Hyderabad, India is off the beaten path for tourists on the sub-continent. Jokingly called Cyberabad, the city is better known for its IT call centers than for its sightseeing. But drawn by reports of a palatial hotel, the Taj Falaknuma Palace, off to Hyderabad I went.
Winding through a seemingly unremarkable and crowded city, the ride from the airport left me baffled. But everything changed upon arrival at the foot of the luxury resort. Transferred from the car to an antique carriage drawn by white horses, I snaked my way through the property until the hotel rose up before me like a mirage.
Alighting from the carriage, it was as if stepping into a different era – 1894 to be precise – when Hyderabad was under the rule of Nizams, the state’s hereditary rulers. A costumed staff member holding the royal crest greets guests upon arrival and a butler hands them a cool drink to be enjoyed while taking in the hilltop palace’s endless views from 2,000 feet above the city.
While soaking in the view, the tale of Taj Falaknuma Palace was told. Prime Minister Sir Nawab Vikar-Ul Umra designed Falaknuma meaning “mirror of the sky,” in the shape of a scorpion, Sir Vikar’s star sign. The finished product was notable not only for its size, cost and beauty, but for being the first residence in India to have electricity. When it was completed, Sir Vikar was left bankrupt but proud, and he invited his brother-in-law, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, to visit the palace. As the story goes, the Nizam loved Falaknuma so much that Sir Vikar gifted it to him. Luckily for Sir Vikar, the Nizam declined to accept such a large gift without payment!
Climbing the steps to the lobby, fragrant rose petals rain from the balcony above and an elegant, sari-clad woman places a wreath of flowers around traveler’s necks. The mission of Taj Falaknuma Palace is to treat each and every guest like a Nizam royal. With refreshing cocktails and uniformed butlers, the Taj makes it all too easy to slip into this fantasy world.
To say that Nizams were accustomed to luxury is like saying Warren Buffet has a few dollars lying around. The last Nizam, Asaf Jah VII, was the richest man in the world when India annexed the Princely State of Hyderabad in 1948. He still clocks in as the fifth wealthiest person to ever live, according to Forbes. His inflation-adjusted net worth is well north of $200 billion, buoyed by the region’s famous Golkonda diamonds of which he owned 25,000. The Nizams had so many jewels that they couldn’t even keep track of them all! Asaf Jah VII discovered the 185-carat Jacob diamond, worth more than $150 million, in the toe of his father’s shoe at Chowmahalla Palace—and then used the jewel as a paperweight.
Prince Azmet Jah and Princess Shehkyar Jah happened to be in town and joined me for a drink to discuss the Palace’s restoration. After abandoning the palace several decades ago, it had fallen into complete disrepair. The Prince and Princess gave Taj Hotels a lengthy lease on the property under one condition, that every inch be restored exactly as it was. Taj was true to its word, precisely matching all of the property’s precious materials, from silk upholstery to stained glass to the enormous marble staircase and restoring antique furniture, including what is purportedly the world’s longest dining table seating 101 people. The restoration was completed in November 2010 after 10 years of meticulous work.
To get the full impact of the property’s grandeur, Falaknuma Palace offers a tour of the property each evening at 5:30 p.m. led by a historian who will regale you with tales from the property’s past. There is a story in each room, piece of art and object. As we passed into the wide, spacious courtyard that evening, the property’s mood completely changed. Here, while sipping cocktails and enjoying traditional Sufi music, the place transitioned from near-overwhelming opulence to cool tranquility.
Each of the 60 rooms, which were luxuious yet surprisingly modern in style, open into the palace’s interior, open air spaces (most onto the main courtyard), including the Grand Presidential Suite which was once the Nizam’s personal chambers. Wandering the property continued to reveal captivating surprises like Japanese gardens, an open-air rotunda and a shaded pool. A favorite spot was the tranquil gardens leading to the Jiva Spa where there is a limited but superb menu of traditional Indian therapies, including an aromatherapy massage that ranks among the best spa services I have ever received.
Topping off the hotel’s main features are two fine dining restaurants. Celeste is Falaknuma Palace’s European restaurant while Adaa prepares Hyderabadi specialties, including its famous biryanis, dishes made with basmati rice, spices and meat or vegetables. Off the grounds of the hotel, there are plenty of places to visit, ideally in one of Falaknuma’s exceptional vintage cars on offer. Hyderabad is rough around the edges, but the splendor of the city’s storied past from the era of the Nizams is all there to be explored. The old city of Charminar, the Salar Jung Museum, Chowmahalla Palace and Golconda Fort top the list of must-sees.
There is also exceptional shopping for pearls, attar perfumes, textiles and bangles, all of which would have been impossible to navigate without the expert guidance of Falaknuma Palace’s extraordinarily helpful staff. The rarity of tourists in Hyderabad made me feel like I was unearthing secret treasures at every stop. Despite my initial apprehension, Hyderabad proved to have abundant charms, but none more enchanting than Falaknuma Palace.