The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 14, 2001

The prince who behaved like a pauper
K.R.N. Swamy

The Seventh Nizam of Hyderabad was one of the most miserly millionnaires.
The Seventh Nizam of Hyderabad was one of the most miserly millionnaires.

AS the National Museum of India is exhibiting the Jewels of the Nizam in its galleries,, it is interesting to consider, how carefully the last Nizam had hoarded his wealth. His Exalted Highness, Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad (1886-1967) was the richest man in the world for the first 50 years of the 20th century and his wealth was valued equivalent to one billion U.S. dollars in 1940s (Rs 20 billion in todayís money value). However, he was also one of the most miserly millionaires in history.

Soon after his accession to the throne of Hyderabad in 1911, the 25-year-old Nizam had visited Delhi for the fabulous 1911 Delhi Durbar of Emperor George V. He was a very pious Muslim, after he did his weekly Friday prayers in the historic Jama Masjid built by the Mughals in Delhi, he was approached by the Ghantawala family. The latter had been the official sweetmeat suppliers to the Mughal Emperors for centuries. They wanted the richest Muslim potentate in India to visit their shop! He agreed to do so and a respectful crowd followed him to the store. With a lot of fanfare, the firm gave him an enormous packet of confectionery as their gift and the Nizam wanted to buy more. But as they reluctantly told him the price, he began to shout in anger that he would not pay such an exorbitant price. The crowd had come to see an opulent Mughal but vanished on finding a miserly bargainer.


One of the favourite feats of the Indian princes in those days, was to throw a silver coin high in the air and pierce it with a pistol shot. The teenaged heir-apparent, Osman Ali Khan, was trained in this trick shot and his father Nizam Mir Mehbub Ali Khan after once visiting the training venue, found that the prince was very keen to hunt up the blasted pieces of silver coin and retain them. Amused, the indulgent father, used to leave extra bags of silver coins for the son to keep. But, still, before leaving the training area, the boy would carefully pick up the silver scraps, something that was symbolic of the Nizam until he died.

British residents to his court found just one cigarette, one biscuit and one plain cup of tea kept for their benefits during their audiences. On occasions, the Nizam even borrowed cigarettes from them and "forgot" to return the full packet! Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, the Nizamís legal advisor reminisces how once the Nizam offered him a cigarette and when he accepted it, the Nizam politely took it back, clipped it into two with a clipper he had in his pocket and offered one half to the guest! One Residentís wife meeting the Nizam in the Hyderabad Race Course was surprised to find him offering her ice-cream. But her surprise turned to a cynical smile as she found the Nizam sending the ice -cream cup three times back to the restaurant as he felt that it contained too much ice cream and he would have to pay for it!

He used to write his own frugal menus and insisted that everybody follow the same in the royal harem (which numbered as many as 40 wives and a proportionate number of children). Once while inspecting the store room, he was aghast to find that hundreds of tins of ghee (clarified butter) "gifted" to him by a Maharaja had gone rancid as the cook had not used it. Sleepless with annoyance at the wastage/loss, the Nizam thought over the matter and came out with a wonderful idea. He would gift the tins to his numerous noble-courtiers. The catch was that whenever any noble received a gift from the Nizam, he was supposed to acknowledge it with a return "offering" or Nazar, which could vary from a silver rupee to a hundred gold coins. Soon, instead of rancid butter tins, the Nizamís personal treasury was full. In fact, aggrieved at this Nazar business, which was compulsory at all State functions, his suzerains, the British, had to tactfully tell him that they would not allow him to exploit his position and thus rob the officials. He was just to touch the nazar coin and immediately "remit" it back to the giver!

Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India experienced a strange instance of the stinginess of Nizam, when he went to Hyderabad on a state visit in the 1920s. Shocked at the Nizam leaning on a walking stick that was cracked at one end, he told the Nizam "Your Exalted Highness.... Please take care!". The Nizam listened to the Viceroy and when he next met him, triumphantly showed him the walking stick. He had just put a steel ring around the crack to prevent it from expanding further. Thirty years later, the same drama was repeated, when General J.N. Chowdhury, the Military Governor of Hyderabd in 1949-50, objected to the decrepit sherwani of His Highness, while he was planning to greet Pandit Nehru on his first visit to the Prime Minister of India to Hyderabad. The Nizam promised to remedy the matter and as they were awaiting the arrival of Nehru in the airport, showed the General, the newly-darned neck portion of the old sherwani.

For those who wanted to serve him, he had what is known as the "blanket check". The Nizam would find the price of the cheapest blanket available in Hyderabad market and whenever the applicant came for the interview, would tell him to get a blanket from the market as his "test". Needless to say, the fellow who paid the minimum for the blanket was favoured with the post.

In the 1930s, suddenly it struck him that his subjects might rebel and force him to flee his dominions without any money. He ordered six lorry loads full of bullion to be kept ready in the palace backyard, ready to be driven away to British India should such an emergency rise. After his death all the lorries were found, with their tyre rubber perished, wheels sunk to the hubs in the garden but with the treasures intact.

Further, in 1967, as his successor-grandson, Prince Mukarram Jah was keeping wake over the Nizamís body, one senior courtier advised him to take the keys from the dead grandfatherís neck-chain and secure the treasures, before interested parties looted the safe vaults. Sure enough, it is alleged in certain circles, that there was an induced electrical power failure in the palace that night, and six huge trunks filled with centuries-old heirlooms were shifted out for destinations unknown, by miscreants. It is a pity that the Nizam did not subscribe to ancient adage, that even though you cannot take your treasures with you to heaven, you can send them in advance, by utilising them for worthwhile causes, while you are still alive.

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