Hyderabad or Bhagyanagar: What’s in the Name?

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In India, the demand for renaming places has always created controversy. The latest demand is by a section of RSS and BJP leaders to rename Hyderabad as ‘Bhagyanagar’. Apparently, it is claimed that this was the original ‘Hindu’ name of the settlement before it became known as ‘Hyderabad’.

So what is the truth behind ‘Bhagyanagar’ vs ‘Hyderabad’? There are two different threads to this story.

Sultan Quli Qutub Shah | Wikimedia Commons

First, according to a popular and oft-repeated legend in Hyderabad, the old name ‘Bhagyanagar’ or ‘Bhagnagar’ was derived from Bhagmati, a beautiful courtesan who went on to marry Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah (1565-1612 CE) the fifth Sultan of the Golconda Sultanate. The story goes that once, while riding, the young Prince Quli Qutub Shah saw a beautiful young woman named ‘Bhagmati’ in a village called ‘Chichlam’ on the other side of the Musi River.

Prince Quli, madly in love, would cross the Musi River to meet her, and once almost drowned when the river had swelled during the monsoon. Disapproving of their love, the Prince’s father Sultan Ibrahim Qutub Shah even imprisoned the young Prince in Golconda fort, where Quli penned several poems in captivity for his lady love.

Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah and Bhagmati | Wikimedia Commons

On the death of his father, Quli Qutub Shah became the Sultan and he married his lady love Bhagmati. He built a new city called ‘Bhagnagar’ (after Bhagmati), where Chichlam village once stood. Bhagmati accepted Islam and was called ‘Hyder Begum’. As a result the city became known as ‘Hyderabad’.

While this is a fascinating and very romantic story, there is little truth to it. First, there is no historical evidence to prove that Bhagmati actually existed. For instance, if she was indeed such a favoured queen of the Sultan, there would have been a grand tomb in her honour, and there is none. Nor is there any contemporary record to corroborate her existence.

Beyond romantic stories, the truth is that the origins of Hyderabad city are rooted in something more practical - urban town planning. City historian Sajjad Shahid, in an interview to Live History India revealed the story behind the name ‘Bhagnagar / Hyderabad’.

From the 14th century CE onwards, the Golconda kingdom was the only known source of diamonds in the world, which were found on the bed of the Krishna River. The fabled diamonds of Golconda attracted traders from all over the world, making it a hub of international trade and commerce.

The wealth of Golconda brought in a vast influx of people seeking opportunities and this made it a crowded and congested city by the mid-16th century CE. The overcrowding and lack of sanitation also meant that the city was plagued by epidemics. Much like the current phenomenon in modern Indian cities, where the wealthy tend to build large ‘farmhouses’ away from the metropolis, Golconda’s elite too began to build ‘garden houses’ or ‘baghs’ away from the city. And so, across the Musi River, along the highway to Machilipatnam, the chief port of the Golconda kingdom, a new township developed which was referred to as ‘Bagh Nagar’ or ‘Town of Gardens’, which later became just ‘Bhagnagar’.

In the 1580s CE, when Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah decided to build a new capital city, he chose this ‘Baghnagar’, due to its location on the highway and abundance of water. Under the guidance of his Prime Minister, Mir Momin Astrabadi, a new planned city was built in 1591 CE and named ‘Hyderabad’ or the ‘City of Hyder’, Hyder being one of the names of Prophet Ali. The Qutub Shahis of Golconda were followers of the Shia faith and the city was named as a tribute to Prophet Ali.

Over the centuries, the story of Sultan Quli Qutub Shah, Bhagmati and the township of ‘Baghnagar’ took on a life of its own, as folklore and local legend. It was retold in so many ways that it became hard to tell truth from myth.

But what seemed like a beautiful love story took a different turn with the emergence of religious politics in India in the early 20th century and that brings in the second thread of this story.

In the 1920s, India was torn apart by communal politics like never before and Hyderabad was no exception. Hyderabad was a princely state ruled by the Nizams, while the population was predominantly Hindu. But the Muslims, who were just 2 per cent of the population, held around 80 per cent of all positions in the government. This not only created a sense of resentment among the Hindu majority, but the fear of losing their privileges also created a sense of insecurity among the Muslim elite and the middle classes.

Proposed Osmanistan | Wikimedia Commons

To counter demands for a democratic representative rule which would obviously favour the majority population, there was an attempt by the Nizam and the establishment to portray Hyderabad as an idealized Islamic state, where Muslims were a ‘Hukumran Qoum’ or the ‘Ruling Race’. When Pakistan was first proposed as an Islamic homeland in the 1930s, there was also a proposal to create ‘Osmanistan’ in the Deccan as a dependency of Pakistan.

Along with the Hyderabad State Congress and the Communists, the Arya Samaj was at the forefront of the opposition to the Nizam’s government in 1930s and ’40s. To counter the narrative of Hyderabad’s ‘Islamic’ identity, the story of ‘Bhagyanagar’ named after ‘Goddess Bhagyalakshmi’ began to gain popularity. In a number of books, pamphlets and publications, the movement began to be referred to as ‘Bhagyanagar Satyagraha’. A parallel narrative was created of an original Hindu city that had to be ‘reclaimed’ from the Muslims.

After India gained independence on 15th August 1947, the Nizam and the Razakars made a bid for Hyderabad’s independence. Due to the recalcitrance of the Nizam and the atrocities carried out by the Razakars, the Indian Army marched into Hyderabad in September 1948 and the Asaf Jahi rule ended.

Bhagyalakshmi Temple | Wikimedia Commons

But the story of ‘Bhagyanagar’ gained new life and a new angle. Right next to the historic Charminar, a new temple dedicated to Goddess Bhagyalakshmi emerged. Old photographs of the Charminar as well as the Archeological Survey of India report, show that no such temple existed prior to the 1960s. In response to a RTI query in 2013, ASI furnished three photographs from its own archives, taken in 1959, 1980 and 2003 showing the south eastern side of Charminar, which corroborates that temple was a later addition. but the temple kept expanding in size, before a court ordered a status quo in 2013. The temple has since become a source of communal conflict in the Old City of Hyderabad. It has also been added to the story of Hyderabad’s name, with several BJP leaders claiming that the temple predates the construction of the Charminar and that the town was named ‘Bhagyanagar’ after Goddess Bhagyalakshmi.

Now, once again, Hyderabad finds itself drawn into a new battle over identity, politics, religion and the troubled spaces where the three intersect.

Cover Image: Principal Street, Hyderabad, British Library

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