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Deepa Alexander, The Hindu / August 12, 2011.
Hyderabad Hues Khilwat Mahal Photo: Nagara Gopal.
A summer sunset stains the sky scarlet as I enter the fret-worked gates of the Chowmahalla Palace. And, to first see this reminder of lost glories through a bower of bougainvillea is to fall in love with a world that has longed passed into the pages of a history book.
Situated a few kilometres from the Charminar and the Mecca Masjid — with their overlapping layers of obliteration and opulence — the palace is a source of legend on the royalty of Hyderabad. As I vault over a grassy knoll with an ageing brass cannon, the calm of the beautiful gardens contrasts with the cacophony and colours of Lad Bazaar that lies just a turn away from the gates. Official residence of the Nizam and seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, the four-palace complex used to be the setting for all ceremonies of accession and entertainment of royal guests.
Built in 1750 by Nizam Salabat Jung, Chowmahalla, modelled after the Shah's Palace in Tehran, was recently restored to its former glory by Princess Esra, first wife of the titular Nizam, Mukkaram Jah. The first monument in Andhra Pradesh to be conferred the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Conservation 2010, the complex is a labyrinth of museums, stables and garages overflowing with myriad treasures.
I have an hour to go before the complex closes and I wonder where to begin when I meet Rashid Baig, a wizened old tourist. Baig who last visited the palace more than half-a-century ago recalls seeing soldiers in resplendent uniforms near the bandstand. He tells me what not to miss and I hare off to pack in as much as I can of Silisila-e-Asafia (legacy of the house of Asafia.)
In the Northern Courtyard is the Bara Imam, a corridor of rooms with doors within doors that housed the administrative offices. Across the central fountain which gurgles gently is the Shish-e-Alat, a mirror image of the Bara Imam which accommodated visitors. A seemingly innocuous board announces the royal photo studio where visitors dress up as Muslim gentry to be captured in sepia. Mynas hop past the vast lawns in front of the Khilwat Mahal, a white and yellow stucco building, with the gilded, rococo Durbar Hall. The 19 Belgian crystal chandeliers cast their golden glow on the soul of the hall, the Takht-e-Nishan — the marble throne. In its heyday the palace employed 38 people only to dust its chandeliers! The image gallery adjoining this has a nostalgic array of photographs of palaces and gateways — Osmania University, the Afzalganj bridge built by the fifth Nizam, the walls of old Hyderabad city, and the Panchmahalla Palace which has since disappeared.
In the Mahallat which houses the Zenana photo exhibition I encounter a bottleneck. Crowds gather to gape at the rapturous beauty of Princess Durrushevar and her cousin Princess Niloufer, daughter and niece respectively of the last Ottoman Caliph and daughters-in-law of the last Nizam. Other rosy–cheeked women with Turkish names and children who resemble cherubs gaze down from the portraits that line the walls. Lesser wives and concubines stare defiantly at the camera unhindered by the confines of a veil. English governesses hold the hand of a young Mukkaram Jah.
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