Story and photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
some images also courtecy of Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces
Taj Falaknuma Palace
Every little girl dreams of being a Princess and in the city of Hyderabad India you can still play “pretend”. Recently opened as a hotel is the fabled royal residence of the Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan, purported to be the richest and most powerful man in recorded history!
As we drove up the winding road high above the city, a magnificent white arched structure came into view. Excited at the sight, I jumped from the car to view up close what I thought was the entrance to the Palace, only to realize that this was just the main gate and that the Falaknuma Palace rose majestically higher up the hill. Waiting just beyond the gate were two horse drawn carriages with fully liveried coachmen. And like royalty before us, our final approach to the Palace was in fairytale splendor as the carriage clattered over the cobbled path accompanying the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves. Waiting to greet us with silver trays holding Champaign flutes were splendidly attired staff in colorful silk sari’s, their trains floating freely on the breeze in the open courtyard. To our left was a large manicured lawn where we were told, peacocks frolic early mornings, spreading their iridescent feathers for the breakfast guests to enjoy over morning tea and crumpets. And to our right was the imposing double stairs leading to the Taj Falaknuma Palace. As we were led up the stairs, rose petals floated down on us in a welcoming gesture to all arriving guests. Could any aspiring Princess wish for more?
In its heyday, Falaknuma Palace played host exclusively to visiting Royalty the likes of King Edward VIII, Nicholas II - the last Russian Tsar, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand - whose assassination triggered World War I. This extraordinary palace lay empty and unused since the 1950’s and was in some state of disrepair until leased by the Royal Family of Hyderabad to the TajGroup of Hotels Resorts and Palaces. Restoring and enhancing the Palace as a jewel in the crown of the Taj Group has been a labor of love, with Her Highness Princess Esra Jah, personally supervising the restoration. It took a full ten years to restore the building to its former glory until on November 1, 2010, it opened with sixty rooms and suites, each one individual and unique.
Of course the public rooms are museum-like, displaying exquisite artifacts lovingly restored, or duplicated as in the case of the carpets, where the yarn had to be re-created, hand-loomed and color-matched - which sometimes required dyeing up to 300 times to duplicate the original shade – with only worn scraps as guides. Venetian chandeliers, inlaid furniture, handcrafted tapestries, rich brocades from France, priceless objects d’art, a world-class collection of the finest Jade, stained-glass windows, are all scattered throughout the building to enjoy as if the Pasha himself still lived there. The library is a striking replica of the library at Windsor Castle, and contains a collection of rare books and manuscripts with an astounding group of Holy Qurans collected by the Nizam himself. There is the Hookah Room (water pipe) that is covered with embossed leather panels and has on display an original hookah that the Nizam himself used. The billiard room is a work of art with intricately carved ceilings, and the banquet room at the top the sweeping grand cantilevered staircase, is not only magnificent but engineered to allow for conversation at one end of the table that seats 101 guests, to be easily heard at the opposite end of the room. No doubt an acoustical precaution to discourage whispered conspiracies instigated at banquets. Of course no ultra deluxe property would be complete without a fitness center that includes a health club, swimming pool, beauty salon, and full service spa.
But simply recreating the old lavishness would not suffice for a modern hi-tech public grown spoiled by the accomplishments of the past 50 years. So to accommodate technological advances such as TV and air conditioning, internet access and international conference calling, the entire building had to be updated which was considerably more of a challenge then creating a new wing and dining pavilion in the style of the existing architecture. Kudos is due the management and construction team that has created an outstanding 21st century resort while maintaining the integrity and flavor of the original 1894 building.
At that time Hyderabad was the wealthiest and most progressive of the princely states and Falaknuma was built as the magnum opus of a fabulously wealthy nobleman, Vikar-ul-Umra, brother-in-law of the Nizam. It was designed by an Italian architect in the shape of a scorpion, Sir Vikar’s zodiac sign, with its claws creating the imposing Italian marble double staircase entrance mentioned above. The body contained the harem (woman’s quarters) and the tail was a domed structure made to resemble the scorpion’s sting. The finest available materials were used with furnishings, tapestries and brocades from France, leathers from Italy, and chandeliers from Venice. Craftsmen were brought from Europe to do the ornate decorating and the latest technology, including electric lights and a telephone system, were installed. Falaknuma literally means “mirror of the skies” and to be sure it was the most ornate and opulent home in all of Hyderabad. But pride goeth before a fall, because Sir Vikar was almost bankrupt in his effort to out-do his peers by building the most extravagant home of his time.
As the story goes, Sir Vikar had a grand ball to show off his home and once the Nizam saw the building he coveted it for his own. As a loyal subject, Sir Vikar had no choice but to gulp and proffer it as a gift. The Nizam in courtly fashion accepted the gift with a caveat that he reimburse Sir Vikar for its cost, which was so excessive that it took several installments. The Nizam of course could afford to add Falaknuma to his already existing collection of palaces as he was one of, if not the, wealthiest man that ever lived. The Nizam was the senior-most Prince carrying the title of ‘His Exalted Highness’. It was believed that his wealth exceeded all of the other 565 Maharajas and Rajas of the princely states put together. He was the owner not only of the fabulous Koh-i-Noor diamond that currently rests in the English crown, but also of the 183-carat Jacob diamond which was almost twice the size of the Koh-i-Noor. It was so massive that the Pasha used it as a paper weight on his desk because it was too large to do anything else with. This is just a small accounting of the astounding wealth of the man who lived in, and loved, the Falaknuma Palace above all his others… and this is the building you can now stay in.
As you would imagine the guest rooms and suites are large and beautifully furnished. I stayed in one of the Palace Rooms that was richly decorated with raw silk couches and patterned drapes to obscure the double doors that exited to a garden with a hammock under shade trees that faced out over the Musi River. The bathroom was large with separate stalls for the shower and the commode, an oversized bathtub, and two large marble sinks, one with masculine fittings and one with feminine amenities. Luxurious monogrammed towels and robes were plentiful and every time I left the room it was refreshed with my clothes and papers neatly organized. At the Taj Falaknuma Palace the evening sweet left to insure sweet dreams wasn’t the usual chocolate on the pillow left at turn-down service but was instead a tray of hand-made truffles or a pyramid of freshly baked cookies with a tumbler of hot chocolate.
The suites were each different and tastefully decorated with grand furniture, luxurious fabrics, and fine artwork, and had a living room, dining room, bedroom and bath(s). There are Royal Suites, Grand Royal Suites, and Historical Suites, but the ultimate is the Grand Presidential Suite, a duplex unit of enormous opulence befitting a most royal guest. The vast suite also sported a large patio with full sized pool in a garden setting.
All the meals I ate at the Taj Falaknuma Palace were exceptionally good and there was no concern as to the safety of consuming fruits and vegetables, or even water from the tap, since a filtration system was included in the renovation. In addition to the breakfast at the Jade Verandah where made-to-order selections are served in a breathtaking setting overlooking the peacock lawn, there is the glorious Jade Room where Afternoon Tea is offered. The display cabinets in the Jade Room house a collection of precious gems and rare jades, and the furniture and carpets are of a quality usually only seen in museums. Two award winning restaurants are at the end of the courtyard gardens, in the sting of the scorpion; Adaa, featuring traditional Hyderabadi and Deccan fare, and Celeste, an international dining venue where gourmet offerings from around the world are served.
This magnificent residence turned hotel, once the reserve of nobility out of the great houses of Europe and Asia, today awaits all that claim royalty… if only in their hearts. What a sublime treasure to be able to walk through the corridors envisioning stunningly bejeweled and attired Kings, Maharajas and Princes of the realm, with their wives and retainers in brilliantly colored and festooned costumes, prancing like the peacocks that grace the great lawn, their feathers shimmering in the sun. Its fun, it’s thrilling and it’s possible… even if you are only a “pretend” Princess.
HOW TO GO:
Contact Our Personal Guest, the ultimate in individualized luxury travel to provide hands-on service at every step of your trip. OPG takes the concerns and guesswork out of even the most exotic trips. They can assure you will receive the finest accommodations, the most knowledgeable guides, and accurate up to date information on your destination. www.ourpersonalguest.com
Jet Airways has direct service from both Newark and JFK to Mumbai with one stop in Belgium for refueling. The seats even in economy are comfortable and the personnel both on the ground and in the air are friendly and helpful. From Mumbai it’s a short internal flight to Hyderabad. www.jetairways.com
© April 2011 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.