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The complex was falling into ruin, with every window and doorway sealed by red wax. I could see cobwebs the size of bedsheets hanging from the corners of the rooms. The skeletons of outsized Victorian sofas and armchairs lay dotted around the parquet floors, their chintz upholstery eaten away by white ants. The gardens had given way to scrub flats, waterless fountains, and paint-flaking flagpoles at crazy angles ... ”
This is what William Dalrymple, the writer on India, saw when he visited Falaknuma Palace, which stands high above the city of Hyderabad, in 1997. Built less than a century before, it was one of the many lavish palaces of a man who until the 1940s had been acknowledged as the richest in the world: the Nizam of Hyderabad. Before India’s independence, Hyderabad was a semi-autonomous state with an economy the size of Belgium’s, its own railway, post office and currency, and a ruling family whose fortune came from deep in their own earth: the diamond mines nearby at Golconda produced some of the world’s most famous stones, including the Koh-i-Noor. It is said that at Falaknuma the last Nizam liked to use the 184-carat Jacob diamond as a paperweight as he worked at his desk.
When the Nizam died in 1967 that stone – like so much else – was missing, until his grandson (and heir) located it in one of the old man’s shoes. Its estimated value was $200m. By 1973, however, the grandson had fled the bitter family feuds and moved to a sheep farm in Australia; within a decade even that was sold to pay creditors. The great palaces of Hyderabad, including Falaknuma, stood crumbling, prey to the climate, the looters and the white ants.
Cut to 2010. As we drive up a steep lane, beyond the racket of modern Hyderabad, the bus stops in front of a tall, colonnaded structure, stucco’ed in pearly grey and white, with an immense central archway. This is just the gatehouse. There is a sudden cacophony of drummers, playing to greet us in the darkness, and horse-drawn landaus to carry us on up the hill past turbanned torch-bearers and a small phalanx of camel-cavalry to the elegant sweep of driveway in front of the palace itself.
The lavish welcome may have been Indian; the palace is not. Tall columns run the length of a two-storey stucco’ed building forming wide Italianate loggias in a perfect model of European late-18th-century taste, restrained yet luscious. Into the hall, and we step straight into Italy: a cube of cool pale marble with a central statue, arcaded walls prettily frescoed, a ceiling painted in dreamy pastels. Next, into – well, Bavaria, perhaps. The stairs, of cantilevered marble, are lined with marble statues of Greek deities and turn upwards into a double-height hall hung with gilt-framed portraits (of the rulers and their prime ministers: these at least are Indian). In the next room we could be at Windsor Castle: it’s an English gentleman’s library complete with panelling, an inlaid wood desk of superb quality, thousands of books in glass cases.
And so it goes on. The billiard room, complete with every Edwardian accoutrement (including a bronzed fishhead tap that dispenses chalk); the dining room with a 33-metre-long table set with gold and silver; the chandelier’d, mirror-lined ballroom with its acres of gleaming inlaid parquet.
I’d thought I was coming to a hotel. What I’d actually come to is a museum – a fantastical celebration of the taste for all things European that beset the rich Indians of the time. But it’s a museum in which, oddly, I am allowed to sit on the chairs.
Not just allowed, encouraged. For this is the Taj Falaknuma Palace Hotel, and its opening earlier this month is a new beginning for this extraordinary building. It is 14 years since the Taj hotel group first leased Falaknuma from the former royal family, and it has spent more than 10 years, and upwards of $25m, restoring it up to and beyond its former glory. And when you look at every brocaded curtain, marble carving, gilded frame and silvered cabinet, every thousand-piece chandelier, $25m seems rather a modest sum.
Oh, and the bedrooms. There are only 60, in two long wings that stretch either side of fountained gardens, arcaded (for the ordinary rooms) or (for the grand suites) grouped around a courtyard with a star-shaped pool that was in the old zenana, or women’s quarters. One does not sleep with the full weight of history on one’s head, thank goodness, and the rooms are cool, pale, simple in style yet luxurious.
There is a Pillow Menu, which claims to be able to assuage jetlag, or arouse passion. I put neither to the test, I’m afraid. There is also a Bath Menu, and ditto. One of my fellow guests, who asked her butler to prepare a special relaxing bath for her, turned up very late for dinner with a strangely dreamy look on her face. But that could have been to do with the spa, also in the old zenana, around a series of quiet pools and shady verandahs.
The restaurants lead out to an astonishing belvedere: a verandah topped with a kaleidoscope dome of coloured glass held by spindly iron pillars: after-dinner coffee here includes a hookah pipe.
One imagines the Nizam’s family to have been happy in this tranquil place, with its magisterial views over the immense city. But they scarcely lived here. Falaknuma was really only for receiving foreign dignitaries and giving the odd western-style banquet. George V stayed here, as did Edward VIII, and Tsar Nicholas II. Apart from that, this place seems to have been, up to now, rather unloved.
So we had to launch out into the town to see where the Nizams actually lived. The wealth of Hyderabad through the ages means ıt ıs full of treasures – tombs and temples, mosques and parks – but ıt hasn’t been the easıest cıty to apprecıate, partly because of ıts sıze, partly because the sıtes are dılapıdated or not even open to vısıtors. Despite a population of over 6m, it has hardly been on the map for most European tourists in India.
But things are changing. In the heart of the old town, where the minarets of the exquisite 16th-century Charminar monument punctuate the crossroads of the different bazaars, the blaring, beeping jostling is as full-on as in any Indian town. In the Laad Bazaar (laad means to show love: this bazaar is devoted to self-adornment and present-giving, silks, make-up, anything that sparkles – and the bangles for which Hyderabad is famous) a Muslim boy was cheerfully selling sparkly decoratıons for the Hındu festıval of Diwali.
In the middle of the hurly-burly is the finest of the other former royal residences, Chowmahallah Palace, an arched and domed fantasy that mixes architecture from Turkey, Iran, India and Europe. It is now open to the public, but just five years ago, this palace too lay in semi-ruins, and it was Princess Esra, the Turkish first wife of the current Nizam, who started the long process of conversion into a museum.
Earlier Muslim architecture is also here for enthusiasts. The medieval Golconda fort, a ruined city in itself – ramparts, turrets, tunnels, elephant traps and rooftop camel stables – was the powerhouse of successive rulers from the 13th century. The kings of the Qutub Shah dynasty who ruled in the 16th and 17th centuries fought off invaders jealous of their wealth, until finally the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb captured the fort in 1687. The tombs of the Qutub Shah kings, each a giant domed mausoleum of austere beauty, range across an enormous park not far away.
Another potentate. James Achilles Kirkpatrick, came to Hyderabad in 1798 as British Resident. He built a granite mansion in full western neo-classical style and installed there his teenage wife, Khair-un-Nissa, granddaughter of Hyderabad’s prime minister. Kirkpatrick lived like a king, maintaining a harem and converting to Islam. The couple had three children but by 1801 the British in Calcutta were so scandalised by Kirkpatrick’s way of life, and in particular his interracial marriage, that he was recalled and dismissed. Kirkpatrick soon died and Khair’s two surviving children were sent away to their grandparents in England; she too died, at the age of only 27, and never saw them again.
But Kirkpatrick’s astonishing house remains, dust and rotting plaster the memorial to a touching Anglo-Indian love story. Perhaps this marvellous neglected building will be the next to emerge, like Falaknuma, from the decay of ages.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor
Bales Worldwide (www.balesworldwide.com) offers six nights at the Taj Falaknuma, including flights from Mumbai, transfers, breakfasts and sightseeing from £1,375. Six nights including flights from London with Kingfisher Airways (www.flykingfisher.com) costs from £1,850. www.tajhotels.com