When you are the smartest man in the durbar, but own no lands or titles, you make it your mission to get both. Qamar-ud-din Khan was six years old when Mughal emperor Aurangzeb took him under his wing. He went on to become the first Nizam of the Deccan, amass one of the largest fortunes in the world and found a dynasty that lasted seven generations. You can say that he learned from the best.
The Nizams, though, weren’t the first to set their hearts on Hyderabad. Founded by the Qutb Shahi king Muhammad Quli in 1591, Hyderabad was a response to a water shortage in Golconda. By the 1680s, however, Aurangzeb was at the height of his powers, and he captured Bijapur and Golconda within a year. After his death in 1707, as his successors pursued fratricide and the sultanate became headless, Qamar-ud-din took charge of the south. According to historian Yusuf Husain, who wrote his biography The First Nizam (1963), he was the head of the executive and judicial departments, ruling as “an absolute monarch,” while remaining a “servant of the Emperor.” He writes, “Nizam ul-Mulk believed that he was destined to bring the Deccan under his beneficent sway.”
Thus was established a lineage that not only protected the geography of Hyderabad, but also preserved one of the great artistic traditions of the country. Hyderabad-based heritage activist Sajjad Shahid says, “Hyderabad [became] a renowned centre of patronage very early. This led to the migration of scholars not only from other parts of India, but also from abroad. Over succeeding generations, [the Nizami court] attracted hordes of Hindustani classical stalwarts such as Tanras Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan and Pandit Motiram. It was through a blending of Mughal and Deccani traditions in art that the Nizams established a unique identity for themselves and the state.”
Mir Qamar-ud-din Khan urf Asaf Jah I
Ruled from 1714-1748
Qamar-ud-din was born on August 11, 1671, most likely in Agra. His school was the battlefield. He started accompanying his father, a warrior in Aurangzeb’s army, on military expeditions from a fairly young age. The paintings that survive of him today show an elderly, snow-haired gent, leaning on his sword like it were a walking stick. He was certainly skilled enough to lead hardened men into battle, and shortly after he turned 30, Aurangzeb made him the governor of Bijapur.
Even as Aurangzeb’s demise a few years later created a power vacuum in Delhi, Qamar-ud-din kept his head above the fray. Journalist John Zubrzycki writes in The Last Nizam (2011), “He began building his base independently of the Mughals, while continuing to [pay] obeisance to the throne and even remitting money to the centre.” One of the short-lived emperors, Farrukhsiyar, sensibly made him the viceroy of six Deccan provinces and gave him the hereditary prefix of Nizam ul-Mulk. While another one, Muhammad Shah (ruler from 1719 to 1748), conferred upon him the title of Asaf Jah, the highest honour bestowed upon a subject.
While the titles came on a platter, the lands took some work. Qamar-ud-din had to check the advances of the Marathas, reorganise the revenue system and hoard the best and the brightest rocks from the diamond mines of Golconda. In his lifetime, he fought 87 battles, and won all but one. Persian king Nadir Shah, the supervillain who ransacked Delhi in 1739, once told him, “You deserve the Empire and not Muhammad Shah.” To which the Nizam replied, “I and my ancestors, from ancient times, have been in the service of the king of Delhi.”1
Despite having spent the greater portion of his life “on the saddle and under arms,”1 Asaf Jah I harboured a soft corner for poetry. Shahid says, “[His] court produced some of the most notable scholars and poets of the region. Among them, the renowned poet Siraj Aurangabadi, whose ghazal ‘Khabar-e tahayyur-e ishq sun’, remains unsurpassed in the annals of Urdu literature, and Lachmi Narayan Shafiq, whose biographies and anthologies of Urdu poets are considered an indispensable source of information.” Asaf Jah I was also known to put quill to paper, and composed verses in Persian and Urdu. Shahid says, “He used ‘Asaf’ and sometimes ‘Shaker’ as his nom de poesy.”
Mir Nizam Ali Khan urf Asaf Jah II
Ruled from 1762 to 1803
The British and the French were well placed to take advantage of the chaos that followed Nizam ul-Mulk’s death on May 21, 1748. While in-fighting brought about the deaths of son Nasir Jung (shot in his breast), son Ghazi-ud-din (poisoned) and grandson Muzzafar Jung (arrow in the eye), another grandson Salabat Jung, largely thought of as a “duffer,”2ruled for 11 years. However, he did not have the blessings of the Mughal emperor, and it was only after his death in 1762 that the emperor recognised Nizam Ali Khan, Nizam ul-Mulk’s fourth son, as Asaf Jah II.
The second Nizam’s court was a proscenium for indigenous arts and crafts. Shahid says, “There are more paintings of Asaf Jah II than of any other Nizam, showing him to be a keen patron.” Historian William Dalrymple, whose White Mughals (2002) is set during his reign, says, “Hyderabad was the centre of music and art in that period. [With] Nizam Ali Khan, you have the whole range of courtly entertainment: performances commissioned and performed in Hyderabad; miniature painting artists like Rai Venkatchellum and Tajalli Ali Shah; and courtesans like Mahlaqa Bai Chanda [who wrote and performed] Urdu poetry.” Like his father, this Nizam knew how to keep his navaratnas in style. Shahid says, “Both [Rai and Tajalli] were favoured courtiers and granted extensive jagirs. They played a key role in developing a distinctive style of Hyderabadi court portraiture. And, poet-courtesan Chanda was ranked among the nobility of Hyderabad.”
The second Nizam’s contributions to architecture and the royal treasury were also significant. Shahid says, “The first palace with protective walls was constructed during his time. The restoration of Nau Mahal in Golconda Fort was undertaken; the Chowmahalla Palace was constructed; [as was] the Jilu Khana gate, the most significant structure of the period that survives today.” Dalrymple adds, “His palace and his treasury contained vast quantities of jewels and amazing textiles. Whether he regarded himself as a patron of the arts or not, [he kept the] craftsmen in business.”
Sikandar Jah urf Asaf Jah III
Ruled from 1803-1829
Sikandar Jah, Asaf Jah II’s eldest son, ascended the throne one day after his father’s demise on August 6, 1803. Not well tutored, unable to read and write even basic Persian, Sikandar received a kingdom in name only. The British had consolidated their hold over the subcontinent and exerted so much influence that he stayed within the ivory towers of Chowmahalla for years at a time. During his reign, the state owed a local British bank Rs 6 million; Arab and Persian mercenaries roamed the countryside like medieval thugs; and farmers fled to adjoining regions for greener pastures. Hyderabad didn’t mourn his passing in May 1829.
Nasir ud-Daula urf Asaf Jah IV
Ruled from 1829-1857
Nasir ud-Daula, the eldest of nine sons, succeeded Sikandar. Illiterate, but with a better head on his shoulders, and according to British merchant and orientalist Henry George Briggs, who wrote The Nizam (1861), he was “a good eastern sovereign.” However, the rot in the administration was so deep that Hyderabad was on the edge of bankruptcy several times during his rule. Nasir had to dip into his personal coffers time and again, pawning away diamonds the size of fists, to stay one step ahead of moneylenders. When he passed away in May 1857, the 63-year-old was “broken and bitter,” writes Zubrzycki.
Afzal ud-Daula urf Asaf Jah V
Ruled from 1857-1869
Afzal ud-Daula was 30 years old when he became the fifth Nizam. He was the most fortunate among his predecessors to have a capable diwan in Salar Jung I, even though he saw Jung as a traitor and loyal to the British cause. Jung, in fact, sided with the British during the rebellion of 1857. But Jung was an independent thinker, thrifty with money and passionate about modernising Hyderabad. He brought about a surplus budget, introduced the post and telegraph and connected Hyderabad to the railway line. In 1869, when Afzal died suddenly, leaving behind only one male successor — a toddler — Jung took all the matters of the state in his hand. While many might not remember the names of the individual Nizams, they know Salar Jung. The museum named after him, one of Hyderabad’s star attractions, houses the 43,000-plus art collection of his grandson Salar Jung III.
Mir Mahbub Ali Khan urf Asaf Jah VI
Ruled from 1869 to 1911
Mahbub, who had English tutors, walked the tightrope between being spoilt silly by the women of the zenana and chastised seriously by his Victorian teachers. A teenaged Nizam, he treated the state revenues like pocket money. Over a lifetime, he acquired the 184-carat Jacob diamond, the Princie diamond, the Falaknuma Palace, and the state’s first motor car. At the same time, Zubrzycki writes, “Calligraphy, music, painting, poetry and the sciences flourished,” and Hyderabad became “the most important centre for Urdu literature in India.”
While portraits of the previous Nizams show portly figures weighed down by fat pearls and delicate embroidery, photographs of Mahbub show a slim figure in elegant suits, plain turbans and a lush moustache that touched both earlobes. Mahbub was an early adopter of photography. After hiring photography houses such as Pestonjee Dosabhoy, Johnston & Hoffman and Bourne & Shepherd, he appointed a court photographer. Lala Deen Dayal, who became “synonymous with the creation of the visual identity of the Nizams,”3 fulfilled that role.
Mahbub was also an accomplished poet and tabla player and brought onboard the well-known Urdu poet, Dagh of Delhi, as court poet. Shahid says, “It was during the time of Mahbub that thumri compositions became the rage in Hyderabad. The most popular were composed by Nawab Sadiq Jung Hilm, and one composed in the bhakti tradition, ‘Kanhayya yaad hai’, was immortalised by Munshi Raziuddin, the court qawwal of Mahbub.”
Osman Ali Khan urf Asaf Jah VII
Ruled from 1911 to 1948
In India, the debts accumulated by the father are oftentimes repaid by the son. So, when Mahbub passed away in August 1911, 24-year-old Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII, set about making good on old promises. Zubrzycki writes, “Several commissions were set up to investigate the misappropriation of state funds by high-ranking officials. The revenue department was reorganised and judicial reforms were introduced. By 1919, [Hyderabad’s] revenue had grown to a healthy surplus of Rs 50 million.” According to a booklet written in the 1950s, “Day in and day out, the Nizam was to be found sitting in a corner of King Kothi… plodding patiently through masses of files.”
Osman maintained a robust harem, with nearly 500 direct descendants, who became contestants in his will and a pain in the backside of the eighth Nizam. While he gained a reputation for miserliness, smoking local beedis and consuming 11 grams of opium a day, in matters of art, he was generous and had some talent of his own too. Zubrzycki writes, “The Nizam’s court reverberated with the sound of poetry. He was an accomplished poet whose ‘perfumed ghazals’ were often written on scraps of paper.” Dalrymple, who has seen his collection, had written, “He owned one of the Islamic world’s great art collections: libraries full of priceless Mughal and Deccani miniatures, illuminated Qurans and the rarest and most esoteric Indo-Islamic manuscripts.” He also had a personal 60-piece string orchestra, conducted by an Anglo-Indian, to play waltzes and foxtrots. Details of the Nizam’s jewellery collection has since filled tomes and museums. According to Fabulous Mughal (1955) by DF Karaka, the Nizam would produce rubies “like a schoolboy producing marbles from his pocket.”
There was also a concerted effort to revive traditional crafts during his reign. Shahid says, “Crafts like bidriware received special attention, while Nirmal wooden furniture and toys, with their distinctive painting, found a patron in the Nizam—and Hyderabadi nobility followed his lead. He also set up a school of fine arts; held the first exhibition of national products, Numaish-e Masnaviat-e Mulki; [and made] Hyderabad the first princely state to establish a vernacular medium university: Osmania University.”
However, as the sun rose on independent India, it set on the rule of the Nizams. The leader of a landlocked region with a Hindu citizenry, Osman acceded to India on September 17, 1948, after a violent police action. The richest ruler in the world, with a net worth of Rs 1.35 billion, the last in the line of the great dynasty of the Deccan, retired as a white elephant.
References from the Sarmaya library
- The First Nizam (1963) by Yusuf Husain
- The Last Nizam (2011) by John Zubrzycki
- Treasures of the Deccan: Jewels of the Nizams (2018) by Usha R Balakrishnan and Deepthi Sasidharan