First, you’re on a bland highway going into town. Then you hit Engine Bowli, where goats in all states of existence pack the small roads in honour of Eid, tethered, decapitated and messily slow-roasted on hot stones. Finally you turn through a narrow gap in the goat stalls to come upon giant, crested gates which swing open and you wind your way up Kohitoor Hill, past scraggly shrubs, giant rocks, functional stables, past a gently imposing guardhouse — and there it is, shyly entering your line of vision like a traumatised beauty who’s been locked up so long she’s afraid of sunlight. You smile because you can’t help it: the journey through Hyderabad’s least prepossessing parts trained you to expect nothing, and definitely not this, the hushed calm and utterly secret pleasure that is Falaknuma.
There was, of course, nothing secret about Falaknuma Palace when Vikar-ul-Omra set about building his personal “mirror to the sky” in 1884. Hyderabad was a different place then and the old city was, well, the city. A few years after its completion in 1893, the palace was gifted by the Paigah Prime Minister to Mahbub Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam, who liked it so much he actually deigned to use it as a guesthouse and as a fifth home. In 1967, on his death, ownership of the palace transferred to his grandson, the hapless Mukarram Jah. This man’s life was a train wreck of rapidly escalating proportions until some point in the 1990s, when Esra Birgin — his first wife — somehow convinced him to let her salvage his disintegrating empire, and that is when the Taj came into the picture.
In one way or another, the Taj Falaknuma Palace is an endeavour that lasted fifteen years. For one thing, it was caught in the legal and financial quagmire that Mukarram Jah had allowed himself to sink into; for another, the entire restoration was supervised by a woman who wouldn’t let a door knob through without her approval. Esra Birgin was apparently responsible for a healthy turnover of architects, restorers and designers in the process of making this hotel; now that it’s all over, the people involved speak of her with a sadomasochistic wistfulness.
The good news is that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger — or, in the case of the Taj Falaknuma Palace, miraculously restrained. The location of the palace, high up on the hill, is perfect: all of Hyderabad sprawls like a carpet below. Up there, the air is perfect and, recognising this, a lot of the hotel is outdoors. At the very edge of the promontory is a canopied balcony called the Gol Bungalow, where you can watch Hyderabad come glitteringly alive at sunset.
Inside, the décor is infallibly right. A hundred-odd years is probably just enough time to make Italian marble look passable, to turn from garish into whimsical. For the most part, however, the interior of the palace could be the set of a Merchant Ivory film. And that’s the thing. There’s no pretence: Falaknuma was never intended to be anything but a collection of the greatest hits of Europe at the turn of the last century and it achieves the effect superbly.
I was particularly fascinated with the bathroom of one of the wives of one of the Nizams (since there were so many in the former category, it’s hard to tell who this was exactly). Her quarters are preserved intact and function as the hotel’s in-house museum. I felt only slightly weird entering her bathroom and turning on the taps in the intricate industrial apparatus that was her bath, or lifting the wooden seat of her commode. I can’t imagine her being thrilled to know that various French tourists and Indian commoners wandered through her loo last week but I was very excited to be there.
The food was just so — and this is saying a lot. The Taj Falaknuma Palace has two restaurants: Celeste, which serves Mediterranean food and does it well, and Adaa, which is a sort of native surprise. Adaa serves Hyderabadi cuisine but not like anything I’ve tasted before. Firstly, I didn’t know that Kakinada crab cakes even existed, or that they tasted that good. Secondly, I’ve never had majjiga — sour, spiced buttermilk — frozen in flakes and served in a shot glass, and it’s brilliant. Thirdly, I’ve never eaten biryani and mirch ka salan and not felt nauseous; it’s the serving size that did the trick.
And I don’t even like palaces. Rajasthan’s fussy flounces do nothing for me and I consider Mysore royal architecture to be a human rights violation. Naturally, I’ve had to re-evaluate my feelings and I think I’ve arrived at an honourable compromise. I’ve decided I like palaces if they’re English in style and Saracenic at heart. Or subtle and peaceful with good classical music on low volume. Or if they’re designed by imperious Turkish women and run with straightforward kindness. Or if they’re owned by diabetics. Or old men, bonkers and broke. Or something. Tariff Rs 18,000–75,000 Contact 040-66298585, tajhotels.com