The Saifabad Curse
The Government of Telangana has commissioned a new Secretariat building amid a pandemic. Yes, amid a global crisis. This blog is not critical of the decisions of the state but a protest against the planned and systematic erasure of the city’s prized legacy and heritage. Reminder: Living in a democracy, voicing dissent is not seditious.
A secretariat is an administrative office for various departments of governance in a state. The Telangana state portal states there are 32 departments based on the rules of business, from which the business of state governance is transacted. The official head of each department is the secretary to the government. These departments range from Agriculture, Fisheries, Animal Husbandry to Education and Healthcare. The previous secretariat housed all of these departments and everything functioned effortlessly. The same secretariat complex even housed governments of two states for a brief period after the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. The building was to be shared in the ratio 58:42 by both the states which will continue till 2024 as per the Act and was to be transferred to Telangana in 2024. However, an interim secretariat for the state of Andhra Pradesh was inaugurated in Amravati in 2016 and the government vacated the Saifabad Secretariat to occupy the newly built interim facility in Amravati. Telangana had the entire secretariat complex to itself since Andhra Pradesh moved out. It was only a matter of time when there were concerns of Vaastu (traditional Indian science of architecture) in the existing buildings of the secretariat. The government, a firm believer in Vaastu, had vacated the G block (Saifabad Palace) or the Peshi, a Nizam era structure and plans to replace it with a Vaastu-compliant structure were drawn up. Our leader is a great optimist to believe that building a new block on the existing site would lift the curse (if it exists).
"Definitely this secretariat has bad Vaastu. History is proof that no-one has prospered because of this. Let Telangana not suffer," the Chief Minister said.
The Saifabad Palace or the G block was built during the reign of Nizam VI Mir Mahboob Ali Khan Bahadur in 1888. A couple of Nobles under the Nizam had ulterior motives towards Saifabad Palace and conspired to shoo away the Nizam from occupying it. It is said, “Mahboob Ali Pasha, was on his way to inspect the construction of the palace in what was then the kingdom of Hyderabad.
The two nobles ensured that a monitor lizard crossed his path - a bad omen.” The superstitious Nizam had the Palace locked up immediately. It was not until the 1940s that the building was reopened to house the State secretariat of the Nizam’s dominions. The Hyderabad state ‘fell’ soon after this in September of 1948. It appears that this notion has carried itself into the 21st century when the head of the Government had deemed the structure ‘unlucky’ for the establishment and the state. In early July 2020, the High court of Telangana had cleared the path for the demolition of the secretariat buildings at Saifabad. It took many by surprise when the demolition was done on a war-footing amid a raging pandemic. There were restrictions on the travel of people along the routes of the Secretariat and no media was allowed to cover the demolition. The move was so swift that the buildings were razed down even before people could realise what was happening. If times were ‘normal’, had there been no pandemic, there sure would have been opposition to the move. The decision would have been met by protests by heritage enthusiasts as well as whatever is left of the political opposition in the state. But thanks to the pandemic and its lockdown, the demolition was swift and efficient. The Telugu Talli flyover was closed as it provided a clear view of the Secretariat. With religious and educational institutions closed, no one could access the Birla Mandir or the Birla Science Complex on Naubat Pahad that offers a birdseye view of the immediate surroundings. In just one day the Saifabad Palace was lost forever, it was not even properly documented as it was off-limits of the general public and access to it would have only been possible through deep contacts in the bureaucracy.
There was outrage on the internet, where citizens and the opposition expressed disappointment over the priorities of the authorities amid a health crisis. On July 11, the Telangana High Court stayed the demolition until 13 July due to a PIL filed by the opposition. The High Court later cleared the demolition once again and the state went ahead with it. In addition to the controversy, two mosques and a temple in the secretariat complex were ‘accidentally’ demolished by the authorities. The incident infuriated both communities and the Chief Minister had expressed grief over the erasure of the three places of worship. While activists cried foul-play, the government had announced that a new temple and a mosque will be built in the new campus, however, these announcements were not reflected in the plans submitted by Oscar and Ponni Architects, the designers of the new secretariat. The new Secretariat is going to cost upwards of 400 crore rupees to the tax-payer. A common question among all groups is the necessity of a swanky new secretariat when the healthcare is struggling to cope with the pandemic despite a 76-day lockdown aimed at strengthening the medical sector in the fight against the virus. A 400 crore investment in healthcare would be directly beneficial to the common man. There were theories drawn by people that the state is after a Nizam-era treasure under the Saifabad Palace and hence the demolition was carried out in secrecy. The media was let inside the razed complex filled in congested buses and semi-trucks ignoring social distancing protocols, that too after 90% demolition was completed.
The approved design of the new Secretariat, designed in the previously non-existent 'Deccan Kakatiya' style. The architects later issued a contradictory statement that the design is inspired by the Thousand Pillar temple in Warangal and not inspired by Asaf Jahi Architecture.
After injustice to heritage, places of worship, healthcare and taxpayer money, one might think the disappointments have passed. Sadly, the new design drafted by Oscar and Ponni architects was abysmal, to be polite. It is a greater injustice to the Hyderabad aesthetic than all of the above factors combined. The initial images of the new building circulated on social media platforms resembled the Osmania General Hospital building. The new Secretariat appeared to be a spitting image of OGH with a couple of tweaks. The designers and architects of the city were appalled by the odd-looking Venetian dome and landscaped Italian gardens. Oscar and Ponni architects have claimed the building is an amalgamation of Telangana’s many cultures and termed it as a piece of ‘Deccan Kakatiya’ style. For the laymen, it makes no difference but for the enthusiasts, it is infuriating and unjust. Also, the new building is supposed to be 278 feet high, for your reference, the Charminar is 183 feet high, the tallest dome at Qutb Shahi Necropolis is 196 feet high and the Taj Mahal is 240 feet high. Yes, the new secretariat will be larger in scale than the Taj Mahal. Nowhere in the Deccan can one find a building that appears to have 7 floors and still manage to be 278 feet tall. The scale of the building does not match with any other building neither in Kakatiya style nor in the Qutub Shahi/Asaf Jahi. It would be awkward to see a gigantic Venetian dome rising from Saifabad when one stands at the Tank Bund. It would be much more atrocious at night when the skyline would be lit up but all attention would be grabbed by a humongous Italian Taj Mahal illuminated in flashy RGB colours in the backdrop of a faint pearly Birla Mandir.
"We are sometimes eager to celebrate the influence of our surroundings. In the living room of a house in the Czech Republic, we see an example of how walls, chairs and floors can combine to create an atmosphere in which the best sides of us are offered the opportunity to flourish. We accept with gratitude the power that a single room can possess.
But sensitivity to architecture also has its more problematic aspects. If one room can alter how we feel, if our happiness can hang on the colour of the walls or the shape of a door, what will happen to us in most of the places we are forced to look at and inhabit? What will we experience in a house with prison-like windows, stained carpet tiles and plastic curtains?"
-The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton
The new building is a misfit, an alien. It does not belong to our city, a state that fought for its statehood because of misrepresentation must know better. Hyderabad deserves better.