The stars were out for a charity fundraiser attended by the Duchess of Cambridge in the National Portrait Gallery at the beginning of the year.
But nothing shone brighter than the array of 38 diamonds that adorned the necklace the Duchess wore for the occasion. Borrowed from the Queen, who received it as a wedding present from an Indian potentate in 1947, its official title is the Nizam of Hyderabad necklace.
So who was the Nizam and how was he in a position to bestow such a magnificent gift on a British princess? Sir Osman Ali Khan was the seventh Nizam or ruler of the princely state of Hyderabad in southern India. While he may not have been quite as rich as Croesus when it came to personal wealth, the Nizam was the Bill Gates of his day.
Indeed when Time magazine featured him on its cover in 1937, it billed him as the richest man in the world with a fortune estimated to be equal to two per cent of the US economy at that time.
The Nizam was so wealthy that he used a diamond the size of a golf ball as a paperweight. It has since been designated the fifth biggest diamond in the world and valued at more than £100million.
He employed 38 people for the sole task of dusting the vast array of chandeliers at his main palace, maintained a fleet of Rolls-Royces and was said to own enough pearls to pave Piccadilly Circus.
In his leisure time he drank whisky from his own distillery and would sing his favorite song I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, backed by an in-house jazz band.
And there was never any prospect of the cash running out. Apart from coffers containing £100million in gold and silver bullion and £400million in jewels the Nizam had his own mint, which printed the Hyderabadi rupee.
In 2008, Forbes magazine listed the Nizam as the “fifth all-time wealthiest” person with a net worth of $210.8 billion.
Hyderabad State was the only supplier of diamonds for the global market in the 19th century and Osman Ali’s inheritance was accumulated by way of mining royalties rather than land revenue.
The Nizam had more than 50 Rolls-Royce cars.
When he inherited the throne in 1911, the kingdom’s treasury was almost empty because of his father’s extravagant lifestyle.
In his 37 years of rule, he put the state’s finances back on track and acquired fabulous personal wealth.
At the time Hyderabad was the largest of India’s princely states, occupying a land mass roughly equivalent to the UK, with a population of around 17 million. The last Nizam took office in 1911 and was one of only five princes entitled to a 21-gun salute under the etiquette of British colonial rule.
Known as His Exalted Highness, the Nizam added the title Faithful Ally Of The British Crown after the Great War, thanks to his generous contribution to the British war effort, which included a consignment of light bombers known as the Hyderabad Squadron.While the British Queen makes do with Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham and Balmoral, the Nizam had a much larger network of palaces, staffed by thousands of servants, retainers, bodyguards, eunuchs and concubines.
Given that the last Nizam is said to have had 86 mistresses and more than 100 sons perhaps this is not as extravagant as it sounds.
All good things come to an end however and Sir Osman’s gravy train hit the buffers in style in 1948, a year after India had achieved independence from Britain. Amid widespread sectarian violence the country was partitioned along religious lines with Pakistan, established as a Muslim nation and the princely states initially then given the choice of allying themselves with either Pakistan or Hindu majority secular India.
Given that the Nizam was a Muslim whose official residence was reputed to be modelled on the Shah of Iran’s Palace in Tehran (Persian was also spoken in his court) Pakistan might have seemed the logical option but most of his subjects were Hindus.
His compromise solution was to form a separate kingdom within the Commonwealth but the British rejected this proposal and when he opened covert negotiations with Pakistan the Indian government lost patience and launched an invasion. Given the imbalance in firepower resistance was useless and the battle was brief.
After being persuaded to declare his “voluntary accession” to India the Nizam was allowed to keep five palaces and awarded an annual allowance of around £250,000.
Given the scale of the enterprise he attempted to maintain this, was never going to be enough. At the time of his death in 1967, he was still doing his best to support 14,000 staff, including 3,000 North African bodyguards, 28 men employed to fetch drinking water and several more whose duty was to grind his walnuts. The children of his 42 concubines even formed a union in a bid to force him to support them too.
In the face of all these demands on his now limited resources the Nizam resorted to extreme thrift. He dressed like a tramp in crumpled pyjamas and a battered fez, smoked cigarette ends and ate his meals off a tin plate.
All was not as it seemed, however. One English visitor to the Nizam’s palace told author William Dalrymple how one of his many daughters-in-law took her to an underground vault full of lorries with flat tyres. Pulling back a tarpaulin they found they were stuffed with gems, pearls and gold coins.Dalrymple later wrote: “The Nizam, fearful of either a revolution or an Indian takeover of his state, had made plans to get some of his wealth out of the country if the need came. But then he lost interest and left the lorries to rot.”
Among his treasure was the famed Nizam jewellery (173 magnificent pieces) studded with rubies, diamonds, pearls, sapphires and other precious stones beautifully embedded in gold and silver.
When Hyderabad merged into the Indian union in 1948, the Government of India was only able to acquire a fraction of the Rs 5000 crore worth of jewellery. No one knows what happened to the rest of his treasure.
He built the Hyderabad House in Delhi, now used for diplomatic meetings by the Government of India.
Nearly all the major public buildings in Hyderabad city, such as the Osmania General Hospital, Andhra Pradesh High Court, Asafiya Library now known as State Central Library, Town Hall now known as Assembly Hall, Jubilee Hall, Hyderabad Museum, now known as State Museum, Nizamia Observatory and many other monuments were built during his reign.
Following Sir Osman’s death his descendants have had a rather less gilded existence. After divorcing his first wife – the formidable Princess Esra – the last Nizam’s heir and his second wife ran a sheep farm in Australia for years where the locals knew him as plain Charlie Hyderabad.That wife died and after an eventful love life he is now on his fifth wife, living in a small apartment in Istanbul and believed to be effectively penniless.
Meanwhile Charlie’s oldest son Azmet, after a stint in Hollywood working as a clapper-loader and cameraman on movies such as Navy Seals, Blue Ice and Castaway, lives in London.
Source Credits: Sunday Express and India TV