Few hotels have been as eagerly anticipated as Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace. Partly, it is because the hotel has taken so long to open. Falaknuma is an almost legendary Hyderabad palace which was shuttered up in the early 1950s, when the Nizam ran out of money in the post-Independence phase to maintain his many palaces.
Because it had such a formidable reputation for its beauty, the Nizam’s family always believed that it could be turned into a hotel. It began talks with the Oberois in the late Sixties and when these fell through, approached the Taj Group (which had successfully revived the Lake Palace and the Rambagh Palace hotels) to take it over.
The Taj agreed and the hotel should have opened in the mid-1970s, but the deal soured in a welter of litigation. When all this was finally sorted out, Princess Esra Jah, the ex-wife of the Nizam, got the Taj involved again around 1995. Work began on renovating the palace (a massive task because the building had fallen into disrepair over 40 years) and it was expected that it would open in 2000. In fact, it took another ten years after that deadline came and went.
So when I heard that the Taj was finally opening the palace with a weekend of revelry jointly hosted by the Taj Group and by Princess Esra, I agreed to go to Hyderabad partly because the Taj knows how to open its hotels with style and flair – as I had discovered first-hand, in Cape Town a few months ago – but mostly because I was curious to see why they had spent 15 years restoring and renovating the palace.
Hyderabad is not really that far from Delhi. The flight takes as long as the journey to Bombay (one hour and fifty minutes). When I exit Hyderabad’s fancy new airport, I am set upon by three airport reps from the Taj who promise to arrange for a car and then start squabbling among themselves when it takes 20 minutes for the car to arrive.
This is not an auspicious beginning but fortunately the drive to the hotel is short – about 35 minutes – and we are soon at the end of a crowded, not terribly salubrious little lane, where security men check our car before letting us through the gates of the palace.
But our journey has just begun. We get into a horse-drawn carriage (the real thing, restored from the Nizam’s time) and make our way up a hill to the palace itself.
I have seen pictures of Falaknuma before but even so I am stunned by my first view of the palace. I’m used to the palaces of Rajasthan. But this is like no Indian palace I have seen. It looks almost European – an Italian villa or a grand country mansion of an English nobleman with a love of the Continent. It is quite spectacular.
The Taj has arranged its usual palace welcome (mogras, aarti and lots of rose petal showers) for guests in all 60 of the Falaknuma’s rooms and we are soon led to our room in what used to be the zenana area of the palace. My first impression of the interiors is that Falaknuma actually looks like a palace, not like a hotel located in a palace.
As far as I can tell, the Taj has invited around 150 people for the weekend. They fall into three broad categories – Tata executives (the heads of the many Tata companies seem to be here), regular Taj guests, media and Princess Esra’s crowd. The Princess has been completely involved in the restoration of the palace (given that she is no longer married to the Nizam whose trusts have leased the palace to the Taj, I am not sure how this works and nobody bothers to explain it) and has invited many friends and guests from abroad for the weekend.
Because we have arrived in the afternoon, we are just in time for the high tea organised on the balcony of the first floor of the palace. Princess Esra’s guests have already arrived, a sprinkling of old friends, minor royals (Princess Michael of Kent, for instance), sort-of-celebrities (the actress Bo Derek, still looking gorgeous) and, if one were to be unkind, Eurotrash.
The Indians are still trickling in but the basic difference is that we seem more laid-back and under-dressed. Her guests are perfumed, made-up, expensively dressed and carry Birkins and Kellys (some of them in crocodile leather) while the Indians look slightly bleary-eyed. Seeing how glam the Europeans look, the Indians start complaining about how long it is taking for our bags to arrive. (This is true. We were separated from our luggage when we got into the horse-drawn carriage and the bags have clearly decided to take a long holiday by themselves before rejoining us in our rooms.)
One reason why we feel so underdressed is because of the sheer splendour of our surroundings. Seen up close, it is clear why the Taj spent 15 years (and R 100 crore) on the restoration. Every corner of the rooms is filled with works of art, every chair and table seems like an antique and I begin to wonder if the palace actually looked this good when the Nizams (some of whom were notorious misers) ran it themselves.
The tea is to prepare us for the big royal banquet in the evening. This is dinner for three hundred people (the guests at Falaknuma plus those at the Taj Krishna where another 70 rooms have been blocked plus local Hyderabad notables) in the lawns of the palace. A rain scare in the morning has caused the Taj to erect a tent at short notice (and an additional Rs 50 lakh) and even as we sip our Earl Grey and nibble at our smoked salmon sandwiches, workers are hastily assembling the tables for dinner.
We meet at 7 pm for drinks in the public rooms of the palace (the Nizam’s library, the ‘gossip room’ for European ladies etc.) and on the open porch. All of Hyderabad seems to have turned up. There are the Governor, Chandrababu Naidu, Jaipal Reddy, Pallam Raju and assorted local notables. There are ministers from Delhi: Selja and Salman Khurshid. There is the Bombay media (Shobhaa De and all of Condé Nast), along with travel trade biggies, the Tata honchos and assorted Indian princes, most of whom have given their palaces to the Taj to run.
After an hour or so, we move to the tent where the first hiccup occurs. The Taj, brave and courageous to the end, has decided to do place-cards for 300 people. In my experience, Indians don’t like being told where to sit and ignore seating plans, preferring to make up their own tables. But tonight, the Indians file dutifully to their seats. It is Princess Esra’s guests who seem unwilling to follow protocol. Some occupy seats meant for other people, some throw away place-cards and others berate hapless Taj executives: “How can you put my wife on a different table from me?” Or “Why doesn’t my name card say ‘Princess’? Don’t you know I am a princess?”
The Taj executives are far more gracious than I would be in these circumstances as assorted trout-mouths and Eurotrash types rave and rant. But while the alleged European princesses pout, the Indian princes wait patiently. On my table, the Maharajah of Benares, the Yuvraj of Udaipur and a Jaipur prince (all of them identified on their place cards by their names, not their titles) sit calmly waiting for the dinner to start.
I am not really sure what a royal banquet for 300 is supposed to be. Should it be an invocation of the Hyderabad experience? Perhaps. But not according to the Taj. The food is a mish-mash of cuisines (including wild mushroom cappuccino followed by biryani), the service is shambolic, the dishes are frequently cold by the time they reach the tables and there is nothing memorable about the meal.
The entertainment is a fashion show. We know what to expect because my table is near the stage and as we sip our soup we can hear the models loudly squawking and screeching backstage. When Ratan Tata, the Nizam himself (looking frail but certainly there in the flesh) the Governor of Andhra Pradesh and the Taj’s R K Krishna Kumar and Raymond Bickson take to the stage, we can hardly hear them for the squeals emerging from the backstage area. The fashion show is by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, probably the most talented of today’s Indian designers. The clothes are exquisite but I find that, the older I get, the less enamoured I am of the modern Indian tradition of the fashion show as spectator sport for people with no real interest in fashion. I also find it increasingly difficult not to giggle at the strange walk models adopt on the catwalk, aggressively thrusting their feet out like a party of drag artistes put in charge of confronting the Pakistani army at the Wagah border.
If the banquet is a bit of a dud, then the after-party more than makes up for it. It is held in an open-air bar area at the edge of the hill, overlooking the twinkling lights of Hyderabad. An American singer flown in for the evening sings jazz standards and torch songs while the likes of Vogue editor Priya Tanna and travel biggie Vikram Madhok sing along. Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg who run wonderful hotels of their own are generous in their praise of Falaknuma. Selja does her duty as Tourism Minister by staying late and the moon shimmers prettily as the champagne flows through the night.
One of the unexpected highlights of last night’s after-party was the steady stream of Hyderabad notables who, recognising me from a show I did on Hyderabadi biryani for the Travel and Living Channel, turned up to complain about the food at the banquet. It was barely so-so. It was not at all authentic. What was Hyderabadi about it? The khubani-ka-meetha was authentic only to the Upper West Side, not to Hyderabad. (The last put-down is the work of Anvar Ali Khan who writes wittily and knowledgeably about food).
Obviously it is a dangerous enterprise to try and serve Hyderabadi food in Hyderabadi. Perhaps as a consequence, the Taj has adopted a much less ambitious approach to Sunday brunch. Served all over the first floor of the palace, it is a buffet that could just as easily be served at Kafe Fontana or the Shamiana: dosas, idlis, pao-bhaji, eggs, sausages, roast beef, sushi, dim sum, nihari korma and from pastry chef Rohit Sangwan (creator of the aforementioned khubani-ka-meetha), superlative dark chocolate cake, baked yoghurt, salted caramel chocolates and more.
The real attraction of the brunch, as far as I am concerned, is the chance to explore the many dining areas on the first floor of the palace. The most spectacular of these is the main banquet hall which takes up the entire width of the upper level of Falaknuma. It has what must be one of the world’s largest dining tables at its centre. This is a 33 metre long table with 88 chairs. There are five magnificent glass chandeliers but I am intrigued by a legend about the hall – the acoustics are said to be so good that, sitting in his high chair in the middle, the Nizam was able to listen to conversations at either end of the table. It is too good to resist so I conduct a little experiment of my own and guess what? The legend is based on fact. You can actually hear conversations from afar as clearly as though you were listening to the guest sitting next to you.
In the afternoon I take the grand tour of the palace. This clears up many of my questions. Unlike say, Jaipur’s Rambagh or Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhavan, Falaknuma was not built as the principal residence for the ruler.
In fact, it wasn’t even built by a Nizam. Construction of Falaknuma commenced in 1884 on behalf of Viqar ul Omra, later Diwan of Hyderabad. He already had a 60-room palace at Begumpet so he intended Falaknuma to be a pleasure palace on the outskirts of Hyderabad where the nobles of Hyderabad could let their hair down while socialising with Europeans.
It was designed to impress, which is why it was so grand. And because it was meant for Indians and Europeans, it was heavily influenced by Western architectural styles and is essentially Palladian in conception. That’s why it looks like an European villa or chateau while being recognisably an Indian palace.
The Nizam bought Falaknuma for Rs 20 lakh in 1897 and used it as a guest house for foreigners. Among those who stayed or were entertained here were the future King George V when he was the Prince of Wales, the Grand Duke of Russia, the Crown Prince of Germany etc.
In that sense, the Taj is merely continuing the tradition of treating Falaknuma as a pleasure palace and guest house and a link between India and the West.
The final engagement of the weekend is dinner at another place, the Chowmahalla Palace which was once the official residence of the Nizam. I have no idea what this looks like in the daylight (a bit decrepit, I would imagine) but at night it looks like something out of the Arabian Nights because it is so skillfully lit. This is a four palace complex, is much less European-influenced than Falaknuma and has been so wonderfully prepared for the evening that it takes my breath away.
The guest list is largely the same as last night but this time, the Taj has not over-reached itself. There is no one dining area, there are no place-cards and there is no fashion show. We sit where we like.
The Nizam hosts his guests (Hyderabad nobility mainly) inside one palace. In another room, there is live music and gadda seating and this is where most of the foreigners end up. Indians, who see no great romance in eating cross-legged on the floor, opt for a third dining area where there are tables and chairs. Interestingly, so do Princess Esra and Princess Michael of Kent who turns up wearing a turban, making her the only person in the room to be dressed similarly to Sarabjeet Singh, the Taj’s area general manager.
Finally, the Taj gets the food right. Dinner is genuine Hyderabadi cuisine (catered by the Taj Krishna) and there is no mushroom cappuccino-Upper West Side nonsense. The biryani is terrific but the standout dish is the haleem, easily the best I have ever eaten. Even the hard-to-please locals concede that this is quality cuisine. After one screw-up and one nothing brunch, the Taj chefs have at last managed to end the weekend on a gastronomic high.
On Monday, we return to our normal, humdrum lives. It has been a fun weekend and my guess is that long after we have forgotten the fashion show and the seating at the banquet, we will remember the sheer magnificence of the Falaknuma Palace. With only 60 rooms it will soon become the most exclusive palace hotel in India. Because it has been so exquisitely restored, it will offer guests an experience that is hard to replicate anywhere in the world.
And suddenly, Hyderabad will be on the tourist map.