DINNER WITH THE NIZAM

During a recent visit to the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad (India), I saw a sepia photograph taken at a dinner party held by the ruling Nizam during the era when India was part of the British Empire.

Some of diners were Indian and others sitting beside them at the table were Europeans, most probably British. All of them have their faces turned towards the camera, but what was going through their minds?

The British at the table, who were probably high ranking colonial officials, and their wives probably believed, as many Europeans did in the past, that they were superior to the Indians. They were most probably outwardly polite to their Indian hosts and fellow diners, but inwardly contemptuous.

The Indians at the table were probably also outwardly civil to their fellow European diners because not only are Indians hospitable by nature but also they knew that the high positions they held in the State of Hyderabad were dependent on being respectful and loyal to the British. However, inwardly I am sure that they regarded the British as inferiors, worthy only of contempt. They felt, I imagine, an innate sense of superiority over their European guests, who unlike them were not members of a royal house.

I wonder whether, apart from the superior British military ability, it was this mutual contempt that ensured an albeit uneasy harmony between the British imperialists and the royal families that ruled the princely states that made up a sizeable portion of the British Indian Empire.

A royal palace

IT IS COSTLY PAYING A VISIT to the Faluknuma Palace in Hyderabad, but is it worth the expense?

The Faluknuma Palace, which is located on a hill, is high above the rest of Hyderabad. It was built in a neo Palladian style to the designs of an Italian architect between 1884 and 1890 as a residence for Sir Viqar al Umra, a Prime Minister of Hyderabad. To settle a debt, in 1897 Viqar handed his palace to his creditor, the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad.

The palace is now used as a luxury hotel. One night at this place will set you back by at least £440 excluding taxes. The most economical way to see the palace is by booking afternoon tea, which is not at all cheap. However, such a booking includes a guided tour around the palace. After much difficulty and numerous telephone calls to the hotel, we managed to book a couple of places for the afternoon tea experience.

The guided tour was fairly uninformative but gave us a chance to see several rooms that were used by the former Nizams and their guests.
Unfortunately, the guide was uninspired and his English was poor. It would have been better if the guide had been better informed as well as more interested in history and culture.

One thing the guide told us impressed me. He said that the palace was wired up for telephony and was supplied with electricity in the 1890s whilst the Nizam’s subjects lived without electricity until the late 1930s.

Each of the rooms and hallways of the palace look spectacular at first sight. However, after closer examination they are not so impressive. The rooms which were designed to amaze are actually rather dowdy and unrefined. The interior has a Victorian heaviness. In contrast, the Marble Palace in Calcutta, also built to mimic European tastes, is spectacular both macroscopically and in minute detail. Unlike the Faluknuma, the Marble Palace is an example of exquisite taste.

I find it sad that Indians such as the builders of the Faluknuma (and the Marble Palace) found it necessary to mimic, not always successfully, the styles favoured by their imperialist rulers rather than building in styles that have evolved from the rich legacy of pre-colonial architecture. One palace that I have visited, that at Bhavnagar, The Neelambagh, was designed by a European architect who paid tribute to India’s rich cultural heritage by successfully incorporating elements of India’s historical architectural styles. The so-called Indo-Saracenic style sometimes melds European and Indian elements successfully.

The afternoon tea was elegantly presented. The serving staff outnumbered the guests. There was a great deal of bustling about, but our requests were eventually fulfilled. Every member of staff we encountered at the palace was kind and caring. I felt that everyone wanted us to enjoy our visit, which we did.

Was our visit worth what we paid? I would say ‘yes’ cautiously, but I would have preferred to have been charged a little less. It would have been really good value at two thirds of the price. Is the palace worth seeing? I would recommend it not because it is either an aesthetic gem or an architectural marvel, but it is a great example of how the wealthy and powerful spent their money to impress their subjects and the British Colonial Officials, who guaranteed the continuing existence of their vassals, the rulers of the Princely States, of which Hyderabad was the largest, richest, and most powerful.

While we were sitting waiting for our taxi to take us away from the palace, we watched horse drawn cartiages passing by. They carry guests up the long winding drive to the hotel. We also saw staff feeding some of the more than one hundred peacocks which live in the extensive grounds of the palace, which provide a peaceful refuge from the city that sprawls all around the Faluknuma.

Some cafés and an Ottoman princess

WE WERE ADVISED TO PAY a visit to the “new Niloufer café” in Hyderabad to try its Irani Chai. We hired an Uber taxi to take us there.

The New Niloufer Café turned out to be a rather scruffy place across the road from a newer looking place called “The Niloufer Café”.

Irani chai is prepared by boiling tea leaves continuously in a large kettle. This produces a strong decoction, which is poured through a muslin filter and then added to boiling milk before being served in cups.

As the New Niloufer did not serve milk without sugar, we crossed the road to the Niloufer Café, which did. This café was very crowded. In addition to tea, it sold a wide range of biscuits, cakes, and breads. One of the breads looked like an oversized bagel or an obese Turkish simit.

After taking tea at this café, we walked past several Hindu temples, mostly dedicated to Hanuman, and many medical clinics until we spotted yet another Niloufer Café. This one is newer and more luxurious than the previous café but belongs to the same company. It described itself as the “Niloufer Café Premier Lounge”.

On reflection, we realised that it was the new Premier Lounge, rather than the unrelated New Niloufer Café, that had been recommended to us.

By the way, Princess Niloufer (1916-89) was one of the princesses of the Ottoman Empire. She married the second son of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Moazam Jah. He died in 1952 and then she married an American, Edward Julius Pope in 1963.

Photo shows kettle for boiling tea to prepare decoction

Rice and meat

Hyderabad is justifiably renowned for tasty biryani although the very best version of this rice based dish that I have ever eaten was at Paragon in Calicut. There, they serve Moplah biryanis, which are both Arabic and Indian in taste.

The biryani we ate at the Café Bahar in Hyderabad was delicious. It was delicately flavoured and cooked with a light touch. To enter Bahar at lunchtime it is necessary to join a long queue that extends from the top of tje stairs at the doorway to the first floor dining room down on to the busy street outside. It is worth the wait.

The restaurant itself is very noisy and as busy as London’s Oxford Circus at rush hour. We shared a table with a charming couple, who let us try their ‘double masala’ chicken biryani which is richly laden with extra spices. I preferred the less spicy ‘special lamb biryani’. It is made special by adding hard boiled egg and meatballs made with minced chicken.

One should not visit Hyderabad without eating at least one biryani, but avoid the much advertised Paradise restaurant chain, which is ok but nothing like as good as Bahar or Shadab (near the Charminar)

Letters on a cannon

Not long ago I spotted the old cannon shown in the picture at Golconda Fort. It bears the markings ‘A’ and ‘VOC’. The letters VOC are the abbreviation used by the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the former Dutch East India Company, which functioned between 1602 and 1799. The ‘A’ stands for one of the several distinct groups of Dutch investors, who together comprised the VOC.

Incidentally, I have seen another example of this Dutch cannon marking on an artillery piece on the island of Diu, which is close to the southern coast of the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. The example in Diu can be found in the garden commemorating the Indian soldiers who captured Diu from the Portuguese in 1961.

The whole tooth

I often wonder why dentists all over the world advertise their practices with a whole tooth, crown and roots.

Most people, apart from some with knowledge of anatomy, are aware of teeth being more than what can be seen in the mouth: the crowns of the teeth, which are covered with off-white enamel. Unless they have a tooth extracted, the majority of people never see the roots which help to keep the teeth on the mouth.

A more appropriate symbol for alerting people’s attention to a dental practice is a row of tooth crowns arranged as a smile.

Although the whole tooth might be the truth, a row of teeth as seen in the mouth should make more sense to someone seeking a dentist.

Photos taken in Hyderabad, India