Modern Hyderabad is a fast paced, sprawling and high-tech city, very different from the languid paced times of Nizams, but traces of the gracious and aristocratic culture with which this ‘pearl city of India’ is associated are easily visible. Older parts of the city still preserves the old-world charm and houses some exquisite historical monuments. Chowmahalla (Chowmahallatuu or Chowmahallah) Palace is undoubtedly one of those elegant gems.
Situated southeast of Laad Bazar, in the heart of old Hyderabad and just 10 minutes’ walk from more famous and much older Charminar, sprawling Chowmahalla Palace is an amalgamation of various architectural styles, including Persian, Indo-Saracenic, European and Rajasthani.
In Persian-Arabic ‘Chowmahalla’ means a collection of four palaces. Built over 200 years ago, majestic Chowmahalla is actually a collection of more than 4 palaces: Mahtab Mahal (Sun Palace), Aftab Mahal (Moon Palace), Afzal Mahal and Tahniyat Mahal, but the centerpiece of the complex is Khilawat Mubarak, by far the most impressive part of the Chowmahalla. This is where official ceremonies were held.
Chowmahalla Palace was the nerve center of Hyderabad’s rulers. It was the seat of power of the Asaf Jahi dynasty sovereign of Hyderabad. The lavishly decorated Durbar hall (Throne Room) inside the Khilawat Mubarak has a raised marble platform on which the seat of power the ’Takht-e-Nishan’ (the throne) rests. The Khilawat Mubarak in itself is the most remarkable structure in the complex, modeled as a replica of the Iranian Shah’s Palace in Teheran with elegant fountains and an artificial pool in front.
The grand pillared Durbar Hall houses 19 huge Belgian crystal chandeliers. The glittering hall of 50-foot high decorated ceilings was used by Nizams to hold their durbar and other religious and symbolic ceremonies. This now has been totally renovated and looks resplendent with polished chandeliers. The adjoining smaller rooms have been converted into a museum displaying interesting exhibits, including historical photographs and other objects related to Asaf Jahi rulers. Visitors can also see intricate marble pieces, Venetian chandeliers, period furniture, textiles, jalopies, royal cars and buggies (carriages).
At least the coronation of three Nizam’s were held here in this Darbar Hall (Khilawat Mubarak). Prince Mukarram Jah was also installed here as the 8th (last) Nizam on 6th April 1967.
Chowmahalla Palace is a magnificent piece of living history, an icon of Hyderabad. Though not a typical Mughal architecture, it surely is an abode of a classic lifestyle and of royal opulence. The place was the seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty. The construction of the group of palaces was initiated in 1750s during the reign of Salabat Jung (4th Nizam of Hyderabad). The complex remained under construction and it was Nizam Afzar-ud-Dawla Bahadur (5th Nizam) who took a keen interest to complete it between 1857 and 1869.
Since the 1970’s to the year 2000 the palace complex was remained virtually disused causing a number of buildings to collapse in part and deteriorate significantly. The property remained in neglect and embroiled in numerous litigation. The palace originally covered 45 acres but numerous encroachments has reduced this to a great extent. As a result, presently, only 12.4 acres remain.
Things were grim and looked hopeless. The palace stood neglected,in wildly overgrown grounds and was water-logged. But things started changing about twenty years ago, when Princess Esra Birgen, the first wife of last Nizam Prince Mukarram Jah (divorced), her stepsons and few others took a keen interest in restoration and preservation of Chowmahalla and other princely properties, including famous Falaknuma Palace. A massive restoration program was initiated in 2000. It was a Herculean task.
Princess Esra’s lawyer, Vijay Shankardass of Delhi played a pivotal role in sorting out the complex legal tangle the properties of Nizam were in. Many of them were sealed under different court orders. There were 51 jewellery trusts, around 2,740 claimants (legitimate and illegitimate descendants of the different Nizams) and outstanding 130-odd legal cases. Shankardass persuaded all 2,740 claimants—to agree to a settlement of the jewel issue, and gradually to whittle down the exorbitant demands. Shankardass then reached a sale agreement with Government of India as the export and auction of Nizam’s jewels were banned. The government agreed to pay around £40 million, much less than the market value of jewels. Of this, about 43% went to the Nizam. Shankardass also settled with other litigants. Remaining debts of around £3 million were also settled.
Once major legal problems were untangled, Princess Esra zeroed on art historian and the restoration-consultant Martand Singh to supervise the restoration and conservation of Nizam’s properties. Architect Rahul Mehrotra (then Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts) was roped in and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) also helped. A conservation laboratory and museum store area erected. Restoration of such a huge complex was no easy task. It needed cataloguing, making inventories, and restoring the different collections. A team of architects, designers, art and ceramic consultants, conservators, specialist carpenters, photographers, textile restorers, antique upholsterers, historians and Urdu and Persian scholars were assembled. Actual restoration work on the project commenced in the year 2002 and the first phase which included the renovation of Crafts Center and Khilwat Mubarak was completed in December 2004. Much of the financing came from Nizam’s family and family trusts.
Though some restoration work is still going on, the palace complex was first opened for public in May 2012. It is now open for public viewing on all days except Fridays and national holidays. Princess Esra’s plan is to use the restored complex not only as a museum, but also as a cultural centre for concerts, mushairas and conferences.
The painstaking restoration work of the Chowmahalla drew accolades both from art concessionaires and historians. It was honoured with the UNESCO Asia Pacific Merit award for cultural heritage conservation in 2010. UNESCO representative Takahiko Makino formally handed over the plaque and certificate to Princess Esra on was presented to on 15 March 2010. The award citation said, ‘‘the rescue of an extraordinary complex from years of abandonment.’’ The complex also received National Tourism Award of India (Best Maintained and Disabled Friendly Monument) in 2017.
The main gate of Chowmahalla Palace is known as Watch Tower Gate. Only male members of the royal family and male dignitaries were allowed to enter from this gate. There were two other gates, one for ladies (Zanana Darwaja) and another for general people. The main gate is decorated with a historical clock called Khilwat Clock. This mechanical clock displays correct time even after more than 252 years without failing. It is claimed that experts from a family of clock repairers regularly take care of the clock and wind it every week. Locals still use the clock as a standard clock to set time and wait for its chimes to correct their own watches.
Visitors enter the complex through the Northern courtyard. It has a long corridor of rooms at one side called as Bara Imam. This space was used as administrative wing at the time of Nizams and now houses some shops. The other side of the courtyard is a mirror image of the rooms and is called Shishe-Alat (‘shisha’ means mirror). These were, most probably, used as the living rooms for attendants accompanying royal guests.
The Southern courtyard is the oldest part of the complex. It consists of the four palaces Mahtab Mahal, Aftab Mahal, Afzal Mahal and Tahniyat Mahal built in the neo-classical style. Aftab Mahal is the grandest of these four. It is a two storied building with a European facade of Corinthian columns and a parapet without pediment.
The 6th Nizam is believed to have lived in the complex in a building ‘Roshan Bangla’ named after his mother Roshan Begum. He later shifted to Falaknuma Palace.
A visit to the Chowmahalla Palace gives one a peek to the glorious past of Hyderabad’s Asaf Jahi dynasty. It’s like walking into a period movie—an experience that I would certainly recommend all of my friends. The palace tells three tales. First is of an opulent Nawabi lifestyle of Hyderabad’s rulers that is now no more; second is of greed, abject neglect and gradual demise of our priceless heritage; and the third is and most important one is of an almost impossible restoration project. Chowmahalla, along with Salar Jung Museum, should be on your must see list if you’re visiting Hyderabad.