutub Shah. It was part of the Mauryan Empire in third century B.C during the reign of Ashoka the Great. After the death of Ashoka  in 232 BC, the Maurya Empire began to weaken and decline. As a result, the Sātavāhanas who started out as feudatories to the Mauryan dynasty, declared independence and established their empire in this region. The Sātavāhana Empire or Andhra Empire, was a royal Indian dynasty based out of Dharanikota and Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh as well as Junnar and Prathisthan (Paithan) in Maharashtra. The territory of the empire covered much of the Deccan plateau & central India for about 450 years from 230 BC till around 220 AD. After the decline of the Satavahana Empire, the region came under the rule of the Andhra Ikshvaku dynasty until 325 AD.

Various Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms ruled the area during the subsequent centuries, including the Chalukyas and Kakatiyas. In 1321 AD, the area fell to Muhammad bin Tughluq's forces from the Delhi Sultanate. For the next few decades, the Bahmani Sultanate of the Deccan fought the Musunuri Nayakas on the north and the Vijayanagara Rayas on the south for control of the region. By the middle of the 15th century, the region was under the firm control of the Bahmani Sultanate which controlled the Deccan north of the Krishna River from coast to coast.

Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk, who was of Turko-Persian descent, served the Bahmani Sultanate. He conquered Golconda (currently in Hyderabad), after the disintegration of the Bahmanis into five Deccan sultanates. Soon after, he declared independence and established the Qutub Shahi dynasty of Golconda. Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, founder of Hyderabad was the descendant of Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk.

During the Qutub Shahi period, Hyderabad flourished and became a vibrant center for culture and trade. All seven Qutb Shahi Sultans were patrons of learning and were great builders. They contributed to the growth and development of Indo-Persian and Indo-Islamic literature and culture in Hyderabad. Some of the sultans were also great patrons of the local Telugu culture. Golconda became one of the leading markets in the world for diamonds, pearls, steel, arms, and also printed fabric. Hyderabad became known for its gardens (called baghs) and its comfortable climate. Visitors from other lands compared the city most to the beautiful city of Isfahan in Iran.

By the mid-17th century, the landscape changed drastically.  Mughal prince Aurangzeb spent most of his time in the Deccan fighting local Hindu and Muslim kingdoms to establish and enforce Mughal Sovereignty. And finally in 1687, Hyderabad was conquered by the Mughal army. For a few decades, Hyderabad declined, and its vibrant diamond trade was all but destroyed. Aurangzeb's attention moved away quickly to other parts of the Deccan, with the Marathas slowly but steadily gaining ground against the Mughals. With the emaciation of the Mughal Empire after Aurangzeb's death in 1707, the Mughal-appointed governors of Hyderabad gained more autonomy from Delhi. In 1724, Mir Qamaruddin Siddiqi (Chin Qulich Khan Asaf Jah I) was granted the title Nizam-ul-Mulk ("governor of the country") by the Mughal emperor. He defeated a rival official to establish control over Hyderabad. Thus began the Asaf Jahi dynasty that ruled Hyderabad until a year after India's independence from Britain. Asaf Jah's successors ruled as Nizams of Hyderabad. The rule of the seven Nizams saw the growth of Hyderabad both culturally and economically. Hyderabad now became the formal capital of the kingdom.

When India gained independence in 1947, the Nizam declared that he would remain independent, either as a sovereign ruleror by acquiring Dominion status within the British Empire. In order to keep essential trade and supplies flowing, he signed a Standstill Agreement with the Indian Union which surrounded him on all sides. The law and order situation soon deteriorated, with escalating violence between the private Razakar army fighting for continuation of the Nizam's rule and the people who were fighting for joining in the Indian Union. The people had the support of Congress leaders like Swami Ramanand Tirtha and the communists of Telangana. As the violence spiraled out of control and refugees flowed into the coastal Andhra region (of the erstwhile Madras state of India), the Indian Government under Home Minister Sardar Patel initiated a police action called Operation Polo. On September 16, 1948, the Indian Army moved in to Hyderabad State from five fronts. Four days later, the Razakars were defeated and hundreds of people died in the process. The Nizam finally surrendered and signed the Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union and Hyderabad was integrated into the Indian Union as a state. The state got its first democratic government and the representatives of its 18 million people were admitted to the Constituent Assembly drafting a constitution for free India. For the next eight years, Hyderabad continued as a separate state within the Union.

On November 1, 1956, the states of India were reorganized on linguistic grounds. Consequently, the territories of the State of Hyderabad were divided between newly created Andhra Pradesh, Bombay state (later Maharashtra), and Karnataka. The twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad became the capital of the new state of Andhra Pradesh.

Today, Hyderabad is a major tourist hotpot in the Deccan region. It is home to several historical sites, including the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage site of Chowmahalla Palace. Other popular landmarks and tourist destinations include the Charminar and Chudi bazaar, Golconda fort, Salarjung museum, Falaknuma palace, Qutuib Shahi tombs, Hussain Sagar (Tank Bund), Osman Sagar (Gandipet), Hyderabad Zoo, Birla Mandir, Public Gardens and old Assembly buildings, Ravindra Bharati theater, Sultan bazaar area, Ramoji film studios and, Hitech / Cyber city.

Hyderabad is traditionally known for its trade of pearls and other precious gem stones. The Laad Bazaar and nearby markets has shops that sell pearls, diamonds and other traditional ware and cultural antiques. Tourism industry is another big contributor to the city’s economy. The retail industry is also on the rise along with achieving major strides in setting up biopharmaceutical and information technology (IT) offices. Many national and international companies such as Microsoft, Google  etc.have set up shop in the city. Hyderabad witnessed a high growth in the real estate business due to the proliferation and IT and other Hi-tech industries. In 2011, Hyderabad was ranked as the fourth best city to live in India A large number of mega malls have come up in the past few years.

Hyderabad has always been known as a city where distinct cultural and linguistic traditions of North and South India meet. So Hyderabadis (residents of the city) have developed a distinctive culture and language of their own, which is a mixture of Hindu and Muslim traditions. ‘Dakkhani’ (a form of Hindi which includes Urdu, Telugu, Marathi and Kannada influences) is the most widely spoken language in Hyderabad. Festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi, Bonalu, Eid ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.are publicly celebrated.

The city’s unique cuisine has over 400 years of history and is highly influenced by Mughals and partially by French, Arabic, Turkish and Irani food where rice, wheat and spices are widely used to great effect. It is influenced by the native Telugu and Marathwada cuisine as well, bringing in a unique taste to the dishes. Some of the most popular Hyderabadi dishes are Hyderabadi Biryani, Baghaare Baingan, Mirchi Ka Saalan, Hyderabadi Haleem, Khubani ka meetha, Double ka meetha and Kaddu Ki Kheer. Of course, traditional South Indian dishes like Idli, Dosa, Uttapam, Sambar etc., are also very popular. The cosmopolitan nature of the modern city has also popularized other cuisines like Punjabi, Italian, Mexican, Chinese and Continental.

Hyderabad continues to be a cultural melting pot today as it has been throughout history.

You may also like 'Hyderabadi Baataan' - Part 1 & Part 2.

Hyderabad – The City of Pearls

Varanasi (Kashi) – The Holy City of India

Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benaras (anglicized version of Varanasi) is regarded as a supremely holy city by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in India. It is located on the banks of River Ganga in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India. Hindus yearn to do “Kashi Yatra” (pilgrimage to Kashi) at least once in their lifetime. They also prefer that the mortal remains (ashes from cremation of the deceased) be scattered in the River Ganges at Kashi.

Varanasi is often referred to as "the holy city of India", "the religious capital of India", "the city of temples", "the city of lights", "the city of learning", and "the oldest living city on planet earth." The city of Varanasi possibly got its name from the names of the two rivers Varuna and Assi that surround the old city. These two rivers are tributaries of River Ganga. In the Rigveda, the city is referred to as Kasi or Kashi, "the luminous one". The name Kashi alludes to the city's historical status as a center of learning, literature, art and culture. Many Hindu scriptures, including the Rigveda, Skanda Purana, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, mention the city. Kasikhanda describes the glory of the city in Skanda Purana.

According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, several thousand years ago. It is believed to be resting on Shiva’s “Trishul" (Trident).  The holy shrine of Kashi Vishwanath (a manifestation of Lord Shiva) is standing for thousands of years on the western banks of River Ganga. It is one of the twelve holy Jyotirlingas (pillars of light of Shiva) in India.

Varanasi is considered to be of the seven Punya Kshetras (sacred grounds or fields of active power) where Moksha or final release can be obtained. The other Kshetras are Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya, Kanchi, Avantika and Dwaraka. A visit to the temple and a bath in the river Ganges is believed to lead one on a path to Moksha (liberation). There is also a tradition that one should give up at least one desire after a pilgrimage to the temple, and the pilgrimage would also include a visit to the temple at Rameswaram in South India, where people take the water samples of the Ganges to perform prayer at the temple and bring back the sand from near that temple.  Kashi is also regarded as one of the Shakti Peethas, and the Vishalakshi Temple stands on the spot where Goddess Sati's earrings fell. Hindus of the Shakti sect believe that river Ganga is the Goddess Shakti.

The city is a noted center for silk weaving (Benarasi silk) and brassware. Fine silks and brocaded fabrics, exquisite saris, brassware, jewelery, woodcraft, carpets, wall hangings, lamp shades and masks of Hindu and Buddhist deities are some of Varanasi's shopping attractions. Varanasi has its own culture of fine art and literature. Great Indian writers like Kabir, Ravidas, Tulsidas (of Ram Charit Manas fame) to many modern day writers like Jaishankar Prasad, Acharya Shukla, Munshi Premchand, Jagannath Prasad Ratnakar, Devaki  Nandan Khatri, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, etc., have made this city their base. Many noted musicians like Pt. Ravi Shankar, Pt. Bismillah Khan, Omkarnath Thakur and many others have kept the city alive to the spiritual aspect of fine arts. Numerous festivals are celebrated that preserve traditional styles of classical and folk culture.

Banaras Hindu University (commonly referred to as BHU) is a public university located in Varanasiand is one of the Central Universities of India. It is the largest residential university in Asia, with over 24,000 students on its campus. BHU was founded in 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya under the Parliamentary legislation.

Varanasi was originally an independent Bhumihar Brahmin state and became an independent “Kingdom of Kashi”, a British territory in 1775. Then in 1911 it was declared as an independent state. It is the site of the Ramnagar Fort and its museum, which are the repository of the history of the kings of Benares and, since the 18th century, has been the home of the Kashi Naresh (King of Kashi). Even today the Kashi Naresh is deeply revered by the people of Varanasi. He is a religious leader and the people of Benares consider him an incarnation of Lord Shiva, He is also the chief cultural patron and an essential part of all religious celebrations.

Be it the Kashi Vishwanath temple,  the legendary Ghats of Kashi, or the thousands of years of history and culture of this city, Varanasi is a place to be experienced and cherished first hand.

Varanasi (Kashi) – The Holy City of India

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