Thursday, 30 January 2014

Lost in Romance

On a recent trip to India I re-read M.M.Kaye's The Far Pavilions, a beautiful novel of romance and chivalry set in Afghanistan and Rajasthan during the 19th century. It was my fourth trip to India and this time I was visiting neither of these places but, rather, Hyderabad in the Deccan region. Hyderabad was once India's most beautiful city. Indeed, in many ways it still is. Beyond the frenetic markets, the wilderness of traffic, the haze of pollution, not far from the old city, whilst exploring a 16th century fort, I discovered romance. 

The Golconda Fort

The Golconda Fort, situated 11km west of Hyderabad on Shepherd's Hill, projects an atmosphere of long ago intrigue and trysts. Today, it retains a ghostly echo of an exotic and a hint of a dangerous past that lingers in the present. It emanates from thick walls, corridors, deserted rooms, steps, stone carvings and dried up fountains. Romance is trapped within its ruined courtyards, the once heavenly and scented gardens, its intricate harem quarters, and in the sinister great Hall of Judgement where the Nizam would sit on his throne within a stone balcony, high above the populace, ready to pronounce judgements and thus make or destroy the fragile lives summoned into his autocratic presence.

Entry into the Hall

It is easy to remember great Indian epic poetry here, that sourced from history and legends; poetry that contains the markers of history, if embellished; these were poems of bravery, love, great deeds, glory, sacrifice and death.

During the period of the Raj the sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda between them retained control over central and southern India. As William Dalrymple writes in his book, White Moghuls, set in the region:

 'the great city states of the Deccan-like those of Renaissance Italy- were always more eclectic and open to outsiders than even the cosmopolitan Imperial Moghul courts in Agra.'

Relationships between Hindus and Muslims were easier in this region than in the north. For example, middle eastern immigrants from the 16th C on turned the Deccan into the greatest centre of Arabic learning and literary composition beyond their homelands.

Hope Diamond.jpg
The Hope Diamond

The area around Hyderabad was wealthy as it was famous for gem mines. The Hope Diamond was produced here and also the Idol's Eye and the Koh-I-Noor. I am not wealthy enough to purchase diamonds, but I admit it, I did fall for a creamy string of pearls. These are available everywhere and of excellent quality. John Keat's beautiful and reflective poem 'On Receiving a Curious Shell' opens with the lines: Hast thou from the caves of Galkonda, a gem/ pure as the ice-drop that froze on the mountain'.

The beginnings of the fort date to 1143 during the Hindi supremacy. It fell into disrepair until the Moghuls conquered the region around 1507 and as a consequence expanded what was once a mud fort into a massive fort of granite with crenelated ramparts. It is 5 km in circumference. Certainly walking over this ruined fort today is not for those in flipflops or high heels. Wear sensible walking shoes and carry water. There is a long climb up hundreds of steps to the top. Discovering this fort's every interesting nook and ancient corner is impossible. This is not a great loss, since its16th century Moghul architectural beauty is evident in its exterior pavilions, gates, entrances and domes. There are apartments, halls, temples, mosques and stables, all of them haunting ruins.
the fortress covers a huge site

This great fort is known for its magical acoustic system. A sound made at the entrance can be heard a kilometre away at the highest point. It is also believed that there is an underground tunnel that leads from the Durbur Hall to end in one of the palaces at the foot of the hill. I cannot help but wonder could this have been used for secret romances or for narrow escapes from displeasure. Does the fort and its palaces have its own long forgotten  stories reflective of M.M Kaye's famous novel?

The palace buildings have a perfect natural ventilation system with fabulous and exotic designs at every turn. This is so intricately executed that cool breezes can reach the interior of the fort, even during the intense heat of summer. Finally, an incredible water system dating from the 16th C was designed to pipe hot water into the palaces, cold water also and yes, oh yes, ladies, rose water for your pleasure. Now, how sophisticated was this way back in the 16th C.

The Golconda Fort and its palaces tempt one to dream of the past; to imagine tales of long ago lovers. Today the fort is the haunt of romancing couples, though if they are caught they may face strange consequences. It was, for instance, reported in a local paper that one such couple faced a bizarre punishment of enforced press ups when they were caught smooching around the decayed corridors.
The answer is obvious, find a hidden place amongst the ancient stones and do not get caught. The nature of romance and chivalry found in The Far Pavilions may not in the 21st century involve such extremes as suttee but romance is still very alive in The Golconda Fort and I doubt that a few press ups will be any deterrent to what was then and of what it is to be human, namely to love and to be loved.

The Handfasted Wife by
Carol McGrath
published by Accent Press




  1. Carol, I am newly come to your blog and this post caught my imagination and memories. One of my earliest introductions to historical fiction was The Far Pavilions and for a long time after I dreamt of India, its colors and cultures. Very idealized. I envy you your journeys there. I live in the US and that sort of travel is monumental from here. Look forward to your book

  2. Thank you Judith. The Handfasted Wife is on, high in the biographical fiction list there too, and can be ordered from bookshops. The second, The Swan-Daughter is in the edits phase. I have a website too It tells you about the novels and so on. I would love to write one set in India though when I finish this trilogy which is medieval. This was one of my best trips there ever. I now have to read Shadow of the Moon. I never read it.

  3. India had a long medieval phase. Would be a major task to become as familiar with its ways as England's. Still, I'm sure you have the stamina, Carol.

  4. Oooh, do hint what the third novel of the trilogy will be about? A prequel or a sequel?

  5. Katherine Keats-Rohan has just uploaded a copy of her 2012 paper, "The Breton War 1064", to In it she strongly supports the argument that Bishop Odo of Bayeux (who occupied the intersection of clerical and secular power) was merely the recipient of the Tapestry, and that its patron was Stigand, the Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury who was endeavouring to retain his position.

  6. Sorry, the article's title is "The Breton Campaign1064".

  7. The third novel is about King Harold's daughter Gytha who married a Russian prince of Kiev after her exile. It picks up where The Handfasted Wife left off in 1068. It has a title The Betrothed Daughter. Much takes place in the Nordic world.

  8. Ah yes, concurrent with the story of her sister Gunhilda.

    Gytha (acc. wikipedia) died in 1098.

    Though disputed by some academics, Gytha is considered by many to have been the first wife of Vladimir II Monomakh the Grand Duke of Kievan Rus (1053 – 19 May 1125) in its Golden Age, and the mother of five of his sons, born between 1076 and 1083.

    Vladimir was of the House of Rurik, so naturally he has a place in Norse histories, where he is called "Waldemar, King of Ruthenia". He is buried in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.

    Vladimir's second wife Eufimia is thought to have been a Byzantine noblewoman. She died on 11 May 1107.

    The eldest of Vladimir's and Gytha's sons was Mstislav the Great (1076–1132), baptised "Theodore" but called "Harald" in the Norse sagas (presumably in allusion to his maternal grandfather). Mstislav reigned in Novgorod the Great (way up north between Moscow and St Petersburg) and was the last of the rulers of a united Kievan Rus.

    In 1095, Mstislav wed Princess Christina Ingesdotter of Sweden, daughter of King Inge I of Sweden.

    The same year Christina died (1122), Mstislav married Liubava Dmitrievna (the daughter of Dmitry Zavidich, a nobleman of Novgorod). Their daughter Euphrosyne of Kiev (c. 1130 – c. 1193) married King Géza II of Hungary in 1146 and they are ancestors of King Edward III of England.

    Lots of Eastern European history here: with Greeks, Cumans, German Emperors and bizarre scandals. Perhaps a mention of the increasing waves of immigration and military threat from the Steppe (as the Turkish, Mongol and other eastern populations boom). Byzantium's borders were already receding under sustained pressure from the expanding Seljuks.

    Which brings us to the decision of Pope Urban II on 27 November 1095 to call for all to aid the Byzantine empire against the Turks, which with hindsight we know actually undermined the empire.

  9. Keats-Rohan claims that the Ælfgyva scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicts a betrothal. She thinks its Harold's sister (the one called Elgiva in the wikipedia article on Godwin of Wessex), promised (according to WIlliam of Poitiers) to a Norman nobleman. (Which nobleman?)

  10. I am aware of all these theories. Will also look at Swan Daughter blurb. I sort of saw this and will get the website manager to correct it. Thank you. Love the Phoenix idea but in the context of the other two stories The Betrothed Daughter works I think.

  11. "Henry I", by Charles Warren Hollister, quotes some entertaining descriptions of the banished Bishop Odo after his arrival in Normandy in 1088.

    "Odo now prowled the Duchy like a fire-breathing dragon". The "vanquished" and "very angry" found that Prince Henry, a youth in his twenties, was not only Robert Curthose's principal adviser but had become the overlord of lands in western Normandy encompassing the very ramparts of Bayeux.
    Odo was now concerned that Duke Robert be strong enought to repel an invasion by WIlliam II. Having landed ahead of Henry, Odo now convinced Robert, "who stood in great fear of Odo", that Henry and Count Robert de Belleme et de Montgomery had formed a conspiracy with William Rufus against him.

    And so the unsuspecting Prince Henry and Count Robert were arrested, and Henry held in Bayeux itself. Duke Robert now extorted Henry's lands from him (how brave).

  12. Hi Carol. Thanks so much for your kind words about my novel "Odin's Child", which Kristy has just forwarded to me. I notice that you are also a student of medieval Russia so I will be interested in your thoughts about the "Ice Queen," the second novel in the trilogy, which is coming out in November.

  13. I loved your book and for that reason it was hard to do the comments as I wanted to say so much. I can't wait to read the next. I read Russian Studies at Queens Belfast years ago. Kristy will put us properly in touch.