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Hyderabad: Empire state re-building

This Indian city, with its rich history and culture, deserves a higher profile with British travellers

The caption beneath the sepia-toned photograph in the museum at Chowmallah Palace reads "The Worrier of Hyderabad". The picture depicts the coronation of the current Nizam (the eighth) in 1967. The unfortunate man is clearly the victim of a typo, but it is a serendipitous one. The ascendant Nizam did, indeed, have plenty to worry about. He became a ruler without a state.

You don't have to scratch deep in Hyderabad to get a sense of the vertiginous fall of dynasty. In 1937, the Seventh Nizam (the father of the current incumbent) was featured on the cover of Time magazine and hailed as the richest man in the world. He had his own army, railway and currency; he owned the fabled diamond mines of Golconda and used the Jacob Diamond, the seventh largest in the world, as a desk paperweight.

Just over a decade later, India gained independence and the princely state of Hyderabad was absorbed into the new nation. During the 1970s, the Nizam's privy purse was abolished by Indira Gandhi. The Eighth Nizam duly abandoned his birthright and went off to become a sheep farmer in Western Australia. The venture failed.

Today, the octogenarian prince reportedly lives in a two-room apartment in Istanbul; his many palaces are crumbling. He has no constitutional power. His official title is His Exalted Highness Rustam-i-Dauran, Arustu-i-Zaman, Wal Mamaluk, Asaf Jah VIII, Muzaffar ul-Mamaluk, Nizam ul-Mulk, Nizam ud-Daula, Nawab Mir Barakat 'Ali Khan Bahadur, Sipah Salar, Fath Jang, Nizam of Hyderabad and Berar, Imperial Prince of the Ottoman Empire, Honorable Lieutenant-General. "The Worrier of Hyderabad" feels more pithy.

The Nizams' time has passed, but the roaring opulence of their former lifestyle can be sampled at the newly opened Taj Falaknuma Palace. The hotel group has spent $25m restoring it, and they are shouting it loud and proud. The arrival of our press group is heralded by a thunderous drum beat that echoes and multiplies in the archway of the gatehouse, a shower of rose petals descends as we are ushered into horse-drawn carriages and pass scores of ceremonially attired warriors and torch bearers lining the cobbled drive up to Koh-I-Tur hill to the palace. If their intention is to make guests feel very, very important, they succeed.

The first glimpse of the imposing neoclassical pile does nothing to break the spell. This is what palaces should look like: dressed to impress the likes of the future King George V and his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, who both stayed here, on state visits. Single-storey wings sweep forward in a protective embrace, the central building has a double-colonnaded elevation topped by a pediment bearing the Nizam's coat of arms – and above the apex the crescent moon symbol of Islam glitters against the night sky.

The interior is equally grand: casually littered with European antiques, bespoke Arts and Crafts furniture, silk draperies, faux classical statuary and rococo French ceilings – and that's just what's left after decades of neglect. The effect is part museum, part bordello, and more than a bit cloying. This is not the kind of hotel where you would risk turning out for dinner in jeans and T-shirt.

Falaknuma is both familiar to European eyes – the Italianate styling – while being gloriously exotic. At night, from any of its terraces, panoramic views carry the twinkle of millions of lights, floating in the warm currents of rising air. The distant honk and thrum of traffic is a muffled reminder of the chaos and urgency of modern India. Competing calls to prayer start in a series of ripples and build to a tidal wave of holy noise from the city's hundreds of mosques.

Hyderabad has a population of more than six million. For its size, the city has a relatively low profile. Its obscurity among foreign tourists is surprising given the density of its monuments and the richness of its interweaving cultures. Hyderabad is also said to have the best, most modern airport in India, as befits one of its info-tech hubs of 21st-century. One of the city's manicured suburbs is

known as Cyberabad; the embodiment of the hallucinatory "Shining India" slogan – touted a few years ago by a right-wing government determined to sweep the inequities of India under a continental-sized rug.

The poor are still here, jostling, ducking and diving their way around Laad Bazaar, next to the Charminar (Four Minaret), the gateway that is Hyderabad's most famous landmark. The ancient market is famous for lacquered bangles, jewellery and saris. But everything else is here, too; pots and pans, hairgrips and bows, leather goods, Tupperware and DayGlo plastic toys. A hawker is wheeling a cart piled with fruit; another has an armful of tapestry shopping bags; the Old Meena Jewellers (Proprietor: M D Khaleeq Ali) proudly announces it has diversified into "All Kinds of Fishing Requisite".

A Muslim woman in a black burqa rides pillion on her husband's motorbike, narrowly avoiding a Hindu granny in a red sari and even redder hennaed hair. A group of Banjara women (who look and dress uncannily like European gypsies) barge down the street with their snotty progeny, looking fierce. Two boys on a bicycle wobble past, one dangles a live chicken. It's all-consuming, all-demanding. Noise, colour, smell, energy and anarchy. This is the real Shining India.

Tourists can scramble up a tiny spiral stairway to the first-floor arcade on Charminar, but anyone with the slightest tendency to claustrophobia is better off admiring the 400-year-old monument (which is a working mosque) from the ground. Inside, a good-natured but pushy stream of humanity carries you up and then along the galleries. Excited school kids, their stressed minders and tourists of all stripes process along the platform under a series of receding ogee arches. Looking down into the central space, the sturdiness as well as the delicacy of Islamic architecture are revealed simultaneously.

Charminar overlooks the huge 10,000-capacity Makkah Masjid mosque, which predates the Nizams' era. The strategic positioning of the archway at a crossroads in the old city is best appreciated from within. From here, the arteries of the city spread out, its lifeblood represented by cars, scooter rickshaws, bicycles and an endless ebb and flow of people.

At street level, the rumble of city life seems less benign. The signage suggests the roads are not a self-regulating organism. Repeated exhortations for drivers to mind their manners are also a testament to the genius of Indian copyrighting – "Don't Rule the Road," says one. "Follow Rules of the Road." Another warns drivers to stick to the left lane: "Right is Wrong, Follow Traffic Rules." All the lame rhymes and carefully engineered puns are, of course, blithely ignored.

The official home of the representative of the British East India Company, known as The Residency, is an island of decaying calm. As William Dalrymple noted, the grand Palladian villa is similar in plan to its exact contemporary in Washington – the White House. But this is in a very sorry state. The once proud stone lions flanking the Corinthian colonnaded portico are toothless and comical. The building is now a women's college, but the 18th-century structure is no longer a safe venue for classes which have been moved to the old elephant stables.

It was built by Lieutenant James Kirkpatrick, whose story is told by William Dalrymple in White Mughuls. The dashing young officer was sent to the Nizam's court in Hyderabad as the ambassador of the East India Company and promptly went native, falling in love with the great niece of the diwan (the prime minister). The ill-starred romance caused a scandal and ended badly, but the British love affair with India was complex and many faceted.

Bats now flap around the crystal chandeliers in the banqueting hall. The delicate cantilevered staircase that sweeps up the sides of the Georgian rotunda looks decidedly rickety. Mildewed old photos of Indian leaders line the stairs – the one of Lal Bahadur Shastri (the PM who succeeded Nehru) has fallen off and is propped up against the wall. There is a film of loose plaster, pigeon droppings and feathers on every surface.

The grandeur, the decomposition and the story of the Resident all combine to create a scene of unbearable poignancy. It's as if Hyderabad is waiting for the British to fall in love with it – all over again.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Bales Worldwide (0845 057 0600; balesworldwide.com) offers a six-day trip to Hyderabad, staying at the Taj Faluknama Palace, from £1,475 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return international and internal flights with Kingfisher Airlines (flykingfisher.com), four nights' accommodation at the hotel on a B&B basis plus private transfers and sightseeing.

Further Information

Visa services are available from CIBT (uk.cibt.com).