The Hyderabad Rocks That Predate The Himalayas

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Hyderabad rocks in Banjara Hills that are older than the Himalayas. Image: 7MB
The localities of Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills are home to rock formations, billions of years in the making.

Every city has its foci – points of interest that define a bit of its soul. Hyderabad has to its West, the silicon city of Cyberabad, to its east, the Old City of Charminar. But in the hills in its midst, one foci stands out.

The rocks of Jubilee Hills and Banjara Hills date back two-and-a-half billion years – several times older than the Himalayas themselves. You can see them, perched precariously atop the hills to be glimpsed in between houses and apartment complexes.

These hills are some of the most expensive pin-codes in the country today. Following independence, the area became a hub for the rich and famous. The glamour they brought outshone the old-school charm of the rocky outcrops – which stood guard here for nearly half the age of the planet itself.

If the city’s monuments and stars have tales to tell, the rocks have volumes. Their names reflect their visual quirks – Bear’s nose, Skull Rock, Hamburger Rock, Toadstool.

The rocks are familiar with historical break-ups. The oldest, dating to 2.5 billion years ago, would have existed in a radically different planet to what we know today. The Proterozoic era was when oxygen levels in the planet started to increase – killing many bacteria and species that found it toxic.

Much before the modern shape of the world’s continents were Pangea – a giant supercontinent that had most of the world’s surface area. When Pangea broke apart, India was part of one of the larger chunks called Gondwana.

The breakaway of India from Gondwana, around 200 million years ago, was when some of the later rocks were formed. Over 65 million years ago, in the wake of the cataclysmic event that killed the dinosaurs, nearly half of India was covered in magma. The waves of lava flowed as high as 2000 metres, leaving a distinct footprint of volcanic rock in their wake. Spread across 500,000 kilometres, this footprint is known as the Deccan Traps – among the largest of its kind in the world.

Scientists studying this event suspect that it may have played a role in driving the dinosaurs to extinction, depending on how quickly the magma was released (and therefore, how fast its poisonous gases would have spread).

The rocks are the product of millennia of forces and events. Across Hyderabad, those that remain, are poised in picturesque formations – some balancing on each other, other’s standing out by their smooth ovoidal shapes.

Until the 1920s, these rocks were largely left alone to witness the unfolding history of the earth. But in recent times, they’ve become victims of growing urbanisation. Hoarding and posters have been put up, and often, the rocks are broken into gravel to make new constructions.

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An image showing the extent of urbanisation that decimated Hyderabad’s rocks. Image: 7MB

Banjara Hills, once a wild-land where families came for ‘shikhar’ (hunting) and picnics, started being ‘colonized’ in the 1920s, according to Narendra Luther, one of the city’s leading rock activists. A prince, Nawab Mehdi Nawaz Jung, himself built a house in the area – but managed to do so without disrupting the rocks. Among his guests was Rabindranath Tagore, who penned the following lines about the hills:

From the distance thou didst appear
barricaded in rocky aloofness
Timidly I crossed the rugged path
to find here all of a sudden
An open invitation in the sky
and friends embrace in the air
In an unknown land the voice that
seemed ever known
Revealed to me a shelter of loving intimacy

His successors, India’s non-monarchic urban planners, were not so gentle. The rocks were blown apart to make room for new buildings. By the time Narendra Luther and the ‘Save the Rocks’ movement had emerged, much had already been lost – stone replaced by concrete.

Starting in 1996, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has started awarding some of these structures the status of natural heritage sites. A movement is on to include rock formation in the list of sites needing conservation and preservation, as stated by the Telangana Heritage (Protection, Preservation, Conservation, and Maintenance) Act.

A growing pool of citizens have realized the value the rocks give the city. The city once had a rich heritage of caves and rock formations – home to other species like bats and lizards. These citizens now conduct walks and hikes to appreciate the city’s rocks. Luckily, some of the rock formations that remain are still breathtaking, the tortoise rock in particular. A list of them is available here.

Some have even taken their love of rocks to their homes. Rock activist and former IAS officer, Narendra Luther, made the rocks a part of his house, when he built one in Banjara hills many years ago. The rocky outcrop is a part of the living room – as much at home in a modern apartment as a fireplace. Elsewhere, other architects and institutes have also tried the same – harmonizing home and nature in stone.

Those who grew up in the city remember a time where a rocky outing to Banjara Hills was a chance to see eagles, snakes and even monitor lizards. The locals appreciated the art of the stones, and there was even an art nouveau museum – which has since been taken down and replaced with a mall (featuring a Hard Rock Cafe, ironically).

Adventurers willing to climb a little can still glimpse some of the city’s finer rocks. But it remains to be seen whether man’s apathy will prove to be more damaging than the last four billion years.

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