Mukarram Jah, Heir to an Opulent Throne He Abandoned, Dies at 89

On April 6, 1967, Mukarram Jah was fabulously, and unhappily, thrust into the past.

He was a privileged global citizen in a very modern way: born in France, educated at some of Britain’s best schools, with a taste for jazz, westerns and cars.

But on that April afternoon he found himself performing rituals left over from India’s Mughal Empire, which had collapsed more than a century earlier. Mr. Jah was crowned the nizam of Hyderabad.

The title made him the ceremonial monarch of a territory in South India about the size of Italy, and it vaulted him atop a social order that belonged more to “Arabian Nights” than to the 1960s. He now bore responsibility for a court whose roll of staff members and dependents listed more than 14,700 people, including about 3,000 bodyguards, 42 concubines and employees with specialties as specific as dusting chandeliers and grinding walnuts. He later discovered that about 4,000 supposed beneficiaries of the royal purse did not actually exist.

As nizam, Mr. Jah commanded great prestige — the Indian government granted him an allowance and official recognition as a prince — and extraordinary wealth: He controlled a fortune that in 1935, The New York Times estimated, included $250 million in gold ingots and $2 billion in precious stones (more than $48 billion in today’s money).

Yet by 1996, Mr. Jah — whose coronation also came with the titles Rustam of the Age, the Aristotle of the Times, the Ruler of the Kingdom, the Conqueror of Dominions, the Regulator of the Realm, the Victor in Battles and the Leader of Armies — was a sheep farmer fleeing creditors in Australia.

“The disintegration of the state, and the dispersal of the wealth of the nizam,” the historian of India William Dalrymple wrote in The Guardian in 2007, was “one of the 20th century’s most dramatic reversals of fortune.”

Mr. Jah died on Jan. 14 at a hospital in Istanbul. He was 89. His first wife, Princess Esra Jah, who later managed the remnants of his estate, said by phone that the cause was kidney failure.

A painting, from about 1934, of Mr. Jah as a boy with his grandfather, and predecessor, Osman Ali Khan.Credit…Alamy

Mr. Jah began his life as a symbol of the strength of his royal line, one that could be traced to the 17th century. The nizams ultimately ruled over some 15 million people, and their lands included the Godavari delta, which was long thought to be the world’s only source of diamonds.

As the Mughal Empire waned and the British came to control India in the 18th and 19th centuries, the nizams cooperated profitably with their colonial overseers.

Mr. Jah’s predecessor as nizam, his grandfather Osman Ali Khan, saw an opportunity to expand the authority of the royal family in the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern-day Turkey, overthrew the Ottoman caliph, Abdul Mejid, considered by many to be the leader of global Islam. The nizamate was Muslim, too, and Mr. Khan used his wealth to support Mr. Mejid’s family.

The bond was consummated in 1931 with the joint marriage of the nizam’s two sons to the deposed caliph’s daughter and niece — a union between “the mightiest houses of Islam,” The Washington Post reported at the time.

Barkat Mukarram Jah was born on Oct. 6, 1933, in Nice, France, to Azam Jah, the nizam’s eldest son, and Princess Durrushehvar, the caliph’s daughter.

It quickly became clear to Mr. Khan’s inner circle that Mr. Khan intended his illustriously pedigreed grandson, not his eldest son, to be the next nizam. And when Abdul Mejid, the ex-caliph, died in 1944, his will appointed Mukarram, though just a schoolboy, to inherit his claim to the mantle of his lost caliphate, according to “The Last Nizam,” a detailed history of Hyderabad’s royal family, by John Zubrzycki.

Growing up, Mukarram showed a strange mix of savoir faire and ineptitude. One of his tutors wrote in a memoir that, at 13, “he spoke English, French, Turkish and Urdu fluently but did not write any of them correctly; he could ride any horse with confidence, could dive from any height, had shot a tiger, could drive a Jeep and take an engine to pieces but could not catch a ball, and if you asked him the simplest question in arithmetic he had recourse to counting his fingers.”

Mukarram attended the British boarding school Harrow, studied English and history at Cambridge, and finished his education at the Sandhurst military academy, from which he graduated as a second lieutenant.

Mr. Jah, left, with Crown Prince Hussein bin Talal of Jordan in 1952 at Harrow, the English boarding school, where both were students at the time. The prince later became Jordan’s king. Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images

On holiday in Istanbul in 1958, he met Esra Birgen, a Turkish woman studying interior design. They married in 1959.

Back in India, Mr. Jah underwent diplomatic training, though his longing was to become a military man. That ambition was thwarted, however, when he applied for active duty around the time of India’s 1962 border war with China. The government considered him too prominent to be allowed to fight, he told Mr. Zubrzycki.

By then the nizam no longer enjoyed real power. After gaining independence from Britain in 1947, India had invaded Hyderabad. Violence ensued, and Mr. Khan quickly admitted defeat, moving Hyderabad’s largely poor, agrarian populace from feudal domination into a modern democracy.

The Indian government permitted Mr. Khan to retain his title, but he now ruled over an imaginary realm, issuing edicts about, for example, the placement of objects in his palace. Hyderabad was dissolved as a state, the name now signifying just the capital of the nizam’s old territory.

When Mr. Jah took over, he tried to get a grip on the ornate but rickety structure of the nizamate. He fired thousands of employees and started making an inventory of his wealth.

But his spectacular inheritance seemed to take on a life of its own and turn against him. Hundreds of the employees he fired joined a communist labor union and burned Mr. Jah in effigy. His father sued him for a greater share of the family wealth. His aunt sued him. Eventually the ranks of litigants would swell to several thousand descendants of the seven previous nizams.

Then, in 1971, the Indian government cut off the nizam’s allowance and abolished the royal court’s titles.

“I inherited a scrapyard,” Mr. Jah told The New York Times early in his rule.

He gave his power of attorney to a small-time accountant whom he had known as a boy. Others who handled his affairs included his valet, his driver and his bodyguard, Mr. Zubrzycki wrote. Rumors would circulate for the rest of his life about untold riches that Mr. Jah’s purported advisers and representatives stole from him.

Mr. Jah was less interested in protecting his seemingly inexhaustible fortune than in escaping the venomous rivalries and bejeweled scrapyard that he had inherited.

He never asserted a hereditary claim to the grand title of caliph.

In 1972, he traveled to Australia to visit a friend from Harrow and Cambridge, George Hobday. They camped in the outback. “I love this place: miles and miles of open country and not a bloody Indian in sight,” Mr. Jah said, as Mr. Hobday recalled to Mr. Zubrzycki.

He soon sought the life of a gentleman farmer, buying a sheep farm of nearly a half-million acres stretching from the Western Australian coast into the interior. He purchased mechanical playthings, like an amphibious tank. He bought a gold mine and poured money into it.

To support his Australian adventures, Mr. Jah sold his family’s gems and jewels.

Mr. Jah with Princess Esra, center, at Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad in 1967, the year he was crowned nizam.Credit…via John Zubrzycki

In the 1970s, Mr. Jah and Princess Esra, who had moved away from Hyderabad, separated and eventually divorced. Mr. Jah met a 27-year-old Australian secretary named Helen Simmons. They married and had two sons.

At the time, Mr. Jah proclaimed that in Australia he had found a place where he belonged. “I respect Western Australians more than anyone else,” he told The West Australian, a newspaper based in Perth, in 1984. “They shake my hand and say, ‘Hi, Jah, how’re yer doing?’”

But within a few years, that life began to unravel. He and Ms. Simmons were divorced around the same time that she was diagnosed with AIDS. Her death in 1989 occasioned prurient coverage in Australian tabloids about Perth’s “party-going princess.”

Mr. Jah found it necessary to rely on the sale of more and more stupendous heirlooms, but trying to auction objects like a 26-pound gold coin from the early 1600s attracted the scrutiny of the Indian government. His most valuable possessions became tied up in convoluted fights with relatives and bureaucrats.

In the 1990s, his yacht was sold for scrap value; then his entire Australian estate was liquidated.

In response, Mr. Jah withdrew to Turkey, where he settled with a small staff into apartments in Antalya, a city on the Mediterranean coast, and Istanbul.

He still visited Hyderabad, but he retained only a tiny fraction of the roughly 2,200 properties that he had inherited.

The nizamate seemed poised for total collapse. In fact, it was about to discover an unlikely savior. At the wedding of their son, Azmet, in 1996, Mr. Jah and Princess Esra reconnected. He asked his ex-wife to return to Hyderabad and salvage what she could of his ancestral property and culture.

She accepted the job. “I knew that my children wanted their history back,” she recalled in an interview.

She oversaw the breaking of seals on palace rooms that had been shut since 1967, the clearing away of cobwebs the size of bedsheets, the discovery of precious objects, and the restoration of palace grounds, paintings, manuscripts, arms and more. 

Mourners gathered around the coffin of Mr. Jah in Hyderabad in January before his funeral. Credit…Suresh Kumar/Associated Press

Chowmahalla, Hyderabad’s main palace, is now an esteemed museum, and another palace, Falaknuma, is an opulent hotel.

“Princess Esra saved more than I ever thought possible,” Mr. Dalrymple said in a phone interview.

Mr. Jah, she said, had been reticent on the subject but seemed to agree.

“He was very happy to see it: to see his family united, working together to bring back some of the past glory of Hyderabad,” Princess Esra said.

Shortly after Mr. Jah’s death, Azmet was appointed head of the family dynasty in a private ceremony. He hopes to digitize the nizamate’s archives, Princess Esra said. But he did not adopt his father’s titles, since no state recognizes them any longer.

Mr. Jah’s third, fourth and fifth marriages — to Manolya Onur, Jamila Boularas and Ayesha Arkide — ended in divorce. In addition to Azmet, he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Shehkar Jah; a son from his second marriage, Azam; a daughter from his third marriage, Nilufer Jah; a brother, Muffakham; and one grandson. Another son, Umar, from his second marriage, died in 2004.

In his last years Mr. Jah liked to drive an old Mercedes through the back roads of Antalya and explore Roman ruins. When receiving a visitor, he would recount extraordinary stories about his forebears: their recruitment from Central Asia, centuries ago, by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to become Indian sultans; his grandfather’s habit of informing a woman on the palace grounds that he would spend the night with her by placing a white handkerchief on her shoulder.

Mr. Jah would sit at a cafe near the Mediterranean Sea smoking a cigarette and sipping a cup of tea. The families on the beach, the man sitting at a table next to him, the waiters — nobody knew that he was Hyderabad’s last nizam.

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