Thursday, May 10, 2012

Saved by A Princess - Falaknuma and Chowmahalla

This clip is the most concise in a short form story of the last and present owner of the Falaknuma
and Chowmahalla Palaces I have been rambling on about for the last month or is hard to believe!

I have read a number of articles online trying to discover more about the last Nizam's first wife Princess Esra. Originally from Turkey she trained as an architect and married Mukarram Jah in 1956.  It is Princess Esra who is responsible for saving these two fabulous palaces. Married for 15 years to the Nizam before the burden of inheriting from his grandfather the welfare of over 14,792 relatives, including 42 elderly concubines and 100's of illegitimate children, staff and retainers sent him off to Australia sheep farming!

According to one article after meeting her ex husband 30 years later and finding the Eighth Nizam in very ill health, after his 4 additional marriages, Princess Esra stepped into the mess of 54 trusts contested by over 2700 relatives and a fortune looted by corrupt advisors and taxes to save and restore what was left. Her ally in sorting the chaos out in 1996 was the brilliant and honorable lawyer Mukarram Jah Vijay Shankardass, this task apparently included risking his own life in the process.

William Dalrymple author of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 writes while researching in 1997 in Hyderabad and seeing my particular favorite Falaknuma Palace - 
'the huge Victorian pile of the Falaknuma Palace, just to the south of the city. The complex, which stood above the town on its own acropolis, was falling into ruin, with every window and doorway sealed by red wax. Wiping the windows, I could see cobwebs the size of bedsheets hanging from the corners of the rooms. The skeletons of outsized Victorian sofas and armchairs lay dotted around the parquet floors, their chintz upholstery eaten away by white ants. Outside, the gardens had given way to scrub flats, waterless fountains, and paint-flaking flagpoles at crazy angles. It was a truly melancholy sight: a derelict Ruritania.' 

Returning in 2001  to Hyderabad Mr Dalrymple was privileged to meet Princess Esra and accompany her to Chowmahalla Palace. In the same article in the Guardian he describes this visit.
'Chowmahalla, dating from 1751, was one of the finest royal residences in India. After some negotiation, I was allowed to accompany the princess on her visit, and so was there at the breaking of the seals of some rooms that had not been opened since the death of the previous Nizam in 1967.

What we saw was extraordinary, as if we were in the palace of Sleeping Beauty. In one underground storeroom, thousands of ancient scimitars, swords, helmets, maces, daggers, archery equipment and suits of armour lay rusted into a single metallic mass on a line of trestle tables. In another, album after album of around 8,000 Victorian and Edwardian photographs of the Nizam's household was covered in a thick cladding of dust. A unique set of 160 harem photographs, dating from 1915, lay loose in a box. On the walls, dynastic portraits were falling out of their frames. In one room were great mountains of princely dresses, patkas, chaugoshia and salvars, drawers of Kanchipuram silk saris, and one huge trunk containing nothing but bow ties. There were long lines of court uniforms as well as sets of harem clothes once worn by the Nizam's favourite wives. Almost 8,000 dinner services survived, one of which alone had 2,600 pieces.

In the King Kothi palace, the Nizam's dynasty's complete correspondence since the mid-18th century filled three rooms floor to ceiling. When the archivists had been sacked in 1972, the archive, all 10 and a half tonnes of it, had been stuffed into the rooms and sealed. Other rooms were stacked with crates of French champagne.
It looked an impossible task even to begin to sort out the mess and dilapidation. Yet remarkably, six years later, the Chowmahalla is now open to the public and 1,000 visitors a day are streaming through. A massive conservation project, unique in India, has restored and catalogued the best of what remains. The result is little short of incredible.'
Princess Esra's works are of a remarkable woman and the only recent picture I can find of her is at a Cartier car rally in New Delhi where her restoration of the Nizam's 1912 Rolls Royce won first place, although a beautiful job it somehow doesn't really reflect this woman's successes with the heritage of Hyderabad.

1 comment:

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Heather:
This is such an extraordinary and truly fascinating story. That such vast wealth and possessions should, so to speak, disappear within a lifetime is incredible with just a few rusting pieces of machinery to show for it. What a dynasty and all brought down by one very individual and somewhat feckless man.