Nizam's abode

Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad, with its grandiose structures and expansive courtyards, reflects the rich lifestyle of the many Nizams who lived there, writes S TAHSIN AHMED

Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Hyderabad may be synonymous with Charminar but there is a less-celebrated monument which is definitely a must-see while you are there. On a recent trip to Hyderabad, we made a beeline to this palace called Chowmahalla Palace, meaning ‘four palaces’. Meandering through the congested lanes of Laad Bazaar in the old city, we reached a nondescript entrance, prompting my wife to exclaim that Chowmahalla Palace could well be just a haveli. But as we entered the inner gate, we were pleasantly surprised to see an elegant and magnificent palace at the other end of a well-landscaped courtyard. This palace of the Nizams of Hyderabad state and the seat of Asaf Jahi dynasty has a chequered history.

Throne seat.
Throne seat.

 

A hoary past

When the British rule came to an end in India in the year 1947, the Nizam of Hyderabad, Sir Osman Ali Khan, was then the richest man in the world. The disintegration of Hyderabad state after its merger in the Indian Union, and the dispersal of its wealth, is an example of the extraordinary reversal of fortunes. Mukarram Jah, who succeeded his grandfather Osman Ali Khan in February 1967, inherited a huge establishment, enormous debts, and legal suits by more than 2,000 legal heirs and descendants claiming a share of the wealth and assets. The Chowmahalla Palace complex alone had 6,000 employees which included 3,000 Arab bodyguards and 38 persons employed just to clean the chandeliers, apart from a few more on the payroll for grinding the Nizam’s walnuts. Between 1967 and 2001, the Chowmahalla Palace area shrunk from 54 acres to 12 acres as real estate developers grabbed much of the valuable land located in the heart of the city. Palaces were looted and royal treasures were sold in the street markets of Hyderabad. Disillusioned by the chaos and surrounded by a surfeit of problems, the eighth Nizam Mukkaram Jah abandoned his possessions and moved to a sheep farm in Australia.

Nizam VIII on horseback.
Nizam VIII on horseback.

 

Restoration

Princess Esra, the first wife of the eighth Nizam Mukkarram Jah took upon herself the task of the restoration of Chowmahalla Palace and converting it into a museum. Advocate Vijay Shankardass was engaged by the Princess and he played an extraordinary role in compromising with the huge number of litigants. In 1995, the Indian government bought the Nizam’s jewellery for Rs 218 crores in order to preserve it as a national treasure. The share of the eighth Nizam from this amount helped Princess Esra to execute her plans for the Chowmahalla Palace. She engaged Martand Singh, one of the founders of INTACH, for the restoration of the palace, and he did a splendid job. After five years of intense restoration, Chowmahalla Palace was finally opened to the public in 2005.

Main gate with clock.
Main gate with clock.

 

The exterior

Chowmahalla Palace brings alive the grandeur and glory of the past rulers and their enigmatic way of living. Nizam Salabat Jung initiated the construction of Chowmahalla Palace in the year 1750, but it was actually completed between 1857 and 1869 during the rule of the fifth Nizam Asif Jah. The palace is architecturally
unique and is a fusion of many architectural styles. It consists of the Northern and southern courtyards. The Southern courtyard has four palaces: Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, Tahniyat Mahal and Aftab Mahal. Of them, Afzal Mahal stands out with its breathtaking view and is a photographer’s delight. The main gate of the palace has a big clock which is mechanically wound every week and continues to tick. The Northern courtyard has a long corridor of rooms on its eastern side facing a central fountain and pool. On its opposite side is an identical structure. The heart of Chowmahalla Palace is the Khilwat Mubarak which has a grand decorated Durbar hall embellished with huge chandeliers. The ornate stucco work of the roof and the floral carvings of the imposing arches resting on the many pillars will enchant the visitor with the splendour of a bygone era. The Durbar Hall has a platform made of pure marble on which the royal seat or Takht-e-Nishan was laid.

The interiors

Moving inside the palaces you end up spending more time than what was planned since the French furnishings, rich tapestry, expensive crockery, elaborate drapes, Turkish chandeliers and the royal photographs do not fail to beguile endlessly. Moving along, we peeped into the past by seeing the elegant buggies. Also on display are the vintage cars of the Nizam like the 1912 model Rolls Royce, a 1904 Napier, Fiat, green Buick, black Ford, and Packard. More surprises were in store when we saw old bikes on display like Harley Davidsons and Red Indian Chiefs. The Armoury room showcases many types of weapons. Another attraction is a Quran section where many types of unique Qurans are on display like the handwritten Quran, miniature Qurans printed in metal with some portions inscribed in gold and Qurans with intricate calligraphy which are simply marvellous.

There is also a souvenir shop in the palace compound to buy gifts and mementos, apart from a canteen serving snacks.

Chowmahalla Palace is often compared to the enchanted gardens of the Arabian Nights. It is also said to resemble the Shah’s Palace in Iran. With so much to offer, our visit to Chowmahalla Palace was an unforgettable experience.

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