Aside from tens of millions of pilgrims, not many people make the trip to Andhra Pradesh. But Andhra’s a place with subtle charms, quiet traditions and a long history of spiritual scholarship and religious harmony. The state is 95% Hindu, but you wouldn’t know it in the capital’s Old City, where Islamic monuments and the call of the muezzin are more ubiquitous than the garlanded, twinkling tableaux of Ganesh. The city’s rich Islamic history announces itself in Hyderabad’s huge, lavish mosques, its opulent palaces and the stately Qutb Shahi tombs – but also, more softly, in a tiny spiral staircase in the Charminar and in the sounds of Urdu floating through the air.
Meanwhile, in the city’s north, a 17.5m-high statue of the Buddha announces another Andhran history: the region was an international centre of Buddhist thought for several hundred years from the 3rd century BC. Andhras were practising the dharma from the time of the Buddha (rumour has it that he even once visited). Today ruins of stupas and monasteries defy impermanence around the state, especially at Amaravathi and Nagarjunakonda.
Travelling here is like a treasure hunt: the jewels have to be earned. The stunning Eastern Ghats near Visakhapatnam only emerge after hours on a broad-gauge line. A family workshop filled with exquisite traditional paintings appears after a meander through Sri Kalahasti. And the most famous wait of all, through a long, holy maze filled with pilgrims at Tirumala, is rewarded with a glimpse of Lord Venkateshwara, who, if you’re lucky, will grant you a wish.