The City of Nizams is well-known for its rich historic culture and heritage. Established in 1591 by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, Hyderabad is a melting pot of culture, religion, and traditions. It emerged as the foremost centre of art and culture following the decline of the Mughal Empire. With the Nizams ruling the city, artists from North and South India moved to Hyderabad. This migration worked and resulted in the mix of both cultures, traditions, religions, and most importantly – art and architecture!
Over the years, Hyderabad has undergone many changes, but the only thing that has remained constant is its art and architecture. The rich legacy left behind by the Qutb Shahi and the Nizami rules is very evident even today in the form of historic art and architectural grandeur. One such example is the Chowmahalla Palace, which is located in the Old City near Charminar.
The Chowmahalla Palace gets its name from the Urdu word char (variation chau), which means four, and mahalla which means palace (i.e., four palaces). The palace is known for its unique royal elegance and style, where the architecture has hints of both Persian and European styles. It is also believed that the palace was modelled on the Shah of Iran’s palace, which is located in Tehran. The palace was once the seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, and the official residence of the Nizams during their ruling period is the property of Barkat Ali Khan Mukarram Jah, the heir of the Nizams. Originally built by Nizam Salabat Jung, the Chowmahalla Palace has witnessed numerous ceremonial functions and grand receptions over the years.
The construction of Chowmahalla began in 1750 and was completed by the period of Afzal ad-Dawlah and Asaf Jah V between 1857 and 1869. Under the patronage of Princess Esra, the palace was restored between 2005 and 2010. Over the decades, amalgamations of many architectural styles have influenced the palace. Originally, the palace was spread over 45 acres, but today only 12 acres remain with two courtyards – Northern and Southern– the grand Khilwat, fountains, gardens, and the Clock Tower. The palace also has an incredible collection of vintage cars, which were once used by the Nizams. A major attraction is the 100-year-old Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Throne car.
The Northern Courtyard
The Northern courtyard of the palace houses the Bara Imam, which is a long corridor of rooms on the eastside, facing the central fountain and pool. This once housed the administrative wing and the Shishe-Alat (meaning mirror image). The architecture features Mughal domes and arches, and many traces of Persian elements including ornate stucco work. It also accommodates the Khilwat Mubarak, which is the heart of the Chowmahalla Palace. Back in the day, it was the royal seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty. This grand Durbar Hall has a pure marble platform on which the royal seat or Takht-e-Nishan was laid. The Khilwat Mubarak has witnessed many religious and symbolic ceremonies. The major attractions in the Khilwat Mubarak are the 19 stunning Belgian crystal chandeliers. It currently exhibits photos, arms, and clothing of the Nizams.
The Southern Courtyard
The oldest part of the palace, which was built in the neo-classical style, comprises four palaces– Aftab Mahal, Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, and Tahniyat Mahal. The Aftab Mahal is two storeys and displays the traditional royal clothes of the Nizams. The Mahtab Mahal houses the palace library, which has over 10,000 books and manuscripts stored in old-world wooden cupboards, surrounded by refurbished vintage furniture. The books, which are in English, Urdu, Arabic, and Persian languages, date back nearly three centuries. The library also houses an exquisite collection of over 300 rare Quran editions in calligraphy. Today, almost 28 Qurans have been restored for display in a special section. The vintage book collection includes volumes such as Princes and Chiefs of India, Views of Hindoostan, Chambers Encyclopedias, and Glimpses of India.
The Tahniyat Mahal is mainly used for ceremonial functions, weddings, and small gatherings. The Afzal Mahal is the biggest and most beautiful palace in Chowmahalla. It is a ceremonial palace, which is private only to Princess Esra. The palace overlooks the central fountain and pool area. The Afzal Mahal has a lavish sitting room with beautiful antique furniture and an antique chime-clock that is still ticking away! Walking further into the palace, there is a billiards table, an eight-seater sit-down area, two antique dining tables – a 28-seater and 12-seater – a fully functional antique piano, and beautiful chandeliers that adorn the ceiling walls of this palatial palace.
On March 15, 2010, the Chowmahalla Palace was presented with the UNESCO Asia Pacific Merit award for cultural heritage conservation. The award – a plaque and a certificate – were handed over to Princess Esra, who was the former wife and GPA holder of Prince Mukarram Jah Bahadur.