Hyderabad: A diamond in the rough

Beautifully restored and recently re-opened as a heritage hotel, Falaknuma Palace might just put the once wealthy, historic city on the tourist map.

What's it like, you may wonder, to nibble at the life of one who was once the world's richest man? Rich, wealthy - these words hardly touch upon the extravagances enjoyed by the nizams, or sovereigns, of Hyderabad, a once influential state in south-central India. Their story is of stupendous wealth derived mainly from diamonds, for this was the world's only known source of the gems until the late 1800s, followed by rapid mid-20th century decline.

"On that desk over there," said Prabhaka Mahindrakar, pointing into a high-ceilinged study, "Nizam used [the] Jacob Diamond as a paperweight." His son, I heard, had later found it stuffed into a royal slipper; some say it was only put there to maintain the shape of its pointed toe. Among the world's largest diamonds, the Jacob is now held by the Reserve Bank of India and was last valued at about US$100m (Dh367m).

Here at the recently opened Falaknuma Palace Hotel, its guide-historian Mahindrakar was ushering me through several halls and chambers. Millions of rupees have been spent over the past 10 years to painstakingly restore the palace, which stands on a rounded hill on the southern edge of Hyderabad's Old City. I was here to taste a small morsel of that fabled wealth and to explore the venerable parts of what is now India's sixth-largest city.

Completed in 1893 by the sixth Nizam's well-travelled and urbane prime minister, Sir Vicar al-Umra, it distilled his penchant for a European-style palace. He named it Falaknuma, Urdu for "mirror of heaven", and proceeded to host lavish high-society parties. Some years later the nizam, Mahboob Ali Khan, was invited to dinner, stayed 20 days and remarked covetously on its allure. Bound by the old tradition of nazar, a kind of enforced generosity that reflected Hyderabad's rarefied culture and elaborate etiquette, his minister replied, "I built it for you"- and vacated the next day.

Mahboob set about filling it with riches and employing the finest craftsmen, but he died relatively young in 1911. His sorrowful son, Osman Ali Khan, the seventh and last ruling nizam of Hyderabad, made it a royal guest house and stayed occasionally for extended hunting parties. By 1937, he'd made the cover of Time magazine as the world's richest individual, but at home the eccentric wore shabby clothes and in person was said to resemble a "snuffly clerk".

Slightly smaller than Great Britain, Hyderabad was among the largest of India's nearly 600 princely states. The vast majority acceded to the Union of India at independence in 1947, but a delusional Hyderabad tried vainly to go it alone and refused to sign the Instrument of Accession. A sympathetic Pakistan and rising communal tensions (the state has a majority Hindu population) compounded the toxic atmosphere. A year later, the Indian army wrested control in "Operation Polo" (named after the state's many polo grounds), buckling the foundations of an unsustainable lifestyle.

"Back in 1995, when I first came to Falaknuma," said Mahindrakar, "there were cobwebs the size of blankets. The roof leaked and the furnishings - carpets, curtains - were rotting." The handful of caretakers had neither the resources nor knowledge to maintain much in a country where maintenance generally is an afterthought - if, indeed, it is ever thought of at all.

Today, the palace is like a key to this faded world whose monuments a modernising, go-ahead Hyderabad has been slow to conserve. You drive up the hill past stable blocks to a huge gateway from where either an electric buggy or a horse-drawn carriage whisks you down the last few furlongs on to a terrace flanked by cannons. Framed by a Palladian facade, stairs rise to a lofty colonnaded porch hung with gleaming lanterns. On the western horizon, you might just discern the hilly outline of Golconda, a once mighty fortress (and still a great half-day trip), whose sultan relocated to an embryonic Hyderabad in 1591.

It's not readily apparent, but in plan the complex resembles a scorpion (Sir Vicar was a Scorpio). The "claws" and "head" comprise the palace's heart while its "abdomen" hosts most of the rooms, lavish suites and gardens. A projecting glass-domed terrace, used for evening drinks and soirées, forms the "sting". At sundown, as the muezzins' call wafts up across the lawns on a cooling breeze, it's an especially magical place.

In the entrance lobby you find marble cherubs, a fountain and stained-glass doors. Elaborate mouldings and cornicing frame European pastoral paintings on its walls and ceiling. The library boasts ornate teak and rosewood panelling with floor-to-ceiling glass-fronted cabinets, and a walnut wood ceiling said to replicate that in Windsor Castle.

A cantilevered marble staircase leads to a parquet-floored ballroom with French tapestries. The extraordinary Jade Room, a so-called "tea lounge", has Belgian chandeliers, an exquisite marquetry floor, pseudo-Chinese furniture and hues complimenting the vast jade collection that lent the hall its name. Beyond the hookah (shisha) room (note the huge four-person hookah) and bar stands a pukka snooker table (Burroughes and Watts of London) and gorgeous hand-tooled leather sofas and chairs. The dining hall's runway-like table seats 101 - which just happens to equal the ultimate gun salute reserved solely for the Raj's king emperor.

Much of the credit for instigating and overseeing this fastidious restoration lies with Princess Esra, the former wife of the current eighth and titular nizam (who now lives modestly in Turkey). It was she and a dedicated lawyer who finally unravelled the crippling decades-long legal and financial quagmire of his vast and contested inheritance. Crumbling family properties, truck-loads of jewellery and dozens of unwieldy trusts were bedevilled by thousands of grasping claimants and hundreds of litigants, some clearly dubious. The Indian government, too, had its claims on unpaid taxes and gems it considered a national heritage.

Down in the maze of dense lanes and congested streets that comprise the busy if not zany Old City, I joined Jonty Rajagopalan of Detours India for a full day's guided tour. In effect, Hyderabad has now merged with the former cantonment of Secunderabad across Hussain Lake, making a huge city with challenging traffic. I wanted to absorb its history and dip further into the nizams' surreal court, which had so moved the British they were uniquely titled "his exalted highness" and given top-of-the range 21-gun salutes.

In the restful environs of the Paigarh Tombs where the city's elite nobles - Sir Vicar among them - lie in relatively modest mausoleums, Rajagopalan outlined the city's origins in a 16th-century romance between a Muslim king and a Hindu girl. Then, as Mogul domination crumbled, its local governors seized the moment to establish the Asaf Jah dynasty and the roots of these fabled nizams.

"This is the perfect 'bridge city'," Rajagopalan explained. "Geographically it's in the south, but culturally it leans north." Dakhni, the regional dialect, is a distinctive blend of northern Urdu and various southern languages, and apparently much parodied by Bollywood. "It's a multicultural place that easily absorbs outsiders," she continued. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining its thriving modern industries, many centred on IT (hence its sobriquet "Cyberabad") and pharmaceuticals.

Venturing into the old quarter, I was struck by its enduring and profoundly Muslim character. Many women wear black burqas while numerous older men sport skullcaps or henna-red hair. At the obscure Badshahi Ashurkhana, a 16th-century mourning house built to honour the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, intricate enamel tile work recalls the spirit, if not the craftsmanship, of Isfahan or Samarkand. By its porch, simple travel-agency posters advertise tours to Syria and Iraq.

In the surrounding streets, green crescent-moon banners hang from assorted hoardings and from the high arches of the Charkaman, formal gateways that anchored the city's main thoroughfares. The Mecca Masjid, so named because bricks in its central arch were fired with soil brought from Mecca, can accommodate 10,000 people and remains one of India's largest mosques.

Lording over the heart of it all is the splendid Charminar, the city's iconic monument, built in the 1590s. You can climb a narrow stairwell to the base of its four domed minarets, which soar over the now-scruffy skyline. The 16th-century town planners were reputedly aiming for a Quranic-inspired representation of heaven on these very streets. Gazing down on a scene of utter (though still oddly picturesque) chaos with fidgety hawkers, pedestrians, scooters, rickshaws, cars and buses just about dodging gridlock, this notion might seem absurd today. Yet up in the Falaknuma and in various city museums, I saw century-old pictures of these same streets looking broad and uncluttered. Old Hyderabad was once clearly elegant if not heavenly.

In the adjoining and invariably heaving Laad Bazaar, historically among the city's pre-eminent shopping districts, I smiled off the imploring cries of its myriad shopkeepers. I wasn't in the market for pearls and only here might humble though spirited vendors coax me to buy the colourful bangles for which the city is famous.

We moved on to the Chowmahalla Palace, a once vast complex and the nizams' official residence. Over time its grounds have been reduced by questionable land sales and squeezed by insidious encroachment. Like the Falaknuma, it had endured astonishing neglect and was practically looted before being sealed off and ignored from the late 1960s until 2000 amid protracted legal wrangling. Here again, Princess Esra instigated a massive restoration project and in 2005 it opened as a museum.

Its revived palace buildings (Mogul-domed, neoclassical and Persian-tinged hybrids), courtyards and gardens are essential viewing with displays, photographs and exhibits that tell the dynastic story well. Most impressive of all is the Khilwat Mubarak, a grand ceremonial hall of arched windows, elaborately incised plaster ceilings and huge chandeliers, which, if you're lucky or well-connected, will be briefly illuminated.

Rajagopalan told of how as a young child sovereign the sixth nizam had accidently broken one chandelier's glass, and cowered in fear at the approach of his stern regent. Instead of being rebuked, he was politely reminded that he owned everything and could do as he wished - so he promptly broke every single chandelier with a stick.

"Oh, he so charmed the people," she said. "Despite his famously indulgent antics, he was generous." The indulgences were legion: dry-cleaning sent to Paris; the finest clothes never worn twice; a staff of thousands; elixirs of crushed pearls ground into edible powders. His curious largesse infected the local nobles, too, and it's said beggars flocked here from across India for their annual alms-giving.

On the upper floor of a nearby elongated mansion - the frayed Nizam's Museum - a tottering attendant beckoned me saying "wardrobe". Ahead stretched 130 parallel teak booths, about 73 metres in length and reputedly the world's largest "wardrobe system". One is now directed to stroll through it. You realise it matters not whether the myriad stories and fantastic extravagances were true, for with these royals anything seemed possible, everything was believable.

There's a widespread feeling the Falaknuma will, finally, place Hyderabad on the tourist trail. Yet it's a city that's thriving now not by gazing back but looking forward. The "Cyberabad" crowd and business visitors are more likely to embrace its Hitec City, a technology township, and hang out in the posh suburbs of Banjara and Jubilee Hills. A microcosm of this new thrusting Hyderabad lies in the Park, a strikingly modernist hotel near Husain Lake, where younger, trendy money stays, dines and parties.

Numerous Indian and foreign designers and architects have had a hand here, with many traditional Indian styles and motifs cleverly adapted. You can't possibly miss the perforated metal screen that wraps the building, an echo of jali, the intricately carved latticework so popular in medieval palaces and tombs. Far more subtle are various design references to the nizams' jewels. Sipping a drink in the dark Carbon bar, I puzzled over its weird stripy lights, edges and lines that lent peculiar angles and facets to a funky interior. The barman explained: "It's like a cut gemstone, a diamond - pure carbon."

Yes, of course.

If you go

The flight

Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Hyderabad on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh1,475, including taxes
The hotel Double rooms at the Taj Falaknuma (www.tajhotels.com) cost from 26,225 Indian rupees (Dh2,140) per night, including breakfast and taxes

The hotel

Double rooms at the Park Hyderabad (www.theparkhotels.com; 0800 055 6817) cost from 17,325 rupees (Dh1,415), including taxes

The tour

Hyderabad-based Detours India (www.detoursindia.com) offer tailor-made tours of the city and region; visitors can opt to focus on history, culture, gastronomy or handicraft. A two-hour guided walk in the Old City costs from 3,000 rupees (Dh245). A full-day guided tour with transport, lunch, refreshments and entrance fees costs from 13,750 rupees (Dh1,125)

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