Falaknuma palace: Castle in the air

Print edition : December 06, 2019

The Falaknuma (literally “like the sky”) palace, lit up at night.

The Nizam’s royal emblem (coat of arms) on the palace gateway.

The view from the balcony, said to be a favourite breakfast spot of the Nizam’s.

The gateway to the Falaknuma palace.

The palace facade. The palace was restored and transformed into a heritage hotel in November 2010.

The dining hall with five chandeliers and a long table that can seat 101 persons.

A portrait of Sir Vicar-Ul-Umra, the Prime Minister of the sixth Nizam. The Falaknuma palace is his brainchild.

The skyscape on the ceiling of the foyer, painted by a French artist, depicts a flying eagle.

The billiard room. The restored table also has a unique feature of moveable overhead lights.

The grand staircase, with marble statuettes of the Greek Muses carved along the railing.

The crystal chandelier, made in Belgium, in the Jade Room.

The terrace of the Gol bungalow at the tail end of the Falaknuma palace. The wrought-iron canopy supports a glass dome adorned with fish-scale panels.

The horse carriage that ferries guests from the gateway to the palace.

The marble fountain in the foyer.

Victorian-style stained glass window panels illumine the palace interior with natural light.

The splendour of the restored Falaknuma palace in Hyderabad, now a heritage hotel, is accentuated by the wonderful vistas it offers from 2,000 feet above the city.

EIGHTY-TWO years ago, in February 1937, Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, was featured on the cover of Time magazine, which proclaimed that he was the world’s richest man. The Nizam had untold wealth, both inherited and prudently acquired by him, in the form of cash, gold, gems, pearls, rubies, diamonds and real estate. Historians often consider him equally miserly and magnanimous. The extravagances of the Nizam’s empire in Hyderabad in its heyday were clouded in mystery, but the monarch’s love for lavish living was often spoken of in hushed tones across the Commonwealth. Seven Nizams of the Asaf Jahi dynasty governed Hyderabad for over 200 years from 1720 to 1948, and the last of the lot, a man also acknowledged for his acumen, was the richest.

The seventh Nizam, who ruled Hyderabad for 37 years, was also considered a maverick. As one of the richest rulers in the world, he made his province the most prosperous among all the 565 princely states of the British era. He ruled an area of over 2,22,000 square kilometres that included parts of present-day Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, and northwards up to Aurangabad in Maharashtra. When most of the princely states of India integrated in 1947, the Nizam preferred to stay independent but eventually gave up his vast kingdom reluctantly a year later.

Telangana struggle

The peasant insurrection of 1946-51 in the region, also known as the Telangana struggle, was a pivotal moment in Indian history because it brought to the fore the struggles of the peasantry and their fight against the autocratic rule of the Nizam and the feudal regime. Later, the Nizam was accorded the status of a Governor by the Government of India, but he managed to retain much of his wealth dispersed in over 50 trusts created after India’s independence.

After the Nizam’s demise in 1967, the ruler’s clan, which included many false claimants, decided to dissolve the trusts and sell some of the accounted jewels and jewellery. After prolonged skirmishes, spread over decades and several court cases, in 1995 the Indian government purchased 173 pieces of jewellery and jewels at a cost of about Rs.217 crore, which became national heritage. This collection, dated from the 18th to the early 20th century, included diamonds from the Golconda mines, Burmese rubies and pearls from Basra.

The Nizam’s jewels

What emerges from the assemblage of the Nizam jewellery is that they are a unique hybrid of Indian, Mughal, Deccani and European influences. In June 2019, about 400 pieces of Indian jewellery and jewels, including a 17-carat Golconda diamond, were auctioned by the auction house Christie’s in New York, for approximately Rs.758 crore.

While the seventh Nizam had a kingdom to rule, his grandson, the eighth Nizam, has only the title to his name. Now a recluse in Turkey, he was left with a minuscule portion of the massive wealth as much of it is still under dispute in court cases. After nearly seven decades, on October 2, a court in the United Kingdom ruled in favour of the titular Nizam and the Indian government and upheld their claims to wealth worth Rs.307 crore that had been locked up in a London bank from 1948. However, more than 100 members of the Nizam’s extended clan have staked their claim to the bounty.

The seventh Nizam has been hailed as the architect of modern Hyderabad. Several iconic public buildings in present-day Hyderabad, such as the Osmania General Hospital, Hyderabad High Court, King Koti palace, Chowmahalla palace, Unani hospital and so on, were either built or preserved during his reign. He also took a keen interest in the restoration of the Ajanta and Ellora caves at Aurangabad, discovered in 1819. He even invited two leading Italian experts at the expense of the state to supervise restoration work. Today, these caves and monuments are world heritage sites recognised by UNESCO since 1983.

As a student of the Nizam College and Osmania University, both established during the Nizam’s reign, this writer was fortunate to discover Hyderabad in the early 1980s, camera in tow. The rocky ruins of the Golconda Fort and the adjoining Qutub Shahi Tombs were a particular favourite. Today these magnificent monuments have been engulfed by concrete buildings and high-rise apartments.

After completing his studies in the mid 1980s, this writer worked with a television crew from Japan on a documentary on the fading fortunes of the Nizam in Hyderabad. Consequently, special permissions were granted to the TV crew by the government of India and long-locked doors to the inner sanctum of Chowmahalla palace, Falaknuma palace and Purani Haveli opened magically to showcase the erstwhile royal life of the Nizams. The palaces, even in their worn-out condition, stood out for their opulence. Shortly after this, this writer was part of a photo shoot in Salar Jung Museum, which contains over 40,000 art objects and artefacts acquired from across the world.

Three decades later, the National Museum in Delhi exhibited a cache of the Nizam’s jewellery and jewels from February to May 2019. Displayed under heavy security, the world’s best rubies, sapphires and pearls were showcased in a guarded and armoured room where only 40 persons could enter at a time. The assortment of richly handcrafted trinkets, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, headbands and armlets was juxtaposed with sepia-tinted photographs of princes and princesses from the Nizam era wearing them as part of their attire. The photographs had been taken by the renowned craftsman Lala Deen Dayal, appointed court photographer at the behest of the sixth Nizam in 1884. Interestingly, the men wore more ceremonial jewellery than women during royal rituals.

One of the Nizam’s palaces, the Falaknuma palace in Hyderabad, which had been lying abandoned for many years, was restored and transformed into a Taj Heritage hotel in November 2010.

Architecturally, the Falaknuma palace is not easy to classify as it is an amalgamation of European styles that prevailed in the 19th century. The renovation of the palace, after being leased to the Taj Group of Hotels, was supervised by Princess Esra Jah, the first wife of the eighth Nizam of Hyderabad.

The Falaknuma was conceived and created by Sir Vicar-Ul-Umra, the Prime Minister of the sixth Nizam. One day, standing atop a hillock on the outskirts of the princely state of Hyderabad in the 1880s, Sir Vicar dreamt of a palace perched on the highest point in town, laid out in the shape of a scorpion. He took up the project with great zeal and employed a British architect to design a citadel blending European-style architecture with Indian art. The foundation stone for the Falaknuma palace was laid by Sir Vicar on March 3, 1884.

It took nearly 10 years to complete the colossal structure. Laid out in the shape of a scorpion, the edifice had two pincers spread out as the wings of the palace. The GoI bungalow at the very end of the courtyard-cum-boulevard has a dome-like structure with a protrusion and looks like the tail of a scorpion.

The palace, built with Italian marble and tempered timber and incorporated with stained glass windows, sprawled over 32 acres. Built on a hillock 2,000 feet above the city, Falaknuma provides grand views of the Charminar, the Golconda fort and the tombs and domes of Hyderabad. By the time the palace was completed in 1894, the Prime Minister had gone bankrupt. It cost him all of Rs.40,00,000 in his day; he even had to take a bank loan to complete the residual work on his castle in the air.

The sixth Nizam was invited to the palace in the spring of 1897, and he promptly fell in love with the locale. This prompted Sir Vicar to offer the palace to the Nizam, who willingly accepted and also paid for the palace. The sixth Nizam stayed occasionally at the Falaknuma palace from 1897 to 1911, while the Purani Haveli continued to be his official residence.

As a royal guest house, the Falaknuma palace hosted King George V and Queen Mary, followed by the Prince of Wales in 1906 and other monarchs, heads of state and governors over a period of time. Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, stayed here in 1951 and was also the last guest at this palace.

The approach to the Falaknuma is through a winding driveway that leads to a grand gateway. There a horse carriage (buggy) ferries guests on a winding road lined with greenery to the palace. The beauty of the Falaknuma palace, perched atop a 2,000-feet-high (610 metres) hill, is accentuated by the wonderful vistas it offers. In Urdu, “falak” means sky and “numa” means like, so Falaknuma is literally “like the sky” and lyrically “star of heaven”.

In the marble-floored foyer is an exquisite fountain with elegantly carved figures of angels and cherubim and dolphins spurting water. The atrium is decked in three-dimensional fresco artwork, with an alluring skyscape on the ceiling (painted by a French artist and restored with care) depicting an eagle in full flight.

Some distance away stands a massive two-tonne pipe organ, said to be the only one of its kind in the world. Made in the U.K., it could reportedly play 36 different sounds with 36 inbuilt cylinders and worked by winding a key that enabled it to run for three hours. It now stands as a mute witness to a bygone era.

Next is the library, one of the grandest rooms in the palace, with a ceiling of ornate teak and superbly carved and gleaming rosewood panels engraved with the initials “V&O” of Prime Minister Vicar. The library boasts a rare collection of nearly 6,000 books such as the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a priceless collection of first and second editions.

The Grand Staircase is a magnificent suspended marble structure with only four pillar supports, with intricate statues of Greek mythology carved in marble all along the railing of the three-level staircase. Once there were nine gorgeous statues of the Muses; now only eight remain, each with an inscription by the Italian expert Carara. Along the staircase wall are 36 framed photographs of the British Viceroys and Governors General of India. On the upper level is the Jade Room. The design of this room is a treat for all those who love symmetry. Showcases displaying bric-a-brac are placed in all four corners of the room and represent a season each—autumn, winter, spring and summer.

The Durbar Hall, also referred to as the “Ballroom in Paradise”, is considered the most beautiful quarter in the palace. The hall has a timber floor made of diamond- and triangle-shaped wooden pieces that fit together to emerge as a decoration. There are 600 such panels that furnish the floor. This opulent hall is also fixed with heavy velvet drapes. The major challenge for the restoration team was to create precise pieces that fit into the original jigsaw-puzzle pattern on the floor.

However, the piece de resistance is the dining hall, which boasts the world’s longest dining table with 101 chairs. The table, 100 feet long and made by conjoining seven pieces, can accommodate 101 people at a time for elaborate dinners. The hall has an exquisite acoustic system, and the ceiling is adorned with beautiful Belgian chandeliers.

The restoration of the carpets at Falaknuma palace was completed by importing yarn from New Zealand to ensure a perfect match of the original carpets. It was dyed over 200 times to match the comprehensive colour as in the old carpet, and the entire process took almost three years. All the glittering chandeliers were custom-made by Osler of London, the leading makers of chandeliers in the 19th century. Likewise, the various fabrics found in the palace have intricate handmade designs, and the restoration effort took four years. The camel-leather upholstery posed its own difficulties in creating intricate embossed designs after months of curing.

“To look out from the Falaknuma palace walls as the orange orb of the sun dips behind the silhouetted hills is to know that everything you see from horizon to horizon is yours to rule,” says Prabhakar N. Mahindrakar, the in-house historian-cum-chief security officer. One can actually feel that regal air as dusk turns to night. Even the stars in the sky and the glittering city lights seem to be bowing in obeisance to the occupant of Falaknuma palace.

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