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On World Book Day, a glimpse into Falaknuma Palace Library

On the occasion of World Book Day, an appreciation of the heritage contained within a single library in a palace in Hyderabad

A view of the the library in Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India
A view of the the library in Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India (Photo by Bernard Gagnon on Wikimedia Commons)

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On the gleaming black banister of the Falaknuma Palace’s marble staircase, holding lit lamps in their right hands, statues of the nine muses stand on pedestals. In Greek mythology, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne provide artistic inspiration for epic and love poetry, music, dance, tragedy, comedy, history, and astronomy. The willowy muses fit right in with the grandeur of the palace and the sybaritic lifestyle synonymous with Hyderabad’s nobility.

Construction of the palace nearly bankrupted Sir Viqar-ul-Umra, Prime Minister of Hyderabad. Fortunately for Sir Viqar, the Nizam bought the palace from him. The palace proved unlucky for the Nizam as well. For it was on its verandah that he drank himself to death at the age of 45 in 1911. After his father’s death, the seventh Nizam used the Falaknuma as a guesthouse for foreign dignitaries. And by the standards of the early twentieth century, the palace offered its guests varied entertainment — including billiards, chess, cards, hunting grouse and deer on the estate, fine dining and, of course, a library.

To while away a sultry Deccan afternoon, the distinguished guests — amongst them Grand Duke Alexander II of Russia, King George and Queen Mary, the Prince of Wales (King Edward VIII) and at least a dozen viceroys — might have strolled across the marble staircase room which houses the Barrel Orchestrion.

An archival image of the Falaknuma Palace library from 1894
An archival image of the Falaknuma Palace library from 1894 (Courtesy The Falaknuma Palace Library)

After walking past a stained-glass door, they would find themselves in the library. In this photograph from an album titled Falaknuma 1894, the apparent the number of books here is scant. "Most of the books in the early days dwelled on travel and exploration. One example being L’Inde written by Pierre Loti, French novelist, and naval officer in 1903,” says Asif Hussain Arastu, palace librarian. European travellers considered a trip to the Orient fraught with mortal danger. Given the long sea voyages, it was not uncommon for them to maintain diaries of their adventures. Both Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Grand Duke Alexander mention their sojourn in Hyderabad in their memoirs.

Guests to the palace often presented their royal hosts with books and the library’s shelves started to fill. Some guests were authors themselves. Seen in a photograph below is a note by Lady Dufferin (wife of Viceroy Dufferin) on the inside of her book, A Record of Three Year’s Work of the National Association for supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India on improving healthcare for India’s women, published in 1888. “The Sixth Nizam, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan contributed to this fund and for the tuition for Medical tuition for girls,” says Arastu.

One of the oldest books in the library is Kitab Shams-al Hindasa, published in 1835. Its author, Fakhruddin Khan Bahadur, dedicated the book which covers the mathematical aspects of construction, to the fourth Nizam, Nasir-ud-Dowlah. When I asked Arastu about the prevalence of books in Farsi, he said, that “books written in Farsi compose 40% of our collection. We have at least ten Kulliyat or entire collections by poets such as Sheikh Saadi, Hafez, Rumi, Ghalib and Allama Iqbal. Their works span a thousand years.’

A photo of the note from Lady Dufferin
A photo of the note from Lady Dufferin (Courtesy The Falaknuma Palace Library)

To please their European visitors, the sixth and seventh Nizams ordered translations of Western classics, too. One such example is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, of which there are translations in French and German. The more intellectually minded guest might have read the abstruse Morgenrote by German philosopher Friedrich Nietszche. And those curious about the religion of their hosts might have poured over The Early History of Islam–with Special Reference to the Position of Ali, During the Life of the Holy Prophet Mohammad and After by Saiyid Safdar Hosain. Perhaps one of the future kings who stayed at the palace read the Tuzzkiat-e-Jahangiri, the autobiography of Mughal emperor Jahangir for inspiration.

At present, the library boasts of almost seven thousand books. The personal collections from Salar Jung I, Prince Azam Jah, and the sixth, seventh and eighth Nizam found a home at the Falaknuma. Other titles that captured my attention were The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (1916), A Short History of the World by H. G. Wells, Kashmir by Sir Francis Younghusband, and Manual of Midwifery by Eden and Holland. An entire cupboard bursts with copies of Glimpses of the Nizam’s Dominions written Claude Campbell in 1898. Known for its fantastic photographic depiction of Hyderabad state, it is arguably the Deccan’s first coffee-table book.

Arastu claims that in ninety percent of the books the pages haven’t become brittle as the paper used is acid free. While present-day guests cannot check books out of the library, they may browse any book of their desire.

While the Falaknuma Palace library is out of bounds unless one is a guest at the palace or there for the tour, other libraries in Hyderabad, such as the State Central Library and City Central Library, are open to the public. Hazaq and Mohi, a book shop in Charminar, stocks many rare books showcasing the city’s heritage. A scroll on yields a treasure trove of many books of academic and historical interest. On this World Book Day, take time out to reflect on what books have taught you and what you might still have to learn from them.

Zeenath Khan is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist who lives in Mumbai

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