The draw of Hyderabad is its astonishing backstory, which can make you feel at times as if you are in India’s Oz. How else to explain the peculiar magic of this city deep in south-central India? Part Brigadoon and part Epcot, it pulls you almost immediately into its hallucinatory past. On a balmy night in November, down the narrow lanes of the old city, we drive through the pearl bazaar and the throng of auto rickshaws near the Charminar, the grand arch and mosque that is the central artery of Hyderabad. Suddenly, I see goats. Thousands of goats. A wall of goats. Children carrying goats on the backs of bicycles, goats in rickshaws being held by young boys in white kurtas and caps. Goats with horns painted pink and yellow, wearing bells. Goats being led toward festive striped tents. Music! “Is this a goat festival?” I ask my guide. “Madam, no! This is the night before Eid al-Adha—a most holy day on the Muslim calendar. Tonight, there are prayers, tomorrow, they will be halal.” The quick and holy execution of ritual slaughter continues in Hyderabad as if its storied former ruler, the nizam, still hid his jewels in the engines of his rusty Rolls-Royces in his 60-car garage. I look out the window to see clusters of women in hijabs gliding slowly through the pearl souk. Hyderabad has the medieval grace of the Persian and Urdu courts. As we drive into the Chowmahalla palace complex, I hear the astonishing cascade of goat brays, horns, and the call to prayer.
Once the finest royal residence in the country, this palace in the old city was a derelict Xanadu for decades. Inside, a frail older man in a black jinah makes his regal way through a bejeweled audience in his former childhood home. A whisper goes through the crowd. “It’s the nizam! The nizam!” Suddenly, there is a cascade of royal salaams, an elaborate davening as Hyderabad’s elite and guests flown in by the Taj hotel company for the grand opening of its newly renovated property, the Taj Falaknuma Palace, raise their hands toward their faces, bow their heads, and pay tribute to the prince who managed to lose what was not so long ago the largest fortune in the world. Gazing at the group gathered, the nizam, Mukarram Jah, managed to look both terrified and furious, as if he were none too happy to be on display along with the newly reupholstered sofas and refurbished chandeliers from his grandfather’s day. One of his sons, a friendly young Australian real estate man, spent some minutes looking for the nizam’s vanished medications. “Has anyone seen my father’s pills?” he asked me. “He loses everything.” Was he trying for a double entendre? Indeed, the nizam had managed to squander most of what was left of his meager inheritance. When he fled these now-restored palaces to tend a sheep station in the Australian bush, he left behind a legacy of titles: His Exalted Highness, the Regulator of the Realm, the Rustam of the Age, the Aristotle of the Times, the Victor in Battles, the Leader of Armies.
Here, in the old city, was the Islamic center of India, the center of Deccan arts and culture, known for its gracious court manners and such lavish jewels as the Jacob diamond, which the previous nizam once used as a paperweight on his desk.
I first came to Hyderabad by accident. Stuck in Goa last year with bad weather and a newly arrived throng of beefy tourists from the Ukraine at our hotel, I came across a tattered copy of The Last Nizam, Australian journalist John Zubrzycki’s riveting history of the court. The city was only a two-hour flight away. The next day, I landed in one of the most automated airports in the world and drove past ugly quarries of dusty granite, passing women walking on the road wearing hijabs and herding goats. Although vast fortunes were made here in the granite and cement industries, Hyderabad at first appeared grimy and run-down. There were travel alerts from the U.S. State Department about riots by a local separatist movement. Passing the Tata Motors showrooms I saw broken windows. Time to eat: my first dinner was at the bustling Paradise Restaurant, a shrine to Hyderabad’s prized cuisine, biryani. In a long room filled with noisy families, I shared a table with two young software engineers diving into mounds of the pillowy rice-and-meat mix. “Everyone is working too hard now in India,” one told me. “What has happened to our way of life?”