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South India photoblog: Hyderabad & the Taj Falaknuma Palace

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...

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In the west of Hyderabad, Golconda Fort has stood strategically at the top of a large granite hill since the 13th Century. It is famous for being virtually impenetrable - it kept out Mughal invaders from the north until 1687 and was only conquered due to insider treachery
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Golconda Fort is one of the biggest fortresses in the Deccan Plateau, once famed for its diamond mines from which the Kohinoor diamond of the British Crown was mined. These extensive ruins bear witness to the engineering genius of the Qutub Shahi architects
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At the upper part of the fort is Ibrahim's Mosque... admiring it up close is a great reward for hiking up to the crown of the hill
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Qutub Shahi Tombs are the last resting place of Qutub Shah dynasty. Surrounded by well-maintained gardens, the tombs are remarkable in their uniformity of design, each crowned by onion-shaped dome
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Qutub Shahi Tombs
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The seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, the magnificent Chowmahalla Palace was built over 200-years ago for the Nizams to use when entertaining their official guests and royal visitors. Completed by Nizam Afzar-ud-Dawla Bahadur in 1869 but initiated by Nizam Salabhat Jung, the Palace took over 100 years to complete
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The pillared Durbar Hall at Chowmahalla Palace has a pure marble platform on which the royal seat was laid – a lavish place for celebrations and ceremonies. 19 spectacular Belgian chandeliers have been reinstalled to recreate the lost splendour of this regal hall
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The entrance to the Taj Falaknuma Palace
Falaknuma Palace arrival
We cannot even begin to describe how magical the white horse and carriage arrival at Taj Falaknuma Palace is, but do click on this video to get a better idea!
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Taj Falaknuma Palace: a real-life fairytale!
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Suites set around harem section of the palace, where the Nizam would once have housed a harem of over 100 women
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The Grand Presidential Suite at the Taj Falaknuma Palace
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The Falaknuma's cool and curvaceous swimming pool is set next to a lovely banyan tree, complete with over-water bridges and a rock waterfall
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The beautifully tiled terrace outside the Jade Room - the ideal High Tea venue
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Hyderabad city stretches out beneath you and atmospheric sounds drifts up to the palace during Muslim prayers
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The impressive facade of the palace, which was built in the shape of a scorpion with two stings spread out as wings in the north
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The pale blue reception hall which welcomes you as you step inside the palace with frescoed ceilings and gilded reliefs
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The grand marbled staircase with carved balustrades, figurines and candelabras
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The stunning courtyard which links the main palace building to the Italian and Indian restaurant in the Gol Bungalow at other end, with the Palace rooms situated along the edges of the courtyard
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Live sufi music is performed at the Gol bungalow at dusk every evening overlooking the twinkling lights of the city. This group were absolutely phenomenal!

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 sacha@ampersandtravel.com or to start planning a tailor-made journey please contact our India sales specialist, Catriona Deredas at catriona@ampersandtravel.com.