Luxury abounds in Southern India.
Watch any Bollywood film, and there’s a good chance it was filmed in Hyderabad. India’s seventh largest city is a sprawling metropolis in the south, with a booming movie industry named Tollywood, and a high-tech industry worth billions. Yet, in the palaces and pleasure gardens, mosques and souks of the old quarter, it is easy to be drawn in by the past.
The previous afternoon, I swapped the snarling traffic of the city for the serene hilltop beauty of Falaknuma Palace, a former Nizam residence turned Taj hotel in 2010. In the fragrant palace gardens resplendent with peacocks, I sipped champagne, while a horse-drawn carriage stood by to escort me to the palace entrance. Later, I soaked in a rose petal bath, and saw the words “Marry Me” spelt out in blossoms on the palace grounds (she said yes).
Today, I’m at another royal palace: Chowmahalla. Less than a hundred years ago, this was the seat of power of India’s most powerful ruling dynasty, the Nizam. Like Falaknuma, it has been restored to its former glory. It now operates as a museum filled with artefacts, memorabilia, tapestries, art, and vintage cars, including a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost in the garage. While only 12 of the original 47-hectares remain, its grandeur lives on in the Mughal domes, scalloped arches, and extravagant marble coronation room – the Durbar Hall – replete with 19 sparkling Belgian chandeliers.
Under the Nizam, who governed Hyderabad from 1720 to 1948, until it was annexed by India, this was the greatest and richest of all the Indian Princely States held by the British Raj. Smaller Rajput cities like Rajasthan might capture the imagination of travellers today, but it was Hyderabad that outshone them all.
The wealth of the last Nizam is no less impressive. Of the seven Nizams who ruled Hyderabad, Osman Ali Khan was the richest, with a fortune today worth US$21 billion. As late as 2008, he ranked fifth on the Forbes All Time Wealthiest list. He had his own airline, railway and mint; owned a fleet of Rolls Royce cars, and a treasury worth US$1.23 million in gold and silver billion and US$492 million in jewels.
He was not without his quirks. On a heritage walk of Falaknuma (a daily event at 530pm), we learn he knitted his own socks, bummed cigarettes from guests, and kept the world’s fifth largest diamond, the 187-carat Jacob diamond, in a shoe, thinking it cursed. The last Nizam, his grandson, Mukarram Jah, famously used it as a paperweight.
British architect William Ward Marrett built Falaknuma as a pleasure palace in the shape of a double stinging scorpion. Drawing inspiration from rococo, baroque and renaissance design, he shipped most of the furnishing and materials, including the marble, from Europe. Franz Ferdinand, King George V and Tsar Nicholas II were frequent guests.
Our tour takes in the dazzling 101-seat dining room dripping with Venetian chandeliers, the ballroom with its intricate parquetry floors, the Jade Room, so-named for its once vast jade collection, and the mahogany and rosewood-panelled library, said to be modelled on one at Windsor Castle, and filled with 5970 books in nine languages.
With so much opulence, it comes as a surprise to learn that the last Nizam turned his back on all this for a sheep farm in Western Australia. There is more to the story, says hotel librarian, Asif Husain, over Nizami gimlets in the former men-only Hookah Bar.
Stripped of his princely title and state purse in 1974, litigation and money troubles soon followed Mukarram Jah. His wealth plummeted and the many palaces, Falaknuma and Chowmahalla included, fell into disrepair.
A blind date saw him meet and fall in love with Perth woman Helen Simmons, whom he married in 1980. He relocated to a property in Murchison, in Western Australia, where he donned overalls, drove a bulldozer and became known as the Shah. Today, he lives in a small apartment in Turkey, while his legacy (and the many palaces) have been immaculately restored by his first wife, Princess Esra, at his behest.
After Falaknuma, the old quarter is a heady jumble of bustle and colour. Nowhere more so than at Laad Bazaar, a centuries-old bangle souk that stretches about a mile from the foot of the Charminar, the 16th-century grand arch and mosque that is perhaps one of India’s most recognisable landmarks.
Hawkers trail us, their arms piled high with pearls, ornate silverware known as Bidriware, saris, and the glittering gem-studded lac bangles popular with Hindu brides. Street sellers carry aloft golden pimento fritters and samosas and stalls are heaving with melons and grapes. Young children race up to us for photos, the novelty of seeing western travellers in this untouristy, predominantly Muslim area.
With so much going on, it would be easy to miss the bakery in front of the Mecca Masjid, were it not for the steady stream of customers here for the Irani chai (traditionally sipped from saucers) and accompanied by the salty-sweet Osmani biscuits, peculiar to Hyderabad and named after the last Nizam.
Hyderabad’s other famous export is biryani, an aromatic dish slow-cooked in a claypot for 24-hours until moist and tender. We sample it at local favourite, Hotel Shadab, a heavily draped dining room a short stroll from the Charminar, with booth seating and the heady smell of spices in the air.
Back at Falaknuma, the call to prayer rings out from mosques across the city and the haze of the day is slowly replaced by twinkling lights. From my seat in the Golconda dining pavilion, a domed open-air terrace 2,000-feet above the old city, it’s not hard to appreciate why Golconda means “stars in the sky”.
The scene is set for a fine-dining Hyderabadi feast. Along with haleem (a mutton and lentil dish popular at Ramadan) and marag, a lamb broth with cardamom, there is course after course of rich and fragrant dishes. Third generation Sufi performers sing, dance and sway framed by the glittering skyline of city lights, fireworks and stars. The biryani when it arrives is just as stellar.
Taj Falaknuma Palace is a sumptuous mix of rococo, baroque and renaissance design, meticulously restored over a decade to its former opulence. There are 60-suites, including 4 heritage rooms, set amid 13-hectares of fragrant gardens, 2000-feet above the Old City.
ITC Kakatiya is centrally located and overlooks Hyderad’s largest lake, Hussain Sagar. The 188 rooms and suites pay tribute to the Kakatiya dynasty that ruled for 400 years, with earthy interiors, traditional art and ikat textiles. There are two destination restaurants, a spa, gym, and peaceful, palm-fringed pool.
The best of Hyderabad’s fine dining is to be found in the city’s five-star hotels. Fine diner Jewel of Nizam pairs rich Mughlai cuisine with panoramic views of the Osman Sagar Lake from atop a brutalist tower within the landscaped Golkonda Hotel grounds. Nuanced pan-asian cuisine is the highlight at Yi Jing, the Hi-Tech city restaurant within ITC Kohenur.For something completely different, Journey 1853 takes diners back in time to the romance of India’s first rail journey. The lavishly recreated Pullman dining carriage in Banjara Hills features liveried waiters, an extensive wine list and impeccable North Indian cuisine.
Other must-visit sites
This sprawling hillside fort offers spectacular views of the city. Some of the world’s finest diamonds were mined here, including The Kohinoor and Hope diamonds.
This former Nizam palace boasts the world’s largest wardrobe, complete with a hand-operated lift, and a museum showcasing artefacts of the last ruling Nizam.
Intricately carved granite arches are a stand-out at this mosque, the second largest in India. Built from the mortar and dirt of Mecca, it is where the tombs of the Nizam lie.
With its distinctive minarets and grand arches, the 16th-century mosque has been compared to the Arc de Triomphe and was built to commemorate the eradication of cholera. ◼
© This article was first published in Dec-Jan 2020 edition of World Travel Magazine.