In the heat of April 2018, a group of climbers convene in the Khajaguda Cave area of Hyderabad, laughing as one of them struggles to mount a large granite boulder. They are joined by a cacophony of people and sounds: a group of men playing cricket, sharp hymns announced from the unofficial Jai Meher Baba caves, morning prayers from the nearby mosque. Different beliefs about how to use this land emerge side by side as shattered glass and plastic bags accumulate.

Hyderabad, known for its palaces and spicy food, is rarely spoken of as a rock-climbing destination. Just 400 km away, the small town of Hampi is considered the bouldering Mecca of India by locals and tourists alike. Hyderabad shares Hampi’s terrain—notoriously sharp granite boulders—but is also is home to nearly 7 million people and a budding information technology sector. Despite a massive population, the outdoor adventure community is small and largely encompassed by the Great Hyderabad Adventure Club (GHAC).

Fakhruddin Gutta, or Khajaguda (as it is known to climbers and devotees), forms the center of the climbing community in Hyderabad. It is an exposed hilltop, scattered with some of the oldest granite boulders on the planet, and is located just steps away from looming IT companies and a large, stunningly blue lake. It also forms the backyard of the Lanco Hills development company’s latest additions to the city, an ominous neighbor at best (an encroaching one at worst). Khajaguda is becoming steadily more popular with residents and adventurers, and holds significance to those who spend their time praying in its rock caves, trekking through the meandering trails, or struggling up its sharp walls. However, change is imminent. From either an expanding temple, encroaching lakeside basti (the local term for settlements or slums) or through another ambitious commercial development, Khajaguda will be inevitably changed, if not destroyed.

Public Land

As any Hyderabadi will tell you, the city is rapidly developing. A decade ago, much of Hyderabad was grass and boulders. Many prominent telecom buildings were erected in the last four years. During this development, the city has struggled to achieve preserved status for public spaces and natural history sites. An activist group called the Society to Save Rocks has actively pursued heritage designations for rock sites in Hyderabad for public and historical benefit. Save the Rocks initially thought Khajaguda would be protected by its heritage site designation, which prevented it from becoming a quarry or slum. However the law was repealed by the government and in 2006 the site was rezoned from ‘Recreational’ to a ‘Special Economic Zone.’ Activists and climbers took this to signal the impending commercial development of the area, and the Society to Save Rocks described it as “a crime against nature”. Frauke Quader, founder of the group, explained that the heritage law was repealed in order to be replaced by a more comprehensive framework. She says this explanation is “plausible” but unfortunate, as nothing has since replaced heritage protections.

There have been successful protests to preserve space in the city, the most recent and notable being the KBR Park in Banjara Hills, an upscale neighborhood nestled between the new and old cities. Still, most climbers feel that Khajaguda is not considered important enough to a broader audience for similar support to be shown. To many people, Khajaguda’s destruction is the next logical step in the commercial development of the city. It is the illustrative epicentre of a phenomenon across Hyderabad, where public space is rapidly disappearing. Even Quader expects that many natural formations within Hyderabad will soon be gone.

Bouldering is one of many activities people enjoy in Khajaguda. This boulder has been painted by temple-goers. | Photo: Hyderabad Climbers

Religious Territory

What complicates an already bleak scenario is the presence of three centers of religion: a recently restored Vishnu temple, a mosque (the namesake for Fakhruddin Gutta), and a rock cave where the mystic Jai Meher Baba is told to have meditated.

The Vishnu temple was originally abandoned, hidden by boulders and overgrown weeds. In the past three years, it has been re-established and expanded into a well-attended compound. Brush has been cleared and hiking paths expanded into roads for cars, with street lights lining the path to a dusty parking lot created by breaking up and discarding boulders. A cement road is being laid to allow trucks to bring more materials up the hill.  Rocks have been used as poster boards, covered in white paint that exclaim hymns or directions to the main altar. Those painted are considered especially sacred, and climbers are often berated for mounting them.

There have been several cases across India with religious institutions grabbing public land. Although there have been multiple laws passed across India to prevent temples from encroaching on public space, it is still a common occurrence. The strategy often works. Although the Vishnu temple in Khajaguda has claimed it will not destroy the bigger boulders, there are no guarantees. Quader sees this as a positive development, as Khajaguda faces threats from other developers and individuals. If the consistent presence of temple-goers dissuades further destruction of the space, that would be a good thing.

Rock lovers and adventurers feel differently. A chunk of a popular boulder was recently cut to expand the temple road and some went straight to the police. While Quader empathizes with the younger generation, she advocates a less confrontational approach. “We cannot stop development. We have to coexist, no?” However, she recognizes the government’s reluctance to enter a potential religious conflict if they interfere. One climbers take: “We’ve knocked on all government doors. Nothing can be done.”

Climbers Unwelcome

During a morning climb, a man stops us at the L-rock (the loving name of the learners rock, now partially gone) and speaks to one of the climbers in English. The man sits on a bike, his wife behind him, and his two children poke out between them. The climber explains what we are doing, and the man quickly launches into his main motivation. He tells us that we are disturbing the religious space and bothering wildlife, namely peacocks. The climber responds kindly, explaining that he has been climbing here for the past four years and this season has brought the most peacocks he has ever seen. The man grumbles more before pushing off, unable to argue further.

These scenes are common. Climbers are increasingly being told that their presence in Khajaguda is a disturbance, all the more hypocritical as the Meher Baba caves blast hymns as early as nine AM, with BMW’s and temple-goers scattered in the makeshift parking area in front of the caves. Just a few years ago, climbers trekked up a large hill through thick brush to get to their favorite boulders in Khajaguda. It was the temple that brought cars, lights, and noise; not the climbers.

An Untimely End

The temple is quickly expanding, and climbers expect to be excluded from most areas of Khajaguda in a matter of months. Only time will tell if this is true, and there is reason to believe that at least parts can be preserved. Quader trusts that those who run the temple do value the natural landscape, at least more than those who have attempted to turn the hill into a quarry. Envisioning a Khajaguda without so many of its iconic boulders is painful, but to some it is a surprise that the area might continue to exist at all.

While I am unable to find reason to rejoice, I encourage everyone—climbers, hikers, nature enthusiasts—to visit Khajaguda, if to witness its natural grandeur before it irrevocably altered. While there are other protected zones to climb in, like Gun Rock in Secunderabad, or Pandavula Gutta outside the city, Khajaguda is a site to see and will be missed dearly, not least by me.