The majesty of one of Hyderabad’s great palaces was in danger of being lost for ever, says Bridget Stott, until a modern-day princess transformed it into a hotel
‘PRINCELY ERA FADES INTO HISTORY. President withdraws recognition. Immediate abolition of purses, privileges. New Delhi, Monday — The presidential order “derecognising” all the princes and thereby ending their privy purses and privileges had been made with immediate effect… With this stroke of the official pen, the centuries-old princely order passes into history.’
So blared the Indian newspaper The Statesman on 8 September 1970 from its front page: Indira Gandhi had succeeded in shedding one more layer of tradition which sat heavily (and expensively) upon independent India, a necessary modernisation. Even though they have no political power any more, the titles of these ‘derecognised’ princes are still evocative: the Maharaja of Jaipur, the Begums of Bhopal and, of course, the Nizams of Hyderabad.
These royal Muslim rulers amassed fabulous wealth and prominence as successive generations presided over a huge slice of the Deccan — once India’s richest princely state — from 1719 until independence. The Nizams were made rich by excavations from the vast stores of minerals and diamonds within the Golconda reserve of this central Indian city and they used their wealth fabulously, creating palaces and hidden treasures.
The ‘City of Pearls’ has moved on, of course. Hyderabad is now riding high on a surge of hi-tech prosperity, with Microsoft, Oracle, Infosys, Dell and Facebook all setting up shop. The largest movie-making facility in the world, Ramoji Film City, aka Tollywood, lies just outside town. Nevertheless, its history is never far away, especially now that one of the Nizams’ palaces has been restored and opened as a hotel.
Of all the Nizams who governed Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan (1886-1967) was the most extravagant. Once regarded as the richest man in the world, Ali Khan built palaces, owned hundreds of racehorses and employed 3,000 bodyguards. He was rumoured to have kept £100 million of gold and silver bullion, millions of rupees, emeralds, rubies and enormous Golconda diamonds valued at £400 million unattended and unlocked in vaults at his main residence, Chowmahalla Palace, now a beautifully restored museum.
Ali Khan may have stashed his vast fortune at Chowmahalla, but the smaller and equally sumptuous Falaknuma Palace is where he chose to entertain foreign dignitaries, including Tsar Nicholas II and King Edward VII and Queen Mary, on a truly lavish scale. Falaknuma, known as ‘Mirror of the Sky’, occupies a secluded hilltop position with far-reaching views over Hyderabad. It took ten years to build and was considered the most opulent palace in the world when it opened in 1894.
Falaknuma remained the property of the Nizam until the subsuming of Hyderabad into independent India. Closed by the Indian government in 1951, its doors remained sealed (with wax!) for the next 50 years. Then, in 2000, with the building close to dereliction, Ali Khan’s daughter-in-law, Turkish socialite Princess Esra, stepped in.
Collaborating with the Taj Hotels Group, the princess oversaw the meticulous restoration of every rotten floorboard, termite-chewed balustrade, cracked marble plinth, festering carpet and fetid corner, employing experts from around the world to ensure it was returned to what was historically correct. Take the carpet in the Nizam’s study: it was replaced with one woven in New Zealand that was dyed 300 times to ensure the colours exactly matched the original.
The entire project cost £19 million and Falaknuma re-opened as a Taj luxury palace hotel in November 2010. Shimmering with all its jaw-dropping, imperial extravagance once again, it certainly provides Hyderabad with the destination hotel it deserves.
Falaknuma may now be a top hotel, but it’s also a stately home and museum. You can explore the private family rooms on the ground floor before ascending the grandly carved teak staircase to wander its retina-dazzling formal spaces. Unlike most stately homes, it’s free from roped-off areas and ‘Keep Out’ signs.
You can sit at the head of the longest table in the world (pictured left), seating 101, in the colossal banqueting hall and imagine a party in full swing within the stunning ballroom, or puff on the Nizam’s old hookah pipe in the smoking room and pot a few balls at the original snooker table. And then there’s the beautiful, Chinoiserie-style Jade Room, the place to linger on a hot afternoon to sip tea while admiring the seamlessly restored gilded ceilings and intricately patterned marquetry floors.
The hour-long guided tour with the palace historian, Prabhakar Mahindrakar, takes in the history of the buildings and its rare treasures. Indian and European antiques, carved teak and rosewood ceilings and huge, English-made Osler chandeliers are just some of the fabulous pieces on display in their original setting. In the library, an exact replica of the one at Windsor Castle, the shelves are stocked with rare antique books and ancient manuscripts from the Nizam’s personal collection. Best of all, you can complete your entry in the visitors’ book at the Nizam’s own desk.
From here, you can head to one of the Falaknuma’s two excellent restaurants, serving fine imperial Hyderabadi or Italian dishes, created using original recipes and menus found at the palace and prepared by award-winning head chef Ashfer Biju. Breakfast is served on the terrace of the main palace building with wonderful views over the city.
Falaknuma’s 60 bedrooms and suites lie adjacent to the main palace building. Shaded beneath colonnaded terraces or edging pretty courtyards, each is individually decorated in seriously glamorous, film-starry style. Pastel-coloured silks, hand-painted walls, palatial beds, marble-tiled bathrooms with Venetian-mirrored walls, walk-in wardrobes and very high ceilings add much to the sense of luxury central to the Falaknuma experience. If you hire a personal butler, he will run you a fragrant rose-petal bath, organise rides in open-top carriages drawn by Arab stallions and place bracelets of fresh jasmine flowers on your wrist as you head out for the day. It’s an attempt to recapture a few experiences from the Nizams’ lives, and it works beautifully.
At sunset, the west-facing, glass-ceilinged Gol Bungalow is the place to sip a delicious jasmine martini while gazing over pink skies and the twinkling lights of the old city, the call to prayer blaring from a hundred minarets. Like the palace itself, this is a romantic and secluded spot that’s just small enough to feel comfortably part of, rather than overwhelmed by, the remarkable grandeur surrounding you.
Three nights at Taj Falaknuma from £1,475pp in a Palace Room on a B&B basis, including return flights with British Airways to Hyderabad and airport transfers.
Book through Abercrombie & Kent: 0845 618 2174, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk
Archive photographs by Jack Birns/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Bridget Stott is a freelance writer and design fanatic