Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Sir Osman: never had a mortgage

His personal fortune was said to be more than double the annual revenue of India and he owned enough pearls to pave Piccadilly from one end to the other. His jewels alone were worth a staggering £400 million.
Sir Osman Ali Khan, autocratic ruler of the princely state of Hyderabad, was once the richest man in the world and also a contender for one of the richest people in history.
He was worth more than £2 billion in 1940 and had an array of sumptuous palaces filled with rare and wonderful treasures - Oriental carpets, priceless manuscripts and rare gemstones. He shared his wealth with his seven wives, 42 concubines and vast numbers of children and dependents.
One of his many Rolls Royces
Every statistic about Sir Osman is eye-watering. He ruled a state that was just a fraction smaller than the UK and held absolute power over the lives of 16 million people.
He had dozens of Rolls Royces and owned the rare Jacob diamond, valued today at £100 million. He was also a fanatical ally of the British during the Raj and donated all the fighter planes that made up the RAF’s 110 Squadron in the First World War.
The British responded by giving him the titles ‘His Exalted Highness’ and ‘Faithful Ally of the British Government’.
Jacob diamond: plenty more like this
Sir Osman succeeded his father as ruler of Hyderabad on the latter’s death in 1911. Already fabulously wealthy, he expanded still further the family coffers by increasing the mining industry of his princely dominion in South-East India. The mines were a rich source of diamonds and other precious stones. The famous Koh-i-Noor diamond came from Hyderabad.
Durbah Hall, Chowmahalla
Often benevolent - and always erratic - Sir Osman spent the family fortune on education, railways and electrification. But there was plenty of spare cash for him to indulge his passion for racehorses, rare cars and regal uniforms.
By 1941, Sir Osman had founded his own bank, the Hyderabad State Bank: his fiefdom became the only state on the sub-continent that issued its own currency, quite different from that of the rest of India.
The money was spent on a lavish beautification programme that included public buildings, a high court, hospitals and the Osmania University. But Sir Osman’s real passion remained his palaces, which were scattered across his realm. The biggest were staffed by many thousands of servants, retainers and bodyguards, all jostling for position alongside scheming eunuchs and jealous concubines.
Chowmahalla drawing room
Sir Osman’s favourite palace was said to be the Falaknuma, built on a hilltop above Hyderabad with a panoramic view across the city. Known as ‘Mirror of the Sky, it was constructed out of imported Italian marble in the classical style.
There was also the Chowmahalla Palace, another rambling edifice that was started in 1750 and took another 120 years to complete. It became famous for its pillared Durbah Hall, a vast marble salon lit by vast chandeliers made of Belgian crystal. There were also huge drawing rooms, courtyards and an elegant clock-tower.
Some of Sir Osman's retainers
Sir Osman seemed to have everything - a fortune, palaces and a peaceful dominion that managed to escape integration into the new Indian state.
But everything was soon to turn sour. After months of failed negotiations with India, Sir Osman’s fiefdom was invaded in 1948. After five days of fighting, he reluctantly agreed to join the Union; his autocratic rule was replaced by India’s parliamentary democracy.
A quarter of a century later, Sir Osman’s titles were abolished and he was subjected to crippling taxes.
His death in February, 1967, was always going to result in a complex battle over inheritance: there were hundreds of would-be claimants to his land and property. 
Time: 'the richest man in the world'
His grandson, Mukarram Jah, was his official successor, but he rapidly found himself in deep financial trouble. He inherited not only huge debts, but also an enormous number of servants, retainers and hangers-on. These included nearly 15,000 palace staff and dependants, along with 42 concubines and their numerous offspring.
The family’s oldest and most prestigious palace, the Chowmahalla, still had 6,000 employees; 38 of them were employed solely to dust the chandeliers.
Thus began a complex and highly rancorous legal battle over Sir Osman’s fortune, which had shrunk to a mere £1 billion at the time of his death. Mukarram Jah himself eventually tired of the ongoing wrangling and left India altogether. He divorced his first wife, the Turkish-born Princess Esra and emigrated to Australia, where he became a sheep farmer.
And there the story ended - at least for more than 20 years. But in 2001, Princess Esra returned to India in a bid to sort out her grandfather-in-law’s complex will. With the help of a gifted lawyer, the competing claims over the inheritance were finally resolved.
The beautiful Chowmahalla Palace was eventually reopened as a museum and the Falaknuma became a luxury palace hotel. The many descendents of Sir Osman are now free to come back here and reflect on the former glories of their once-noble family.
But these days, they have to pay like everyone else.

My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the USA. Available at amazonbarnes&noble and all good independent publishers.  

With this marvellous, meticulously researched and truly ground-breaking account of British spies working in Lenin's stripling Soviet Union, Giles Milton - with his best book so far - reminds us of a time when the spying game was dangerous, fun and - dare one say it - even cool.' Simon Winchester, author of The Men who United the States and The Professor and the Madman


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