Chowmahalla Palace is a perfect day-off destination to get soaked in Hyderabad’s history. Most spaces make us realise how time flies; the Chowmahalla Palace on the other hand, freezes time. In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the area surrounding the Charminar, the Palace, located in a quieter corner, not far away, lets you slip immediately into a different world, a prettier world that is splashed with the umpteen evidences of the affluence of the Nizams.
What strikes you immediately is the staff, bearing the humble efficiency of a well-trained unit, amply demonstrated by the one who manned the parking lot, asking me to nonchalantly leave my helmet near the bike, assuring me that he would take care of it. The impeccable cleanliness of the place strikes you – well-manicured, lush green lawns, fountains amidst pools cleaned incessantly of dried leaves, and floors, constantly mopped by women in blue, right through the day. There was a reception planned for the evening, a conference delegation which would probably enjoy the charms of the place in the soothing solace of evening colours that might make the already majestic palace, prettier.
The entrance leads you to the Khilwat Mubarak, the durbar, with its gorgeous windows laced with detailed and ornate stucco work, and flanked by the timeless clock tower, the Khilwat Clock that has seen 250 years of Hyderabad and still ticking – what can be more humbling? Inside the gorgeous hall are beautifully carved archways with chandeliers of Belgian crystal, sparkling in multitudes of colours.
As you walk along the foyers adjacent to the durbar, you can feel the affluent touch of the Nizams’ illustrious history cajole you into a world of nostalgia – beautiful furniture, ceramic-ware, princely dresses and court uniforms, paintings, correspondence and armoury in chambers lined with beautiful arched windows, and walls embellished with framed photographs and paintings boasting of the fine palates of the connoisseurs of art. But, the best is yet to come, the guard would remind you, of the riches that lie beyond the durbar – the four palaces that give Chowmahalla its name – Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, Tahniyat Mahal and Aftab Mahal.
But for the resolve of one great lady, aided by some efficient, upright men, the palace would have been all but lost to us. The opulence of the Nizam, who was once the richest man in the world, the Chowmahalla Palace, had fallen into decadence; it was a derelict Ruritania, to borrow the phrase used by William Dalrymple in his essay on one of the greatest restoration works in the modern world.
As I walked along the lush lawns, the buzz building up for the reception in the evening, I couldn’t help but wonder about the magnanimity of the stewardship of Princess Esra, the first wife of the present Nizam, who after a hiatus, returned to set the house in order, metaphorically, the heir, Mukarram Jah giving her the authority needed to do what was necessary. And in six years, things have been turned around remarkably, hundreds of litigations dealt with and debts taken care of, before the Palace was turned into a museum. The Princess’ remarkable hand ensured the Nizam’s legacy wasn’t lost to the churning wheels of time.
It is hard to guess, how many more riches lie in the chambers of the palace but walking along the courtyard from one Mahal to the other, one can only admire the courage and efficiency needed to restore such a grand place, employing teams of carpenters, photographic experts, antique upholsterers, historians, Persian and Urdu experts, and ceramic and art conservators and consultants who worked unrelentingly to keep alive a dynastic legacy that was once the unofficial seat of the leading Muslim ruler of the world.
As afternoon creeped into the courtyards of the beautiful Mahals, with their Persian and Mughal influences demonstrated proudly by the arches contrasted against green lawns and blue skies, alive with the flutter of pigeons, I finally walked into the much-hyped corner of the Palace – to the Nizam’s collection of vintage cars. You can’t help but have your jaw drop, so mesmerising is the first glimpse of the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, restored to its pristine beauty, with a nice canary yellow exterior.
You might need an entire day to soak in the beauty of everything the palace has to offer, for one can spend a quiescent hour or two just gazing out of the arched windows in the hallways at the verandas, or lying in the alluring lawns brimming with artistic topiary and landscaping. What would I not give for a few whiffs of Hindustani classical music, echoing through the quietly proud halls, to celebrate a great fightback! #KhabarLive