When the palace was being turned into a hotel, and no stone was left unturned to ensure that the future of Falaknuma was as regal as its past, one of the conditions laid down, it is said, by the first wife of the eighth Nizam of Hyderabad, Princess Esra, was that patrons at the hotel should be treated as royal guests. For someone coming from the plebeian plains, royalty, even as a guest, is easier said than achieved at the 121-year-old Taj Falaknuma Palace. Sprawled on top of the Kohi-Tur hill in Hyderabad, it has a kind of stately altitude overlooking the dusty, cheek by jowl setting of old Hyderabad, with one of the palace’s four gardens in the foreground. At the very onset, I take the wrong right turn. The Nizam, I’m reminded later from a hotel handout, would always take the left staircase to walk up to his sky-coloured palace. Well, of course.
Today, the Taj Falaknuma Palace is putting its best foot forward — as a throwback to the days of Nizam VI, Mehboob Ali Pasha, when the teakwood floor would fashionably creak to ballroom dancing and the fabulous multi-cylinder centralised music system and orchestral pipe organ sent their warm sounds across the palace. Falaknuma is ready to entertain again. An inaugural music festival, featuring artistes like Susheela Raman and British ska-reggae act The Dualers, is about to be staged at the palace grounds. This will be followed by a gala dinner at the 101 Dining Room, which can seat as many people — it’s reported to have the world’s longest dining table and usually takes a couple of hours to set up.
Before the concert at the English flagstaff garden, men in achkans and bandgalas chat over cocktails with ladies in chiffons and pearls at the charming Jade Terrace. The old city’s evening lights shimmer in the background, as the Princess — attractive in a sari and measured smile — meets and greets the select set at the Jade Room, its collection of Belgian cut-glass chandeliers lighting the scene.
In this room used to be housed the Nizam’s priceless collection of jewels. They have since been moved away. Here again at the Jade Room, with its air of posh imperial vintage, the presence of a princess often credited for reviving the palace from desuetude after being sparingly used for nearly a century, and the coming of the music festival, commingled the past, present and promise of Falaknuma Palace.
“We were deprived of a city event,” says Anmol Pancholy, sales manager, Taj Falaknuma Palace. “We had ideas on food, literature and music — Hyderabad’s strong points — and decided to give the Falaknuma Festival a shot. After all, this is where the Nizam hosted the best entertainment and concerts. This will be an annual festival.” While the first edition of the festival was a single-evening event, from next year, it’s likely to be a double-day affair where guests will have the option of spending a musical weekend in Hyderabad, revel in the noble setting, go into town, ride vintage cars, and indulge in Hyderabadi cuisine.
For the Taj Group of hotels, which inaugurated the Falaknuma in 2010, restoring and refurbishing the palace was painstaking work. For restorers and designers, the brief was simply to stick to the original look of the palace, whose maker Viqar-ul-Umra, prime minister and family member of the Nizam, conceptualised the palace as a coming together of his own absorption in all that was the best of the West.
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.
Where To Stay
I stayed at the Taj Falaknuma Palace(Rs 47,000–90,000 for two nights on double occupancy as part of a summer offer; tajhotels.com). The summer offer includes one-way hotel transfers, a non-alcoholic drink with a traditional welcome, a historical walk of the palace, 15% discount on spa treatments, F&B and some services, and the chef’s crafted Hyderabadi menu at Adaa once during the stay. I also enjoyed the stylish luxury of Taj Krishna (Rs 9,500–23,000; tajhotels.com).
What To See & Do
The official palace of the Hyderabad Nizams, the renovation of Chowmahalla Palace was supervised by Princess Esra. It contains an impressive collection of art, artefacts and weaponry from the Nizam period, as well as a gallery with stunning photographs of the Nizam family women. The interiors of the palace are opulent and richly designed while the outdoors has a display of the Nizam’s collection of cars, including a bright yellow Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.
One of India’s best art museums, Salar Jung’s collection of manuscripts, paintings, scrolls, sculptures, a selection of Qurans from around the globe, and ceramic artefacts, is inspiring. From Aurangzeb’s sword, Tipu Sultan’s wardrobe, gold and diamond encrusted tiffin boxes to Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, there is a formidable presence of the past in the museum’s 38 galleries. It assumes a certain awe-inspiring aura when one considers the museum’s pieces to have come from the private collection of the Salar Jung family.
A mere 11 km from the city, the 12th-century Golconda Fort is a tremendous example of the power and the influence of the Kakatiya dynasty that ruled over parts of modern-day Andhra Pradesh between CE 1083 and 1323. The famous Golconda diamond mine is also the site from which the Hyderabad Nizams earned much of their riches and the fort is said to have once had the famous Kohinoor diamond in its possession. Commanding grand views, the ruins, and still-standing ramparts inside the fort are a vivid reminder of medieval history.
An artificial lake built in 1562, the Husain Sagar lake spreads across 5.7km in the heart of the city. This is where Hyderabad appears in all its vibrant colours. There are many touristy attractions spread around the lake, including a giant statue of Gautam Buddha standing right in the middle.