Whether or not people have read the book, they’re always curious about where this tragic love story took place …
For the author, William Dalrymple, the White Mughals came to him almost by accident. He stumbled across the story by chance and then began to dig deeper and deeper into Hyderabad’s history. I keep joking with him about how on some of the pages, the footnote is actually longer than the actual text.
The White Mughals excursion is either a half-day tour or we can turn it into a full day activity. On both, we spend a significant amount of time in the former British Residency building featured in Dalrymple’s book, which has now been converted into a women’s college. Much of the building has thankfully been restored to its former glory. We cover the very opulent and imposing Durbar Hall focusing on this tragic love story between British diplomat, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, and Khair-un-Nissa Begum, a Hyderabadi noblewoman of royal Mughal descent.
Throughout the architecture, you can see a fusion of British and Mughal style. At the back there’s a small graveyard overgrown with trees where dignitaries such as the Military Secretary were buried. I’ve had people crying when they see certain parts of the residency – it’s very powerful if you’ve read the book.
The most nostalgic remnant is a little dolls house built at the end of Kirkpatrick’s garden which leads onto Begum’s. The story (apocryphal in my opinion yet romantic) goes that because she was in purdah (a religious practise of female seclusion), she was not allowed to enter or even admire the front portico of her husband’s residency. In order for her to enjoy the building, Kirkpatrick built an exact replica for her. It’s probably around my height and I’m about 5 ft 3 inches.
We also cover Raymond’s Tomb, on top of a hillock, dedicated to a French mercenary under the employment of the Nizam (ruler of Hyderabad), and visit the memorial of Mah Laqa Bai, a courtesan known for her beauty and the first female poet to have a diwan (poetry collection) published. We drive around the Secunderabad area also known as White Town, where only the British and favoured nobility were allowed. Here you’ll see plenty of colonial architecture and notice how different it is from that of Hyderabad’s old city resplendent with its rich Islamic design. There are still British-named roads and railway stations. The old military barracks gives you a sense of the kind of presence the British had in Hyderabad, a city not always associated with India’s colonial past.
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