I tend to get a little silly when it comes to palaces.
All that history and romance, gilt and glamour. It’s the ideal setting to pretend I’m royalty, with all accompanying affectations and theatrics. So I’m delighted when our prosaic car is replaced with a carriage pulled by neighing, stamping black horses at the gates of Taj Falaknuma palace.
As we gallop up the hill, it looms above us in an appropriately intimidating fashion.
Falaknuma, or ‘‘Mirror of the sky’ is built in the shape of a scorpion, at the crest of a 32 acre compound. As we descend grandly from the carriage, I gawk in a most un-princess-like fashion. A line of glittering guards escort us to the door in a ceremonial welcome, while rose petals softly rain down.
It’s quite a view. The palace blends so dramatically into the evening sky it almost looks like it’s a part of the heavens. And all it took was ten years of restoration, and 30 coats of paint to get the colour just right.
This story begins in 1884. Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, then Prime Minister of Hyderabad was determined to create a palace of dreams. With foreign architects, luxury products shipped from all over the world and challenging design, Faluknama ended up taking him 10 years to build, and 22 years to decorate. Then, the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad, dropped by for a visit and expressed admiration. And Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra immediately gave it to him as a gift. He moved out the next day with his family, taking nothing.
We glide in over a carpet of red rose petals. In princess mode I sweep through the foyer, featuring images of nubile angels cavorting all over the high ceiling. To the left is the Gossip Room, where Queen Ujala Begum and her girls caught up on the daily news. Under a lustrous chandelier the furniture sparkles with nifty mirrors flaked by shelves for cosmetics. I grab some champagne, and teeter across to the study, where the last Nizam famously used the hefty Jacob’s diamond as a paperweight.
Wandering around, it becomes easier to understand why restoration by The Taj overseen by Princess Esra (who was married to the last Nizam’s son) has taken a decade to complete. Unabashedly ostentatious, the palace is lush with luxury. Even light comes from myriad sources: vivid glass lanterns from Bohemia, Belgian chandeliers dripping stars and sunshine pouring through glass stained windows.
It’s all very over the top – but then restraint was hardly a virtue in those days. Restoration’s been so meticulous we hear Princess Esra got a single carpet dyed 300 times before she was satisfied with the colour.
Though I’m too busy bouncing excitedly around my room to care about interior decorating details. The bathroom’s humongous, featuring marble bowls brimming with delicious scrubs and creams. At night, a tray bearing silky cardamom infused moisturiser is placed on my bed, along with an array of decadently dark chocolates. If I need anything else, there’s a button I can press for ‘palace services.’ I briefly considering trying to order a palanquin or royal elephant to take me to Charminar, 15 minutes away, but am so happy slathering myself in velvety creams I can’t bear to leave the room.
As the morning sunshine filters in through billowing Turkish curtains, I’m finally drawn out by the sound of a flute. It leads me down the garden, and then mysteriously disappears.
So I head to the imposing Jade Room’s graceful balcony for warm sweet pineapple Danishes served with powerfully aromatic coffee. Downstairs, the begum’s bedroom’s open so guests can admire her specially-designed Doulton bathtub, equipped with pipes for hot water, cold water and perfume. I’d be jealous if not for the languid spa treatment lined up at Jiva, featuring frankincense and sandalwood infused sesame oil.
Finally, like the princess in the fairy tale, I climb into my carriage – drawn by white horses this time – and gallop away. As I settle down in my cramped aircraft seat, I wonder why I’m drawing strange glances. Then I realize my skin’s still redolent with the scent of spices. Perhaps I should have called for the palanquin after all.