Nob and nobility

Priyanka Kotamraju | Updated on September 12, 2014

High court: The sprawl of the city of Hyderabad from a vantage point at the Gol Bungalow of the Taj Falaknuma Palace nagara gopal   -  NAGARA GOPAL

Bugatti move over...The palace buggy is here to give guests a royal ride into the sunset pv sivakumar   -  PV SIVAKUMAR

Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace casts yet another spell with the inaugural edition of a festival under its grand canopies

It’s past midnight. Most of the guests have arrived and settled in. Thanks to a delayed flight, I’m only a couple of hours late. Not one to inconvenience anyone, I’m hoping for a quick and quiet getaway. But that’s not to be. Waiting for me, at an unearthly 1am, 2,000 feet above the city of Hyderabad, is a horse-drawn carriage ready to ferry me to the entrance of the Falaknuma Palace. Welcome drink in hand, perfumed towel in the other, I dodder towards the suite amid a shower of rose petals…

For more than half a century now, the dispersal of the wealth and properties of Hyderabad’s Nizams have been matters of public speculation, not to mention subjects of numerous legal wrangles. “Mukarram Jah, who succeeded his grandfather Osman Ali Khan (said to be the richest man in the world) in 1967, found himself enmeshed in financial chaos. He had inherited a ridiculously inflated army of retainers: 14,718 staff, including no less than 42 of his grandfather’s concubines and their 100-plus offspring,” wrote William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal. By 1973, Jah’s inheritance was coveted by 476 legal heirs.

In despair, the seventh Nizam left Hyderabad and sought refuge in Australia. It was only a chance meeting with his first wife Princess Esra that set the restoration ball rolling in all seriousness. In 2005, a fully restored Chowmahalla made its public debut. (The palace library, home to several priceless treasures, also threw its doors open to the public earlier this year). In 1994, after several false starts, the Taj group acquired the Falaknuma Palace and roped in the princess to carry out the restoration. Work didn’t begin until the early noughties and took 10 years and 800 workers to complete. Making its debut in 2010, Falaknuma has now emerged as one of the finest heritage hotels in the world, with a clutch of awards to show for it. This February also saw the inaugural edition of the Faluknama Festival; nearly a century after this Nizam household welcomed the rest of Hyderabad to join in festivities of similar colour and tone.

The day-long celebrations begin with a visit to the Paigah tombs. Jonty Rajagopalan, owner of Detours India, who is conducting private tours for the guests as part of the festival, calls them “the city’s best-kept secrets”. Even to a Hyderabadi like me, raised on an annual school picnic diet of Qutub Shahi tombs and the Golconda Fort, the tombs of the Paigah family are a revelation, historically and architecturally.

The Falaknuma Palace was also built by a Paigah — Sir Vikar Ul Umra, then the prime minister of the Hyderabad State. By the time the construction of the palace was completed in 1893, Umra’s coffers were empty. A cool ₹4 million had been spent on the scorpion-shaped ‘mirror in the sky’. It’s said that the Nizam came to Falaknuma on Umra’s invitation and fell in love with the palace, acquiring it much to the prime minister’s delight.

Over lunch, at the longest dining table in the world (a 101-seater!), Princess Esra tells us about her early life in Hyderabad. “I was 20 when I was married. We had grown up in the time of Kemal Ataturk, we were the children of revolution,” she says. “But when I came here, there were so many customs to follow. My mother-in-law was from Turkey too but she was the royal who lived in exile because of Ataturk. I had to get along with her.” Interestingly, it was she, Jah’s mother Princess Durru Shehvar, who persuaded the Nizam to bring Esra back to manage the family’s affairs. Jah married Esra in 1959, they separated 14 years later. He now lives with his fifth wife in Turkey, while the princess divides her time between Turkey, England and India, overseeing the Nizam legacy in Hyderabad.

The princess’s work and attention to detail is legendary. “She wanted everything perfect. Carpets had to be sent back a 100 times if they were not the right colour, not the right fade,” says resident historian Prabhakar Mahindrakar. Later, when we ask the princess if we’ll see her for cocktails in the evening, she shrugs and says, “I hate parties.”

While there are many activities to keep you occupied at Falaknuma, my favourite is the palace walk with Mahindrakar. Regaling all with stories of the Nizam’s wealth — the cars, the jewellery, the art — and bravery, he points at the billiard table (the twin is at Buckingham), the palace library (the replica of which is at Windsor), the world’s largest hookah, the chandeliers (it takes six months to clean a 138-arm Osler chandelier; Falaknuma has 40 of them) and the world’s largest and oldest musical organ (which really doesn’t do anything). Also among the marvels is the suspension staircase, built ingeniously on a cantilever system so each step is made from a single slab of Italian marble. Portraits of Indian viceroys hang along the length of the stairwell — mealy-mouthed Hastings, haughty Metcalfe, dour-faced Irwin and what have you.

The high tea is another favourite. My fellow guests and I — nibbling delicately at a dozen cucumber sandwiches — sit around a circular seat, also called the Chinese whispers seat. Back in the day, says Mahindrakar, ladies would huddle on this bench and exchange gossip, just like the game.

Later that evening, the dining room is transformed. At lunch, the opulent 101-seater had played host to a small, exclusive group who were served a carefully crafted multi-course meal. The splendour of Falaknuma was evident. For dinner however, it’s a first-come-first-served policy. Decorum is cast off at the door. Strangers share an excellent supper together. Conversation is loud, and refills aplenty. And like the elusive Mr Gatsby at his own party, the princess is nowhere to be found.

(The writer was in Hyderabad at the invitation of the Falaknuma Palace.)

Published on May 09, 2014

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