Hyderabad was India’s largest and most prosperous princely state, ruled from 1724 until 1948 by a succession of Nizams from the Asaf Jahi dynasty. During the British Raj, Hyderabad State covered an area of about 2,14,190 sq km and the Nizam was the premier Indian prince to be accorded the 21 gun salute. Architecture, art, literature and the culinary arts flowered in Hyderabad, and Persian culture was promoted in the city. The Nizams were also responsible for developing a robust infrastructure of railways, roads, airport, educational institutions, electricity, reservoirs and waterworks. The last of the Hyderabadi rulers, whose treasures can now be viewed in the city’s museums, built many impressive buildings in the city. The wealth of the Nizam of Hyderabad, Nizam Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah, was beyond imagination – he is reputed to have been the richest man in the world. Over the last decade, some of Hyderabad’s heritage buildings have been restored and renovated, offering tourists a glimpse of the grandeur of the Nizam’s princely era.
We arrived at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad by a morning flight and drove out to Taj Falaknuma Palace. Built in 1872, this was once one of the most opulent of the Nizam’s palaces and is now a luxurious palace hotel run by Taj Palace. From an impressive gate, the driveway wound up to the parking area where we boarded a Victorian-style horse-drawn carriage for a short ride to the palace entrance. The palace presents a Palladian façade, while the areas around the courtyards are an ensemble of Indo-Saracenic domes and cupolas. Entering the palace we were awe-struck by the lavish interiors – the front rooms, including what is now the hotel lobby, have hand-tooled Florentine leather ceilings, French furniture and tapestries, porcelain, European chandeliers, stained glass and stunning marble statues with a fountain as the centerpiece, marble urns and wall murals.
After our check-in formalities, a person agreed to take us on a palace tour. He guided us up a grand stairway with carved balustrades and marble figurines in the form of Grecian goddesses bearing lamps that light the way to a landing with portraits of the original owners which offers access to banqueting rooms – one of the dining rooms has an elegant 108 ft long teak table which can seat 101 diners, which we were told is the longest single piece table in the world. Around it are other rooms full of objets d’art, antiques and European furniture. The Durbar Hall is another majestic room with European mirrors and Venetian chandeliers. The ballroom contains a two-ton manually operated organ said to be the only one of its kind in the world. The Nizam entertained important guests like King George V and Queen Mary, the Archduke of Austria, Lord and Lady Curzon, Tsar Nicholas II and Indian dignitaries in this palace. Today, these dining rooms are used to host private banquets and dinners, including those that recreate the elegance and culinary riches of the erstwhile Hyderabad Princely State. Actor Salman Khan recently hosted the lavish wedding of his sister Alvira here.
Returning to the lobby, he took us to see the Grand Presidential Suite which is one of the largest and grandest hotel suites in India, and comes complete with pool and Jacuzzi. Other luxurious accommodation options include the Grand Royal Suites. One of the finest views from the palace can be enjoyed at the Gol Ghar which is a covered terrace with a panorama of the city: you can see domes and piercing minarets from high up over the rest of Hyderabad. He showed us handmade tapestries, French brocades, royal portraits, beautifully crafted, inlaid furniture from Kashmir, porcelain, objet d’art, crockery, smoking rooms, pools, ballrooms, croquet lawns, gardens, turret rooms, stables, the library which has teak and rosewood book-lined walls housing thousands of books, the billiards room with a table, built specially for the Nizam by Burroughs and Watts from London, and carved leather furniture.
After breakfast, we drove out to see Hyderabad’s most iconic landmark, the Charminar. The signature building of the Qutb Shahi dynasty is said to have been the place where Sultan Muhammad Quli Shah saw the dancer Bhagmati, who became his mystic Hindu queen. Another local tale says it was built by the Sultan to commemorate the end of an epidemic. The four graceful minarets resting on the triumphal arch have spiral staircases leading to their upper stories, with a rooftop mosque which was Hyderabad’s first but now is not in use. The entire structure is yellow in colour, because the stucco plaster is said to contains gram, eggs and marble powder. Around the Charminar, the markets of Lad Bazzar and Mehboob Chowk bustle with people. We walked through rows of shops selling bangles and pearl necklaces. Lad Bazaar is where families come to shop for an impending wedding – this historical marketplace has shops selling bangles, tinsel, jewellery, rosewater, perfume oils called attar, embroidery, brocades, silk saris, turbans, henna, herbs, spices, clothing for brides and grooms, and a variety of decorative items for weddings. Nearby is the medieval Mecca Masjid, a huge mosque made from bricks from Mecca and black granite, where many Nizams are entombed. The Unani Hospital for traditional medicines in this part of the city was built by the last Nizam, a patron of this school of Persian and Arabic traditional medicine that is linked also to ancient Greek texts. Another interesting sight is artisans beating silver and other metals into fine foil sheets called varkh for garnishing sweets.
Just behind the Charminar, Chowmallah Palace was the residence of the Nizams of Hyderabad, in the heart of the city. Believed to take inspiration from the Shah of Iran’s palace in Tehran, Chowmallah was founded in 1750 and buildings were added over about a century. The palace is entered through a courtyard with four buildings around a pool. We entered the Khilwat Palace where the Durbar hall, which has ornate stucco work and spectacular Belgian chandeliers. Inside the palace, we saw the outstanding collections of textiles and wardrobes, and the display of historical photographs. In other parts of the palace complex, we saw the photographic gallery showing landmarks of the dynastic rule of the Nizams in chronological order, a superb collection of arms and armour, and the historical manuscripts. A guide told us that the Turkey born princess, Esra Birgin, wife of Barkat Ali Khan Mukarram Jah Asaf Jah VIII, undertook the restoration of the palaces of Hyderabad from the year 2000. She received the UNESCO Asia Pacific Merit award for cultural heritage conservation on behalf of the Chowmahalla Palace. It also houses some of the Nizam’s cars, including a ceremonial Rolls Royce coach built by Barker, which arrived in Hyderabad in 1912.
We drove down Pathergatti Road to the 1594 AD Badshahi Ashurkhana, which glows with mosaics of exquisite yellow, turquoise and orange enamel tiles, gold and silver standards, and precious stone studding on surfaces. We turned from here to Purani Haveli, a 19th century complex of classical style building. Among the buildings, Massarat Mahal has been opened as a museum. The gigantic wooden wardrobe, built on two levels with a hand-cranked wooden elevator, covers an entire wing of the U-shaped palace, and houses beautiful brocades and gorgeous costumes of the Nizam. Part of the palace is now The Nizam’s Museum. Looking down at the city at night from Gol Banglow, the rooftop, with its cool breeze, with live ghazals and qawwali rending the air, while sipping on a nightcap, was a fine end to our trip in the land of Nawabs.