Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple in Hy­der­abad

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - WIL­LIAM DAL­RYM­PLE

Hy­der­abad has al­ways been one of my favourite In­dian cities, but un­til re­cently it was one of the most ne­glected. In its day, Hy­der­abad was the great­est and rich­est of all the princely states that made up nearly a third of the In­dian land mass un­der the hege­mony of the Bri­tish Raj. It far out­shone in mag­nif­i­cence any of the small Ra­jput king­doms now re­garded as es­sen­tial parts of any visit to In­dia.

From about 1750, un­der its suc­ces­sion of Asaf Jahi Nizams, the Hy­der­abad State had for more than 200 years suc­ceeded in pre­serv­ing ev­ery­thing sal­vaged from the wreck of me­dieval Dec­cani civil­i­sa­tion, so keep­ing alive a last flickering light of the arts and cul­tural forms of Indo-Is­lamic civil­i­sa­tion that else­where had been eroded first by the on­slaught of Bri­tish colo­nial­ism then by the modernism of in­de­pen­dent In­dia.

As late as the 1940s. Hy­der­abad had in­come and ex­pen­di­ture equal to Bel­gium, and ex­ceeded that of 20 mem­ber states of the United Na­tions. The Nizam’s per­sonal for­tune was more re­mark­able still; ac­cord­ing to one con­tem­po­rary es­ti­mate, it amounted to at least £100 mil­lion in gold and sil­ver bul­lion and £400m in jewels. He also owned one of the Is­lamic world’s great art col­lec­tions: li­braries full of price­less Mughal and Dec­cani minia­tures, il­lu­mi­nated Ko­rans and the rarest and most es­o­teric Indo-Is­lamic manuscripts.

In Fe­bru­ary 1937, Os­man Ali Khan was fea­tured on the cover of Time as “the rich­est man in the world”, his to­tal wealth es­ti­mated at $US1.4 bil­lion. Yet, while many of the princes man­aged to find a place for them­selves in mod­ern In­dia, the last Nizam found him­self un­equal to the task. In­deed, the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the state, and the dis­per­sal of the wealth of the Nizam, is one of the 20th cen­tury’s most dra­matic re­ver­sals of for­tunes.

Af­ter months of failed ne­go­ti­a­tions, In­dia in­vaded Hy­der­abad in 1948, re­plac­ing the Nizam’s au­to­cratic and despotic rule with par­lia­men­tary democ­racy. Twenty-six years later, it abol­ished the Nizam’s ti­tle, along with those of all the other princes, re­moved their privy purses and made them sub­ject to crip­pling new wealth taxes and

It was clear that it was al­most as com­mon for Western­ers to take on the cus­toms, and even the re­li­gions, of In­dia as the re­verse

land-ceil­ing acts, forc­ing them to sell most of their prop­erty. The last Nizam, Mukar­ram Jah, in­her­ited a ridicu­lously in­flated army of re­tain­ers: 14,718 staff and de­pen­dants, in­clud­ing no less than 42 of his grand­fa­ther’s con­cu­bines and their 100-plus off­spring.

The Chowma­halla Palace com­plex alone had 6000 em­ploy­ees; there were about 3000 Arab body­guards from Su­dan and Ye­men, and 28 peo­ple whose only job was to bring drink­ing wa­ter; 38 more were em­ployed to dust the chan­de­liers while sev­eral oth­ers were re­tained specif­i­cally to grind the Nizam’s wal­nuts.

Even­tu­ally, he gave up strug­gling and fled abroad, in 1973, re­lo­cat­ing to a sheep farm in Western Aus­tralia. There His Ex­alted High­ness donned blue over­alls and spent his days tin­ker­ing un­der the bon­nets of his cars or driv­ing bull­doz­ers and JCBs around the bush. In his ab­sence, the Nizam’s Hy­der­abad prop­er­ties were looted and his pos­ses­sions dis­persed by a suc­ces­sion of in­com­pe­tent or un­scrupu­lous ad­vis­ers.

Many palaces were sealed by or­ders of dif­fer­ent courts. Be­tween 1967 and 2001, the Chowma­halla shrank from 22ha to 5ha, as court­yard af­ter court­yard, ball­rooms and en­tire sta­ble blocks, even the fa­mous mile-long ban­quet­ing hall, were ac­quired by de­vel­op­ers who de­mol­ished the 18th-cen­tury build­ings and erected con­crete apart­ments in their place.

I first vis­ited Hy­der­abad about 20 years ago. Un­like the im­me­di­ate, mon­u­men­tal charm of Agra or the Ra­jput city states, Hy­der­abad hid its charms from the eyes of out­siders, veil­ing its splen­dours from cu­ri­ous eyes be­hind non­de­script walls and labyrinthine back­streets. Only slowly did it al­low you into a hid­den world where wa­ter still dripped from foun­tains, flow­ers bent in the breeze and pea­cocks called from the over­laden mango trees.

There, hid­den from the streets, was a world of time­less­ness and calm, a last bas­tion of gen­tly fad­ing In­doIs­lamic civil­i­sa­tion, where old Hy­der­abadi gen­tle­men still wore the fez, dreamed of the rose and the nightin­gale, and mourned the loss of Gre­nada.

It was while wan­der­ing around the city that I stum­bled upon the old Bri­tish Res­i­dency, now the Os­ma­nia Women’s Col­lege. It was a vast Pal­la­dian villa, in plan not un­like its con­tem­po­rary, the White House in Washington DC, and it lay in a gar­den just over the River Musi from the old city. The Res­i­dency was now in a bad way. In­side, I found plas­ter fall­ing in chunks from the ceil­ing of the old ball­room. As the cen­tral block of the house was deemed too dan­ger­ous for the stu­dents, most classes now took place in the for­mer ele­phant sta­bles at the back.

The com­plex, I was told, was built by Colonel James Achilles Kirk­patrick, the Bri­tish res­i­dent, or am­bas­sador, at the court of Hy­der­abad be­tween 1797 and 1805. Kirk­patrick had gone out to In­dia full of am­bi­tion, in­tent on mak­ing his name in the sub­jec­tion of a na­tion; in­stead it was he who was con­quered, not by an army but by a Hy­der­abadi no­ble­woman named Khair un-Nissa.

I was told how, in 1800, af­ter fall­ing in love with Khair, Kirk­patrick not only mar­ried her, ac­cord­ing to Mus­lim law, and adopted Mughal clothes and ways of liv­ing, but had ac­tu­ally con­verted to Is­lam; he be­came a dou­ble agent work­ing against the East In­dia Com­pany and for the Hy­der­abadis. I thought it was the most fas­ci­nat­ing story, and by the time I left the gar­den I was cap­ti­vated and wanted to know more. The whole tale sim­ply seemed so dif­fer­ent from what one ex­pected of the Bri­tish in In­dia, and I spent the rest of my time in Hy­der­abad pur­su­ing any­one who could tell me more. Lit­tle did I know it was to be the start of an ob­ses­sion that would take over my life for many years.

Be­neath the fa­mil­iar story of the Bri­tish con­quest and rule of the sub­con­ti­nent, I found there lay a far more in­trigu­ing and still largely un­writ­ten story — about the In­dian con­quest of the Bri­tish imag­i­na­tion. Dur­ing the 18th and early 19th cen­tury, it was clear that it was al­most as com­mon for Western­ers to take on the cus­toms, and even the re­li­gions, of In­dia as the re­verse. These so-called white mughals had re­sponded to their trav­els in In­dia by slowly shed­ding their Bri­tish­ness like an un­wanted skin, adopt­ing In­dian dress, study­ing In­dian phi­los­o­phy, tak­ing harems and adopt­ing the ways of the Mughal gov­ern­ing class they slowly came to re­place. More­over, the white mughals were far from an in­signif­i­cant mi­nor­ity. The wills of the pe­riod show that in the 1780s more than one-third of the Bri­tish men in In­dia were leav­ing all their pos­ses­sions to one or more In­dian wives.

Hy­der­abad was one of the places where the Bri­tish had im­mersed them­selves most fully into Indo-Is­lamic courtly cul­ture. It is easy to see how they fell in love — Hy­der­abad and its rich Dec­cani cul­ture has al­ways been the most se­duc­tive place. Yet, when I first saw it, it all seemed to be sink­ing into ir­re­triev­able de­cay.

How­ever, re­turn­ing re­cently to make a BBC doc­u­men­tary based on my book White Mughals, I found the city had turned it­self around with a se­ries of re­mark­able con­ser­va­tion projects, and it is now at the very top of the list of places to which I di­rect friends when they ask where they should go in Asia.

Mukar­ram Jah, the last Nizam, re­mains in ex­ile in Tur­key, where he lives in a two-room apart­ment in An­talya, but his first wife, the in­domitable Turk­ish princess Esra, has re­cently over­seen a ma­jor restora­tion of the prin­ci­pal city palace, the Chowma­halla com­plex. It is open to the public and about 1000 visi­tors a day stream through. The Falaknuma Palace — a de­cay­ing, board­edup Indo-Vic­to­rian Gor­meng­hast when I first saw it — has been turned into a fab­u­lous prop­erty by the Taj Ho­tels, Re­sorts and Palaces group.

Else­where, the mag­nif­i­cent Gol­conda Tombs have been white­washed and re­stored by the Aga Khan Foun­da­tion, won­der­fully ebul­lient and fop­pish mon­u­ments dat­ing from the 15th and 16th cen­turies, with domes swelling out of all pro­por­tion to the base, each like a wa­ter­melon at­tempt­ing to bal­ance on a fig. Above the domes rises the craggy ci­tadel of Gol­conda, where were stored the cease­less stream of Gol­conda di­a­monds that en­sured Hy­der­abad’s rulers would never be poor. In­side the walls, you pass a suc­ces­sion of harems and bathing pools, pavil­ions and plea­sure gar­dens.

When the French jew­eller Jean-Bap­tiste Tav­ernier vis­ited Gol­conda in 1642, he found a so­ci­ety ev­ery bit as deca­dent as this ar­chi­tec­ture might sug­gest, and he wrote that the town pos­sessed more than 20,000 reg­is­tered cour­te­sans, who had to take it in turns to dance for the king ev­ery Fri­day. To­day, the fort is the mag­nif­i­cent venue for one of In­dia’s lead­ing literary fes­ti­vals.

There has been a flood of new publi­ca­tions on the art and ar­chi­tec­ture of the re­gion, cul­mi­nat­ing in a show of Dec­cani cul­ture at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum in New York; while in Hy­der­abad there is a slow re­al­i­sa­tion that de­vel­op­ment and pros­per­ity need not be at the ex­pense of her­itage. There is good news even for Kirk­patrick’s mag­nif­i­cent Pal­la­dian Res­i­dency, which I thought was about to col­lapse when I last saw it 20 years ago. An anony­mous Bri­tish donor has given $US1m to the World Mon­u­ment Fund for its restora­tion.

Much has been lost, but the fu­ture of Hy­der­abad’s past now seems brighter than it has been for many decades, and there is ev­ery rea­son to hope more trav­ellers will soon be­gin to dis­cover this most fas­ci­nat­ing and still largely for­got­ten part of In­dia.

Au­torick­shaws in Hy­der­abad, op­po­site page; Chowma­halla Palace, above; stair­case at the for­mer Bri­tish Res­i­dency, top right; Grand Ban­quet Room at Taj Falaknuma Palace, above right; Gol­conda Fort, left

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