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Neil Sealy, International Sales Director at TransIndus, takes a trip to Hyderabad.
British Airways have a daily afternoon service from Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport to Hyderabad, and this proved to be a convenient way of getting to the capital of the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
An early morning arrival brought us into Hyderabad’s very modern and efficient Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (rated as one of the five best airports in the world), and a speedy trip through immigration and baggage reclaim had us outside the terminal building within about half an hour of landing.Hyderabad has in recent years gained a well deserved reputation as a world class ‘IT’ hub, now home to several large corporations from around the world. In fact, the traditional ‘twin cities’ of Hyderabad and the more colonial Secunderabad now have a third sibling, officially called “Cyberabad”, which is a dedicated city for the modern technology industry, offering well equipped infrastructure and facilities.
But enough about that; I was here to experience some of Hyderabad’s regal and vibrant history, and where better to start than at the luxurious Taj Falaknuma Palace Hotel, perched majestically on a small hill overlooking the old part of the city. This sixty room palace hotel has been sensitively restored under the watchful eye of Princess Esra, of the Hyderabad dynasty, herself.
On arrival at the main gates of the palace, guests are transferred to the Nizam’s horse carriage to be transported up to the main palace in true style, just as royalty did many years ago. Your personal butler then leads the way to your comfortable room. Time for a refreshing shower, after the 10 hour flight, followed by a short nap!
I woke a few hours later, just in time for a late breakfast on the Jade terrace (pictured right), overlooking the iconic Charminar, one of Hyderabad’s most famous monuments. I can think of few experiences that rival sitting on the balcony of an Italian inspired palace, enjoying a delicious Indian breakfast while taking in the distant sounds of a bustling city; muted traffic noises and the ever present, unmistakeable drone of auto-rickshaws, or ‘tuk-tuks’, frequently punctuated by the muffled beeps of horns.
Breakfast completed, and feeling quite invigorated, it was time for a walk around the palace to explore the many rooms, terraces, lawns and courtyards that make up this architectural delight. Construction of the Falaknuma Palace (Falaknuma literally translates from Urdu as ‘Mirror of the sky’) was commissioned by the Prime Minister of Hyderabad, HE Sir Vikar Ul Umra Bahadur, in 1884, and took nine years to complete.
The palace was designed in the shape of a scorpion, and was lavishly decorated with Italian marble and Belgian crystal. It wasn’t long before Sir Vikar realised that he had gone well beyond his means with the construction of the palace, and had to borrow money to finish the building. A few years after the palace was completed, Sir Vikar decided to invite the Nizam, HEH Mehboob Ali Pasha Nizam VI, to visit the palace.
The Nizam liked Falaknuma so much that he extended his stay there, and on realising his fondness for the palace, Sir Vikar decided to offer it to the Nizam as a gift, which was gladly accepted. In doing so, however, the Nizam also paid Sir Vikar the amount he had spent on the palace, easing him from a difficult financial situation.
Ironically, the Nizam, said to be the wealthiest man in the world at the time, never actually used the palace as his personal residence, but used it instead as a royal guest house, and the Falaknuma Palace has played host to such distinguished visitors as King Edward VIII and the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II.
The palace eventually became unused, and spent much of its time lying empty and collecting dust. The Taj Group of Hotels took over the palace in the mid-1990s, and began the long and intricate process of restoring it to its former glory, a task they have achieved with great success.
In addition to the breakfast terrace, the hotel has two restaurants, one Indian and one Italian – very appropriate when considering the palace’s Italian influences – and our first lunch in Hyderabad was a fantastic meal arranged at the Italian restaurant, Celeste.
Following lunch, we joined a tour of the palace, guided by the official historian. This is an activity offered to all guests at the palace, and is an ideal way to take in the different aspects of this building while being presented with a detailed history.
The ‘101 dining room’ (pictured left), where the Nizam hosted banquets at a single dining table which could seat a hundred guests; the Durbar Hall with its intricate woodwork; and the Jade room, filled with gems, timeless pieces of art and Belgian cut glass chandeliers.
The evening’s entertainment included a Sufi Qawwali, a traditional ‘musical poetry’ performance on the terrace of the ‘Gol Bungalow’, the area of the palace which houses the two restaurants, against the spectacular backdrop of the sun setting over Hyderabad city.
This was followed by an indulgent dinner in the Indian restaurant, Adaa. The Hyderabadi Nizams were known for their love of sumptuous cuisine, and the Taj Group of Hotels do an admirable job of showcasing this.
The following morning, and after a much needed rest, we began our exploration of this four hundred year old city with a visit to the imposing Golconda Fort. This was originally a mud fort, and was rebuilt in several stages under the Qutub Shahi rulers between 1518 and 1687. The fort contains beautiful palaces and a piped water system which was very futuristic for its time.
We continued on to the nearby Qutub Shahi Tombs, a complex of tombs which were built for the entire Qutub Shahi dynasty, combining Persian, Afghan and Indian architecture.
We were treated to a traditional lunch at the Taj Banjara hotel before visiting a pearl shop. Hyderabadi craftsmen have long been renowned for their excellence at drilling and polishing pearls, and indeed many of the pearls sold throughout the world today have been processed in Hyderabad. Needless to say, there is some wonderful pearl jewellery on offer.
Pearl shopping done, we returned to our palace, where the ornate bathtubs in our rooms had been filled with steaming hot water beckoning these weary tourists after a day’s sightseeing. Another lavish meal was prepared at the Italian restaurant before we retired to our rooms to face what was becoming a recurring dilemma – whether to eat the indulgent chocolates which were placed in the rooms each evening, and if so whether to eat them all or just sample one or two. Decisions!
The following morning saw us heading off to the Chowmahalla Palace, the Nizam’s official residence, and nearby museum housing the Nizam’s very large walk-in wardrobe and several pieces of art collected over the years.
The state of Hyderabad had its own airline, railway system and currency and there are many items related to this excessive wealth on display here. The Chowmahalla Palace was built in 1857 and the complex houses four palaces built in Indian and European styles.
Our next stop was at the Charminar, arguably Hyderabad’s most famous landmark. Built it 1591, the Charminar consists of four minarets (‘char’ means four) and houses a mosque and forty five prayer rooms. It is surrounded by busy bazaars which include the famous Laad Bazaar, with an abundance of bangle shops. The three hundred year old Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad’s largest mosque, is a short walk from the Charminar, and can accommodate ten thousand devotees at a time.
After a surprisingly authentic Chinese lunch at the Taj Krishna Hotel, we returned to the Falaknuma Palace (with a quick stop en route at the renowned Karachi Bakery to buy some delicious biscuits) for a truly regal banquet, to mark our last night in this splendid hotel, which was followed by an after dinner drink at what has become one of my favourite areas of this beautiful palace – the magical Jade terrace overlooking the old city.
And then back to the room for one last night. Now do I have space for those chocolates?