A Treasure Trove Of Knowledge: The History & Legacy Of Hyderabad's Asafia Library

The facade of Asafia Library in Hyderabad.
Hyderabad's Asafia Library is not just a repository of books, but a window into Hyderabad's cultural evolution over a century.Telangana Today

Often in moments of quiet solitude, I wonder how much literary wealth we lost when the Library of Alexandria burned down. Then I find solace in the fact that even in this fast-paced digital world, some magnificent libraries have stood the test of time and Hyderabad’s State Central Library definitely falls under that category.

Nestled on the banks of the Musi River in Hyderabad, this majestic edifice with a rich history, stands as a testament to the city's vibrant intellectual heritage. Known as the Asafia Library until 1955 (now known as the State Central Library of Hyderabad), it's not just a repository of books, but a window into Hyderabad's cultural evolution over a century.

The story begins in 1891, a time when Hyderabad, under the Nizam's rule, was a center of learning and scholarship. Recognizing the need for a premier library, a scholar named Syed Hussain Bilgrami donated his personal collection, laying the foundation for the Asafia Library. The library flourished under the patronage of the Nizams, becoming a haven for bibliophiles and researchers.

The grand architecture of the library was a courtesy of the architect, Aziz Ali’s vision. It boasts an imposing facade and sprawling interiors. The experience begins with the very entrance – a grand staircase that wouldn't look out of place in a prestigious university library. Stepping inside, one is greeted by soaring ceilings lined with shelves overflowing with knowledge. The silence is punctuated only by the gentle turning of pages and the murmurs of focused readers.

The library's heart lies in its unparalleled collection. Over 500,000 books and magazines reside here, some dating back centuries. Rare palm-leaf manuscripts whisper tales of a bygone era, while historical newspapers offer glimpses into the city's past. The collection encompasses a vast array of subjects - science, technology, medicine, literature, law, history, and world politics – catering to the diverse intellectual pursuits of its patrons. Remarkably, the library embraces multilingualism, housing treasures not just in Telugu, Urdu, Maratha, and Kannada but also in French, Italian, Portuguese, Bengali, and Tamil, reflecting the linguistic diversity of the population of the princely state of Hyderabad.

The Asafia Library fostered an invaluable culture of reading. The sprawling lawns in the courtyard offered a tranquil space for readers to lose themselves in a book, while dedicated reading halls provided a haven for focused study. The library actively promoted literacy by offering memberships and fostering a community of readers from all walks of life. This culture continues even today and if you visit the library, you will encounter like-minded individuals, students, and researchers engrossed in their studies.

However, time has not been kind to this grand institution. Years of neglect took a toll, and the library fell into a state of disrepair. Thankfully, there's a new chapter unfolding. In 2023, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) initiated a restoration project, recognizing the library's significance. The project, estimated to cost ₹7.35 crore, aims to preserve the heritage value of the building while addressing its structural needs. Traditional methods will be used to restore the architectural features, ensuring the library regains its former glory. The restoration is expected to be completed within 17 months and will also have a digital portal containing 5,550 rare books, including Urdu, Persian, and Arabic as well as English.

The Asafia Library's story is one of resilience and enduring love for knowledge. It stands as a symbol of Hyderabad's rich literary heritage and its unwavering commitment to learning. As the restoration breathes new life into this architectural gem, the Asafia Library is poised to continue its legacy as a treasure trove on the Musi; serving generations of readers to come.