When my husband and I were setting out to draw up an itinerary for our trip to Hyderabad, most websites we visited raved on and on about the Charminar, the Golconda Fort, the QutbShahi Tombs and the Salarjung Museum (all, I may add, attractions we’d anyway heard of earlier). On one site, however, I came across a mention of the Chowmahalla Palace. It sounded interesting—a palace that had been converted into a museum showcasing the lives of the Asafjahi Nizams of Hyderabad—so we added it to the list of sights we wanted to see.
Chowmahalla (which literally means ‘four palaces’) is named for the four grand palaces—the Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, Tahniyat Mahal and Aftab Mahal—which formed part of this complex, along with other buildings and annexes, all of them built in the late 1800s as a replica of the palace (in Teheran) of the Shah of Iran. The foundations of the complex were laid in 1750, although most of the construction began only in 1857. The original area of the Chowmahalla Palace was about 45 acres, which has got whittled down over the years to a meagre 12 acres.
A 12 acres, however, which is well-maintained and picturesque. The palaces, with their colonnaded or beautifully moulded stucco facades, form neat borders to lawns, gardens, flowering trees, and even pools of water with fountains and geese. Not all of the buildings are open to the public (some are used as offices, or are otherwise out of bounds), but the ones that are open and can be seen include:
1. Khilwat Mubarak: Facing the main gate across a large garden, this building has a façade of very beautifully worked plaster. The Khilwat Mubarak was the venue for the coronation of Hyderabad’s last Nizam (in 1967), and hosted numerous darbars during its heyday. Today, its main hall—roped off, so you can’t walk through it—is one of the most stunning areas of the palace complex. Tall arched columns of white marble hold up a pale yellow-and-white plaster ceiling that’s splendidly worked, and from which hang about a dozen very ornate chandeliers: when lit up, these must be spectacular.
The rooms surrounding this central hall have been converted into galleries, of which the first is an introduction to the Asafjahi dynasty (or the House of Asafia, as they’re known): their genealogy, the lives and achievements of the Nizams (who were among the richest members of royalty in the world at the time), and their trusted associates—the Paigahs (a family to whom the Nizams traditionally gave their daughters in marriage) and the Salarjungs. Besides old maps of the Nizam’s territory, there are the Nizams’ personal seals, plus galleries devoted to old furniture, clothing, crockery (nearly all of it European, much of it custom-made and monogrammed specifically for the Nizam’s family), and a silah khana, or armoury, with a formidable collection of weaponry. Particularly interesting are the many photographs of the royals, including the very beautiful Princess Durr-e-Shehvar, daughter of the last Caliph of Turkey and married to the Nizam Azam Jah (her cousin Niloufer was also married into the same family). Durr-r-Shehvar and Niloufer appear, along with their offspring, in various photos across the galleries.
2. The Textile Gallery: The bulk of the Chowmahalla Palace’s collection of Nizam memorabilia resides in the Khilwat Mubarak. Once you’ve emerged from here, however, walking further on brings you to another, smaller, building (approached through a pretty little arched gate). This is the small but pretty Textile Gallery, decorated with white-and-gold arched columns, with emerald-green-and-gold chandeliers. The gallery showcases, as its name suggests, the garments and textiles used by the Nizams and their families. There are gorgeously embroidered and woven brocades, saris, sherwanis, and more here, along with samples of fine lace and kinari (edging).
3. The Buggee Khana: This outdoor gallery, near the Textile Gallery, houses a small but fascinating array of vintage cars (and a few motor cycles) once owned by the Nizam of Hyderabad. Some of them—like a green 1906 Napier Type L 76—are in mint condition, all gleaming brass and seemingly untried tires, while others have obviously been used more frequently. The highlight of the collection, standing in a glass-encased gazebo all its own, is a glorious yellow-painted Rolls Royce Silver Ghost dating back to 1911. This used to be the ‘throne car’ of the Nizam, and was made to order. The car was used only very sparingly on ceremonial occasions; in the past century since it was acquired, it’s only clocked 356 miles.
4. The Clock Tower: Near the Khilwat Mubarak is an impressive gateway that acts as the Clock Tower. The clock, which has been functional for the past 100 years, is supposedly so accurate that the neighbourhood uses its chimes to set their watches (or possibly not, in this era of cell phones acting as time keepers!) Nothing to see in here, but the Clock Tower itself is a picturesque building, with its many little domed chhatris (pavilions) and ornate jharokhas (oriel windows).
5. The Religious Artefacts Gallery: The last of the galleries, when you’re headed back from the Buggee Khana, is the small but exquisite Religious Artefacts Gallery. This is near the Clock Tower and is one of the few places in the Chowmahalla Palace complex where photography is prohibited. Also, since it houses Qu’rans and other religious items, all footwear must be removed outside the door before you enter. My husband—who’d gotten pretty tired of having to unlace and again lace up his shoes during our visits to various tombs and mosques—initially decided he’d skip this one. I went in, though, and liked it so much that I encouraged him to come in too. I’m glad to say that he didn’t regret it.
Among the highlights of the Religious Artefacts Gallery are some splendidly illuminated Qu’rans (including one inscribed with the name of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb), some of them lavishly painted with pigments derived from emeralds, lapis lazuli, and gold; Qu’ranic verses inscribed on everything from crockery to carved teakwood screens; and a huge piece of cloth painted with verses from the Qu’ran, believed to have once adorned a court in Iran. Among the most prized exhibits of the gallery—from a religious point of view—are sections of the drape at the Qa’aba Sharif, and a magnificent image of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gifted to the Nizam in 1937.
Besides the fact that it has such a fine collection of memorabilia, the Chowmahalla Palace complex is well-maintained (it’s even won the INTACH Heritage Award twice, and the UNESCO’s Award of Merit in 2010). This is a definite must-do if you’re visiting Hyderabad.
The Chowmahalla Palace is open for visitors between 10 AM and 5 PM on all days except Fridays and national holidays. The entry fee for Indian visitors is Rs 40 per person; foreign visitors pay Rs 150 per person. Photography is allowed (except in certain rooms and areas); a fee of Rs 50 is levied for a still camera, while Rs 100 is charged for a video camera.
Moti Gali, Khilwat Road
Tel: 91 40 24522032
To read about the other sights we visited on our tour of Hyderabad, click these links:
The Deccan’s largest necropolis: the Qutb Shahi Tombs
The fort on ‘Shepherd’s Hill’: Golconda
The mosque with a link to Mecca
Charminar, the four pillars of Hyderabad
The Veiled Rebecca and More: Salarjung Museum