Although Andhra Pradesh occupies a great swathe of eastern India, stretching more than 1200km along the coast from Orissa to Tamil Nadu and reaching far inland from the fertile deltas of the Godavari and Krishna rivers to the semi-arid Deccan Plateau, most foreign travellers simply pass through en route to its more attractive neighbours. This is understandable, as places of interest are few and far between, but the sights Andhra Pradesh does have are absorbing enough to warrant at least a brief stop-off.
Now a major hi-tech hub, the capital, Hyderabad, is an atmospheric city with lively bazaars, the eclectic Salar Jung Museum and the mighty Golconda Fort. Warangal, 150km northeast, has Muslim and Hindu remains from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while the region’s Buddhist legacy is preserved in museums at sites such as Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati. In the east, the city of Vijayawada has little to recommend it, though it is a convenient access-point for Amaravati. Similarly, in the northeast, the fast-growing city of Visakhapatnam is little more than a handy place to break up a long trip. By contrast, the temple town of Tirupati in the far southeast is a fascinating, impossibly crowded pilgrimage site. In the southwest, Puttaparthy attracts a more international pilgrim crowd, who still flock to the ashram of the late spiritual leader Sai Baba.
Although modern industries have grown up around the capital, and shipbuilding, iron and steel are important on the coast, most people in Andhra Pradesh remain poor. Away from the Godavari and Krishna deltas, where the soil is rich enough to grow rice and sugar cane, the land is in places impossible to cultivate, which has contributed to the desperate plight of many farmers.
The earliest accounts of the region, from the third century BC, refer to a people known as the Andhras. The Satavahana dynasty (second century BC to second century AD), also known as the Andhras, came to control much of central and southern India from their second capital at Amaravati on the Krishna. They enjoyed extensive international trade and were great patrons of Buddhism. Subsequently, the Pallavas, the Chalukyas and the Cholas all held sway. By the thirteenth century, the Kakatiyas of Warangal were under constant threat from Muslim incursions, while later on, after the fall of their city at Hampi, the Hindu Vijayanagars transferred operations to Chandragiri near Tirupati.
The next significant development was in the mid-sixteenth century, with the rise of the Muslim Qutb Shahi dynasty. In 1687, the son of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb seized Golconda. Five years after Aurangzeb died in 1707, Hyderabad’s viceroy declared independence and established the Asaf Jahi dynasty of nizams. In return for allying with the British against Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the nizam dynasty was allowed to retain a certain degree of autonomy even after the British had come to dominate India.
During the Independence struggle, harmony between Hindus and Muslims in Andhra Pradesh disintegrated. Partition brought matters to a climax, as the nizam wanted to join other Muslims in the soon-to-be-created state of Pakistan. In 1949 the capital erupted in riots, the army was brought in and Hyderabad state was admitted to the Indian Union. Andhra Pradesh state was created in 1956 from Telugu-speaking regions (although Urdu is widely spoken in Hyderabad) that had previously formed part of the Madras Presidency on the east coast and the princely state of Hyderabad to the west. Today almost ninety percent of the population is Hindu, with Muslims largely concentrated in the capital.
In 1999, the pro-business Telugu Desam party eventually wrestled the power long held by Congress, and over the following five years there was huge development around Hyderabad, most famously, HITEC City. However, rural areas – where drought and economic crisis led to thousands of farmer suicides – were neglected. In 2004 Congress regained control of the state government, although they were also criticized for not doing enough to help farmers, and suicides have continued with alarming frequency, though the numbers fell in 2012.
In December 2009, following a high-profile hunger strike, the Indian government surprisingly bowed to pressure from the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) party and announced plans to carve a new state, Telangana, out of northwestern Andhra Pradesh. Although welcomed by TRS supporters who claimed their region had long been neglected, the decision sparked widespread protests, strikes and political resignations. The Indian government subsequently set up a commission to examine the practicalities of the issue and a formal decision had still not been announced in early 2013, where there was a further wave of violent clashes in Hyderabad.