A Brief History of The Nizams of Hyderabad

Splendid palaces, luxury cars and expensive tastes – the Asaf Jahis literally lived life king size

Khilwat Mubarak, Chowmahallah Palace
A Brief History of The Nizams of Hyderabad

Lavish, opulent, ostentatious, and extravagant are just some words that come to mind when you think of the Nizams that ruled the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad for 224 years. A book on Telangana or any reference to its historyand culture is incomplete without a mention of the Nizams, for their influence on the state and its history is indisputable. Seven Nizams, who were also known as Asaf Jahis, ruled Hyderabad – the seventh, Asaf Jah Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur reigned till 1948.

From 1724 to 1948, Hyderabad underwent immense growth, both culturally and economically. The Nizams were great patrons of literature, art, architecture and food; and were counted amongst the wealthiest people in the world. In fact, Asaf Jah VII was ranked the fifth wealthiest person in the history of the world, with his fortune pinned at US$225 billion at its height, adjusted to today’s value.

The Nizam chose not to join the Indian Union after India gained independence in August 1947. However, his rule ended in September 1948, when the Indian Army launched Operation Polo, led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, then Minister of Home Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of India. The State of Hyderabad was invaded and the Nizam was forced to step down. The Asaf Jahis were allowed to keep their titles even after their reign ended. Asaf Jah VII chose his grandson Nawab Mir Barakat Ali Khan Bahadur Mukarram Jah as his successor, but he was Nizam only in name.

Ancestry of the Nizams

Hailing from the region around Samarkand in modern day Uzbekistan, the Asaf Jahi was originally a Turkic dynasty. Khaja Abid, grandfather of the first Nizam, was born in Aliabad near Samarkand in the kingdom of Bukhara. In 1655 he visited India for the first time while on his way to Mecca and presented himself at the imperial court of the Mughals. He made a favourable impression on the Mughal emperor and was soon granted many favours and given a robe of honour. He was also offered a position in the emperor’s service, which he agreed to take on after his return from Mecca. Thus began the association between the Nizams and Delhi, which would last until the end of Mughal rule.

In 1657, Khaja Abid returned from his pilgrimage and decided to throw in his lot with Aurangzeb. At the time, the latter was in the Deccan preparing for the war of succession against his brothers. Aurangzeb gave Khaja Abid, a learned man who was equally versed in the art of war, an important position in the imperial army.

The Portrait Gallery inside Chowmahallah Palace
The Portrait Gallery inside Chowmahallah Palace
Syed Saad Ahmed

After successfully defeating his brother to claim the throne, Aurangzeb made Khaja Abid the governor of Ajmer and subsequently of Multan with the title Qalich Khan. Qalich Khan later died while leading the imperial army against the Qutub Shahi king during the siege of Golconda in 1687.

The Mughal Empire

Shah Jahan made Aurangzeb the Viceroy of the Deccan in 1636, where the latter spent many years establishing and enforcing Mughal superiority and sovereignty. When Shah Jahan died in 1666, Aurangzeb consolidated his power as emperor and spent most of his reign expanding the borders of his empire. During that period Hyderabad – ruled by the Qutub Shahi dynasty – was one of the richest cities in the area due to the Kollur mine on the banks of the Krishna river, which was the most lucrative diamond mine of its time. The city was reportedly impregnable due to the majestic Golconda Fort.

Mughal emperor Aurangzeb
Mughal emperor Aurangzeb

Aurangzeb’s initial sieges, during the reign of the last Qutub Shahi king Abul Hasan Tana Shah, were failures. However, in 1687, after a nine-month long siege Golconda finally fell. Legend has it that the fortress would’ve held on if it weren’t for a saboteur, Abdullah Khan Pani, who was bribed by Aurangzeb to open the gates at night. Tana Shah was imprisoned soon after and taken to Daulatabad.

Thereafter, Hyderabad’s importance declined, its flourishing diamond trade diminished, and the city fell into ruins.

A Dynasty is Born

Although Indian history, spanning from the ancient to the modern, saw large empires such as the Maurya, Gupta and Mughal, ruling over vast areas in the north, it was the region south of the Vindhyas that they never really gained complete control over. The Deccan region had its own dynasties, and its fair share of rebellions against the mighty kingdoms that aimed to capture it. In a backdrop like this, what the Deccan really needed after the weakening of the Mughal empire (which held it for a short period of time) was a stable regional force.

The decline of Mughal rule and the rise of the Asaf Jahi dynasty are inextricably linked; and the Asaf Jahis arrived in Hyderabad and made it their own, much like the Mughals did with Delhi, not content to be mere subedars of a larger kingdom. A succession of political developments resulted in the Nizams ruling over the Deccan.

It all started with Aurangzeb gaining control over Golconda Fort and subsequently Hyderabad. With the conquest of the Deccan and then the south, Aurangzeb succeeded in spreading Mughal rule across the subcontinent.

After Qalich Khan’s death in 1687, his grandson Qamaruddin caught Aurangzeb’s eye when he displayed considerable skill as a warrior. Aurangzeb gave him the title Chin Qalich Khan (Boy Swordsman) at the tender age of 19.

Farukh Siyar, Mughal emperor and Aurangzeb’s grandson, gave Qamaruddin the higher title of Nizam-ul-Mulk Fateh Jung in 1713 and appointed him subedar of six provinces and Faujdar of Karnatak. Qamaruddin proved himself to be an excellent administrator. However, the Sayyid brothers, two powerful generals, conspired to stop him from governing the Deccan.

Early in the reign of Muhammad Shah (Aurangzeb’s seventh successor) the Sayyids removed Qamaruddin from the post of Faujdar of Muradabad and sent him to Malwa. There, too, he proved his worth. Alarmed by his rise, the Sayyids urged him to resign and move to some other province. Disgusted with these political games, Qamaruddin resigned from his post and headed for the Deccan where he intended to take up the post of viceroyal once more.

Meanwhile, the Sayyads died, and the new emperor Muhammad Shah offered him the high rank of Vazir. However, he was disappointed by the emperor’s close associates and therefore left the post of Vazir and marched to Aurangabad.

Abul Hasan Tana Shah
Abul Hasan Tana Shah

The emperor instructed Mubrez Khan, the then Subedar of the Deccan, to oppose Qamarrudin. In the ensuing battle, Mubrez Khan was defeated and killed, which resulted in Qamaruddin establishing his supremacy in the Deccan.

He subsequently streamlined the administrative machinery and finances of the Deccan. Muhammed Shah finally realised that there was nothing to be gained by war and conferred Qamarrudin with the title of Asaf Jah, or equal to Asaf, who was the Grand Vizier or prime minister in the court of King Solomon. Asaf Jah was the highest title that could be awarded to a subject of the Mughal Empire. Although for all practical purposes Qamaruddin became an independent ruler from then on, he never openly declared independence from Delhi. Thus, was born the Asaf Jahi dynasty that ruled Hyderabad until 1948.

Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah I (1724–48)

Nizam-ul-Mulk’s greatest achievement was the foundation of the princely state of Hyderabad. As the Viceroy of the Deccan, the Nizam was the head of the executive and judicial departments and the source of all civil and military authority of the Mughal empire in the Deccan. All officials were appointed by him directly or in his name. He drafted his own laws, raised his own armies, flew his own flag and formed his own government.

He divided his kingdom into three parts – one part became his own private estate known as the Sarf-i-Khas; another was allotted for the expenses of the government and was known as the Diwan’s territory; and the remainder was distributed amongst Muslim nobles (jagirdars, zamindars and deshmukhs), who in return paid nazars (gifts) to the Nizam for the privilege of collecting revenue from the villages under them. The most important of these nobles were the Paigahs (see p128). The properties were usually split into numerous pieces in order to prevent the most powerful of the nobles from entertaining any thought of carving out an empire for themselves. The system, which continued relatively unchanged until 1950, ensured a steady source of income for the state treasury and the Nizam.

The Nizam had other sources of revenue as well, which included the lion’s share of gold unearthed in his dominions, diamonds and gems from the Golconda mines and the income from his vast personal estates.

While the Nizam did not wage too many battles after becoming Hyderabad’s ruler, he did clash with the Marathas in 1727 over his refusal to pay two kinds of levy – Chauth and Sardeshmukhi. After suffering a defeat in the ensuing war, which ended in 1728, the Nizam had to agree to a number of terms set by the Marathas, chief of which was recognizing Chhatrapati Shahu as the sole Maratha ruler.

The Nizam was also a statesman of repute and his support of the Mughal Empire remained unwavered. A prime example of this came in 1739 when Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia, who was so powerful he was known as Second Alexander or Napoleon of Persia, invaded the Mughal empire. First, the Nizam sent a huge contingent of soldiers to Karnal where the Mughal army had been stationed to repel Shah’s rampaging advance. However, even the combined forces couldn’t keep the tactically and technically superior Persian army at bay. When Shah reached Delhi, a rumour broke out that he had been assassinated. Enraged, Shah ordered that Delhi be plundered. It is said that 20,000 to 30,000 people were killed in a single day. No one from the Mughals’ side was ready to negotiate a truce with Shah out of fear. It was the Nizam who came forward to appeal to Shah to end the bloodbath. Somehow, the Nizam convinced him to turn back.

The Nizam is remembered for having laid the foundation for what would become one of the most important Muslim states outside the Middle East by the first half of the 20th century. The kingdom he ruled over was said to have been close to the size of France.

After a reign of 24 years, the Nizam passed away at the age of 76 in 1748. His grave is at the mazaar of Shaikh Burhan-ud-din Gharib Chisti, Khuldabad, near Aurangabad, where Aurangzeb was also buried.

Once again, with the Nizam’s death, the Deccan became the centre of a power struggle between the British, French, Marathas and the Nizam’s own sons and grandsons. Nasir Jung, Muzaffar Jung and Salabat Jung all held the Subhedari of the Deccan at one time or the other for a period of over 14 years. They were confirmed as the Subhedars by the Mughal emperor but for unknown reasons, were never given the title of Asaf Jah or Nizam and therefore, they are not referred to as Nizams.

Nizam Ali Khan Asaf Jah I
Nizam Ali Khan Asaf Jah I

Finally, in 1762, the Nizam’s fourth son, Mir Ali Khan, was recognized at the second Nizam.

Nizam Ali Khan Asaf Jah II (1762–1803)

Nizam Ali Khan was born in 1734 and assumed the Subhedari of the Deccan at the age of 28 years and ruled the region for almost 42 years. The reign of Nizam Ali Khan was one of the important chapters in the history of the Asaf Jahi dynasty not only because it was the longest but also because it was the most eventful and challenging. His greatest contribution was saving his dynasty from both internal and external forces and streamlining the administration of his state. While he settled affairs with the Marathas, he also entered into alliances with the British and the French. In 1763, Nizam Ali Khan shifted the state capital from Aurangabad to Hyderabad, restoring the latter to its original glory. Recognizing the central and strategic location of this city proved to be a turning point in the rule of the Asaf Jahis.

While his grandfather kept foreign powers out of his empire, Nizam Ali Khan employed a French general as an advisor and military leader and simultaneously sought an alliance with the British East India Company. It was this alliance that helped Hyderabad: while the company meddled in the daily affairs of most of the other princely states, Hyderabad was left to its own devices even after Indian Independence from the British. Many treaties were signed between the British and Nizam Ali Khan during this period – firstly, the Nizam wanted to keep the Marathas away from the Deccan; and secondly, the British were on hostile terms with Hyder Ali of Mysore. The British also wanted a close alliance with Hyderabad and the disbandment of the French Corps from the Nizam’s services.

Nizam Ali Khan Asaf Jah II
Nizam Ali Khan Asaf Jah II

After a long, strenuous and successful reign, Nizam Ali Khan died on 6 August, 1803, at the age of 69. He was buried at Mecca Masjid.

Mir Akbar Ali Khan Sikandar Jah Asaf Jah III (1803–29)

The third Nizam inherited a successful state. His succession was ratified by the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II and his father’s titles were also conferred upon him. Sikandar Jah is credited with ushering in a new era of progress for Hyderabad. In 1806, a large area north of the city was named Secunderabad after Sikandar Jah – it was essentially founded to station 5,000 troops of the British garrison. Secunderabad later became the largest British cantonment in India. As the cantonment grew rapidly, many locals relocated there from the hustle of the walled city across the River Musi, thus creating the twin city of Secunderabad.


Ali Khan Sikandar Jah Asaf Jah III
Ali Khan Sikandar Jah Asaf Jah III

To improve internal administration and to ensure just means of revenue, Sikandar Jah placed European officers in charge of his revenue. However, the kingdom went through a severe financial crisis due to Raja Chandulal, who was assistant revenue minister. Chandulal, who was close to the British, indulged in large-scale corruption and misappropriation that drained the Nizam’s finances.

Sikandar Jah died on 21 May, 1829 and was buried in the royal cemetery of Mecca Masjid, next to his ancestors. He was survived by nine sons and 10 daughters. His eldest son, Nawab Farkhunda Ali Khan, succeeded him.

 Ali Khan Nasir-ud-Daula Asaf Jah IV
Ali Khan Nasir-ud-Daula Asaf Jah IV

Mir Farkhunda Ali Khan Nasirud-Daula Asaf Jah IV (1829–57)

After the financial turmoil during Sikander Jah’s rule, Nasir-ud- Daula inherited a troubled state. Moreover, several natural disasters such as cyclones, epidemics, floods and drought had taken their toll on the state. Mounting debts forced him to cede Berar and other border districts to the British.

The Nizam realized that earlier revenue systems and treaties had begun to weaken the efficient functioning of his state.

With the support and guidance of Siraj-ul-Mulk and Mir Turab Ail Khal Salar Jung I, he implemented a modern and just system of revenue administration. The state was divided into 16 districts, each under a taluqdar who was responsible for the civil and judicial administration of a district. These reforms brought transparency to the reorganised administrative machinery. Thus, Hyderabad was safely steered through a critical time. It was also during this Nizam’s reign that the Salar Jung family (see p124) came into prominence.

Mir Tahniyat Khan Asaf Jah V
Mir Tahniyat Khan Asaf Jah V

Hyderabad prospered educationally and culturally under this Nizam’s reign since he ordered the construction of several schools, commercial centres, churches and bridges. He made Hyderabad the first princely state to ban the practice of Sati in 1856. He died on 16 May, 1857, at the age of 64.

Mir Tahniyat Khan Afzal-ud-Daula Asaf Jah V (1857–69)

Afzal-ul-Daula retained the services of his father’s prime minister, Salar Jung I. Under him, the dominion was further divided into 5 subas in addition to the 16 districts. In 1860, the Nizam gave land for the Bombay- Madras railway line, which was to pass through Hyderabad state. The introduction of a railway line contributed greatly to the economic development of the state. He also built the Afzalgunj mosque, Afzalgunj bridge and Afzalgunj Bazar.

He died at the age of 42 when his son and heir, Nawab Mir Mahbub Ali Khan, was only about three years old.

Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Bahadur Asaf Jah VI (1869–1911)

The youngest Asaf Jahi ruler, Mir Mahbub Ali Khan was two years and seven months old when he was installed by his co-regents Mir Turab Ali Khan Sir Salar Jung I and Nawab Rasheeduddin Khan, Shams-ul-Umara III. In 1885, when he was 17 years old, he assumed sovereign rights. His kindness was known throughout the kingdom. Several administrative reforms, which the Nizam implemented, included the development of railways, revision of revenue settlements, and establishment of cotton and silk mills.


Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Asaf Jah VI
Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Asaf Jah VI

Education also received special attention and a large number of schools were set up throughout his lands. Police, judiciary, forest and excise were reorganized along modern lines. The standard of medical treatment and medical education reached new highs.

Mahbub’s brother-in-law Viqar-ul-Umara built the Falaknuma Palace, which was later gifted to the Nizam. Soon after he moved into the new palace, the Nizam fell down, and suffered a sudden paralytic stroke and died on 29 August, 1911. He was just 46 years old.

Mir Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah VII
Mir Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah VII

Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur Asaf Jah VII (1911–67)

Born in 1886, Osman Ali Khan was coronated Nizam on 12 September, 1911 and he is the most popular among the Nizam rulers.

Mir Osman Ali Khan was a multi-faceted personality – he was an able statesman and cared about his subjects. His first act as Nizam was to abolish the death penalty from the criminal code for civilians in 1911. In 1914, within three years of his ascension to the throne, World War I broke out. He gave financial, military and material assistance to the British. He was instrumental in setting up Osmania University in Hyderabad in the year 1917. The university was the first of its kind in the state and continues to be a prestigeous centre for education even till date.

He was also the first to separate the judiciary from the executive in 1921. It would be 53 years before this was implemented in the rest of the India. He initiated a board which saw to the restoration and erection of several public buildings, some of which are functional even to this day.

Mukarram Jah Bahadur Asaf Jah VIII
Mukarram Jah Bahadur Asaf Jah VIII

He gave money generously for many charitable cause regardless of caste or religion. Major beneficiaries of his donations were Aligarh Muslim University, Benaras Hindu University, Santiniketan, Shivaji Vidyapeeth, the Bhandarkar Institute, Lady Harding Medical College, Red Cross and the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Not many know that he also donated his last 14,000 acres of land to Acharya Vinoba Bhave for the Bhoodan Movement that started in Pochampally, 46km away from Hyderabad.

This Nizam’s rule saw the expansion of roads, railways and the postal system. His contribution to augment irrigation in his dominion by building various dams was also immense.

In 1948 when independent India was born the Nizam refused to accede to the Indian territory.Instead, he wanted Hyderabad to be recognised as an independent sovereignty. In September 1948, the Indian government launched a police offensive – titled Operation Polo – five days after which Hyderabad was captured.Thus ended the 224-years of Asaf Jahi rule in Hyderabad.

Osam Ali Khan passed away in 24 February 1967 and passed over his son Azam Jah to make his grandson, Mukarram Jah, his successor. He ruled Hyderabad until its accession into India in 1948.

Osman Ali Khan was pronounced the world’s richest man by TIME Magazine with a fortune of US$2 billion in the early 1940s, equivalent to around $34 billion today.

The Would-Have-Been Eighth Nizam: Mukarram Jah Bahadur Asaf Jah VIII

After Mir Osman Khan’s death, Mukarram Jah became the titular Nizam of Hyderabad in 1967. In 1971, the Indian government abolished the privy purse to royal families as well as royal titles. He is currently living in Istanbul. However, the Nizam’s still hold some of their prime palaces such as Chowmahallah.