Restoring heritage

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE

back to issue

SIXTY years ago, a full four months after British rule had come to an end in India, the Nizam of Hyderabad, then the richest man in the world, was still refusing to sign up to join the new Indian union.

Sir Osman Ali Khan firmly believed that there was no reason why Hyderabad should be forced to join either India or Pakistan. His state, which had remained semi-independent within the framework of the Raj, had income and expenditure equal to Belgium, and exceeded that of twenty member states of the United Nations. His personal fortune was more remarkable still: according to one contemporary estimate, it amounted to at least £100 million in gold and silver bullion, and £400 million in jewels. Many of these came from the Nizam’s own Golconda mines, source of the Koh-i-Noor and the Great Mogul Diamond, then the largest ever discovered. He also owned one of the Islamic world’s great art collections: libraries full of priceless Mughal and Deccani miniatures, illuminated Korans and the rarest and most esoteric Indo-Islamic manuscripts.

Partly because of this extraordinary wealth, the Nizam was always feted by the British as the most senior prince in India, and given clear precedence over all his rivals. For over three centuries his ancestors had ruled a state the size of Italy – 82,700 square miles of the Deccan plateau – as absolute monarch, answerable, in internal matters at least, to no one but himself. Within this area, the Nizam could claim the allegiance of some fifteen million subjects.

Nor was his reputation just limited to India: during the years leading up to the Second World War, the Nizam was also regarded by many as the leading Muslim ruler in the world. A few years earlier, in 1921, the Nizam’s two sons had been sent to Nice where they married the daughter and the niece of the last Caliph of Turkey. Abdul Majid II had recently been expelled from the Topkapi by Attaturk and sent into exile in Provence. As part of the marriage arrangements, the Caliph had nominated the Nizam’s son as heir to the Caliphate, so uniting the supreme spiritual authority of the Muslim world with its greatest concentration of riches. The dynasty seemed unassailable.

 

Yet even in the late 1930s, more far-sighted observers realised that the Nizam’s world could not last. ‘He was as mad as a coot and his chief wife was raving,’ I was told by Iris Portal, the sister of Rab Butler, who had worked in Hyderabad before Independence. ‘It was like living in France on the eve of the Revolution.’

‘All the power was in the hands of the Muslim nobility. They spent money like water, and were terrible, irresponsible landlords, but they could be very charming and sophisticated as well. They would take us shooting, talking all the while about their trips to England or to Cannes and Paris, although in many ways Hyderabad was still living in the Middle Ages and the villages we would pass through were often desperately poor. You couldn’t help feeling that the whole great baroque structure could come crashing down at any minute.’

One day in the late 1930s, Portal had been taken to see some of the Nizam’s treasure which was hidden in a secret vault in one of the palaces. She had befriended the Caliph’s niece, Princess Niloufer, who led her down some stairs, past a group of Bedouin Arab guards, and there at the bottom was a huge underground garage, full of trucks and haulage lorries. The trucks were dusty and neglected, their tyres flat and sinking into the ground. But when the two ladies pulled back a tarpaulin, they found that the trucks were full of gems and precious stones, pearls and gold coins. The Nizam lived in fear of either a revolution or an Indian takeover of his state, and had equipped the lorries so that he could get some of his wealth out of the country if the need came. But then he lost interest in his plan, and left the lorries to rot, incapable of driving anywhere, but still full of their consignment of jewels.

 

The disintegration of the state, and the dispersal of the wealth of the Nizam, is one of the 20th century’s most dramatic reversals of fortunes. After months of failed negotiations, India invaded Hyderabad in 1948, replacing the Nizam’s autocratic and despotic rule with parliamentary democracy. Twenty six years later it abolished the Nizam’s title – along with those of all the other princes – removed their Privy Purses and made them subject to crippling new wealth taxes and land-ceiling acts, thus forcing them to sell most of their property.

Abha Narain Lambah

Afzal Mahal at Chowmahalla Palace.

Mukarram Jah, the Nizam’s grandson who succeeded the old man in February 1967, quickly found himself enmeshed in debts and financial chaos. He had inherited a ridiculously inflated army of retainers: 14,718 staff and dependants, including no less than 42 of his grandfathers concubines and their 100-plus offspring. The Chowmahalla palace complex alone had 6000 employees; there were around 3000 Arab bodyguards from Sudan and the Yemen, and 28 people whose only job was to bring drinking water; 38 more were employed to dust the chandeliers, while several others were retained specifically to grind the Nizam’s walnuts.

 

For all the rococo Once-Upon-A-Time-There-Was-A-Princess-Who-Lived-In-A-Huge-Palace quality of the Nizam’s world, by 1967 everything was in a state of severe disarray: the Nizam’s garages, for example, cost £45,000 a year to keep in petrol and spare parts for 60 cars, yet only four vehicles were in working condition, and the limousine supposed to take the Nizam from his coronation broke down on the way to the reception. Officially, two thousand people a day were fed from the Nizam’s kitchens, yet it was discovered that several local restaurants were also secretly being supplied with food at the Nizam’s expense.

Most debilitating of all was the legal wrangling initiated by the several thousand descendants of the different Nizams, almost all of whom claimed part of Jah’s inheritance according to their rights under Islamic personal law: by 1973, 476 legal heirs of the Sixth Nizam and 1945 descendants of the Fifth had filed suits or claims of various sorts. Jah’s father – who had been passed over in the will – and his aunt, led the legal challenge. Even getting the smallest sum to live on proved difficult for the new Nizam: his vast inheritance had been distributed between 54 different trusts, the control of which were disputed. From the beginning, despite nominally inheriting one of the world’s greatest fortunes, he was forced to sell jewellery and other family heirlooms to keep solvent.

 

Eventually in 1973, frustrated and disgusted by the weight of litigation and the bitterness of the family in-fighting, Jah took off from Hyderabad, and relocated to a sheep farm in Perth, Australia. There His Exalted Highness, the Rustam of the Age, the Aristotle of the Times, The Victor in Battles and the Leader of Armies donned blue overalls and spent his days tinkering under the bonnets of his cars, or driving bulldozers, JCBs and heavy earth moving equipment around the Australian bush. As his biographer John Zubrzycki memorably put it in The Last Nizam: ‘His grandfather composed couplets in Persian about unrequited love. To Jah’s ears there was nothing more poetic than the drone of a diesel engine.’ Visitors frequently mistook him for an electrician or a sheep sheerer. Jah was not bothered, ‘Abu Bakar [his ancestor, the first Caliph] was a shepherd,’ he told one interviewer. ‘So I see no reason why I shouldn’t be one too.’

 

Jah soon sacked most of the 14,000 staff he left behind in India, and divorced his first wife, the sophisticated Turkish princess Esra who, perhaps understandably, saw no reason why she should move to a remote and isolated Australian sheep station. Over the following two decades Jah married a succession of four subsequent wives. One, a plump, blonde Australian secretary named Helen Simmons, died of AIDS in 1989, which led to the intimate details of the Nizam’s marriage being splashed across the front of the Australian tabloids. All five of the marriages added to Jah’s ever growing pile of litigation, as each successive wife demanded fabulous sums in alimony.

In his absence, Jah’s unsupervised Hyderabad properties were looted and his possessions dispersed by a succession of incompetent, dishonest or unscrupulous advisors. When Jackie Kennedy came to Hyderabad on a private visit a few years later, she recorded her impressions of this collapsing and leaderless courtly world in a private letter to her friend, the art historian Mark Zebrowski: ‘We had an evening with the old noblemen of the court,’ she wrote, men with long white hands transparent like alabaster, who recited Urdu poetry to us... The hereditary Prime Minister of the Nizam, I think his name was Ali Pasha, had his own lime grove: such in-bred trees that their leaves are translucent and the paan made with them unlike any other… There were three ancient classical musicians playing in the moonlight, and the noblemen were speaking of how it was all disappearing, that the youth didn’t appreciate the ways of the old culture, that the great chefs were being taken by the Emirates… This over-civilised world – you knew it was too rarified to survive…

‘The evening was profoundly sad. My son John told me the next day that the sons of the house had taken him to their rooms, because they couldn’t stand the classical music – and had offered him a tall glass filled with whisky and had put on a pornographic cassette in the Betamax, and the Rolling Stones on the tape deck. They wore tight Italian pants and open shirts, and all the while their fathers, on the terrace in beautiful Sherwani [frock coats] were speaking of how sad they made them. Ali Pasha’s son had disappeared a year before, on a motorcycle, because he didn’t like the marriage that had been arranged for him…’

 

In 1997, when I first visited Hyderabad in the course of the research for my book White Mughals, the loot of the Nizam’s property was nearly complete. Most of the easily moved valuables that the Nizam had left behind in India had disappeared or been sold by the mid-1970s; but the drawing rooms of the city were still buzzing with stories of how precious jewels, manuscripts, Louis XIV furniture and even chandeliers from the Nizam’s palaces were available on the market, for a price. It was unclear how much, if anything, of the proceeds ended up in the pocket of the exiled Nizam.

Meanwhile his different properties were decaying. Many palaces were sealed by orders of different courts. Those which weren’t were quietly sold off or encroached: between 1967 and 2001, the Chowmahalla shrunk from 54 acres to 12, as courtyard after courtyard, ballrooms and whole stable blocks, and even the famous mile-long banqueting hall were all acquired by real estate developers, who demolished the 18th century buildings and erected concrete apartments in their place.

 

One day I visited the huge Victorian pile of the Falaknuma Palace, just to the South of the city. The entire complex, which lay above the town on its own Acropolis, was empty and semiruinous, 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, like something out of an Indian reshoot of Great Expectations. The skeletons of outsized Victorian sofas and armchairs lay dotted around the parquet floors, their chintz entirely eaten away by white ants, so that all that remained was the wooden frame and the springs. Vast desks lay on rotting red carpets covered with a peppering of huge holes as if they had been savaged by some monstrous outsized moth.

Beyond were further long, gloomy corridors, leading to unseen inner courtyards and zenana wings: mile upon mile of empty arcades, now quite empty but for a pair of lonely chowkidars shuffling around with their lathis and whistles. Outside stretched acres of scrub flats, once presumably soft green lawns, dotted here and there with kitsch statues of naked cupids, waterless fountains, and paint-flaking flagpoles leaning at crazy angles. It was the most melancholy sight imaginable: a derelict Ruritania, once magnificently opulent, now almost absurdly decayed and neglected.

 

Then, in 2001, I happened to be on another research trip to Hyderabad when I received a phone call from a friend. The Nizam’s first wife, Princess Esra, had unexpectedly appeared in the city after an absence of three decades. With her, she had brought the celebrated Indian lawyer, Vijay Shankardass.

Abha Narain Lamb

Afzal Mahal at Chowmahalla Palace.

According to my friend, Esra had recently met her ex-husband for the first time in thirty years at the wedding of their son Azmet in London. Esra was shocked to hear of the state of Jah’s affairs: to meet his debts he had been forced to sell off his beloved Australian sheep farm and to flee his creditors, had relocated to a two room flat in Antalya in southern Turkey. A partial reconciliation followed, and Esra was given the authority by Jah to try and save something for their son and daughter before what little remained in Hyderabad disappeared too. Among her initiatives, she was intent on settling the many outstanding law cases, opening up the palaces, and leasing Falaknuma to a hotel chain. The principle city palace, Chowmahalla, she planned to turn into a museum.

 

Begun in 1751, Chowmahalla was one of the finest royal residences in India and a central location for White Mughals, but I had never been able to get inside to see it. After some negotiation, I was allowed to accompany the princess as she visited, and so happened to be there at the breaking of the seals of some rooms which had not been opened since the death of the previous Nizam in 1967.

What we saw that day was extraordinary. After Jah had decamped to Australia, much of his property had been left untouched, as if in the palace of Sleeping Beauty. The jewels and most easily lifted art treasures had long gone – in some cases, the empty silk-lined jewel cases still lay scattered along the corridors – but many less easily purloined treasures remained.

In one underground storeroom, thousands of medieval scimitars, swords, helmets, maces, daggers, archery equipment and suits of armour lay rusted into a single metallic mass on a line of tressel tables. In another lay album after album of around 8000 Victorian and Edwardian photographs of the Nizam’s household, covered in a thick cladding of dust. An entire and 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, while scattered in the white ant-ravaged book shelves were 800 illuminated Korans. 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 whole sets of harem clothes once worn by the Nizam’s favourite wives. Elsewhere were discovered almost 8000 mostly incomplete dinner services, one of which alone had 2600 pieces.

 

In a different palace, King Kothi, were found three rooms stacked floor to ceiling full of the Nizam’s dynasty’s complete correspondence since the mid 18th century. When the archivists had been sacked in 1972, the entire archive had been stuffed into the rooms and sealed: ten and a half tonnes of tatty, disordered and uncatalogued historical documents. Other rooms were stacked equally high with crates of French champagne – now undrinkable – and apothecaries boxes full of Victorian tinctures, as well as huge piles of soap and shampoos.

It looked a complete mess that day; an impossible task to even begin to sort out. Every one of the palaces was riddled with termites and white ants: sprung floors were rotting; ceilings were collapsing, furniture falling apart. Nothing had been painted or maintained for over thirty years.

Yet remarkably, six years later, the Chowmahalla is now open to the public and a thousand visitors a day are streaming through. A massive conservation project, unique in India, has sorted through, catalogued and restored the best of what remains. The result is little short of incredible.

 

In the story of how the Nizam’s inheritance was saved, the urbane figure of Princess Esra’s lawyer, Vijay Shankardass, plays the most extraordinary role. Shankardass is the only lawyer alive who has both chambers in Lincoln’ Inn and a practice in Delhi. He is renowned for being as clever as he is honest, a rare conjunction of qualities in the modern Indian legal system. As the man who represents Salman Rushdie, he is also celebrated for his courage and tenacity.

I met him in the largest suite of Hyderabad’s grandest hotel, which he has occupied intermittently since beginning work on the Nizam’s estate in 1996: ‘I was contacted by Princess Esra’s lawyers in England,’ he told me, ‘and asked if I could intervene in trying to sort out the jewellery trusts which the last Nizam had set up.

Esra had been badly cheated by her previous lawyer in Bombay who had run off with a substantial sum of money. As soon as the English lawyer had briefed me and told me that there were currently around 2740 claimants to the proceeds of the 51 jewellery trusts, I said, ‘No way – it sounds like a snake pit.’ No other Indian royal family had this level of indebtedness and financial chaos, and what I had heard about the Nizam himself did not create much confidence. But the lawyer urged me to meet Esra, so I went to see her in her flat in Eaton Square. I thought she was a remarkable woman – upright, straight, clear-headed and trustworthy. So I agreed to help.’

It was Shankardass’s amazing achievement to have persuaded all 2740 claimants – legitimate and illegitimate descendants of the different Nizams – to agree to a settlement of the jewel issue, and gradually to whittle down the demands that initially amounted to six times the market value of the jewels to something manageable. It took him and his three junior lawyers nearly four years to cut through what was arguably the biggest and most tangled Gordion knot of litigation in the entire Indian legal system.

 

In the process he was regularly blackmailed and threatened, both by the Hyderabadi mafia and the claimants themselves. Several turned up armed to his suite and threatened to shoot him; on one occasion he had his car hijacked as he drove to the airport. Once, a claimant who had been disarmed by the hotel staff threatened to throw himself off the balcony unless his demands were met. Shankardass told him to go ahead – and called his bluff. ‘There were some extremely rough men among the sahibzadas [princes],’ he said. ‘Undesirable characters – hollow, shallow and proud. I had to have a full-time guard for two years.’

With the backing of all the different claimants, he then had to reach agreement on a sale price with the Indian government who had, at the last moment, banned the export and public auction of the jewels which they rightly regarded as a national treasure. In the end, the government agreed to pay around £40m – less than a quarter of the market value, but much more than anyone had expected the government to offer. Of this, just under half was to go to the Nizam.

Once the jewel money had been sorted out, Shankardass moved on to pay off, or reach some sort of compromise, with the different litigants in the 130-odd legal cases still outstanding against the Nizam. He also settled his remaining debts, then standing at around £3m. Today only three cases still remain unsolved: a dispute with the Indian Income Tax department, an alimony claim involving the Nizam’s fifth wife, a former Miss Turkey, and a case against the MLAs of the Hyderabad assembly whose new residential quarters are located on a former courtyard of the Chowmahalla palace and break all the planning regulations the MLAs are themselves elected to preserve.

 

All this still left a considerable fund for Princess Esra to invest in the restoration and conservation of the Nizam’s properties. Esra has the same talent for picking honest and effective people to work for her as her husband once proved to have for employing crooks. To supervise the restoration of Chowmahalla she chose Martand Singh, chairman and one of founders of INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage: ‘The first time I saw the state the palace was in I thought it would be impossible to save,’ remembers Singh. ‘I really thought it was hopeless – totally unsaveable.’

‘It’s impossible to say how much had been lost. After the Nizam sacked his 14,000 staff it had just gone to the dogs. Everything that could be was sold off, and the rest was left to rot. Decomposition can set in very quickly in India – one monsoon can do it – and these properties had been neglected for 30 years. It was the worst case of decay I have ever seen. There was so much undergrowth you couldn’t see the buildings. There were hundreds of old howdahs and buggies and wheel-less carriages rotting in the corridors and verandahs. The wood was worm-eaten and there was hardly anything left of the Persian carpets or the silk drapes. The lights did not work and many of the chandeliers had all been sold. One of the ceilings had collapsed.

‘But when Princess Esra returned and our architect, Rahul Mehrotra, made his initial report, we found that most of the decay was actually cosmetic. The engineering was sound, and despite the rising damp, the roofs were more or less intact. From the first Esra was completely positive. She asked, "How long is this going to take." "Three-four years," she was told. "Too long" she replied. "I want it done in two." And Rahul succeeded – in two and a half.’

 

The first task was to restore an old service wing of the palace, which was turned into a scholar’s retreat, where architects, urban deseigners, art and ceramic consultants, conservators, specialist carpenters, photographic experts, textile restorers, antique upholsterers, historians and Urdu and Persian scholars could be lodged and fed while they worked on the different collections. A conservation laboratory and museum store area followed. By 2002, the largest team of conservators ever employed on an Indian restoration project were at work, cataloguing, making inventories, and busily restoring the different collections. A group of metal conservators brought in from Lucknow worked with such speed that the managed to restore 20 blades a month. The entire collection of arms, along with the best of the textiles, carriages and photographic records – including the remarkable harem pictures, published here for the first time – were ready for the recent grand opening of the Chowmahalla palace to the public.

Meanwhile, the conservation of the remaining buildings continues. The restoration of the Indo-Saracenic Khilwat Mahal – where state coronations were carried out – is now complete, and today houses the arms and the photographic collections. The restoration of another of the Chowmahalla pavilions – the Afzal Mahal – is currently under way, with a team of Austrian carpenters at work on the doors and woodwork, while other conservators restore the decorative plaster ceilings, moulding and cornices, and renew both the waterproofing and the exterior limewash and stucco. In time, the plan is to use the buildings for concerts, poetic symposia – or mushairas – and scholarly conferences, so turning the complex into a cultural centre as well as a museum.

The Nizam’s vast archives are still in the process of being catalogued: fifteen Urdu and Persian scholars are currently employed full-time to sift through the material. Already they have stumbled across a major historical discovery: the negotiations which the Nizam conducted throughout the early 1940s with the Portuguese to buy Goa and so provide his state with a port, and with it a real hope – never realised, perhaps thankfully – of remaining independent from India once the British finally quit India.

 

Last month, Princess Esra returned to Hyderabad from her base on an island off Istanbul, to oversee the progress of her conservation efforts.

She swept in, sari-clad, imperious, a flurry of energy, and as ever, on her arrival everyone stood to attention. Long lines of unframed canvases were laid out along the corridors and she walked past them, giving an instant decision. ‘No – not that one. It’s Venetian – I don’t like it. Not that either. Now look at that – the sixth Nizam out riding with the Kaiser – yes: send that off for restoration immediately.’

Her tour of inspection completed, I asked if, looking back, she had any regrets:

‘Many,’ she said. ‘If I had the head on my shoulders that I have now a few years ago I would never have let things get into the state they did. But I was too young. At the time it all seemed impossible – the law suits, the huge taxes, debts accumulating, criminal cases, people abusing the trust we had put in them. We had no ready cash, and the palaces seemed like white elephants. So we fled, and then terrible things happened. So much just disappeared: jades, miniatures, furniture, chandeliers…’

‘And the Nizam?’

‘He had a brilliant brain when I met him,’ she said. ‘He had had the best education money could buy – Harrow, Cambridge, LSE, Sandhurst. But partly because of his diabetes he went into decline, and in the end really, well… disintegrated. Today he keeps to himself in the south of Turkey. Lives very simply – doesn’t love extravagance. Lives in a two room flat in Antalya, and spends his time reading and exploring Roman ruins, going swimming in summer... He’s upset, of course, that he didn’t achieve what he had hoped and he feels awkward that he let so much go. He wishes he had done things differently, but then that is true of most people…’

Now Esra’s reserved 47-year old son Azmet hopes to come back to Hyderabad and take on what remains of the family role in the city. Bin Laden and the assorted Islamist extremists who hope to bring back the institution of the Caliphate are no doubt unaware that the man who has the strongest legal claim to inherit the title was until recently a Hollywood-based cameraman who has worked with Steven Spielberg, Richard Attenborough, Nicolas and Roeg and was even responsible for shooting the notorious Sharon Stone starrer, Basic Instinct.

‘I am planning to spend much more time here,’ Azmet told me. ‘The death threats and law suits that kept us all away are cleared up now, and I have great affection for this place – I grew up here.’

He paused: ‘I am determined to maintain what has been saved. We’ll not make the same mistakes again.’

 

* William Dalrymple is the author of The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (Bloomsbury) which recently won the Duff Cooper Prize for history and biography. www.williamdalrymple.com

top