In Hyderabad, Leisa Tyler discovers a once abandoned palace, now restored to its former opulent glory.
In the 1940s Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur was known as the richest man in the world. From his throne in the central Indian city of Hyderabad - of which he was the seventh Nizam, or administrator - he ruled over a kingdom the size of France that was so affluent it had his own airline, postal service and currency. The Nizam made his fortune mining diamonds and was quite fond of them as well; it is said that he could fill a small swimming pool with those he kept at his house. He used the 184-carat Jacob Diamond - said to be the seventh-largest in the world - as a paperweight. When the Nizam died in 1967, the stone disappeared and was later found in one of the old man's shoes.
The seventh Nizam's most lavish home, Falaknuma Palace, has been restored and was opened last month as a luxury hotel by Taj Hotels and Resorts. The rambling scorpion-shaped palace on a hill in the outskirts of Hyderabad was built in 1884 by then-prime minister of Hyderabad, Sir Viqar ul-Umra. Falaknuma Palace was intended to be heaven on Earth.
Meaning "mirror of the sky", the palace was a fantasy of 19th-century European style, all the rage in aristocratic India at the time. Marble cupids and angel frescos met guests at the doorway. Stars and heavenly maidens flanked the arms of leather sofas and ceiling mouldings were covered in 24-carat gold. The suspended staircase, made from cantilevered Italian marble, was lined with deities. Abandoned in the early 1950s, Falaknuma shared the same fate as many of India's magnificent forts, palaces and havelis after Independence. Starved of funds for maintenance, they slowly fell to rack and ruin.
"It was totally dilapidated," says Falaknuma Palace historian Prabhakar Mahindrakar, who previously worked here as a guard. "When it rained you had to duck from the water gushing from the ceiling."
Now, after a restoration that took 14 years and $US35 million, the palace has returned to its former finery. Piecing it all back together was no easy feat; Taj flew artisans and experts in from around the world to restore the Victorian sofas and one-off french dressers, the amazingly intricate parquet floors, Belgian chandeliers and large collection of portraits, which were all lying among moth-eaten curtains and layers of dust. Most of the furniture is original; including the 101-seat, 33-metre dining table where its guests once ate from solid gold plates. They sourced curtain tapestry from Europe and bought the finest New Zealand wool, which was dyed up to 300 times to get the correct shade for carpets.
While Falaknuma might look like a museum, guests are free - if not exactly encouraged - to use it as their own, albeit constantly observed by a team of guards. You can sit and have tea in the Jade Room, a dazzling swoop of geometric parquet floors and lime-green walls. Or play billiards in the smoky bar with its fish-shaped water dispenser and etched leather couches while your personal butler mixes you a gin and tonic.
Downstairs, flip through the 1910 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, noting startling attitudes on race in the early-1900s, while sitting in the sixth Nizam's special chair, which I am told was King George's favourite, too.
Everything is designed to showcase the days of the seventh Nizam, including frequent power cuts and temperamental plumbing. Guests leave their cars at the gate - an imposing stone arch - and continue to the palace in an old cart drawn by two frisky albino geldings. There, a guard waits, holding a gold plate embossed with the palace coat of arms and rose petals fall from the second storey.
The 60 guest rooms and suites are a lot more restrained than the public areas of the palace, thankfully. Around manicured gardens serene with the trickle of fountains, rooms are coloured buttercup yellow and cream, with old-style bath tubs, super-soft Indian-made bedlinen and Ploh bathrobes. There is a spa in the former ladies' quarters and two restaurants flanking the edge of a marble belvedere shaded by a dome of iridescent etched glass. Breakfast is served here with fantastic views over Hyderabad and every evening a dancer performs with musicians playing Muslim songs.
The Celeste restaurant serves a peculiar mix of what they call Italian cuisine, including American-born caesar salad with Malaysian chicken satay. A better choice is Ada, which serves local delicacies such as the sensational patthar kar gosht, lamb marinated for 48 hours and then cooked on a stone, and Hyderabad's famed biryani - rice cooked in a clay-pot with cloves and mutton.
Hushed and tranquil, Taj Falaknuma Palace seems to exist in another world to the bewildering chaos of Hyderabad, a dusty, sprawling metropolis peppered with an extraordinary collection of Mughal architecture, and where the seventh Nizam chose to spend most of his time.
The current Nizam, however, doesn't live in India, preferring the anonymity of a sheep station in the Australian outback and a two-room flat in Turkey instead.
Taj Falaknuma Palace signifies the end of an era; while an heir to the throne exists (he used to be a cameraman in Hollywood), most of the royal family's estate has been carved up or given away and there are rumours that the title will stop when the current Nizam, who is 77, dies. While the pomp and ceremony might disappear, when one door closes, another opens. The palace has a new lease of life, ready for a new era of indulgence.
Leisa Tyler stayed courtesy of Taj Falaknuma Palace.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Hyderabad for about $1300, flying to Singapore (about 8hr), then Hyderabad (4hr 35min). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to six months from date of issue. Allow at least four weeks for the visa to be processed.
Taj Falaknuma Palace has double rooms from 25,225 rupees ($560), including tax and breakfast; this is an introductory rate until March 31, 2011; phone +91 40 6629 8585, see tajhotels.com.