POMP AND CEREMONY
William Dalrymple in Hyderabad
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