Creating a true heritage hotel goes beyond repainting the walls, replacing the upholstery and getting turbaned, big-moustached bearers to man the gates. Authenticity and subtlety is often lost in an attempt to overdo the grandeur. That is why the Falaknuma Palace stands tall in comparison. Though there is enough to take her breath away if she stepped back, Anushya Mamtora rediscovers that God is in the details at this new Taj property

300. The exquisite carpets were dyed as many times to match the colour of the now withered carpet that the Nizams of Hyderabad laid their feet on. The sparkling cutlery at the exclusive 101-seater dining table was specially crafted after peering into ancient photographs of the Nizam’s dining extravagance. And the exterior walls were painted 15 times before the perfect shade of grey could be chosen to resemble the sky.

Recreating the bygone aura of royalty is ambitious, to say the least, even for the big names of the hospitality industry. It goes beyond the ostentatious settings and elaborate ‘daawats’, challenging the restorer to retain the magic of the palace as a royal home and not allow it to be consigned to the cliché of a modern hotel!

Indians are not new to heritage hotels; from the palaces of Rajasthan seeped in Rajputana flavours to the mahals of Agra decked in Mughal finery, we have seen them all.

But here, 2,000 feet above the charming old city of Hyderabad, atop ‘Kohitoor hill’, the magnificent abode of the Nizams – the 32-acre Falaknuma Palace – creates a special niche for itself. For unlike most palace hotels that have been newly built or simply redone, this one has undergone painstaking restoration by The Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, under the very guidance of Princess Esra Jah (royal consort of HEH Prince Mukarram Jah Nizam Eighth). After a hiatus of about 60 years and ten whole years of restoration later, it is finally set to welcome guests into its marvellous structure, rechristened The Taj Falaknuma Palace.

Imperial metamorphosis

Laid out in the shape of a scorpion (Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, the Prime Minister of the Sixth Nizam built it in 1893 for himself and was a Scorpio), the palace took 10 years and four million rupees to complete, back then. It took even longer, a whole 22 years and the brilliant tastes of two Nizams, to decorate it to its final magnificence. It boasts rare ornate inlaid furniture, large Venetian chandeliers, a grand marble staircase and marble statues, priceless figurines and customised artefacts, stained-glass windows, portraits and paintings in ornate frames and a sparkling crystal and jade collection.

However, after being a celebration of royal living and playing host to royalty and dignitaries from all over the globe, the Falaknuma fell silent after the 1950s when the Nizam moved to his next abode. In fact, the last guest was the first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad in 1951. Piecing together Falaknuma’s past glory was perhaps the biggest challenge of the restoration. These came with other challenges like retaining the eclectic blend of Renaissance architecture, Baroque style, French charm, art deco sensibilities and various other inspirations that were woven into the décor of the palace, and yet retaining its true-blue Nizam flavour. From sourcing the perfect upholstery to redo the sofas and chairs, to choosing fresh drapes to match the taste of the Nizams, polishing the marble, repairing damaged pieces, recreating broken structures and blending in new wings and spaces to accommodate more rooms, extra landscape and additional restaurants – the restoration was extensive and the result perfect.

Converting near barren land into exotic themed gardens and lush green spaces was a considerable challenge since the landscape artists had to work around the rocky terrain of the palace according to Ranjit Phillipose, General Manager of the property. He beams with pride as he discusses the effort that has gone into rediscovering the palace, starting from hunting for international experts to repair state-of-the-art artefacts, to sourcing natural products to paint the heavenly foyer.

Nizami adaa, Nawabi tehzeeb

1895. The sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mehboob Ali Khan alighted from his royal carriage at the magnificent façade of the Falaknuma Palace. The chief of army was in attendance and the fragrance of the flowers being showered was heady. 115 years later the Falaknuma Palace relives the tale of opulence, indulgence and sheer beauty as it elevates the visitor to royalty. Yes, guests at the palace arrive in pretty horse-driven buggies, originally from the Nizam’s stable, and get off at the same ‘red spot’ the Nizam stepped on, follow the door man carrying the golden palace symbol, as rose petals honour them from the skies above. The Nizami extravaganza unfolds.

The experience of living the life of royalty extends from materialistic luxuries to simple touches. On one hand the Nizam Suite (the presidential suite) oozes the authentic style with restored pieces of furniture and elegant luxuries while the Nizam’s favourite Egyptian cotton is used as bed linen in all the rooms. Living life king size becomes even more a reality with unrestricted access for resident guests to all the luxurious common rooms.

Mirroring the diverse architecture of the palace are the restaurants – Celeste and Adaa- which cater to Italian, Mediterranean and Indian flavours. But, to sit for an authentic Hyderabadi meal is a treat in itself. From Mezban (selection of closely guarded secrets of Nizam’s culinary repertoire) to Zauq e Shahi (tasting plate of Hyderabadi desserts like khubani ka meetha, dubbel ka meetha, gille firdaus, uroosa and khooba), the variety and flavours are as authentic as it can get. I indulged in some traditional kebabs, biriyani and a heavenly ‘shikanvji’ sorbet.

Destination Deccan

Hyderabad has always been renowned for its Nawabi culture, rich heritage and unmatched ‘tehzeeb’. While tourism in the city has always been associated with visits to the Salarjung museum, Golconda fort, Charminar and other historical landmarks, there was no destination that transported tourists to the era of the Nizams. The Taj Falaknuma Palace fills this void perfectly. It lets guests soak in the regal ambience of the splendid rooms where the Duke of Windsor once sipped his morning tea, walk in the palatial lawns where King Edward VIII strolled, and nurse a drink and cigar where the Nizam took in long puffs from his four-piped silver hookah (which still adorns the Smoking Room).

It further enhances the stay with bespoke treats like donning specially designed Nawabi ensembles, indulging in a palace bath with inviting fragrances, devouring royal hampers at elegant niches of the palace, going on a culinary trail with local vegetable-spice shopping and learning to cook from traditional Hyderabadi families… the experience is completely personalised.

But what works in Falaknuma’s favour is its proximity to the sights and sounds of the real Hyderabad, which immediately lends it a feeling of warmth.

As I sat on the Nizam’s highback plush office chair while filling the visitor’s book, the faint sounds of ‘qawalis’ streamed in from the mosques below. Outside, the whole palace in its alluring grey was merging with the overcast skies befitting its name ‘mirror of the sky’ – Falak Numa.

Must see, Must do

-Feast your eyes on The 101 Dining Hall with specially designed acoustics that allow for conversation from one end of the table to another

-Play a game of pool at the Billiards Room. What’s special you ask? Burroughs and Watts from England designed two identical tables. One found its way to the Buckingham Palace and the other is right here, at the Falaknuma Palace

-Sit on the Nizam’s chair at the Palace Library and flip through a mind boggling collection of rare manuscripts and books

- Listen to the fascinating tales of the Nizam’s richness as the Palace Historian Prabhakar Mahindrakar takes you on a Palace Historic Walk

-Enjoy tea or breakfast at the enchanting Jade Room or the picturesque Gol Bunglow while pointing out to the Charminar and Mecca Masjid

-Plan a dream wedding at the magical surroundings of the palace. But be prepared to buy out all the rooms as per palace rules; it’s worth every penny spent. If you just want to enjoy a meal, well, there are some terms and conditions to follow. Taj hopes to keep the Palace exclusive to the last ‘e’.

-Gape in awe at the optical illusions of the heavenly paintings at the foyer, rare pieces like a custom designed two tonne musical orchestreone (that will echo in the palace once the painstaking repair is done) and original refrigerators by GE

Khaas pampering

My first tryst with royal indulgence came in the form of a trip to the Royal Jiva Spa. The Nizam’s passion for personal care and beauty took the shape of Falaknuma’s signature treatment – Nawab-e-khaas – a spa service fit for the Kings. I was ushered into the treatment room by my therapist Wungmi, who began the royal massage by an invigorating foot dip to detox and relieve the feet of stress, followed by an aromatic body scrub. Carefully selecting ingredients that was popularly used by the Nizams for a soft, glowing and fair skin, the scrub was a fascinating mix of almonds, dry rose petals, saffron, poppy seeds, honey, ‘chironji’ and a drop of vetiver oil. This was followed by a soothing ‘vishram’ or relaxing massage with rosewood, brahmi and amla essential oils for the body and a special facial blend. Two and a half hours of regal pampering later, I felt gorgeous, though not comparable to Princess Esra’s magnificent beauty.

(This article was published on January 24, 2011)
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