Fabulous was the first word to strike me as soon we crossed the main gate and entered the palace complex. It is a magnificent white-and-grey edifice, captivating, one of the finest royal residences exhibiting the luxurious lifestyle of the Nizams and a part of the fascinating heritage of Hyderabad and India.
Spread over 32 acres, this is a staggeringly beautiful complex, a perfect blend of Renaissance architecture, old world charm, princely sensibilities and of ultimate comfort. The extravagant ambience is mesmerizing. Opulence and Nizami grandeur is woven into every inch of the palace.
An embodiment of the old world charm and princely ambition, the massive edifice stand tall on 300 acre Kohitoor hill, 2600 feet above sea level with spectacular views of twin cities of Hyderabad and Sikanderabad.
‘Falak’ in Urdu, refers to sky and ‘numa’ means like or similar, hence Falaknuma in literal sense stands for ‘Like the Sky’ or ‘Mirror of the Sky’. Some say Falaknuma poetically connotes to ‘Star of Heaven’. Incidentally, ‘Kohitoor’ means ‘mountain of divine light’.
The foundation stone of Falaknuma was laid on 3rd March 1884. It took 9 long years to complete the construction. Palace today covers a total area of 939,712-sq-metre. It was partially made with marble imported from Italy and limestone. The interiors are made of 16 types of woodwork and teak, 10 types of leather innumerable types of Italian marble. The palace reflects a rare blend of Tudor and Italian architecture.
It was the residence of the Sixth Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan after he purchased it from Sir Vikar-ul-Umra, the Prime Minister of the Nizam who originally conceived and built it. Sir Viqar-Ul-Umra served as the Prime Minister of the Hyderabad state from 1894 to 1901.
Architect of the palace was William Ward Marrett, an Italian and a strong believer of astrology. His zodiac sign was Scorpio. He designed a palace that roughly resembles the shape of a scorpion. The main building is located at the centre and two stings of the palace spread out as wings on the north. The Mess Khana (kitchen) and the Zenana Mahal (ladies wing) are located towards the south. The Gol Bungalow, situated at the tail end, is an open dome-like structure with an iron protrusion looking like the sting of the scorpion. The palace entrance has some old artillery models, ornate fountains and decorative lights.
Prime Minister Sir Viqar (Amir of Paigah and the maternal grandson of the Nizam III Nawab Sikandar Jah) was married to Nizam VI Nawab Mir Mahbub Ali Khan’s older sister Princess Jahandarunnisa Begam Sahiba. He was a dominant figure in Hyderabad and wanted a unique palace built for him, but building the palace almost bankrupted him. Rs. 40 lac in 1893 was an astronomical sum even for kings.
In 1897, when the sixth Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan came visiting Sir Viqar. He loved the palace. He ended up staying there for about a month. It was then that Sir Viqar gracefully gifted the Palace to the Nizam. But since it was too valuable a gift, Nizam bought the palace for Rs. 62 lac and shifted here permanently. It was his official residence till his death in March 1911. After him, no Nizam ever stayed at the palace.
Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan’s successor the Nizam VII, Mir Osman Ali never spent much time here and decided to stay at Usman Mahal in King Koti, about 16 km away. Falaknuma was turned into a royal guesthouse. During his reign palace hosted visiting royalty like King Edward VIII and Queen Mary (when they visited India for Delhi Darbar), the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II (while he was heir to the throne). Governor-General of India and many Indian royals too were Nizam’s guests. Strangely, the palace had no overnight visitors for about 50 years. First visitor after independence was first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad in 1951. Same year Jawaharlal Nehru also spent a night in the palace and proved to be the last VIP guest for almost half a century.
Palace remained unused and neglected, left to weed like many other properties of Nizam. Finally the current Nizam Prince Mukarram Jah’s divorced wife Princess Esra took charge. Princess Esra, herself a student of architecture, was determined to transform the property to its old grandeur. In 2000 Taj Hotels Group entered into an agreement with Esra Birgen and the royal family. Transformation process took more than a decade to complete. The main brief to restorers was to ‘preserve as much as possible’. After a long and tedious renovation and many hiccups the palace finally opened up as a luxury hotel in 2010. New name was Taj Falaknuma Palace Hotel and Resort.
It is one of the costliest hotels in country. One night’s stay for a couple with food may cost a minimum of Rs. 60-70 thousand Rupees plus taxes. Sadly not for a budget traveler like me.
A TOUR OF THE PALACE
We climbed a few white marble stairs to a long corridor shaped foyer of marble fresco artwork and entered the palace through the main entrance to a beautiful room, popularly known as Fountain Room. Room has a fountain in middle with round marble seating arrangement around it. A three-dimensional-painting, painted by French painter Jean Gaudierhe, on roof is another highlight of this stately room. The room opens to two other rooms. On the right is the office of the Nizam VI and on the left is the room of ruler’s kids. Nizam’s office room is adorned with A large framed portrait of Nizam VI. His working desk with chair is in the middle. On the desk are Nizam’s original stationery, an ink pot and a feather dip-ink pen. Also on the desk is an ornate telephone set, the first one in whole of Hyderabad installed in 1883. Hotel guests are allowed to sit on Nizam’s chair and write in visitor’s book.
We were guided to the next room, a big one, which presently serves as the hotel reception. This room houses a two-ton manually operated music organ said to be the only one of its kind in the world made by Reed and Company (UK). Guide told us that the organ could play 36 different sounds when it was working. The ceiling of this exquisite room is decorated with frescoes and gilded reliefs of 24-carate gold designs. The room opens to the palace library.
The library is a uniquely exceptional room, a replica of the library at Windsor Castle. The ceiling of the library is made of ornate teak and rosewood coffers each with superbly carved panels. The library is open for hotel guests and is a treasure trove of first edition books. It has a collection of 5976 books. Apart from books in English, many Persian and Urdu books can also be found. The oldest book here is the first edition of ‘Account of the Life And Writings of William Roberts’ by Dugal Stewart, a book first published in 1801. The complete set of volumes of the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is another prized possession. The library also houses one of the finest collections of the Qurans in India. The central reading table has arabesque designs with ‘VO’ monograms at the corners. ‘VO’ stand for H.E. Sir Viqar ul Oomra Bahadur, who built the palace. The ‘VO’ insignia is found everywhere, on the furniture, walls and ceilings of the palace.
The library also acts as a passage to other parts of the palace. From here we were led to the pretty Zenana room or the gossip room of Queen Ujala Begum. A round sofa of understated luxury is placed in the middle and multiple other luxury seats are arranged for queen’s guests. This private room for royal ladies is decorated with plenty of mirrors. Yes, how can one imagine a ladies room without mirrors? There are small shelves above the sofas to store perfumes and cosmetics. Next is queen’s bedroom with an attached washroom. The washroom is fitted with one-of-its-kind bathtub that can be also used as a Jacuzzi.
Before the library, there’s a grand suspended marble staircase with carved balustrades supporting marble figurines at intervals. Stairs lead to a large landing area, illuminated by Carrera marble lamps and adorned with seven large oil paintings of Mahabub Ali Khan Nizam VI, Sir Vikar-ul-Umra and other relatives of Sir Vikar in giant rococo frames. The highlight of this floor is the Jade room with its terrace. The Jade room is a grand room famous for its Jade collection and other precious artifacts collected from across the world. This is the room where Nizam VI used to entertain dignitaries. The terrace overlooks the Palace lawns and the provides a panoramic view of vast landscape below.
Nizam’s aristocratic dining room is one of the longest in palace. This wood paneled room is lit with five large Belgian chandeliers. Twenty-eight oil paintings depicting different food items adorn the melting gold coloured walls of the room. Nizam used to point to the items he wished to eat and it was then served to him. Here one can find the world’s longest dining table (made of seven pieces, it is about 108 ft long, 7 ft wide and 2.7 ft high). The table can seat 101 guests. All 101 dining chairs of green leather upholstery are identical, except the one used by the Nizam. The armrests of this chair are higher. The exquisite acoustics of the room enable one to hear whispers from one corner of the room to another.
The opulent 1980 sq. ft. Durbar Hall of the palace has an unmistakable old-world charm and is referred as the ‘Ballroom in Paradise’. The royal hall of is lit by 40 magnificent Venetian chandeliers and houses a two-ton manually operated organ believed to be the only one of its kind in the world. The wooden flooring of the hall consists of 600 panels. Each square panel is made of 64 diamond cut pieces of different timber varieties. This gives the floor a different shade when viewed from different angles.
The hotel has 2 restaurants Celeste and Adda. First serves as a continental food destination and second one is a fine dining Indian restaurant. An open air private dining venue is also available to guests, known as Gol Bungalow. This area is the tail end of the palace and covered with a round canopy of stained glass.There are Card & Chess Room, Billiards Room (Two identical billiards table have been designed Burroughs and Watts from England. One is at Falaknuma and the other at Buckingham Palace). A Hookah Room (with a silver hookah which has four smoking pipes) is also there. Every room of the palace has its own character and unique design.
We were told that Christie’s was entrusted to assess and value all the movable and immovable assets in the palace. Most of the assets, including artifacts, are over 100 years old. What Christie’s assessed is confidential. Fact is, the collection here is truly priceless.
Some call Falaknuma ‘a palce of dreams’. It unquestionably is an wonderful blend of different architectural influences and styles, a unique heritage intermingled with a distinct Nizami flavour and Hyderabadi culture. No photo and words can do justice to the beauty and charm of the palace, one has to visit the palace to feel this. The palace has been recognized by New York Times as among the 20 places in the world to visit once during one’s lifetime.
No wonder shayaris like this are often quoted by guides:
क्या देखा तारीख़े-हिन्द में जो फ़लकनुमा न देखा,
आसफ़जाही नगीना न देखा, जो शाने-दक्कन न देखा।
For traveller in me it was an encounter with something fascinating and beautiful, a never before experience. Like Lawrence Block said, ‘‘Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.’’ Being in Falaknuma was such a inexplicable experience, somewhat ambivalent and indelible.