Chowmahalla Palace of Hyderabad
When one talks about the places of interest in Hyderabad, not many think beyond the charming Charminar and the grand Golconda fort, but there is one gem in the city representative of a past that the Charminar and Golconda Fort do not represent. I’m referring to the era of the Nizams of Hyderabad, and the place is Chowmahalla Palace, which is one of the multiple palaces from where the Hyderabad Nizams ruled over their subjects.
But, before we delve into the Chowmahalla Palace, it’ll be prudent to know the history of the Nizams.
Hyderabad Nizams – Who were they?
Nizams of Hyderabad, or the forebearers of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, were installed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, after he defeated the ruling Qutb Shahi dynasty of Deccan from the Golconda Fort, to look after the Deccan region (which includes parts of present day Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, and Karnataka states) in the south since it was difficult for him to look over his now sprawling Mughal empire from its capital in the north. Over generations, the Nizams gained autonomy over Deccan, and specially after the fall of Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal emperor, the Nizams started ruling the Hyderabad state independently.
The Nizams had bitter sweet relationship with the British but eventually when India became independent, Osman Ali Khan, the 7th Nizam, refused to accede to the Indian Republic. Instead, he wanted Hyderabad to be recognized as an independent sovereign state. In 1948, the Indian government launched Operation Polo, and within 5 days captured the state of Hyderabad and brought it under the Indian Republic, thus ending the two century old reign of the Asaf Jahi dynasty.
So what became of the Nizams and where are they now? After the death of Osman Ali Khan in 1967, his grandson Mukarram Jah was coronated symbolically as the 8th Nizam. Osman Ali Khan was declared the richest man in the world by TIME Magazine in 1937 and Mukkaram Jah was to inherit this wealth if not for hundreds of illegitimate heirs of the past Nizams who laid claim to the wealth leading to Mukarram Jah being caught in a whirlwind of lawsuits.
Now Mukarram Jah was not like the previous Nizams. From what it appears from the documented history, he seemed little interested in Hyderabad and the boorish manner of the royalty, thanks to his mother, Princess Durrushehvar, the daughter of the last heir of the Ottoman Empire – Abdulmejid II, who made sure that Mukarram Jah was kept away from the influence of the Nizams who were deep rooted in profligacy and decadence. She wanted Mukarram Jah to get the best of the education unlike his paternal forefathers who were home schooled in Hyderabad mainly in religious studies. Thus, Mukarram Jah was educated in schools like the Doon School, Harrow, Cambridge, LSE etc.
Mukarram Jah was married to Princess Esra of Turkey, but things didn’t workout and they got a divorce. Meanwhile he was tangled in lawsuits over the wealth of the Nizams, over which he wasn’t too keen on anyway. He then moved to the Australian outback and went on to run a farm which was a failure. He got married multiple times after that and all the marriages were a failure due to some reasons. Now he lives a secluded life in a small apartment somewhere in Turkey. A sad end to the once glorious dynasty, from the magnificent palaces of Hyderabad to a small apartment in Turkey. Sad to think that the once richest man of the world, the heir apparent of the Ottoman and the Hyderabad empires, now lives a secluded private life away from the limelight. It is indeed a Prince to Pauper story.
Today, two of the palaces of the Nizams remain intact and accessible by the public. One is Chowmahalla Palace, and the other one, the Falaknuma Palace is turned into a luxury hotel by the Taj group. Chowmahalla Palace was also entangled in lawsuits by the illegitimate heirs of the Nizams running into hundreds laying claim over it. It was the effort of Princess Esra who along with her lawyers got hold of the Palace and restored it as a museum to be opened for public in 2005.
Located a short walk away from Charminar, Chowmahalla, which means means ‘four palaces’, consists of 4 palaces in its premises. The palace is basically divided in two parts. The Northern Courtyard and the Southern Courtyard. The northern courtyard consists of the Bara Imam, Khilawat Mubarak, and the Khilawat Clock. While the southern courtyard consists of the four palaces, i.e. Afzal Mahal, Aftab Mahal, Tahniat Mahal, and Mehtab Mahal.
- Khilawat Mubarak – It’s the heart of the palace which consists of the Durbar, where the Nizams used to hold their court. It’s where the coronation of Mukarram Jah took place in 1967. It’s truly magnificent with the marble throne, intricate carvings and splendid chandeliers. It also houses the collection of Nizams crockery, furniture, currency, weapons etc. along with the chambers and corridors telling the story of the Nizams via scriptures, photographs and videos. Further Khilawat Mahal also has a recently opened Quran chamber where the Nizams’ collection of Qurans of various kinds (hand written, gold inscribed, miniature copies etc.) is displayed.
- Afzal Mahal – The most prominent building of the Southern Courtyard is the Afzal Mahal. This is where the Nizams treated their royal guests. It has been restored splendidly to its old glory with regal living rooms and furniture that exudes the royal charm.
- Aftab Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, Tahniat Mahal – These are three other palaces in the courtyars which display assorted items from Nizam’s collections, including the costumes, draperies, etc.
Another fascinating collection on display is that of Nizam’s fleet of cars and buggies, including custom, made to order Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Other cars include the Ford Tourer, Napier, Fiat etc.
The palace grounds also house the clock tower called the Khilawat clock which has been ticking since more than two centuries, i.e. since the construction of the palace.
Further there is Bara Imam in the Northern Courtyard, which is a long corridor of chambers upon entrance to the left. It used to be the administrative wing of the palace.
The palace today apart from being this museum is venue to various cultural programs as well. The palace is privately owned by the Nizam’s family and open to public, thanks to the efforts of Princess Esra. It is true that many people harbor some resentment towards the Nizams, which is a part of the nationwide resentment towards the Muslim rulers of India these days, but it is an integral part of the history of the Hyderabad state, the center of power of the once richest dynasty on the planet, and it is only befitting that people embrace it and accept it as a part of their shared heritage. I for one, am fascinated by the Muslim royalty of India and believe that they have made the history and the culture of the subcontinent only richer with their contributions.