Category Archive : Travel & Tourism

During Your Stay, Live The Royal Life In Hyderabad

It’s hard to imagine how it must feel to be king of all you survey. To look out from the palace walls as the sun dips behind the silhouetted hills, and know that everything you see from horizon to horizon is yours to rule.

Short of a marrying a monarch, daydreams are probably the closest most people will get to the extravagant existence enjoyed by the rulers of India’s princely states, but behind the whitewashed walls of Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace, you can get just a taste of this life of lavish.

The grand frontage of the Falaknuma Palace at night
The grand frontage of the Falaknuma Palace © Thierry Falise / LightRocket /Getty Images

Run as one of India’s most nostalgic heritage hotels, the Taj Falaknuma Palace serves up a perfect introduction to Hyderabad, city of palaces, perfumes and pearls. From this hilltop vantage point, the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad – once the richest man in the world – looked out over the rolling hills of India’s wealthiest princely state, worth more in its heyday than many European nations.

In fact, living the royal life in Hyderabad is easier than you might imagine, thanks to the thriving traditions that persist from the Nizam’s time. Even if you can’t afford to stay in the Falaknuma, you can swing by for high tea or haggle for pearls and ittars (Islamic perfumes) in the same bazaars as generations of Hyderabad royals.

Market stalls surrounding the Charminar in Hyderabad's old city
Market stalls surrounding the Charminar in Hyderabad’s old city © Exotica.im / UIG / Getty Images

Sleeping with royalty

My own brush with royalty began with an almost absurdly ostentatious arrival at the Falaknuma, rolling through gardens teeming with peacocks in an open, horse-drawn carriage, before climbing the palace’s marble steps beneath a shower of crimson rose petals. It was a wonderfully theatrical introduction to the former palace of the enigmatic (and succinctly named) His Exalted Highness Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan Siddiqi, Bayafandi Asaf Jah the VIIth, last Nizam of the princely state of Hyderabad Deccan.

Laid out in the shape of a scorpion, with two wings embracing the Palladian central hall like protective claws, the Falaknuma is an elegant sprawl of staterooms, courtyards and formal gardens, and a splendid clash of East-meets-West ideas. While the Islamic star and crescent rises proudly from the rooftop, the stained glass windows depict Beefeaters, kings and cavaliers. For every Indo-Saracenic turret and Mughal arch, there’s a nude-crowned marble fountain or a neoclassical colonnade.

Classical murals in the entrance hall at the Falaknuma
Classical murals fill the entrance hall at the Falaknuma © Leisa Tyler / LightRocket / Getty Images

This Europe-by-way-of-Asia interior design was actually the vision of Sir Viqar-ul-Umra, prime minister of Hyderabad Deccan and head of the noble Paigah family, who raised the palace and then gifted the entire complex, gardens and all, to the 6th Nizam, Mahbub Ali Khan, who passed it to his son as a venue for lavish state functions. However, by the middle of the 20th century, the palace was neglected and fading, used as a store for the Nizam’s mountain of heirlooms.

Over a formal dinner in the palace grounds, I spoke to the prime minister’s great-grandson, Faiz Khan, about the palace’s decline. ‘As a child I could hardly move in the Falaknuma,’ he said wistfully. ‘I remember a whole room full entirely of clocks. All the display cases were packed – there were things everywhere.

A portrait of the sixth Nizam lords over the Falaknuma's marble stairway
A portrait of the sixth Nizam lords over the Falaknuma’s marble stairway © Leisa Tyler / LightRocket / Getty Images

Now painstakingly restored, the Falaknuma today is far from a musty museum-piece. Guests are free to wander the staterooms, decked out with royal portraits and heirlooms as they were in the Nizam’s time. During my stay, I spent one thoroughly relaxing evening sipping single malts and playing pool on the Nizam’s billiard table, a twin to the table in London’s Buckingham Palace. Sadly, the Nizam’s legendary dinner table, set with bone china for 100 dignitaries, is no longer used; guests dine instead on the terrace leading off the trinket-stuffed Jade Room.

If you can’t stretch to an overnight stay at the Falaknuma, come for high tea or a dinner tour and watch dusk settle over the rooftops of Hyderabad from the terrace, while the Islamic call to prayer rises in a multi-throated chorus from a legion of mosques and dargahs (tombs) tucked into the winding lanes.

Elaborate stucco-work adorning the Chowmahalla Palace
Elaborate stucco-work adorning the Chowmahalla Palace © Morgan Davis / CC by 2.0

A profusion of palaces

For all its heirlooms, the Falaknuma displays just a tiny fraction of the Nizam’s vast wealth. After losing his kingdom at Independence, the 7th Nizam retreated heart-broken to Istanbul and many of his treasures were spirited away by courtiers, but significant parts of the collection were saved by his daughter-in-law, Princess Esra, and displayed in the lovingly restored Chowmahalla Palace, where the Asaf Jahi dynasty entertained official guests and visiting royalty.

‘When I came back to Hyderabad after a gap of 20 years I found a very sorry state of affairs,’ she explained. ‘The Nizam’s properties were very badly kept – it was as if history were wiping them away. I felt I had to do something to bring them back to life to help people in Hyderabad remember their past, and keep their history and heritage alive.’

An illuminated copy of the Quran at the Chowmahalla
An illuminated copy of the Quran at the Chowmahalla © Joe Bindloss / Lonely Planet

While the Falaknuma – also restored by Princess Esra – is unmistakably a home, the Chowmahalla was the public face of the royal family. Here, everything was about appearances, and creating the grandest impression possible for visiting dignitaries, relatives and rivals. Wandering through the interlinked courtyards, flanked by wedding-cake pavilions and rainbow-casting fountains, I felt the same sense of royal theatre as at Peterhof near St Petersburg, or Beijing’s Forbidden City, or Versailles.

Belgian chandeliers hanging in the Chowmahalla's Darbar Hall
Belgian chandeliers fill the Chowmahalla’s Darbar Hall © Joe Bindloss / Lonely Planet

In one pavilion I found a library of elegant illuminated copies of the Quran, the script picked out in delicate traces of indigo, vermillion and gold. In another, the sumptuous wedding outfits of the royal family, weighed down by kilos of gold and silver thread. But these were minor treasures compared to the Darbar Hall, where the Nizams held court from a marble throne beneath a canopy of Belgian crystal chandeliers.

At the rear of the Chowmahalla compound, a garage displays just a tiny part of the Nizam’s personal collection of automobiles. It is said that the sixth and seventh Nizams owned a third of all the cars imported into Hyderabad in the first half of the 20th century. Predictably, the Nizams’ tastes ran to luxury limousines, but the story that the Nizam used a fleet of Rolls-Royces to collect rubbish from the streets of Hyderabad is sadly an urban myth.

Ornate marble archways at the Paigah Tombs
Sublime architectural lines at the Paigah Tombs © Arvind Balaraman / Shutterstock

Luxury in the afterlife

While the Nizams lived lavishly in life, they reverted to Islamic principles of humility in death, residing through the centuries in simple, marble tombs inside the Mecca Masjid, within sight of the Charminar, the mosque-come-triumphal arch that marks the centre of Hyderabad’s ancient Islamic quarter. Some of their courtiers, however, were less restrained, building lavish tombs to rival the great mausoleums of the Mughal emperors.

Reputedly descended from the second Caliph of Islam, the Paigahs erected their own family necropolis southeast of the Charminar. Unlike the towering domes favoured by the Mughals, the Paigahs preferred delicate pavilions of carved lime mortar and sculpted marble, ringed by arcades of Islamic arches and intricate perforated marble screens.

Today, the mausoleums are quietly forgotten, and I wandered the tombs in peaceful silence, with only the occasional flash of a colourful sari behind a marble screen to show that I was sharing the necropolis with another living soul.

A pearl vendor sorts through strands of Hyderbadi pearls
Pearls for sale by the strand on Patthargatti in Hyderabad © Joe Bindloss / Lonely Planet

The price of pearls

The wealth of Hyderabad was built on solid foundations. The kingdom controlled India’s only diamond mines – source of the Koh-i-Noor and Hope diamonds, amongst other splendid gems – and the city was India’s busiest marketplace for pearls, imported from as far away as Sri Lanka, Basra (in Iraq) and China.

Pearl traders still crowd Patthargatti, the medieval bazaar running north from the Charminar. Stepping into a brightly-lit showroom, I was immediately seized by a vendor and draped with string after string of pearls in every imaginable size, shape and colour, in a scene pulled straight from Sinbad the Sailor.

Presented en masse, the gleaming mounds of pearls can inspire a buying frenzy, but shop judiciously. The best pearls should have an even tone and lustre; look for strands where every pearl is the same shape and size. You’ll pay more for large sizes and perfect spheres, and naturally formed spherical pearls, as compared to cultured pearls grown around a man-made seed, command a stratospheric price tag.

Ittar-wallahs mix fragrances in the old city of Hyderabad
Ittar-wallahs mixing scents in the old city © Joe Bindloss / Lonely Planet

Princely perfumes

Another luxury favoured by the Nizams was ittars – heady fragrances made from essential oils, prepared with an alcohol-free base to satisfy Islamic sensibilities. It is said that the wife of the Nizam had a separate tap just for perfume in her bathtub at the Falaknuma. During the 19th century, dozens of ittar-wallahs from Gujarat set up shop in the bazaars surrounding the Charminar to service the royal household, and the scent of rose and jasmine still hangs heavy in the air today.

In search of a bespoke fragrance to conjure up the mystique of Islamic India, I joined the crowds of burqa-clad women haggling for essentials in the Charminar bazaars, following my nose to a street-side stall, where a perfumer perched cross-legged behind a row of cut-glass ittardan (scent bottles).

Ittars and essential oils in cut-glass decanters
Ittars and essential oils in cut-glass decanters © Exotica.im / UIG / Getty Images

Unlike Western perfumes, ittars are built on an oil base – only sandalwood oil was good enough for the Nizams, but cheaper alternatives are often used today – and the finest fragrances are wrist-ready straight from the distillation vessel. Perfumers also craft essential oils into mukhallat blends, a combination of scent-mixing and street theatre. In a handsomely decorated mixing bottle, drops of ittar are added slowly to build the fragrance, then, with a shake here, a waft there, a sample dab on the forearm, and a showman’s flourish, the customised perfume is ready to wear.

The dominant scents used in Indian ittars are rose, jasmine, saffron, sandalwood and musk (sourced from Indian musk seeds, as well as animal sources). Expect to pay premium prices for oud, an earthy fragrance created by a fungus that attacks the resinous heartwood of the lign-aloe tree.

An Hyderbadi thali (plate meal) on a silver platter
An elegantly presented Hyderbadi thali (plate meal) © Joe Bindloss / Lonely Planet

In praise of biryani

One thing that unites Hyderbadis of all backgrounds, from Nizams to street-sweepers, is their love of food. The collected dishes that we now know as Hyderabadi cuisine came into existence in Mughal times, blending cooking traditions from Central Asia with the spices and seasonings of the Indian south.ADVERTISEMENThttps://d3849c300a1ca04b4df51b2db1e3d7ec.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Many of the most popular dishes have religious origins – take haleem, a slow-cooked stew of wheat, lentils, mutton and spices, consumed enthusiastically by Muslims breaking the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The Hyderabadi version is protected by Geographical Indication status, much like champagne in France, and haleem sales in the city during Ramadan are worth more than US$77 million annually.

Mughal-inspired mutton biryani in an earthenware bowl
Mughal-inspired mutton biryani, Hyderabad’s favourite staple © Manu_Bahuguna / Getty Images

Without doubt, the most popular local speciality is the Hyderabadi biryani, a dish reputedly conceived in the Nizam’s own kitchens. This fragrant mix of chicken or mutton, rice and spices comes in two iterations – kachchi (raw) biryani, made from uncooked spiced meat, layered with basmati rice and slowly steamed over coals in an earthenware pot sealed with a roll of pastry, and pakki (cooked) biryani, with the meat pre-cooked.

I had already sampled an upscale version at dinner at the Falaknuma, while a choir of qawwali singers performed uplifting Sufi devotional songs to the clicking beat of khartal castanets, but I wanted to get down to street level to seek out the down-home version enjoyed by ordinary Hyderabadis.

Following a tip from a taxi driver, I ducked back into the winding lanes of the old city to Hotel Shadab, at the north end of Patthargatti, joining crowds of enthusiastic Hyderabadi families beneath glaring strip-lights to sample what is said to be one of the finest biryanis in the city. Despite the down-to-earth setting, the biryani was superb. Tender, moist lamb, intoxicating spices, and subtle layers of flavour, served simply in double-quick time, but to my tastebuds, plainly fit for a Nizam.

10 Best Places To Visit India

If you are an Indian and planning a trip after COVID-19 then you can skip to the main content but if you are reading this article from any other foreign country then let me introduce you to India first

Introduction

India is an enormous and diverse destination. Bordered by Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, not to mention the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, means that there are many different sides to the country.

More than 20 official languages, multiple religions, and a variety of cuisines exist within India’s borders. To truly experience the breadth of Indian culture and history, travel is key. Head to as many of these best places to visit in Indias as your itinerary allows.

10. Mysore

Mysore

In the southern tip of India, you’ll find the city of Mysore. Once the capital of the Wodeyar dynasty, Mysore is best known for housing the magnificent Mysore Palace. The palace is the epitome of opulence, and a tour through the structure will reveal upscale touches like carved rosewood doors, ceilings decorated in ivory and countless paintings on the walls. If you’re in Mysore, you won’t want to miss the incredible Devaraja Market, an outdoor experience on Dhanwanthri Road where you can buy some chai tea and then browse stalls offering produce or sandalwood carvings.

9. Amritsar

Amritsar

In the northern province of Punjab is Amritsar, a holy city and a mecca for the Sikh religion. The main attraction in Amritsar is the Golden Temple, also known as the Harmandir Sahib. Built more than 400 years ago, this temple truly is golden, and it is always packed with Sikhs visiting from around India and the rest of the world. You can tour the Golden Temple regardless of religion, but you will need to show respect by covering your head and removing your shoes. Enter the temple through the Ghanta Ghar, the main entrance, and admire the Amrit Sarovar, a pool surrounding the temple where pilgrims bathe.

8. Ladakh

Ladakh

In northernmost India, in the heavily disputed Kashmir region, is the mountainous destination of Ladakh. This region is large, but it has a low population density and a number of nomadic residents. Breathtaking, pristine scenery is a major draw to the area, but virtually all travelers will also spend time in the town of Leh. The town is located at a very high elevation, and it is also home to the 17th century Palace of the King of Ladakh. Buddhist culture is also prominent in Leh, and you may wish to explore some of the many Buddhist monasteries and temples in the Old Town.

7. Goa Beaches

Goa Beaches

On the western coast of India is Goa, a former colony of Portugal that blends Indian culture with colonial influences and plenty of international tourism. Goa is popular largely because of its spectacular beaches. The busiest and most popular of all is Candolim Beach, where travelers from around the world flock to soak up the sun. Anjuna Beach, by contrast, is far less crowded. It is also an amazing place where you can walk to Chapora Fort and admire the sandy coastline from a new perspective. Palolem is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Goa with it’s natural bay surrounded by lofty headlands on either sides. Goa is widely loved by adventurers, and recreational activities are plentiful for those eager for some fun in the sun.

6. Delhi

Delhiflickr/Andrzej Wrotek

If you’re spending any time in Northern India, you will almost certainly visit the capital city of Delhi. The enormous sprawling destination is home to several districts, and it is considered to be one of the oldest cities in the world. One of the top sights in Delhi is the Red Fort, or Lal Qila, which was built in the 17th century. The Red Fort is made from sandstone, and you will be able to walk through its Lahore Gate, into the bazaar, through the jewel palace and even into the former residence of the sultan. While in Delhi, you should also make time for the many museums and religious structures that make up the city.

5. Ellora & Ajanta Caves

Ellora & Ajanta Caves

In the state of Maharashtra, you can explore the caves of both Ellora and Ajanta. At Ellora, there is an enormous complex of shrines carved from the rocky landscape. These 34 cave shrines are up to 1,500 years old, and they are from three distinct religions: Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Two hours away is Ajanta, which is also home to 29 caves. The Ajanta caves are covered in murals and paintings, most of which reflect Buddhist stories. While the two cave complexes are two hours away from one another, it is well worth visiting both to compare these incredible attractions.

4. Varanasi 

Varanasiflickr/Nico Crisafulli

With a history dating back to more than 3,000 years, Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest living cities. Located in North India on the banks of the River Ganges, Varanasi has been an important center of learning for ages as well as a chief pilgrimage destination for many Hindus. Varanasi is regarded as a sacred city among Hindus, Jains and Buddhists because it is believed that dying here releases a person’s soul from the cycle of reincarnation, and that bathing in the River Ganges cleanses one’s sins.

Varanasi offers sights and experiences unknown anywhere else in the world. It is nicknamed the “City of Temples” because of its thousands of temples. Some of the most significant are the Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Shiva, the Durga Temple and the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, which is known for housing numerous monkeys.

Probably the most famous sites of the city are the ghats, the series of embankment steps leading down to the Ganges River, where many people gather to bathe. The oldest and main ghat is the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The Manikarnika Ghat is a burning ghat where Hindu cremations and rituals of death anniversaries are frequently held. Yoga, shaves and massages are other activities available here. The best way to see the ghats is by taking a morning boat ride at sunrise.

Silk weaving is popular in Varanasi, and there are scores of shops and markets selling silk products like sarees and scarves in addition to other handicrafts.

3. Kerala

Kerala

The southwestern state of India known as Kerala is a place of tropical beauty. Palm trees, white sand beaches and eco-tourism are all big reasons to explore the region. Besides its famous backwaters, elegant houseboats and temple festivals, Kerala is also home to Thekkady, a tiger preserve which allows you to admire flora and fauna without crowds. The hub of Kerala is the city of Kochi, where you can see the local fishing industry thriving along with modern high-rises and colonial architecture. Kochi is ethnically and religiously diverse, and in a single afternoon you can explore a Jewish synagogue, a Dutch palace, the Portuguese Pallipuram Fort and the Hindu Thrikkakara Temple.

2. Agra 

Agra

Agra is one of the most-visited cities in all of India. Once the capital of the Mughal Empire, Agra is now home to the iconic structure known as the Taj Mahal. The white marble mausoleum was built in the 17th century, and it is widely regarded as a monument of love. While spectacularly beautiful, the Taj Majal can be very crowded. Also worth seeing in Agra is the Agra Fort, which is very similar to the Red Fort of Delhi. You can tour this 16th century fort and even explore the interior of its beautiful palace.

1. Rajasthan

#1 of Best Places To Visit In India

Northwest India is where you’ll find the state of Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan and is home to the Thar Desert. Whether you’re interested in Rajput history or views of the Aravallis Mountains, Rajasthan contains some of the best places to visit in India. Jaipur, or the Pink City, is the capital of Rajasthan and a wonderful place to begin your trip. It is home to an array of incredible architecture, including three forts, many temples and the extraordinary City Palace. Also in Rajasthan and worth visiting is Jodhpur, the so-called Blue City that is the gateway to the Thar Desert as well as the home to the spectacular Mehrangarh Fort.