India's Scorpion Palace: Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad

India's Scorpion Palace: Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad
Three years ago, Forbes' rated him as fifth in their 'wealthiest people of all time list' (Bill Gates ranked 20th). These days most people might have trouble telling you who the Nizam of Hyderabad was. It's not really surprising, after all, for the Nizam's royal line lost a colossal fortune, and now live in comparative poverty.

For more than two centuries, until the mid half of the 20th century, the Nizams ruled Hyderabad State – a huge principality in central India. They had their own mint, which produced their own currency, had hundreds of millions of dollars in gold bullion, even more in precious gems and currency, Rolls Royces galore and – their favorite little weakness – palaces, palaces, and yet more palaces.

The luxury bandwagon came to an abrupt halt in 1948, when the princely states were abolished by the newly Independent India. The privy purse was confiscated, and no longer was there any cash to support a lifestyle that has gone down in history as one of the most decadent of all time.

Taj Falaknuma Palace

The vintage cars were left to rot in the garages, or were sold off. The gems and the bullion were sold as well to pay for the astonishing taxes levied by the Indian state. And, as for the palaces, most of them were simply sealed shut.

The apple of the Nizam's eye was a palace named ‘Falaknuma', which means ‘Mirror of the Sky'. Built in the shape of a scorpion with a double sting, it had a commanding vantage position above Hyderabad.

The story goes that the Nizam's Prime Minister, Viqar ul Omra, conceived the Falaknuma as a fantasy home for himself. But, having spent a fortune on the construction, the furnishings, not to mention a decade of his life – he realized that he would never be able to complete it. And so, taking advice from his wife, he invited his master, the Nizam, to stay.

From the first moment his eyes set on the palace, it is said, the Nizam fell in love. He extended his stay, and extended it again. Seeing this and, desperate for an end to his financial woes, the Prime Minister presented it as a gift to the Nizam. And, as the story goes, the Nizam's treasurer was given the order to repay the Prime Minister every penny of the cost. After all, to a man of such limitless wealth, the cost of any luxury – however extreme – was easily within budget.

Taj Falaknuma Palace

Despite his love for the palace, the Nizam himself never lived there. Rather, he used it as a guest palace for the droves of royal visitors and aristocracy who called upon him – lured by the reputation of jaw-dropping wealth. Among them were King George V and Queen Mary, the Prince of Wales (later crowned King Edward VIII), the Tsar Nicholas of Russia, and a kaleidoscope of titled guests.

With the end of Hyderabad State, and the sealing of the palaces, the dust grew deeper and the cobwebs thicker at the Falaknuma. Then, in 2000, after decades with its doors closed with wax seals by order of the courts, the palace was leased to the Taj Hotel Group for an initial period of thirty years. The arrangement was administered by Her Highness Princess Esra, the former first wife of the current Nizam, (he lives in Turkey). Under her careful and expert supervision, the palace was painstakingly restored, in a process which took a full ten years.

Taj Falaknuma Palace

Three months ago the Falaknuma, Mirror of the Sky, was opened to the public, and what a true marvel she is to behold.

From the first moment of your arrival (a yellow horse drawn carriage brings you up the mile-long drive), you feel as if you're entering a kind of fairytale fantasy world. There's a Cinderella-like feel about it all, as if you're pulling up for the grand ball. The carriage door is opened by a footman. Then, a standard bearer – golden standard held high before him – leads you up the great curved stairway and into the palace itself.

Inside, a graceful vestibule leads into the main body of the scorpion palace. Walls and ceiling adorned in frescoes, it has at its heart a marble fountain and matching Greek urns. This being the Falaknuma, there's no reception desk, concierge, or bell-hop, none of trappings of normal five star hotels. Instead, there's the strong sense that you are a guest in the Nizam's own home.

Taj Falaknuma Palace

As you are greeted by a line of liveried staff, and led toward your suite, it's fearfully easy to find yourself slipping into a world in which delusions of grandeur run wild. There are long portraits of the Nizams on the walls, endless chandeliers, original art of all kinds, and miles and miles of silk.

I was taken to the Begum Suite in the Zenana Wing, where I found that an invisible valet had already unpacked, and laid out a banquet of refreshments.

Grand in a deliciously understated way, the suite was large but cozy, with a pair of bedrooms, dining-room, and salon. There was every luxury, from fabulously soft sheets to a colossal marble bath with gold taps, to a 24-hour butler and wardrobes lined with silk.

During my stay, the palace historian took me on a tour. He had been there for decades – first as a guardian – and could remember when there were cobwebs the size of blankets, and mountains of dust.

‘Princess Esra noticed everything,' he told me, ‘the tiniest detail was important to her because after all she was renovating a royal palace. She brought experts from all over the world, and made sure that the very best of the best was used. The carpets and furnishings, the cutlery and silverware, all of it fit for a king.'

Taj Falaknuma Palace

We toured through the Jade Room, with its exotic Chinoserie style, extraordinary geometric parquet floor and matching painted ceiling; then through to the Durbar ballroom, in which colossal Venetian chandeliers hang. Famously, the Nizam had an army of staff numbering in their thousands. Dozens alone were given the job of keeping the chandeliers dusted and clean.

And, through to the games room, with its English billiards' table, made to order in London on the exact Nizam's specification and, beside it, a rack of antique ivory-tipped cues. There was a huqqa too, with numerous serpent-like pipes, a walnut wood bar, card tables, and grand piano.

Then on again, this time through a smaller doorway, into a voluminous dining-room. Running down the center was one of the longest dining-tables ever made – all 110 feet of it, and 101-place settings. In the palace's heyday, the Nizam would have banquets here, the diners all eating off solid gold plates.

Taj Falaknuma Palace

We continued through a library inspired by the one at Windsor Castle, and out on through acres of rambling gardens.

As I strolled there, the sun ebbing below the poplar trees, I pondered the way fortunes are made and lost. Then, turning back towards the scorpion palace, I made out a figure walking briskly toward me. He was holding a silver salver.

Nearing me, he cleared his throat, ‘Forgive me for disturbing you, sir,' he said, catching his breath, ‘a glass of sherry, perhaps. After all, sir, it is six o'clock.'

Hotel Profile: Taj Falaknuma Palace