This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, winter 2019, issue 111
Cultural riches abound in southern India.
It’s not yet dawn, but Hyderabad is already stirring. I can hear the faint hum of the city as it wakes; the tooting and beeping of horns that seem to be the soundtrack of southern India. Above me, in the gardens of Taj Falaknuma Palace, a baby squirrel runs nimbly along the branch of a tree; while higher up, freewheeling eagles circle the sky. As the mercury rises, and the sun turns the sky pink and then golden, I hear a traditional bansuri flautist playing a haunting tune.
Hyderabad is India’s seventh largest city, with its own movie empire (nick-named Tollywood) and a growing tech industry worth billions. But in the ancient palaces and pleasure gardens, the swirl of saris and kurtas, souks and mosques, it’s easy to be seduced by the past. Legend has it that this city was built on love – founded in 1589 on the banks of the River Musi where the Qutb Shahi ruler of Golconda fell in love with his future wife.
Under the Nizam, who governed the city from 1720 to 1948, until it fell to India’s independence, it was also the greatest and richest of all the Indian Princely States, far outshining in wealth other Rajput kingdoms such as Rajasthan in the north.
Romance is everywhere. I hear it in the call to prayer that rings out across the city at dawn. And in the Old City near the Charminar, the grand arch and mosque that stands at the crossroads of ancient trade routes; its laneways bustling with chai tea houses, exotic bazaars, and spice markets redolent in cardamom and spice.
Nowhere is it more evident than at Taj Falaknuma Palace, the former Nizam palace set on a hilltop amid 13-hectares of lavish gardens, 2000-feet above the Old City. After a day spent travelling dusty roads filled with colour and chaos with tailor-made tour operator Adventure World, arriving at this palatial hilltop estate, our accommodation for two nights, feels like being ushered into a bygone era of beauty and glamour.
Peacocks strut in lavish gardens abloom with hibiscus, frangipani and oleander. Liveried waiters greet us with flutes of champagne held aloft on gilt trays and there is a horse-drawn carriage to escort us to the palace. The pomp continues with an official walk-in from the royal guard of honour while rose petals rain down from on high.
The city below keeps up a tabla rhythm of honking and beeping, but at Falaknuma (Urdu for ‘mirror of the sky’), the hum soon fades, replaced by birdsong and tinkling fountains, warm breezes and the soothing industry of gardeners tending to hedges and lawns. There is breakfast poolside and morning yoga on the lawn, a sumptuous Hydrabadi banquet beneath the stained glass cupola of Gol Bungalow, where a dhervish of third-generation Sufi musicians sing, drum and sway to a glittering backdrop of stars and twinkling city lights.
Of all the sixth Nizam’s palaces, Falaknuma was his crowning glory – a European masterpiece originally conceived by his Prime Minister, and made from white Italian marble laid out in the shape of a scorpion with double stinging tail. No expense was spared to create it – and it soon became a favourite with royal visitors.
Lavishness is everywhere, from the bejewelled ballroom and dazzling Venetian chandeliers to the 101-seat dining table, the only one of its kind in the world. On a heritage walk with hotel historian Prabhakar Mahindrakar, we see the writing room where the seventh Nizam famously used the Hope diamond as a paperweight (the sixth Nizam had thought it was cursed and hidden it in a shoe), and the library modelled on Windsor Castle, with its 5,940-strong collection of mostly first edition books.
It’s an impeccable $35 million restoration by the Taj Group, who spent five years returning the palace to its former glory before opening the doors to a 60-room heritage hotel in 2010.
A fifteen-minute drive from Falaknuma Palace is Laad Bazaar, the centuries-old bangle market next to the Charminar. We arrive here one morning after a walk through Chowmahalla Palace, a UNESCO treasure turned museum that was once the seat of power of the Nizam. A walk of the bustling strip reveals stalls dripping with pearls and glittering trinkets, and artisan shops piled high with the famed gem studded lac bangles made from insect resin and popular with Hindu brides.
Women in hijabs sweep by; their black robes looking curiously super-imposed against the bright colours; while in the teahouses, men in white kurtas and caps drink chai and converse. Everywhere I look, there is an intoxicating jumble of bright sunshine, hustle, bustle and colour, and exotic smells and sounds.
When the midday heat becomes too much, the Nimrah Bakery in front of Mecca Masjid is a welcome refuge, popular for Irani chai and hot-out-of-the-oven golden osmania biscuits, the salty shortbread peculiar to Hyderabad.
It might be dubbed India-lite, but southern India is giving up a cornucopia of cultural delights. In Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital where we begin our travels, I am treated to a traditional bharata natyam performance of devadasi, the tale of a girl who falls in love with her god and marries him. It’s a rich performance fitting for a city best known for its cultural soul – and inclusion in UNESCO’s 2017 list of Cultural Cities.
It’s about an hour’s drive from Chennai to another UNESCO site – the resort town of Mahabalipuram on the Coromandel Coast. Scattered across sun-bleached land are more than 400 monuments dating back mostly to the 7th and 8th century Pallava dynasty – rock cut monuments, cave temples and stunning Arjuna’s Penance, the largest open-air rock relief in the world.
Most fascinating is the Shore Temple, one of the oldest structural stone temples in South India – a pagoda-like temple surrounded by rows of small rock-cut lions and bulls. For years, archaeologists speculated that this one of the Seven Pagodas described by Marco Polo in his diaries – the other six temples submerged in the sea.
When the tsunami of 2004 hit, myth became fact when the departing waters exposed an old collapsed temple built entirely of granite blocks about two metres out to sea. Along with it were ancient rock sculptures of lions, elephants and peacocks that used to decorate the walls and temples of the period.
It’s a tale that tickles my fancy, not least because it is a perfect description of my travels in South India – a cultural treasure just waiting to be discovered.
Singapore Airlines has direct flights to Chennai and Hyderabad from the major Australian cities. – singaporeair.com
Taj Falaknuma Palace – tajhotels.com
Adventure World Travel is expert in curating tailor-made travel experiences in India. Full-service bespoke itineraries include flights, accommodation and ground transfers, as well as seasoned tour guides and on-the-ground specialists. – adventureworld.com.au