• 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 ne