For the Dussehra (Indian festival which signifies the victory of good over evil in hindu mythology) holiday break, Laveena and I travelled to Hyderabad, a city over 400 years old and rich in it’s history and culture. Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, established the city of Hyderabad in 1591. The Qutb Shahi dynasty ruled Hyderabad for nearly a century before it was captured by the Mughals. It was in 1724 that Asif Jah, a Mughal viceroy, declared his sovereignty over Hyderabad and created his own dynasty which came to be known as the Nizams of Hyderabad.
We were picked up at the airport by the Taj Falaknuma’s spanking new Jaguar car with freshly smelling interiors and an ‘In Car’ Amenity which had Jordan dates, chocolate dipped apricots, sugar coated nuts and crunchies, in little white porcelain bowls which were neatly placed in a wooden carved box. A scrolled note listing out the contents, was placed in the box with a royal blue ribbon on it. I loved this personal welcome touch which gave us a taste of the high standards of hospitality which lay ahead. A thirty minute drive from the airport, a part of which includes a smooth ride along the spankingly new and green airport road, brings you into the old town. And as you drive through the town your eyes chance upon a majestic sight. In all of it’s white glory, preening in it’s neo-classical magnificence on top of Koh-i-Tur hill, you feast in awe as you glance for the very first time at the grand Falaknuma palace.
We were greeted at the boundary gate by security who with a traditional ‘Adab’ directed our hotel car into the Nizam’s palace grounds. At the clock gate, known to be the ceremonial entryway to the palace, our car came to a gentle halt and a host of hotel staff stepped forward to receive us. We were later informed that in the days when the palace was occupied by the Nizam, in the chamber above the gate, musicians beat on their drums and blew on their shehnais to announce the arrival of the Nizam’s special guests. Although there were no musicians waiting to announce our arrival, we were welcomed warmly, shown through the Clock gate and led to a waiting horse carriage, complete with a regally dressed blue turbaned rider. The clip clopping of the horse hooves made the carriage ride a perfectly delightful start to this royal holiday. As the carriage passed the well manicured gardens on the left hand side of our ride to the main palace, I spotted a peacock displaying his plumage, almost as a sign of secret welcome, while on the right appeared the impressive coronation hall.
And then, the carriage turned and rode through an arch before coming to a halt on a paved terrace in front of the most stunning and grand palace we had ever seen. Awed by the beauty of the miraculous vision of one man and his inspiration from his travels through Europe, Laveena and I stared at the Falaknuma palace in absolute amazement. Work on this palace was started by the then Prime Minister of Hyderabad and Berar, Nawab Viqar Ul Omra in 1884, who built it as his private residence at a cost of forty lakh rupees. He was from the Paigah family and was the uncle and brother-in-law of the 6th Nizam, Nawab Mir Mehboob Ali Khan Bahadur. The palace, situated on a 32 acre piece of land, is built in the shape of a scorpion, with two pincers spread out as wings in the north. The main building and kitchen occupy the middle part while the harem quarters, the Gol Bangla and the Zenana Mahal stretch to the south.
The name Falaknuma in urdu means the ‘Mirror of the sky’ and to greet us as we alighted from the carriage, was the hotel director of sales, the affable young Bikramjit Bhangoo, ever smiling and warm and indeed a perfect representative of the palace to give you that special feeling of high class Taj hospitality. After a dab of cold scented towels and not one but two welcome drinks for each of us, we were led up the grand marble staircase, by a uniformed guardsman, holding a metal pole with royal insignia on it. Just as we crossed the first flight of steps, we were showered with rose petals as part of the welcome ceremony, a nice touch, which both Laveena and I loved. Finally, a young lady greeted us at the entrance to the fountain vestibule with a fragrant arabian jasmine lei. We were then introduced to our butler Bhiboo, who we were told, would be our personal assistant through our stay at the palace. We were checked in under the grand staircase and were shown to our suite, located in a private courtyard designed for a time when women were not allowed to be freely seen, a time when they observed the purdah system. The grand royal Shehzadi suite was done up in a style which although opulent to the core, was complemented by custom made Turkish carpets, upholstery and tapestry which gave one the feeling of being in a grand palace room, a very well decorated living area, a walk in wardrobe with a wooden floor and ample cupboard space, a bedroom with a high ceiling and a touch of tudor influence and a huge marbled bathroom which had a tub with tiled mirrors all around it, a place where even Cleopatra would have looked forward to a milk bath soak every day. And the housekeeping staff each evening, did ask us our bath preferences, which included a milk bath, an attar (an essential oil perfume) bath and a foam bath. For the three nights we were there, we bathed in milk twice and in attar once and I have to say that the experiences were rejuvenating. We finally thought we understood the science behind these elaborate baths so loved by royalty.
Lunch that afternoon was at Adaa, one of the two restaurants at the Palace. The Falaknuma is blessed to have one of the most multi talented Executive Chefs, I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Sajesh Nair welcomed us to the palace with a delightful culinary spread, fit for Kings. To start with, we were served a dahi ke kebab, a pan seared yoghurt patty with assorted nuts and dry fruits. This was followed by a trio kebab platter of Shikampuri lamb (ground lamb patty – an in house speciality) , pathar ke gosht ( escalopes of kid lamb, marinated for 48 hours and cooked on a hot granite stone) and lagaan ke tangdi (chicken drumstick cooked in a sealed brass pot and flavoured with tandoori spices and coconut milk). If ever I had to pen down a couplet about Kebabs, it would be about the Pathar ke gosht. The first bite sends you to the gates of food heaven where you linger and relish the deliciousness of the meat. The second, allows you to enter the gates of paradise where you stay on until you finish that last perfectly marinated melt in the mouth meat treat. Next came the world famous Hyderabadi kacche ghost ki biryani (fragrant basmati rice mixed with choice cuts of kid lamb, marinated overnight). We walked away from the restaurant with visions of what it may have been like to feast daily on food made in the royal kitchens.
We returned to our suite and after a brief nap, headed to the hotel swimming pool to burn up some of the calories we had gained at the grand lunch. The water temperature was perfect and the views of the palace from the pool were simply majestic. As the sun began to set, a thought which crossed both our minds was that at the Falaknuma, one doesn’t get the feeling of the property being overcrowded. Whether you walk through the corridors of history, stroll along the terraces and the gardens, or visit one of the many rooms displaying rare collections of treasures including statues, paintings, books and manuscripts or even furniture, one doesn’t cross the path of other guests very often. This adds to the magic of the palace which has a total of 60 rooms in all.
In the spring of 1897, Amir e Paigah Sir Viqar Ul Omra, the man responsible for building The Falaknuma Palace, invited the 6th Nizam, Mehboob Ali Pasha, as his guest to the palace. It is said that the Nizam fell so in love with the palace that he decided to stay back at the magnificent property which also belonged to his older sister, who was the wife of Sir Viqar. The Nizam first stayed a week, then extended this to a fortnight and finally stayed on for a month, which prompted Sir Viqar to offer him the palace as Nazar (offering). The Nizam appreciated the offer and is reported to have paid Sir Viqar a sum of Rs 20 lakhs for the palace. In addition to this, there are reports that the Nizam also paid of Sir Viqar’s huge debts to the banks. The palace thereon was used by the Nizam as a royal guest house. From where it stood 2000 feet above sea level, the Nizam would proudly show his guests views of the entire city of Hyderabad which lay below. And then the guests would enjoy the refined elegance and luxurious grace of the palace and the hard to match hospitality of the Nizam. Praise was showered on the exquisite wood work, the rose wood carvings, the stained glass windows, the leather upholstered chairs, the magnificent marble entrance with the fountain, the frescoed ceiling, the venetian chandeliers and the coming together of Indian and European craftsmanship to create what has withstood time and can be enjoyed by guests today as the finest palace hotel in the world.
Dinner that evening was at the Italian restaurant Celeste. We started off with a Mango basil soup, a cold concoction of alphonso mangoes and basil and scented with sichuan peppers and berry bruschetta. We both loved it and called for the sous chef Mahaveer Purwal to thank and praise him. We were pleasantly surprised with their healthy menu option and their gluten free pasta on offer. Laveena loved her Quinoa fussili bolognese while I, being high on my holiday spirit, opted for a pepperoni and cheese, thin crust pizza. Not what one would think of as an ideal meal choice in a royal palace, but I can assure you that even royals may have enjoyed feasting on junk food every once in a blue moon. Our Italian meal was complemented with a dessert recommendation from the Chef, a kaffirlime pannacotta served with stewed figs. Mouthwateringly delicious, yet again.
After a wonderful nights rest we woke up the next morning and headed to the palace gardens for an early morning walk. At any time of the night or day, the luxury of the Falaknuma stands out in all of it’s glory. A brisk 30 minute walk in the royal gardens helped us build an appetite which we thought we may have lost forever after our previous days feasting. Breakfast that morning was served to us in the garden. With the trees serving as our natural canopy we enjoyed an interesting breakfast of soft bread with paya (trotters), kheema (minced mutton meat) and crispy dosas.
At 11 am that morning we had planned a private meeting with Mr. Mohammed Faiz, the body guard of the 8th Nizam. Mr. Faiz was known to be the expert historian at the palace with deep first hand knowledge about the Nizam’s family history and intricate details about each of the prominent rooms at the palace. We met at the colonnaded verandah at the top of the double staircase. We were told that this is where the Nizam’s visitors were personally greeted. Hanging atop are hexagonal shaped lanterns made from ruby red and clear glass panels, held together by a delicate metal frame. The floor on which we stood was paved with tiles displaying colourful geometric and floral patterns. These patterns are similar to those of the late Victorian period and brought out the richness of the tiles imported from England. The verandahs which wrap around the front part of the palace and on the sides too, have wooden dividers which we were told were used to conceal the activities of the palace staff. From the verandah, Faiz took us through the fountain vestibule, onto the grand staircase and then to the many exquisite rooms that are for resident viewing at the palace. My personal favourite was the banquet hall with a 33 meter long table which was designed to serve 101, including the Nizam and his guests. Five elaborate chandeliers alternating with ceiling fans hang from the panelled carved wooden ceiling above. Since dancing was known to be a popular form of entertainment at the palace, the ballroom with the wall mirrors and the brocaded drapes, is a treat to step into. The glass chandeliers here too add to the grandness of the place and helps transport you to the times when the Nizam entertained his royal guests in style. After a wonderful lesson in history and a walk through this spectacular palace, Laveena and I returned to our room and decided on a light salad lunch. We’re glad we ate light as later that afternoon, the young, dashing, debonair and incredibly charming GM of the Falaknuma Palace, Mr. Girish Sehgal, invited us for high tea. Over scones, light flaky pastries, cucumber sandwiches, jasmine tea and sparkling wine, the three of us chatted and bonded and shared travel experiences and interesting and exciting stories and before we knew it we were speaking as dear friends. What was to be a quick 30-45 minute informal meeting over tea, lasted nearly 2 hours and as we bid adieu we promised to stay in touch even after we returned home.
As the sun began to set, the sounds of sufi music wafted through the palace grounds. Our always smiling and ubiquitous butler Bhiboo showed us the way through the gardens to where a group of Qawwall’s (singers of sufi music) were singing devotional music reminiscent of the days of the Nizam. A sufi saint, Amir Khusro Dehlavi is credited with fusing Indian, Persian, Arabic and Turkish music to create the Qawwali (sufi devotional music) in 13th century India. We were hypnotised by the music and so enjoyed the Mehfil-e-sama (a gathering held for Sufi devotional music) that we involuntarily began swaying to the Qawwali and I was tempted to act out a scene from an Indian bollywood film Jodha Akbar, where the emperor arises from his seat and walks to the whirling Dervish’’s and is so intoxicated by the mystic of the music, that he begins to spin on the balls of his feet, in sync with the energy flow of the universe.
That night, dressed in our fine Indian wear, we dined privately at the Gol Bungalow and relived the opulence enjoyed by the royals in this enchanting setting. As the lights of the cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad twinkled below the intricate terrace with it’s cast iron railings with classical palmette designs, the food prepared in the Royal kitchens enraptured us in their sheer deliciousness. Every dish was a pure and perfect mix of taste, skill, craft and technique on a plate. The enticing flavours so well created in the royal kitchen by Sajesh Nair and his sous chef Emon Mukherjee would please any ruler and I am sure if they were both serving the guests of the Nizam, they would be rewarded handsomely for their culinary skills and immense talent. The first course was the Gosht Ka Marg, or the lamb broth flavoured with Cashew and indian spices and finished with fresh coriander and lime to taste. Laveena was so in love with this broth that she said she could feast on this every day of her life. This was followed by the Murgh Sikhanja (fresh herbs marinated chicken breast cooked on a charcoal grill), the patthar gosht (which I insisted on feasting on again) and Dakhni prawn ( fresh water prawns sautéed in a brass vessel with grounded masalas and southern spices). Next came the Hyderabai haleem with Sheermal bread and for the minutes spent relishing every bite of this exquisite dish i was lost in the world of food ecstasy. We were then served the rogani boti (choice cuts of kid lamb, marinated and cooked in a clay oven with assorted peppers and tandoori spices). Delicious paan flavoured ice cream for dessert helped balance the heat from the spices and made for a perfect finale to a meal which very well may have been served on the tables of the Nizam’s of Hyderabad.
The next day the management at the Falaknuma had organised a private viewing of replicas of the Nizam’s jewels for us. In the living area of our suite, a representative from one of the jewellers who adorned the Nizam’s family, carefully laid out a spectacular collection of rings, earrings, necklaces and chokers, each an exact replica of exquisite pieces of jewellery which belonged to the Nizam’s prized collection. The evidence of the highly skilled craftsmanship was seen in the brilliantly cut stones, polished and eventually finished to make for a magnificent piece of jewellery. The gentleman who showed us the jewellery was also an expert on pearls. He gave us a brief insight into the different types of pearls which we found to be very interesting. The viewing of the jewellery was followed by a meeting with a professional perfumer. The attar industry in Hyderabad is known to by a 400 year old industry and the experience of creating our own perfume was truly a memorable one. After we completed these two activities, Laveena and I headed to the Jiva spa at the palace. Here we were pampered, like royalty would have been, with a two and half hour long spa treatment which was called the Nawab E Khas. That night we dined by the coronation hall, at the Grill. We were attended to by Prachi Chavan and Imran Sazid. Both Prachi and Imran made us feel so very special, attentive to our every requirement and need. Executive Chef Sajesh served us Raan E Adaa, a signature dish of baby lamb leg, braised with onions and aromatic herbs and finished in a tandoor. The wine, a D’Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2011, McLaren Vale, Australia was hand picked by the executive FNB manager Siddharth Sathe and paired perfectly with the Raan. The Falaknuma is very lucky to have Siddharth, supremely articulate and polite to a fault. He is a trained and extremely knowledgeable wine professional and I very much appreciated the discussion we had about his many trips to vineyards across the world and his list of personal favourites, a fine selection of both red and white, many of which he was eager I experience on my future trips to wine country.
When it was time to leave the Falaknuma, Laveena and I felt heavy hearted. In as short a time as four days we had fallen so deeply in love with the palace that like the 6th Nizam, we too were reluctant to leave. We had made a life long friend in Girish the GM, Bikramjeet the director of Sales and Siddharth the executive FNB Manager. Restaurant manager Jithin Nizar who in detail had shared stories about how in almost military like precision after weeks and weeks of intense training he so perfectly orchestrated service at the banquet table serving 101 guests, was now an FB friend as was the ever smiling and eager to help Varun Sharma, assistant restaurant manager, who was on his toes each time we were served at the restaurant. He made sure that every requirement of ours was fulfilled with a polite ‘certainly’ which helped complete every dining experience at the palace. A special thank you also goes out to FNB associates, Kishore Kumar and Abdul Nassar who waited on our tables at dinner and helped add to the grandeur of the evenings with their high and impeccable service standards.
A stay at the Falaknuma is all about feasting like royals, walks through corridors of rich and vibrant palace history, perfumed baths, fine wines, very high standards of hospitality, peacocks and poetry. Girish Sehgal’s team at Falaknuma are a shining reflection of what the pinnacle of hospitality standards should define. Even before we were checked in and through our stay, each and every staff member convinced us that we were indeed Royal guests of the Nizam. Even as we bid adieu and were walking toward the carriage to leave the palace grounds, the management had set up a little surprise pre birthday celebration for Laveena. A table with a gluten free birthday cake on it, strewn with rose petals and with two glasses of sparking wine were waiting for us. As the waiting staff sang ‘happy birthday’, Laveena made a wish and cut her cake. Flower petals once again were showered upon us from the upper terraces of the palace. And just when we both believed that there couldn’t possibly be anything more to impress us, our ever attentive butler Bhiboo who had seen Laveena glance at a coffee table book entitled ‘ Falaknuma’ at the property, had prompted the management to have one gift wrapped for her. This was the perfect birthday gift and goodbye souvenir to help us live and re-live the fabulous royal memories we had collected at the Falaknuma. For every reader and follower of my blog, I have a simple message. The Taj Falaknuma Palace is number one on our list of must experience hotels in the world. It may have been voted as the number one palace hotel in the world by trip advisor, but it has Travelmango’s vote as the number one hotel in the world for 2015.