Into a Nizam’s heaven
Adaa and nazakat, two beautiful Urdu words, come closest to summing up the fairytale world that is the Taj Falaknuma Palace in the Nizam’s city of Hyderabad. But to get the nuance of what they really convey, many English words need to be deployed — elegance, style, romance, beauty, poise, grace, charm, tantalising…. This palace, in its different moods, does all this, and more, to you.
I arrive at the Taj Falaknuma (mirror of the heavens) bleary-eyed after an early morning flight. But the regal horse-carriage, bearing the Nizam’s insignia, waiting to transport me to the elegantly appointed Shahzaadi suite, wakes me up. The carriage pulls up before the magnificent white-and-grey edifice, and I climb up the steps — to be showered with rose petals! The palace, built in the shape of a scorpion, exudes warmth, calm, grandeur and beauty, all rolled into one. Suddenly my simple cotton top and comfortable trousers (worn for the flight) appear inadequate… surely, a delicately embroidered Tusser silk kurta was called for, I rue.
My suite is in the zenana section, where the sixth Nizam, Mahboob Ali Pasha, kept a harem of 100 women, no less. Built over 32 acres on the Koh-i-Tur Hill, which is 2,000 ft above sea level, the palace overlooks the old city of Hyderabad. It’s Eid, the weather is great, and the city’s icons, such as the Charminar, Mecca Masjid and Golconda Fort, are visible from the marbled front porch.
An Eid celebration
The sound of Eid prayers, the shor-sharaba of the festivities rend the air. The ambience transports you to a bygone era where every Eid celebration must have been special, with huge bartan overflowing with lazeez khana. Men and women, resplendent in their finest silks and the famed Nizam’s jewels, would be gliding around the palace grounds enjoying a scale of grandeur that ordinary mortals can only dream of.
Or so I thought, having no clue of the warm and lavish hospitality that General Manager Girish Sehgal and his team would enchant me with!
Within an hour or so of landing at Falaknuma, it is easy to get intoxicated. Particularly enchanting is the flora: Acres of lush greenery, shady canopies of tamarind, pomegranate, sweet-lime and other fruit trees, swaying date palms, flowering trees and colourful bushes twirling around the many pathways. The fragrance of mogra, the Nizam’s favourite flower, permeates the air.
But more intoxication is in store — when sparkling wine is offered at breakfast. The first morning I say a polite ‘no’, but on the second I go for it, thinking it would pair beautifully with the delectable Paya-nihari-Sheermal (trotters-bread) combo. It does. I’m coaxed into trying the kheema-naan, which is delicious too. A wide range of healthy drinks, a host of pastries, cakes and the softest of croissants are on offer at breakfast, which is prepared to order.
To atone for the sinful calories, after a break, I head for the cool waters of the swimming pool nestling in perfect sylvan surroundings. A few laps, and the pool attendant treats me to a refreshing raw mango drink and cut fruits.
The breakfast is only a teaser for the nawabi hospitality that follows. Ramzan has just ended, so the haleem has to be tasted; it melts in the mouth. To keep it so smooth and yet, unlike a paste, with distinct, well-done meat strands tantalising your taste buds is a challenge the chef has got right. Between Celeste, the Falaknuma’s all-day diner offering international cuisine, and Adaa, its aptly named Indian restaurant, Executive Chef Arun Nayak’s team provide guests an unforgettable culinary experience.
The kachchi Hyderabadi biryani is subtle and deliciously fragrant, the lamb just right and juicy; the array of kebabs are a delectable assault on your taste buds. From the Dahi ke kebab, a rare kebab made from hung yoghurt, green chilli and cardamom, to the Gosht ki shammi, patties made with meat, chana dal and spices — the stuff just melts in the mouth. Falaknuma also reminds you that just as in the finest of Mediterranean cuisine in Greece or Spain, food is not something you rush through.
So you have Ithmenan se, the Urdu equivalent of “slow food”. Under this category, I sampled the lip-smacking and unbelievably tender Pathar ka Gosht; the recipe for this special dish was discovered in the Falaknuma Palace’s archives and perfected by the chef. On offer are scallops of kid lamb marinated over 48 hours and then cooked slowly over hot granite.
But the best of Dakhani cuisine is only a part of the charm of staying at the Falaknuma, where, as a reviewer puts it on Trip Advisor, “The staff make you feel as though you’re a king returning to your own palace”. Whether it is the shining marble, the shimmering, exquisite chandeliers, gleaming tabletops with intricate wood inlay work, luxurious sofas with leather embellishments, rich carpets, the central staircase which is an architectural wonder having no vertical suspension, ballroom and conference hall — which was once the Nizam’s breakfast room, library with a collection of rare books, or banquet hall with a table that can comfortably seat 120 diners, every nook and corner of this edifice raises enigmatic questions in the mind of the guest.
For answers, I read Falaknuma, the book by George Michell, and take a guided tour with historian Prabhakar Mahindrakar. Hyderabad, as the largest Indian princely State, had to keep abreast of western politics and fashion. Among important persons who often visited Europe was Viqar ul Omra, the Diwan of Mahboob Ali Pasha. After an eight-month Europe visit in 1882, Omra was inspired to build a new-classical style grand palace.
Work on the Falaknuma Palace began in 1884 with an ambitious design, and although the Diwan moved into it in 1889 he continued to embellish it with custom-built furniture, chandeliers, frescos, and fountains. Over 10 years, he spent an estimated Rs 30-40 lakh and went bankrupt. There are many versions of how the palace changed hands from the Diwan to his boss, the Nizam. I liked best Prabhakar’s, which has it that after a lavish party at the palace in 1897, the Nizam stayed on for a few nights, called his host and said: “Merey pair yaha se nahi uthtey hei (My feet refuse to move from here).”
Nizam moves in!
Omra had little option but to offer the palace, built in Tudor-Italian style, as a gift to his boss, and the Nizam compensated him handsomely, paying much more than the amount spent on building and decorating this edifice. “Sixteen types of wood and 10 types of marble have been used here, mainly from Europe. The exquisite chandeliers were custom-built in France and England,” says the historian, as he walks me around the place. As we enter the frescoed entrance foyer adorned with a stunning painting of an eagle (by Jean Gaudier), he recreates the past.
“The Nizam had 17 palaces in Hyderabad, but he chose to stay in Falaknuma, which was the grandest and most beautiful of all. He entertained and hosted State heads and the world’s royalty here… crown prince of Germany, Czar of Russia, King George V, Queen Mary and India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad, have been guests here.”
The walls and fittings in the famed library have spectacular inlay work in rosewood and mahogany. The glistening central reading table has prominent monograms of VO, the Diwan’s initials. The chairs have embossed gilded leather coverings, and the coffered ceiling is designed akin to the one at the Windsor Castle library!
The library has 5,970 rare books in nine languages, including English, Urdu, Persian and Arabic; the Nizam was well-versed in all the four languages, Prabhakar says. “We also have a first edition of the Sinking of the Titanic, written by a survivor, and a rare edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica printed in Cambridge in 1911 and dedicated to George V,” he adds.
My suite is elaborately done up in the subdued palace colours of beige, brown and grey. The washroom area is huge, the sanitary fittings are a shining gold, and the arrangement of white and peach lilies seduces the senses.
I am assigned a personal butler, Chinar, who ensures that my geographically-challenged brain takes me to the right places for meals, melodious sufi qawalis in the Gol Bungalow, and other places in the mammoth palace. Both the dinner experiences are unique; the second is a surprise pre-birthday party — they’d found out that my birthday was four days away — in the Nizam’s suite, which costs a whopping Rs 5–8 lakh a night, depending on the season. Kumar Mangalam Birla, Vijay Mallya and the Queen of Qatar have stayed here. Before dinner, the General Manager, Sehgal, joins me for cocktails — the pomegranate/ watermelon/ orange Mojitos here are to die for — and a special, intimate qawali session is organised by the Nizam’s poolside.
The GM is thrilled that in less than two years of its opening, the hotel is seeing many repeat guests opting for longer stay. The basic room here starts at around Rs 24,000, and the priciest is the Nizam’s suite.
“We treat all our guests as the Nizam’s special guests and strive to provide personalised service… if you love history, nature or luxury, this is the place to be in,” Sehgal smiles.
I experience total pampering and personalised service during my stay.
Yet, there is more, to reiterate that it is a Taj hotel. I’ve been attacking the scrumptious macaroons kept in my room, and Chinar must have noticed their disappearance. Just before I get into the Jaguar for airport transfer, she hands me a beautiful container packed with the delicacy… so I take back home more than just beautiful memories.
Queenly touches of luxury
In 2000, Taj Hotels took over the renovation of Falaknuma Palace. The renovation committee was headed by Princess Esra Jah, who married Mukkaram Jah, the grandson of the seventh Nizam. Historian Prabhakar Mahindrakar says when he first saw the palace, “I thought it would crumble very soon — huge cracks, decaying wooden ceilings, water seepage were all there. The carpets and curtains were in tatters, the upholstery was eaten away by white ants, and heaps of dust and huge cobwebs greeted me. Outside there were wild dogs, porcupines and snakes.”
But soon, experts were pressed into service and Princess Esra said, “I will restore the bygone era.” Her standards were rigorous — numerous carpets and curtains were rejected, and others had to be dyed repeatedly to get the right shade.
Women visitors will be fascinated with the meeting-cum-gossip room of Queen Ujala Begum. It has exquisite French furniture, with special shelves above the sofas to store cosmetics and perfumes for the ladies. Complementing wall-mounted mirrors and chandeliers are exotic drapery and matching carpets.
A highlight at the palace is the Nizam’s study, where “huzoor used the famous 183-carat Jacob diamond, valued at Rs 400 crore, as his paperweight. You can see the gold border all around and the original leather covering… 117 years have passed, but the leather is still intact,” says Prabhakar. Pointing to an ornate phone, he says: “From this phone, the Nizam used to make calls over 100 years ago.”
The treasures the various rooms and halls unfold are a virtual feast for the eyes and the senses. Ornate gilded frames and frescos, elaborate drapery and crystal castings for ceiling fans, intricate music systems, clocks with celestial figures… and the Nizam’s bed, its top made of gold and legs diamond-studded. A pulley system helped lower the lights for his reading! And then there was the Begum’s special bathtub with an intricate pipe system that carried not only hot and cold water but also perfume to be mixed into the bathwater.
I discover a fine touch in my wardrobe drawers, which are lined with cushioned silk, and smile, recalling the historian saying that Queen Ujala Begum’s wardrobes were lined thus because if one of her countless maids was not around and she rummaged around in it, her fingers should not be hurt!