Unlike most other Indian palaces, there are few local motifs at the property that is an amalgam of Tudor and Italian architectural styles. Marble came from Italy, oak from England, fabrics and upholstery from Turkey, and chandeliers and glass from Belgium.
Statues representing Greek mythological characters, gilded frames of British viceroys and high officials, ceilings painted by European artists, French 18th-century Rococo art and interior designs, lanterns from the erstwhile Czechoslovakia, stained glass from Poland and the UK, along with cherubs and handmade Tudor faces on glasses, were appropriately aligned to the interests of the prime minister.
Built over nine years from 1884, Falaknuma set Viqar-ul-Umra back by Rs 40,00,000 — a whistling fortune of an amount back then — and nearly bankrupted him till his brother-in-law, the sixth Nizam, decided to buy off the property. As the story is fondly repeated, the Nizam had come on a day’s visit and never could leave Falaknuma, which literally translates in Urdu as ‘like the sky’ or even ‘mirror in the sky’.
Once adjusted to its overbearing opulence, the challenge is to step out of the Falaknuma Palace. The Nizam, blue blood considered, was merely being human when he decided to stay back. Luxury can be a narcotic dependence and we are only lesser beings.
My room, a high-ceilinged suite, is done up in light pastel shades, handmade artefacts scroll down its walls, its draperies are so richly thick that once drawn, I can remain oblivious to a searing Hyderabad summer day outside. Every inch bears the mark of refinement — soft coloured shades, classy furniture, oakwood floor, the mellow fragrance of scented oil, old-world French windows, and Multani mitti in the lavishly mirrored bathroom.
During my stay, I find premier if not regal company. During the Nizami era, the palace hosted the likes of King George V and Queen Mary, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Windsor, rounded off by the visit of India’s first president, Dr Rajendra Prasad, in 1951 — the last in a long line after which the palace fell into disuse. Esteemed visitors have begun to return since the Taj takeover. The President of Zanzibar is on a visit — he is my neighbour occupying the Taj Falaknuma’s Grand Presidential Suite. What the hotel claims is the largest Presidential suite in the country, and which comes with its own private swimming pool, jacuzzi and a fountain, was not where the Nizam slept. But it was where the last officially-recognised Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan — who graced the cover of Time magazine’s February 1937 issue as the world’s richest man — kept the world-famous Jacob diamond on the study table as a paperweight, an improvement over his father who kept the diamond, currently valued at $100 million, on the toe of his shoe.
The President, followed by a retinue of officials and security detail, leaves for engagements in the city and inspires me to follow suit. The Deccan Odyssey tour of Hyderabad city, designed specifically for guests staying at the Taj Krishna, offers vignettes of life in the old city, for which I shift to the latter hotel for the last two days of my visit.
After life at the palace, Taj Krishna feels closer to reality. It gets even more real when the guide for Deccan Odyssey, Raize Kubra, hauls up an autorickshaw for the tour: the first brush with ‘local flavour’ imagined by the folks at Taj Krishna. The auto winds through the broad and narrow streets, alleys and bylanes of the city that was once the Nizam’s fiefdom. It stops at the foot of the fabled Charminar, built in 1591, and Hyderabad greets us with all its chaotic charm.
Past roads teeming with traffic, hawkers and buyers, we enter the Nimrah Café & Bakery, a place that is only a few decades old but has earned fame enough for a stable future. An elderly Muslim man delicately sips his tea from the saucer as we drink ours from the cup, with Osmania biscuits, which are finely balanced between soft and crunchy, sweet and salty. The biscuits are still warm — staffers provide a constant supply from the oven to the counter to keep up with the demand. Dilkhush buns, with a sweet stuffing of nuts, and the coconut-based khopra biscuits, are not to be missed either.
We are now on the renowned Laad Bazaar, a name, Raize points out, that comes not from its prominent lacquering shops but because the British officers (laat sahebs) would take the road to reach the Chowmahalla Palace. Negotiating past the ‘good price’ summons of shopkeepers selling collections of gaudy and exquisite bangles, we stop at workshops where men gather around a sari doing painstaking zari work by hand. The karchob (hand embroidery) work done on these streets is of such exacting standards that designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Tarun Tahiliani are known to source from here, says a shopkeeper as he displays an impressive selection of zardozi stone work for men, and laces and borders for saris.
The three-hour tour ends like an appetiser of what continues to be the old way of life in Hyderabad, now often overshadowed by the upstart hi-tech and futuristic urbania of Cyberabad. It ends with a flourish as Deccan Odyssey’s guests are led to the Firdaus, Taj Krishna’s Hyderabadi cuisine speciality restaurant, for a grand meal aptly called ‘shaahi daawat’ (royal feast). The fish and mutton kebabs melt in the mouth and the Hyderabadi kacche gosht ki dum biryani — with its rich flavours and succulently marinated meat — tastes delightful.
Earlier, during the Champagne Walk of the Falaknuma with the palace historian, I tried out the royal pose, sitting on the throne of the Nizam at the opulent, velvet-draped Durbar Hall, where 600 diamonds and triangle-shaped wooden panels decorate the floor. I miserably failed to get the angle and arrogance right. While getting a photograph taken, I tried to tilt my head up with a nose-in-the-air intent, but then my glasses reflected the light of the camera’s flash. I tried remembering a bespectacled royal, but alas.
Lunching over kebab and biryani at the Falaknuma’s Indian speciality, city-overlooking restaurant Adaa, I felt an immediate connect with the Nizami lifestyle. That feeling returns while we lunch at Firdaus. Searching for your own kind of royalty, the answer might just be in the food: even if the pose betrays you, the palate might not.
Hyderabad is very well-connected with the rest of India and parts of the world with its international airport and railway junction.