The neighbourhood close to old Hyderabad, where the new lily-coloured facade of the Falaknuma Palace stands atop Kohitoor Hill, is thinly populated. The palace looks oddly mysterious when you look at it from the road downhill, the faraway sight dwarfing the neighbourhood’s small shops, cheap hotels and shoddy buildings. Inside its 32-acre premises, the colonial grandeur is enveloping.
“Falaknuma” literally means “mirror of the sky” and the ashen white facade of the palace is made to reflect a sky with clouds (it took several hundred coats of paint to get that exact shade of white).
Glimpses of grandeur: (clockwise from top left) The Jade Room, where guests are served afternoon tea, has a large collection of jade and other precious jewels, and its chandeliers are made of Belgian cut-glass; each of the 41 palace rooms is designed differently and faces a central courtyard; the Gol Bungalow, a terrace space with a dome adorned with stained glass, offers a panoramic view of Hyderabad; the dining hall has the world’s longest dining table, which can seat 101 people at a time, and its acoustics ensure that what’s said can be heard from one end to the other; and the entrance to the hotel has lanterns from erstwhile Czechoslovakia and its ceiling has the painting of an eagle by French artist Jean Godier.
The Taj group undertook a mammoth restoration project of this centuries-old property— which belonged to the Nizams of Hyderabad—sometime in 1998. Its thick walls, made of limestone and mortar, had chipped. The ceilings, painted by European painters of the mid-19th century, had faded. The carpets were tattered. After four years of research, followed by six years of painstaking restoration work, the Taj Falaknuma opens to the public today. According to a Mumbai-based stock analysis firm, the project cost around Rs 100 crore.
Unlike other palace hotels in India, this hotel has nothing substantially Indian to showcase. It is a testimony to the nizams’ fascination with the West—be it portraiture, furniture engineering or colours. Built in the 1800s, the palace is shaped like a scorpion—the scorpion’s belly, an open courtyard.
A large, striking instrument, known as an orchestrion, greets you in the main lobby. It’s a machine that plays music and is designed to sound like an orchestra or a band. It is operated by a large pinned cylinder and the sound is produced by a cluster of pipes designed specifically for a harmonious effect. A specialist in the orchestrion from the Netherlands will soon repair the instrument. The library hosts 5,900 books which took 11 months to catalogue. There are some rare editions of Persian and Arabic books and the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica series. Guests can borrow from among 2,000 of these titles.
Some more examples of Falaknuma’s Elizabethan excess: a dining room with 101 chairs, a bathroom (of the begum) that has showers equipped with perfumizers, cabinets with gold engraving, 11 kinds of woods used in floors and furniture, carpets from New Zealand, a snooker table made in Britain, inlay woodwork staircases, Carrara marble fountains, huge lanterns from the then Czechoslovakia. In 1937, Time magazine declared the seventh Nizam “the richest man in the world,” worth $2 billion (around Rs 8,880 crore now).
The rooms, restaurants and courtyard of this restored marvel have distinctly European features, offset by minor Indian motifs. The walls in the rooms are stucco marble. They are an easy marriage of colonial luxury and intimacy (a palace room costs Rs 33,000 per night and the grand presidential suite costs Rs 5 lakh a night). The hotel will not rent out venues to groups unless they book all the 60 rooms in the hotel, but the dining hall, with 101 chairs, can be hired by a minimum of 40 people at a time, for Rs 10,000 per chair.
Falaknuma has two restaurants. Adá, specializing in Hyderabadi cuisine, and Celeste, for Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. Designed by chef Ashfer Biju, the menus of both marry the traditional and the experimental. Quintessentially Hyderabadi staples have been tweaked with accompaniments and presentation. Pre-plated Indian starters are a speciality in Adá—in both restaurants, a meal for two costs approximately Rs 4,500.
The Taj group’s signature spa, Jiva, introduces what is described as Nawab-e-khaas treatment— pummelling with a paste made of saffron, poppy seeds, almond and other staple ingredients used in Hyderabadi cuisine.
It’s unlikely the Falaknuma Palace will soothe everyone. It’s obscenely luxurious. Even in a city where there’s an abundance of— and sharply demarcated—old and new wealth, the Falaknuma Palace is a fantasy island.
The Taj Falaknuma officially opens today.