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  • Shelley Dark

24. Nizams of Hyderabad

It's very early on Friday morning. I've made myself a cup of Indian Earl Grey tea, and I'm sitting at the desk in our quietly elegant room at the Falaknuma Palace. This is the central courtyard garden. Our room is half way down on the left.

I had a good night's sleep last night after dinner at the Italian restaurant overlooking the city. The cold didn't stop my appetite for long. Yes, not a tummy bug, but a heavy fluey cold which travelled through the bus from day 1. I succumbed at the end.

You're not going to believe what I had for dinner. In India. Rock lobster ravioli with a beautiful creamy sauce and black truffles shaved on top. A big piece of lobster in the middle. I am crazy about truffles! And the ravioli was the lightest, most beautifully tender home-made pasta that you could imagine. A glass of Indian viognier to go with it. John had spaghettti vongole with the teeniest mussels, and a Sula shiraz. A view over the city with thousands of lights twinkling. Sitting across from my best mate. In one of the world's most amazing palace hotels. Sick or not, it doesn't get any better than this.

I've not told you about Hyderabad. Or the Falaknuma Palace on its outskirts.

The history of both are closely interwoven. The palace is a perfect place to start the story. Get a cup of coffee. I'm going to tell you about the Asaf Jah dynasty of Hyderabad, one of the richest families in history. A direct descendant owns this palace.

That's the family flag above. Let's start at the beginning.

In 1655 the grand-daddy of them all, Khaja Abid, came to India from Persia, in what is now Uzbekistan. He was going to Mecca and was presented to the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (yes, the Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal), who offered him a job in his army.

Back from Mecca a couple of years later, he was made a general and won a battle for the emperor in the Deccan, the central part of India. He was made governor and then Qalich Khan, meaning ruler.

His arm was severed leading a battle during the siege of the Golconda fort (at Hyderabad, above), but he refused to get off his horse. He rode back to the camp where he was treated. He was drinking a coffee as the surgeons extracted bone from the wound. He died a few days later. His arm with his signet ring on it was found on the battlefield. I tell you this to illustrate what a warrior he was.

By the time the Mughal empire began to crumble in 1724 his grandson was able to declare himself sovereign ruler, the Nizam of Hyderabad. The beginning of the dynasty. He is now known as Asif Jah I. The family then ruled the huge state the size of France for 224 years.

Hyderabad is still the centre of Islamic culture in India, even though 70% of the population is Hindu.

And the man who owns this hotel palace is a direct descendant.

after breakfast

Our breakfast table is the one on the left. A live flautist playing. Sigh. But let's continue the story.

There were seven Nizams. The last two are of particular interest to us. So we'll skip along to Asaf Jah VI, the second last, who acquired this hotel.

His real name was Mir Mahaboob Ali Khan. He was only two and a half years old when he came to the throne in 1869. That's him above wearing a few pearls and the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He grew up to be a bon vivant with a lavish lifestyle, his income mainly from mining royalties including the Golconda diamond mines.

Cars, jewels, clothes, and hunting were his loves and he reputedly never wore the same clothes twice. His clothes took up one wing of the palace. His purchase of the Jacob Diamond is a story in itself.

His prime minister, who was also his uncle and brother-in-law, built the Falaknuma Palace on a hill overlooking Hyderabad, borrowing to do it. Mir Mahaboob came to visit for a weekend. He stayed a month. He said how much he loved the palace. It was gifted to him. He insisted on partly paying for it even though he already had 35 others. It became his favourite.

Despite his huge extravagances, his people loved him. After bad floods in 1908 he threw open his palaces to the homeless. His generosity was famous.

He had a reputation for being able to cure snake bite and allowed himself to be woken from sleep if a subject came to see him after being bitten. So widely was this known, that eventually all a victim had to do was to invoke Mahaboob's name and the venom would not spread through his body -:) He visited the city incognito at night to see how his subjects lived.

There was a bitter dispute with one of his wives over his successor. He was so saddened that he retreated to this, his favourite palace, and died here aged forty-three in 1911.

Forty-three seems so young. I wonder why he died. I google it. No answer. Ill health from his extravagant lifestyle? A sad man, embittered by a fight with a strong wife, and no other way out?

I seek out the historian at the palace who conducts the daily tours. He repeats the difficulties the Nizam had. He makes it sound as if the Nizam may have died of a broken heart.

Then I read something about someone in the next generation experimenting with poison. Now I am really intrigued.

I keep searching. A coinage website says he 'had a sudden stroke of paralysis and succumbed to it.'

I finally find what I think is the most probable answer from an Indian historian Narendra Luther. He says 'There he went into a drinking binge for three days. That resulted in a coma from which he never recovered.' Whatever the circumstances, what a sad death. Money has never guaranteed happiness.

The palace has had varied fortunes since his death. It was used mainly as a royal guesthouse until later in the twentieth century when it fell into disrepair. The Tatas who own the Taj Hotel Group came to an arrangement, I think in relation to debts they were owed, to lease the palace for 65 years. Renovations began in 2000. And so it shines again.

I'll tell you all about the palace itself and its renovation in another post.

If that's enough history for you, stop reading now. But if you'd like to know what happened to the Nizam line from then until now, read on. I found a book in the library at the Falaknuma Palace which helped with some of this information.

In 1911, Nizam VI was succeeded by his son, the twenty-five year old Mir Osman Ali Khan, Nizam VII, the last of the Nizams. The richest man in the world, he was just as extravagant as his father. But women were his real weakness. He took little or no interest in the Falaknuma Palace, which was used as a royal guest house.

Mir Osman was a staunch ally of the British, giving support in World War I. As a reward he was made 'His Exalted Highness' by King George V.

He gave Queen Elizabeth the Hyderabad necklace and tiara on her marriage in 1947. The photo above shows the necklace. She was able to choose anything from the existing stock at Cartier at the time. She wears the necklace often as in the photo above on her diamond jubilee, and the Duchess of Cambridge has worn them also.

Rather than 'His Exalted Highness', he was called 'His Exhausted Highness' because of his complicated love life.

These are his two eldest sons.

Most of the main buildings in Hyderabad were built during his reign. With the partition of India in 1947, he elected to remain separate, an independent dominion within the British Commonwealth. Britain refused. The Indian government invaded in 1948 and forced his abdication.

He became known for his eccentricity in later years, when he started knitting his own sox, receiving guests in old slippers and the same dirty turban. He supposedly sent a servant out to buy a blanket for not more than 25 rupees. The servant returned, having been unable to buy a blanket at that price. He did without.

He had so many pearls that they could have covered Picadilly Circus. He used a 185-carat diamond wrapped in newspaper as a paper weight, he kept money in cellars where the notes were eaten by mice. He hid jewels everywhere - a huge diamond was found in the toe of a slipper when he died. He loaded gold into trucks in case he needed to evacuate, and then let the trucks rust in the driveway.

When visited by the Prime Minister of India in 1965 for financial help after an Indo-chinese skirmish, he donated 500 tonnes of gold, in iron boxes. 'I'm donating the gold, not the boxes,' he said. 'I want the boxes back.'

Mir Osman had a huge family of hundreds to support when he died in 1967 and 14,718 employees. He had seven wives, twenty-four concubines, 100 mistresses, 3,000 guards, 28 water-carriers, 38 to dust chandeliers, walnut grinders and betel nut preparers. The women of his zenana (harem) wore numbered badges. There were legions of legitimate and illegitimate children.

His first wife Dulhan Pasha had two sons and it was said that she wanted to be regent when Mir Osman died. One of her sons remarked '‘We won’t be here. Mother is always experimenting with poisons, and there are no cats left in King Kothi.' That was the name of their palace home.

Osman's sons incurred debts in their father's name. The elder son (above, with his wife and the eventual Nizam VIII) went behind Mir Osman's back to the Indian government saying that his father was on his death bed, asking to be made Nizam after the event. Mir Osman was so angered by this that he wrote to the government asking that his son be passed over and his grandson Mukarram Jah installed instead. And so it happened, with the father in attendance at the ceremony.

Mukarram Jah became the unrecognised Nizam VIII and inherited a huge work force and financial chaos.

He found himself stripped of his privy purse by the Indian government. He married Turkish Princess Esra Birgin in 1959. She didn't want to emigrate with him to a sheep station in Western Australia, and they were divorced. Then in 1980 he married an Australian. After her death, he married and divorced a former Miss Turkey. Then Jameela Boularous from Morocco in 1993, and again in 1995 to Turkish Princess Orchedi. I think he still spends his time between Istanbul and Australia. He must have many Australian connections.

There were lawsuits from the rest of the family making claims on the estate.

In 1995, the entire family jewels had to be sold in a firesale auction. I took these photos of the catalogue at the palace. The Indian government bought most of them, at firesale prices.

Murrakam Jah and Princess Esra have spear-headed the renovation of the Falaknuma Palace and the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad. But I'll tell you the story of the palace contents and the renovation in another post.

So there you have it. What a family! Hope you enjoyed it.

I didn't write all of that at the palace - we're now at home, my cold is much better, and I'm enjoying writing again. I was getting withdrawal symptoms. I'm still to update you on the sights of Hyderabad and the palace itself. Until then, travelling buddies...

shelley dark, writer 

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