India's Poor Little Rich Prince

BY CLARISSA TAN
Dec 30, 2008
*Special to asia!

The waxing and waning of the Nizam of Hyderabad reflects the waves of change that have swept the sub-continent since India's independence.

Ninety-six? How did it come to this? Let's just say that the seventh Nizam, while one of the most famous misers in history, had been quite generous with his seed. He reputedly had 86 mistresses, who gave him more than a hundred illegitimate sons.

It is ironic that this man, who was so tight with spending that he wore the same fez for 35 years, did not stinge on the one area that would greatly threaten to split up his enormous wealth. By the 1990s, in fact, the number of his illegitimate dependents had stood at almost 400.

 

 

As renowned as he was for his riches, the seventh Nizam was also fabled for his extraordinary meanness. He wore crumpled pyjamas all day, ate his meals off a tin plate and smoked cigarette butts.

He wrapped the Jacobi diamond in old newspaper and used it as a paperweight. The streak of eccentricity lived on in his grandson, Muharram Jah, whom the seventh Nizam named his official heir, skipping his own son.

Jah, the subject of the biography The Last Nizam by John Zubrzycki, apparently could not handle the piling debts and family wrangling that came as part of his inheritance. For, reflecting the fast-disintegrating era of the maharajahs, it appeared that his grandfather’s accounts were not in order and the family had been living on financial quicksand.

Jah fled to Australia, leaving the family’s huge houses, garages and stables almost literally crumbling behind him. He spent most of his money on setting up a sheep farm in Perth. There, as described by British historian and writer William Dalrymple, he wore blue overalls and spent his days under the bonnets of his cars or driving bulldozers.

Jah’s wife at the time, Princess Esra of Turkey, did not want to move to the land Down Under. They divorced, and Jah married four more times. His third wife was a former Miss Turkey. Dalrymple notes that another wife, a secretary called Helen Simmons, died of an Aids-related illness, leading to intimacies of the marriage being splashed across Aussie tabloids. Each of Jah’s successive wives demanded vast sums of alimony.

Jah now lives as a kind of recluse in Istanbul. The most formidable of his ex-wives has turned out to be Princess Esra, who in 2001 undertook the near-impossible – bringing some order back to family finances, for the sake of her children, as well as restoring some of the old palaces to their former glory. These palaces included Chowmahalla, built in 1751 and one of the most beautiful royal residences in India.

Dalrymple, in an article for the Guardian called “The Lost World”, says he was allowed to accompany the Princess as she visited Chowmahalla for the first time. He was thus a witness to the breaking of seals of some rooms that had not been opened since the death of the seventh Nizam in 1967:

In one underground storeroom, thousands of ancient scimitars, swords, helmets, maces, daggers, archery equipment and suits of armour lay rusted into a single metallic mass on a line of trestle tables. In another, album after album of around 8,000 Victorian and Edwardian photographs of the Nizam's household was covered in a thick cladding of dust. A unique set of 160 harem photographs, dating from 1915, lay loose in a box… In one room were great mountains of princely dresses, patkas, chaugoshia and salvars, drawers of Kanchipuram silk saris, and one huge trunk containing nothing but bow ties. There were long lines of court uniforms as well as sets of harem clothes once worn by the Nizam's favourite wives. Almost 8,000 dinner services survived, one of which alone had 2,600 pieces.

 

nizam of hyderabad

Royal Nizam of Hyderabad Osman Ali Khan

Photo credit: Chowmahalla Palace


Today, Chowmahalla once again stands in splendour. About 1,000 tourists file through its magnificent interiors every day. Certain of its gardens and courts can be rented for parties, weddings and corporate events. Urdu- and Persian-language archivists and academics have been sifting through government records and letters between the Nizam, the British colonialists and the early leaders of free India, and some of these documents are now on display.

The saga of the Nizams is a personal one, concerning individual foibles and frailties. But because of the family’s immense wealth and high position, it also occupies a place in national and international history. Comparisons to other epochs have always been inevitable. Iris Portal, the sister of a British politician who herself worked in Hyderabad in the late 1930s, told Dalrymple that the mood was “like living in France on the eve of the revolution.”

“They spent money like water, and were terrible, irresponsible landlords, but they could be very charming and sophisticated as well,” she said. “They would take us shooting, talking all the while about their trips to England or to Cannes and Paris, although in many ways Hyderabad was still in the middle ages and the villages we would pass through were often desperately poor.”

clarissa tanClarissa is a journalist who focuses on travel and the arts. As a desperately hopeful author, she writes short stories and is working on a novel. Clarissa won the Spectator’s final Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

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