After 16 unforgettable days revisiting South India, Catriona and I are now back at our desks in London, but we have one final destination to tell you about. It was the crowning jewel in our itinerary and the most magnificent place to end any journey to India: The Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad.
This time last year we were doing a grand two-week research trip across North India – from Delhi to Agra, Ranthambore, Jodhpur, Jaipur and Udaipur. There is no denying that Ampersand’s primary focus in India is Rajasthan; the quality of luxury hotels and service in this region is unrivalled anywhere in the world. However, not many people know that South India is where it all began for Ampersand and this year we are eager to promote it to our clients, who we know will gain so much from visiting. For those who have been reading our South India Photoblogs, you will know that after a cold and seemingly endless UK winter, we have loved getting our feet into some warm Keralan sand, drifting slowly along the Backwaters, gulping down some tea-scented mountain air and drenching ourselves in culture at intoxicating temples and archaeological sites.
North and South India are very different, but what is it that distinguishes them? Some say the south is slower, more relaxed. What sums up the south for me is the incredible seafood curries, the ever-present smell of jasmine flowers, the astonishing natural beauty of Kerala and the impressive gopuram temples of Tamil Nadu – so exotic, so Indian! Our Hyderabad guide, Jonti, had an interesting theory. Historically, the northern half of India has been hugely influenced by Persia in terms of food, religion, ethnicity and Mughal architecture; it has had a more violent history and it has needed to fight for survival against invasion. By contrast, the south’s history was more about the trade of spices and its influences were relatively peaceful, so it had the luxury of nurturing its traditional arts and crafts, and preserving its Dravidian roots. The people of South India are known to be well cultured and so laid-back that they slip naturally into hammock position.
Hyderabad is the capital city of the central Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and it is often referred to as “the gateway to the South”. It feels like a blend of both north and south India, yet it retains a distinct personality of its own. Now a very modern and metropolitan city, it was founded 400 years ago by Muhammad Qutub Quli Shah, the Sultan of Golconda, and is famous for its Islamic architecture, art and jewellery – pearls and diamonds in particular (in the 16th Century Hyderabad was the world’s only source of diamonds; they were not discovered in Africa until 1867). In recent decades it has emerged as one of India’s most exciting IT hubs, hence its nickname, ‘Cyberabad’. It has an impressive new international airport with direct British Airways flights to London. Within Hyderabad’s city limits you can explore ancient bazaars, the monumental Qutab Shahi Tombs, the impenetrable Golconda Fort and follow in the footsteps of Lieutenant James Kirkpatrick, whose story is told by William Dalrymple in the White Mughuls.
However, the event that put Hyderabad firmly on the luxury travel map was the opening of the Taj Falaknuma Palace in 2010. It is now the forth time an Ampersand member of staff has stayed here and we believe it is the most exceptional palace hotel in India, if not the world. The palace, constructed in the late 19th Century, has a fascinating history: It was built by Nawab Vikar-Umra, the then-Prime Minister of Hyderabad, and was “gifted” to the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahboob Ali Pasha, after he visited the palace and expressed a fondness for it. The palace was then passed down from Nizam to Nizam, playing host to heads of states and European royalty until the palace parties fell silent after the 1950s when the Nizam moved to his abode next door.
It was not until 2000 that Princess Ezra – the current Nizam’s first wife – began the process of supervising the Taj restoration of the palace, spending over 10 years making every element as true to its original form as possible. The palace is dripping in Venetian chandeliers and masterful paintings, and lavishly decorated with the Nizam’s original furniture, including the world’s longest dining table in the formal dining room upstairs. The last Nizam to reside here was Nizam Mehboob Ali Khan, who was the richest man in the world at that time. Guests are immediately transported back to his royal era, filled with opulence and pampering… starting with a fairytale arrival at the palace in an open carriage pulled by two gleaming white horses! And the impeccable service carries on surprising and delighting you until the moment you leave – there are 240 staff to 120 guests and each and every one of them go the extra mile to make you feel like prince or princess during your stay here.
Where else can one retrace the steps of Nizams, European royalty, enchanting Begums, distinguished heads of state and walk the walk of kings staying in one of India’s most beautiful palaces perched 2,000 feet above the city? For those who can drag themselves away from the palace, we have excellent guides in Hyderabad who will engage with you and allow you to get under the skin of this vibrant city. Here are a few snaps from our time here…
So there you have it! The perfect end to our trip. If you have any questions about Hyderabad or any of the places we visited in South India you can contact me, Sacha Smith-Laing at firstname.lastname@example.org or to start planning a tailor-made journey please contact our India sales specialist, Catriona Deredas at email@example.com.