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Hidden Secrets of Hyderabad, India

woman, Hindu, festival, laughing, Hyderabad, India

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Hyderabad has become a hub of India’s high-tech boom; Google’s India headquarters is in what’s known as Cyberabad, just a short drive away. Microsoft, Oracle, Infosys, and Dell are also here, and Facebook chose the city for its first office in India. Communications guru Suhel Seth always comes to test-market his campaigns in hitec (Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consulting) City, Cyberabad’s official name. At night, sleek geeks meet at the gleaming bar of the Park, Hyderabad, a new hotel with a terrace that overlooks the swampy lake in the center of town. That lagoon reflects the paradox of Hyderabad and of the vast state of Andhra Pradesh. The lake divides the city and has a Muslim name, Hussain Sagar—sagar meaning ocean in Hindi. In the center of the lake there is an island with a towering statue of Buddha. Northeast of the lake is Hyderabad’s twin city, Secunderabad, an oasis of green space and low yellow buildings used by the British military during colonial days. The clubs and the golf courses that used to ban Indians are now just as exclusive and reserved for Hyderabad’s professional elite. I stopped to see a little-known building marked the retreat and discovered an elegant bungalow where Winston Churchill stayed when he was posted to the east. On the way back, I ate a quick dosa at Tibbs Frankie, a new chain of stands that you find in places where India’s surging upper-middle class lives, such as nearby Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills.

Not that long ago, the Hyderabad court threatened the creation of the new nation. Descended from the caliphate of Islam, the seventh nizam (the current nizam’s grandfather) made his fortune from the vast stores of minerals and diamonds in the region—and the tributes paid by people who requested an audience with him. One of the more compelling, and possibly apocryphal, stories was that the jewels—and hundreds of millions of rupees—were kept unattended and unlocked in the basements of the Chowmahalla palace. The cash was hidden in newspapers. When at last the storerooms were opened, it was discovered that rats had nibbled their way through $30 million or so.

I was staying at the Taj Banjara, and one day, killing time, I sorted through a stack of dusty curios in a shop off the lobby. “I’m Babu’s brother,” the manager said, with the snobbery of old Hyderabad and the assumption that I would know who “Babu” was—or care. I spotted an album that looked like a prop from The Jewel in the Crown. Dark and faded, the front was stamped in white: mixed bag 26 september 27 to june 1937. Inside was a sepia world of old Hyderabad—nawabs posed in their turbans, playing tennis. “Can you tell me the history of this?” I asked. An hour later I was still in the shop. Babu, his brother insisted, was one of the dealers who had been brought in by the nizam to unload his basements of storied treasures. I bought the album to discover that I had indeed found an authentic royal book—but it had belonged to a lesser heir.

The next day, Babu himself offered to take me on a brief tour of the old city. Our first stop was not the massive Salar Jung museum, mentioned in the guidebooks, but the smaller H.E.H. the Nizam’s Museum, the home of the sixth nizam, who ruled from 1869 to 1911. I followed Babu through a decaying and dusty garden that fronted a school. In the back, we discovered the smaller and very run-down former servants’ quarters, kept only half lit and overseen by what appeared to be a single geriatric attendant. We stepped into a dingy but vast hall that once served as an enormous closet. Then the lights went out. We were forced to consider the 150 empty walnut cabinets and the pulley elevator with just a flashlight. The surrounding rooms had solid silver and gold tributes from his silver jubilee. This nizam was rumored to have never worn the same outfit or pair of shoes twice.

The royal ruler had multiple palaces, hundreds of acres, 200 wives, 14,000 legal dependents, and a kingdom half the size of France supported in part by the diamonds that came from the nearby Golconda reserve. With 20 million Hindus and 3 million Muslims in his territory, the canny nizam wanted a separate state when India became independent and had a militia to back him up. If you half closed your eyes in the city, you could imagine the current nizam’s grandfather still shuffling around the palace, hoarding a secret treasure of priceless diamonds, rubies, and pearls the size of jawbreakers. Famously ascetic, he lived in one room in the vast complex and served visitors a single tea biscuit, yet he donated a squad of fighter planes to the war effort during World War I, for which a grateful England gave him the title His Exalted Highness. When his then-34-year-old grandson came back to Hyderabad in 1967 to take over the title, he discovered a snake pit of intrigue. His dying grandfather was convinced that he would be poisoned. Jah shared the belief and pitched a tent on the palace grounds. Soon after, he discovered the open vaults of the nizam’s treasures—emeralds and rubies and parrots made of enormous Golconda diamonds. All of them were covered in webs of dust (one of the nizam’s most stirring beliefs was that dust protected his riches from theft). There were thousands of harem photographs, family albums, and warehouses of ceremonial coats with solid-gold threads. Scheming financial advisers managed to plunder most of the estate. After years of court fights, the government of India whirled in and took the gems for a national museum. Jah was paid $40 million—a fraction of the stones’ worth. And that money was frozen by litigation. Soon after, Jah fled to Australia to ride around on tractors most of the day. He eventually wound up in a small apartment in Turkey.

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