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  • Shelley Dark

26. Falaknuma Palace

The Falaknuma Palace is the perfect place to end our trip together. A space to catch our breath in an iconic Indian setting before we fly home. A place to meditate on what we have seen.

Falaknuma means 'mirror of the sky'.

photo: Bernard Gagnon, shared under Creative Commons Licence

I've used this wide-angle photo of the main facade of the palace to show you its scorpion shape. We are looking at the head, with a claw either side. The coat of arms is top centre, with a neon lit moon and star above to symbolise the sky.

It's on 32 acres overlooking the southern suburbs of Hyderabad and has been in the hands of the royal family since construction started in 1884. Built originally by Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, the royal prime minister, it was said to have almost bankrupted him. Mehboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam, came to visit for a weekend and loved it so much he stayed for a month. (There are many different spellings of his first name). The Nawab gifted it to him, but he insisted on paying for it. Fortunately for the Nawab.

Designed by an English architect William Marrett in a mix of Tudor and Italianate styles, it's built of Carrara marble.

Mehboob spent the next twenty-two years decorating the palace flamboyantly in styles ranging from Tudor to early Art Deco. He filled it with statues and hugely extravagant ornaments from all over the world, embossed camel leather wallpaper, Bohemian crystal chandeliers and 24 carat gold lights, French oak parquetry, stained glass from Britain, Chinese silk, thousands of books, clocks, and reputedly the world's most valuable collection of jade. He had the longest dining table in the world at the time seating 101 people, and one of the first private telephone exchanges. Amusingly, the stone was painted in places with a faux wood finish as being more exotic.

From his death until the death of Mir Osman in 1967, the palace was used as a guest house. It hosted dignitaries such as Nicholas II, King George V and Queen Mary, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII). Mir Osman never lived here, preferring the frugality of his life in another palace.

By the mid-1950's it was almost abandoned. Shut up, disused, and finally sealed by the courts during legal wrangles, the building and contents deteriorated badly. Leather dried out and cracked, fabrics rotted, carpets disintegrated, walls cracked open, holes appeared in the roof.

We arrive by taxi at the huge gatehouse (a beautiful match for the palace itself). There we are put into the Nizam's antique horse-drawn carriage. Holding the reins is a man in a bright red fez. Our anticipation rises with every clip-clop up the kilometre-long drive over the granite cobbles.

A golden standard bearer waits at attention as we get out of of the carriage and are offered a delicious sugar cane juice with ginger and lime. Fragrant rose petals shower down on our heads.

I hate it when I'm practical but I'm thinking someone has to sweep those up. Later in the day I see a pretty heap.

The tiles on the first floor verandah are quite lovely. I read later in a printout from the concierge that they are Minton.

There to greet us is Kunal, a tall and handsome young Indian in black frock-coat or sherwani whose English grammar is perfect but with a heavy accent. I strain to understand him. I lose concentration and watch his face instead. I'm startled when he asks something. He finds our Australian accents difficult too. He will be finished his indenture soon, and will then look for promotion to managerial positions.

We enter the vestibule with its trompe l'oeil ceiling and marble fountain. The eyes of the eagle in the centre of the ceiling turn to follow as we pass through.

There is nothing visible to suggest this is a hotel. We pass the desk which is hidden below the massive marble staircase cantilevered against the walls of the enormous 18 metre high stairwell. Photos of all the British viceroys line the walls. There are marble statues of the muses of Greek mythology on the balustrade, holding lamps on their heads.

In 1995, Mukarram Jah's finances were in a mess. He was living in Australia, but there were legal proceedings from the legions of relations dating from the time of Nizam VII. He appealed to his ex-wife Princess Esra, whom he had divorced in the mid-70's, for help. Happily he contacted his estranged sons too.

In the last decade much has been done by them in co-operation. Princess Esra has overseen the renovation of the Falaknuma Palace and the Chowmahalla Palace we saw in Hyderabad. In 2010 for the first time in its history, this palace opened to paying guests. I'm so glad it did.

We walk through the library which holds 5,900 books and is modelled on the library at Windsor Castle. Shelves line the four walls. If you read one book a day it would take 16 years to read them all.

The teak, walnut and rosewood ceiling is panelled, and bears the monogram of VO, the prime minister who first owned the palace.

There is a set of the 11th edition of Encylopaedia Britannica (1911). I read on google that this is the most valuable edition ever. It's special because it represents the optimistic yet bigoted attitudes of the last of the colonial power days, when there was only one undisputed point of view and that was British, before the horror of World War I plunged the world into gloom.

One hundred and fifty rare books are available for guests to peruse, under the discreet eye of a security guard. There is a feeling here of being a guest in a private home. Everything is for use - the sofas, chairs, tables, billiard room.

Not this bathtub of course, with jacuzzi-type jets which shoot from the sides, and taps to adjust HOT, COLD, and PERFUME. A begum wouldn't dream of showering in unperfumed water. The curtain has an embroidered gold thread pattern. Speaking of perfume, faintly exotic fragrances waft through the whole palace, subtly seducing the senses.

It's so obvious when you see the palace that it's been done by someone with a passion. No one interested in profit would have paid the attention to detail taken here. For the sake of preservation of a priceless treasure, it's been a wonderful partnership between Mukarram Jah, Princess Esra and the Tata Group who own the Taj hotel chain, who have leased this property.

Princess Esra is a qualified architect and meticulous. She met Mukarram Jah while she was studying in London and he was at Sandhurst. For the renovation she used an early 20th century set of photographs of the palace to make the renovation as authentic as possible.

Specialist firms were called in to restore the leather, the embroidery threads used on it, the paintings. This is embossed camel leather. Anyone is welcome to sit here.

New Zealand wool was used to reproduce the carpets, dyed 300 times with American dyes until they were the pale shades Princess Esra wanted. A new mill in Varanasi was set up to weave carpets of this size.

She tried many greys until she was satisfied with the colour of the building. She wanted it to disappear into the sky at dusk.

Parquetry was lifted and sanded, missing pieces replaced with European, American and Burmese wood. This is the Durbar Hall which doubled as a ballroom.

Wood is used cleverly in a geometric Islamic-come-Art-Deco pattern in the Jade Room.

There are many references to the sky in the furnishings.

Even the fans have crystal embellishment. You can see the amazing detail in the coloured ceiling of the Jade Room.

Although it's not a good photo because of the glare of overhead lights, you can make out the amazing parquetry floor work. I think the square was about two feet or 600mm.

Glass was imported from England France and Poland, and the exquisite dome in the Gol Bungalow reconstructed. Sixty percent of the glass was broken and lying on the floor beneath. This verandah projection at the southern end of the palace complex is the tail of the scorpion.

There are limited tables out here for breakfast, so we make sure we are early to have the table on the left.

Some fabrics in the palace used copper yarn no longer available and were recreated with 80 kg of artificial copper yarn especially made. Tassels were sourced in Turkey by an Indian textile company. The braids are exquisite.

We pass through the main building to the gardens contained within the quadrangle formed by the palace outbuildings.

Our bedroom is half way down on the left. It's unremarkable but quietly elegant, thankfully lacking the heavy Victorian mix of opulence of the main palace.

A central hallway dressing room leads to a big bathroom, a marble hand basin on either side and a big central bath on a wooden base. I even love the anti-slip design in the bottom.

I'm very taken with our generously gathered bedroom curtain fabric. I get John to stretch it out to photograph the restrained colours with peacock motif.

After we are settled in, we wander about. There's a guided tour at 5.30pm with the palace historian, Prabhakar Mahindrakar. He is tall and wears the long black sherwani well. He was hired as a palace guard by the Indian government in the nineties, and ended up working with Princess Esra on the renovation. His passion for his subject is obvious. Half way through the tour, glasses of an Indian bubbly are offered to us. Later when I ask him about the ultimate end of Nizam VI, he implies that Mehboob Jah died of a broken heart.

He tells us that he himself came from a poor family. There was no expectation of this for him. No one imagined he would be giving tours of a palace. Me, he says and points at his chest. Me! Who would have thought? He laughs out loud. He's delighted with his success, and rightly so. He speaks very quickly and I miss half of the wonderful information he gives during the tour. He has quite a dramatic flair. He gives this talk several times a day with the same enthusiasm.

We begin downstairs. We see the Nizam's office, a huge oil portrait of him and his father on the wall behind the desk. An antique clock made by the East India Company at the end of the room rings on the quarter hour. A man is supposed to march out from a little door to strike the hour. I make sure I come back on the hour but it doesn't work.

The is the Nizam's white telephone made by the Bombay Telephone Company. There are other tours of the palace by outside guides during the day, and we hear an outside guide telling his group that it was carved out of a solid piece of marble. I doubt it, but here, nothing is impossible.

Towards the end of the tour, we notice the sun is setting over another fairyland wing of the palace. A guard lets us out through a locked door on to the top of the scorpion's claw and we stay in the gathering dusk to photograph it.

There is an upmarket designer fashion launch happening on the front lawn. Models strut around the stage, hips thrust out. I see one later being photographed on the marble stairs by a couple of photographers. No one I ask knows who the designer is.

As we return to our room, we hear the sound of a group of Qawwali singers in the half-light under the dome down near the restaurants. Almost always exclusively a group of men, they're on a mat on the stone floor performing songs which combine the sound of Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Indian music. No sooner are we seated on comfortable chairs under the trees than a waiter appears. We order an Indian beer. A nearby guest gets up several times to speak to them between songs, and to tip them. He tells us he is Muslim and lives in New Jersey. He and his wife are here to visit family.

We have dinner in Alceste, the Italian restaurant. It will be a change from the (very good) Indian food we've been having. An alarm bell rings in my head about ordering Italian in the centre of India. I needn't have worried. Our meals are superb. We could be in Rome. Light as air home-made rock lobster ravioli and spaghetti vongole. And wonder of wonders. My favourite of favourites. Shaved black truffle on top. Cold wine. The lights of the city twinkling below us.

I have all day the following day to wander the palace and take photographs. I spend hours in the library. I could stay here for a week. We have a late checkout at 2pm. We are free to use all the facilites until we leave for the airport at 8pm. I consider having a treatment in the spa, but I can do that any time at home.

I go back to the huge dining room with its table which seats 101 guests. The Nizam had pure gold charger plates and gold cutlery. The chairs were upholstered in green leather for the visit of King Geoge V. The acoustics are so amazing that a person at one end of the table can hear someone speak at normal volume at the other end. What happens when there are 101 people seated, I don't find out.

This is the Nizam's hookah pipe. Four people can use it at once.

Only two of these biliard tables were made by Burroughes & Watts, London. The other one is in Buckingham Palace. The Nizam's own favourite cue is not on the stand with the other antique ivory-tipped cues. It lies by itself in a glass-topped box, inlaid with ivory and ebony geometric designs.

I love the Taj boutique under the palace with designer and costume jewellery, silver filigree, soft furnishings, paintings and clothes. I pick up a piece of silver. It's six thousand dollars. What I like best though is the fitout. It's been decorated professionally with antiques. Old showers, antique beds, light fittings, badminton raquets, old picnic baskets from the days of the Raj. I enjoy just looking at the display.

We sit in the office in the late afternoon while I edit photos. We speak to a guide who is waiting for her group who are taking the hotel tour. She is from Chennai and turns out to be a close associate of Ashoka who was our guide there. He's the president of the Chennai Tourist Guides Association. She's the vice-president. Even India is a small world.

Late in the afternoon we wander back down to the chairs under the mango tree to order one last beer. The waiter who looked after us at breakfast comes out to take our order. We're sipping quietly in the dusk, nibbling on a bowl of nuts. The qawwali singers are up on the second floor of the main palace tonight, so it's quiet here.

We see our waiter coming back with another waiter. One has a dish which he puts down with a laughing flourish. On it is a slice of chocolate cake and and a note piped in icing saying 'You may go, but be back soon.'

The other is carrying a bottle of bubbles. From behind their backs they each bring out a long stemmed red rose. I laugh with delight. John is saying 'No no please don't open that. We've only just started our beer!' But the bottle is already open. One by one, four other staff members appear, each with a red rose and champagne glasses. They've even co-opted a groundsman to bring the sixth rose. He's looking very uncomfortable. The rest of us are laughing and talking at once. I'm saying 'Yes I can drink one. Will you boys finish the rest?'

The groudsman excuses himself quickly but the other 5 boys stay, chatting. One is soon leaving for Australia to study a degree in hospitality at Griffith University's Gold Coast campus. He will be living with friends already studying there. We give him our email address and tell him to email us if he's visiting the north coast. They have all just been on a holiday weekend to Goa. They sound more like Australian boys, talking about how much beer they drank for breakfast. I tell them they will kill their brain cells if they drink too much. They all laugh. They tell us we must come back next year.

They've looked after us so well.

It's such a happy way to be leaving the palace, and India. On the way to the airport I give the roses to the taxi driver for his wife. She is a stay-at-home mum and they have two small children. He's happy.

And so we come to the end of our tour. We've covered the south of the continent. It hasn't had the colour or glamour of the trip we did last year to the north. But I've loved it. And I've enjoyed the food more. We've seen much more variety in religion, landscape, people and industry. And a tiger and a leopard. I've discovered I love cardamom seed. I know what ripe tamarind tastes like and I wish I had a fruiting tree.

I love India. I love the Indian people. I love the palace. I'm thinking 50th wedding anniversary here? Shhh. Don't tell John.

On an eastern terrace at the palace.

Thank you for your company on this trip. Having you with me has increased my enjoyment a thousand fold.

Until our next trip together buddies, I'm putting my hands together to you.

From my soul, I acknowledge the soul within you. Namaste.

PS I won't be making a book of this trip as I did the last. But I'm working on a way of keeping it available to you when this trip disappears from the website to make way for the next trip. Where to? I'm thinking about it.

shelley dark, writer 

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