Hyderabad. It felt like 1895, calling images of the sixth Nizam (administrator of the realm or “king”) of Hyderabad, Mehbook Ali Khaan, to mind, alighting from his royal carriage. Sore from the long journey from Hong Kong, I finally arrived in front of the magnificent facade of the Falaknuma Palace. Somebody helped me down and offered me a choice of delicious welcome drinks, after which I was escorted up the main staircase amidst a dreamlike shower of rose petals. On the landing, yet more staff awaited me. I was the only guest to arrive at that ridiculous hour, around 2am in the morning, but despite my late arrival, a friendly staff member took the time to give me a quick tour through that magnificent palace. Martin, my husband, had arrived a couple of hours earlier, but only greeted me after I had had a chance to experience that truly regal welcome.
Falaknuma means “Mirror of the sky”, or just “like the sky” in Urdu, and is probably one of most gorgeous palaces in India. The Prime Minister of the Sixth Nizam, Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, built it in 1893 for himself, an endeavour which took him around a decade, and several million rupees, to complete. Once finished, the Nizam liked it so much that the Prime Minister turned it over as a present to his king (he received a generous sum of money in compensation, though). Decking out the palace to meet the Nizam’s exquisite tastes and sophisticated technological demands (the palace had the country’s first GE fridge, first electrical switchboard, telephone exchange, petrol pump and first attached bathroom), took another 22 years.
The palace was used by the Nizams up until the 1950s, before it was eventually closed down and fell into disrepair.
Roughly half a century passed before the The Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces group took over. Under the guidance of Princess Esra Jah (royal consort of HEH Prince Mukarram Jah Nizam Eighth), the hotel group painstakingly restored the palace to its former glory. It took them roughly a decade, but considering the final result, it was well worth the effort. The hotel opened its doors in November 2010. As a guest of the hotel, one cannot help it but indulge in the royal vibes of the palace.
Almost needless to say, for somebody interested in architecture and interior design, the Falaknuma palace is a not only a feast for the eyes, but also a treasure trove of extraordinary ideas.
I hope this post will get some of them across, and perhaps be a source of inspiration in the future.
Architecture and design
Falaknuma palace is laid out in the shape of a scorpion with two pincers serving as the palace’s wings facing north. One of them houses the Chaminar suite – which is where the original owner and builder of the palace, Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, the Prime Minister of the Sixth Nizam, resided, and the other, in the second pincer, is the presidential (Nizam) suite, the former private quarters of the Nizam himself.
We stayed at the Charminar Suite. The beauty of both the original design and the meticulous work that went into the renovation was almost overwhelming. I admit, I had expected a more “stuffy” design: an overload of patterns, golden accents, and deep subdued colours. We were in India, after all, and the palace was built at a time when Europe seemed to crave nothing more than a generous dose of Victorian patterns and textures. To my big surprise, what we found was an example of a very tastefully decorated room featuring a fairly restrained color scheme (light natural colours combined with turquoise accents), a well composed selection of patterns, and an abundance of natural and artificial lighting. The bathroom was tiled in grey marble and made ample use of mirrors, both large and small ones. Indian palace interiors are known for a little bit of bling. The fascination of maharajas with mirror-encrusted halls is legendary (see, for example, the Hall of Beauty in the Moon Palace in Jaipur). Certainly, not quite as great a feast for the eyes, but still highly intriguing was the decoration of the Charminar Suite’s bathtub area: three of its walls were covered from top to bottom with finely cut mirror tiles. When we lit the many candles around the bathtub, their flickering light was reflected in all colors of the rainbow. It felt like diving into a sea filled with diamonds. A surreal, breath-taking sensation!
When we explored the palace more closely the next day, it became clear that this wasn’t a Victorian building at all, rather, a rare blend of Italian and Tudor architecture, combined with elements that recall the Mogul origins of its builders. Its architect was William Ward Marrett (1840-1903).
Stained glass windows set a distinctly English tone, while stunning Venetian chandeliers can be found in almost all the common rooms and Italian mosaics grace the floors. Italian marble can be found on floors and walls, and an abundance of lanterns reminiscent of those commonly found in Morocco light the many hallways and aisles. Interestingly, despite the use of many expensive materials throughout the palace, the palace’s decoration also makes ample use of make-belief. Many of the marbled walls or columns (inside and out) are merely painted. The same holds true for walls that seem to have been covered with expensive wall textiles (see picture above).
The middle part of the building houses is home to the Heavenly Foyer. Its ceiling is covered with gorgeous Venetian style murals depicting the sky and its heavenly inhabitants, while the focal point of the hall is a white marble fountain. The water’s surface was covered with white flower petals. A few tea lights were added for effect.
Further in, one happens to come across the palace’s stunning marble staircase. The staircase is cantilevered, and supported by metal rods, the ends of which stick out at the open side in the form of a series of golden knobs. For the uninitiated, the knobs simply constitute part of the ornamental decoration. Walking up the stairs, one passes dozens of framed photographs of dignitaries that visited the palace in the past. If there is a cool guestbook format, this is it!
To the right of the foyer, one may enter the Nizam’s former office. Here the color scheme is analogous, covering the whole range of warm hues from orange-yellow to burgundy red. The dark wooden furniture offers some contrast while the white window frames introduce a sense of freshness to the space. Together with the white cornices and ceiling, they also help reflect the incoming day light and ensure that the office maintains a cosy yet crisp atmosphere – which is badly needed, as the opulent window treatments set the room teetering on the brink of falling victim to the whims of Victorian style. The focal point of the room is the Nizam’s desk with the large Venetian chandelier hanging above it. Interestingly, the painting behind it gives one the impression that the nizam follows you with his eyes as you cross his office. Thankfully, one does not need to look into his Highness’s eyes as you sit on his chair to sign the guestbook!
Another awesome room is the palace library, with its carved walnut ceiling, a replica of the one at Windsor Castle, and exquisite furniture. The library possesses one of the finest collections of the Quran in India. Clearly, this is not a design easily replicated in our own homes.
Other rooms include the queen’s quarters (see below), complete with drawing room and ensuite. Again, we encounter the palace’s elegant signature combination of opulence and austerity. While pattern, texture, and colour abound, the visitor’s visual senses are never overloaded, as strong patterns and colour are always set in a context of constrained elegance. Plain walls, unicoloured upholstery, and/or carpets and hard flooring in subdued colours lend tranquility to the rooms while setting the stage for ornamental furniture, drapes, and paintings to shine.
Below a picture of the famed dining hall. The chairs are made of carved rosewood with green leather upholstery (not shown here). The tableware was made of gold and crystal to which fluted music was added. The length of the table is 108 feet, and can seat 100 guests, plus host. Most amazing of all, the acoustics: apparently they allow for conversation from one end of the table to another. (Interestingly, we encountered similar acoustic marvels when we toured the nearby Golconda Fort). The Nizam usually sat in the middle of the table, not at one of its ends (his room probably wasn’t big enough for a round table).
On the upper floor of the main building can be found a number of common rooms, among them the billiard room. The twin of this imposing table, designed by the British company Burroughes and Watts, can be found in Buckingham Palace itself.
Another of the upstairs rooms is the imposing ballroom; two thrones dominate the far end.
Despite the splendour and opulent decoration of these chambers, we nonetheless find a limited colour palette, thanks to which the spaces appear elegant, instead of over-the-top.
Behind the main building, the palace opens up into a huge courtyard. The lush green vegetation stands in refreshing contrast to the “sky-grey” of the palace walls. Most of the guest suites (there are 60 in total) are located around the courtyard.
At the tail end of the scorpion one finds two restaurants, over the balustrade of which one can see Hyderabad spilling over the hills in pale, watercolour tones of blue and grey.