India's Poor Little Rich Prince

Dec 30, 2008
*Special to asia!
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The waxing and waning of the Nizam of Hyderabad reflects the waves of change that have swept the sub-continent since India's independence.

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chowmahalla palace

The Chowmahalla Palace was the seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty

It starts off with the whiff of an Indian fable, turns into a cautionary tale on the crosswinds of post-colonialism, then veers into a modern soap opera involving politics, eccentric royals, squabbling relatives, international lawyers and the world of high finance.

The saga of the Nizams of Hyderabad is deeply intertwined with the fortunes that have swept Asia in the last three-quarters of a century. But where does one start? We might as well begin with the case of the £30 million, today lying frozen in a UK bank and tussled over by India, Pakistan and 96 princely cousins.

It was 1948, and the British Raj stood on the brink of partition. The seventh Nizam of Hyderabad – "Nizam" being a shortened Urdu title meaning "Administrator of the Realm" – was dithering. He was unsure whether to join the newly created Pakistan or an independent India. As a Muslim leader, he was attracted to the former. As ruler of a region with 20 million Hindus, he felt compelled to choose the latter.

The Nizam, let us be clear, was a rich man. In fact, he was the richest man on earth, and had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in February 1937. (In 2008, more than 40 years after his death, the Nizam came in fifth on the Forbes list of All-Time Wealthiest People.)

The Nizam’s collection of pearls alone could have filled an Olympics-sized pool. His gold ingots were carried literally by the truckload. He owned the fabled Jacobi diamond which, weighing in at 185 carats, was heavier even than the Kohinoor. His libraries held priceless illuminated Qur’ans and the rarest of Islamic manuscripts, for the Nizam was widely regarded as the world’s foremost Muslim ruler.

So exalted was his highness that the British entitled him, well, His Exalted Highness. All the other maharajahs – those poor lads who could not boast of a main palace housing 6,000 staff, of whom 38 were employed just to dust chandeliers – had to contend with a mere "His Highness".

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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