Staying at Falaknuma palace is like holding a mirror up to the past

Falaknuma, or Mirror of the Sky, is where the Nizam of Hyderabad once lived. It is now a hotel.

By Sumit Chakraberty

Sitting on the Gole terrace of the Falaknuma palace on top of a hill in Hyderabad, I had mixed feelings. Refrains of the evening namaaz wafted up from the old city spread out below. This is where the Nizam would have once put his feet up to watch the sun setting over his kingdom. Out there, fading rapidly in the dusk, was the Charminar, a centuries old relic of royal power that barely gets a curious glance today from the teeming crowds in the bazaar around it. Spanning left, I could see the lights had begun to glimmer on the high-rises of Hyderabad’s hi-tech city. How eager we were to embrace modernity, I thought, after centuries of subjugation by our colonial masters and their surrogate Nizami rulers.

So it is with a kind of ambivalent awe that I took in the opulence and extravagance of my surroundings at the Falaknuma palace, which is today a Taj heritage hotel. How much of it was paid for by the taxes the Nizam collected from ordinary farmers and traders, I wondered.

Staying here for me was like stepping into the past and contextualising our present. This is where the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mehboob Ali Pasha, spent 16 years with one of his four wives, Ujala Begum (although it was another wife Zahira Begum’s son Mir Osman Ali Khan who became the next Nizam and ruled Hyderabad until his ouster by the Indian army after independence).

The world’s longest dining table

At Adaa, the palace restaurant specialising in Nizami cuisine, head waiter Puneet Bera pointed to a gold-framed portrait of the sixth Nizam, rifle in hand and three dead tigers at his feet. He probably liked the epithet given to him as a killer of 30 tigers: Tees Maar Khan. Signs of his indulgent life were everywhere: the longest dining table in the world which could seat 101 people under a row of chandeliers in a room 130-feet long, a library with a walnut carved roof which is supposed to be a replica of the one in Windsor Castle, and a made-to-order bathtub for his Begum which had a Jacuzzi-like system spouting hot and cold water as well as the Nizam’s favourite jasmine perfume.

Something for the masses

Mehboob Ali Pasha died young in his mid-forties, and his successor Mir Osman Ali Khan appears to have had more of a yen for indulging his people as much as himself. The Osman Sagar Dam is still one of Hyderabad’s main water sources and both Osmania University and Osmania Hospital were built in his time. As for himself, he liked to change cars like a Bollywood star changes dresses, ending up with a fleet of more than 400, one of which was made to order with his throne installed in it.

Osman Ali Khan did not live at Falaknuma, but used it to entertain our colonial lords and masters with whom he had a cosy relationship. Larger-than-life portraits of King George V and Queen Mary, and smaller ones of sundry viceroys and governors, adorn the walls of the European-styled palace which must have flattered the visitors no end. Falaknuma means a mirror image of the sky, but its English architect obviously modelled it on British castles, with at least one facade giving a hint of Buckingham Palace. Fancy French furniture like the Begum’s gossip sofas, a cantilevered staircase from Italian marble, and cherubs painted on the foyer’s ceiling completed the European look of this most ostentatious of the Nizam’s 17 palaces.

And yet, as the lives of palaces go, Falaknuma’s glory was short-lived. Just 50 odd years after it was built at such great expense, the palace was virtually abandoned as the last Nizam and later his heir, Mukarram Jah, no longer had the means or the inclination for its upkeep after India became independent. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Tatas approached Mukarram Jah, who now divides his time between Australia and Turkey, to restore the palace and make it a heritage hotel. This took 15 years and Rs200 crore.

A hotel rises from the ruins

Prabhakar Mahindrakar, who is now the palace historian, remembers his first visit to Falaknuma. There were huge cracks in the walls and part of the ceiling had given way. Rainwater came streaming in and collected in the chandeliers. “It was a scary scene. I thought the palace would collapse,” said Mahindrakar.

The trickier part of the restoration, however, was to recreate the look and feel of the original interiors. Mahindrakar, who moved into the palace in 2001 and stayed four years in what is now the 45,000-rupee-a-night Charminar suite, remembers how difficult it was to find carpets with the right texture and shade for the jade room. Mukarram Jah’s Turkish wife Esra Jah finally approved one which had been washed over and over again to give it that faded jade look to blend with the jade walls, jade ceiling and jade upholstery.

Just a couple of years back, the Falaknuma reopened as a hotel, although it is also a museum and archaeological site rolled into one. Just the other day, while relaying some old underground pipes, hotel workers stumbled upon what turned out to be a 100-year-old Zen garden with its little pagodas, bridges and other typical features still intact. The Taj Falaknuma GM, Girish Sehgal, now awaits an expert from Japan who will restore this to its original state.

It’s good to connect with our past, however painful parts of it may have been for an exploited people, I decided as I gazed down from the Gole terrace at old Hyderabad, now twinkling at nightfall. It tells us where we came from, helps us understand who we are. And anyway, 65 years after independence, we are self-confident enough to deal with it.

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