From richest to rags in seven generations
His name was Mir Osman Ali Khan Siddiqi. He used a 185-carat diamond worth $200 million for a paperweight, had enough pearls to pave Piccadilly Circus and a stable of horses that would’ve put Godolphin to shame. His ancestor Mir Qamaruddin Khan started a dynasty on behalf of the Mughals on July 31, 1720, which ended in a sheep farm. Qamaruddin Khan was Hyderabad’s first Nizam—Urdu for Administrator of the Realm— and Osman Ali Khan was the 7th and last Nizam who has been declared the world’s richest Indian ever—after adjusting his wealth to current inflation figures. In the 1940s, his fortune was estimated to be $2 billion, which was about 2 per cent of the US economy while Independent India’s annual revenue then was only $1 billion.
The British gave him the title of His Exalted Highness because of the taxes he paid to the Empire—his main palace had 6,000 staffers. The only job 38 of them were entrusted with was dusting chandeliers. The world’s richest Indian was also an enigma: the Nizam was so stingy that he wore the same fez cap for 35 years, wore crumpled pajamas, ate off a tin plate and smoked cigarette butts, refusing to buy even one fresh pack all his life. His treasury would have put to shame the wealth of the richest oil sheikh: hundreds of millions of pounds worth of gold and silver overflowing in his coffers as well as jewels worth £400 million. He had a prodigious appetite for sex, and had one of the largest private pornographic collections in the world—using hidden cameras inside his zenana and private guest quarters. Before he died, he sired children from 86 mistresses in his harem and had more than 100 illegitimate children. He also left behind a legacy of legal disputes with hundreds of descendants fighting over money and real estate.
By the 1990s, claimants to his wealth had gone up to 400 legal heirs. Of the Nizam’s 34 children, two sons and three daughters are still alive while there are a total of 104 grandchildren. The most helpless of all of them is Prince Mukarram Jah who was nominated by his grandfather, the 7th Nizam, to succeed him: he didn’t think his sons deserved to be ruler after his death. Unfortunately, His Exalted and Imperial Highness Rustam-i-Dauran, Arustu-i-Zaman, Wal Mamaluk, Asaf Jah VIII, Muzaffar ul-Mamaluk, Nizam ul-Mulk, Nizam ud-Daula, Nawab Mir Barkat Ali Khan Bahadur, Sipah Salar, Fatah Jang, Nizam of Hyderabad and Berar, Imperial Prince of the Ottoman Empire and Honourable Lieutenant-General, or simply, Mukarram Jah lives as a frail old diabetic in Istanbul, amidst memories of untold wealth, expensive ex-wives and 14,718 courtiers who bled his inheritance dry. Of his life in Australia as a sheep farmer decades ago, an aide told an Australian newspaper that “Jah loves to be surrounded by court jesters, just like the maharajahs of the past”.
The remains of his inheritance lie in NatWest Bank, London—£1m deposited by his grandfather in 1948. Now the money is worth almost Rs 3 billion. When the 7th Nizam deposited the money, the future of Hyderabad was at stake. India wanted Hyderabad to be part of the Union, but the Nizam was inclined to make Hyderabad part of Pakistan—like an Indian West Berlin in the 1940s. As Mir Barkat Ali Khan remained in a state of indecision, his finance minister Moin Nawaz Jung, who was in charge of the money—£10,07,940 and nine shillings— signed it over to H I Rahimatoola , Pakistan’s new high commissioner in London. The Indian government came down on the Nizam with all its newly acquired might and forced him to cable Westminster Bank to freeze the account. In September 1948, the Indian Army formally annexed Hyderabad. The British government converted the money into war bonds and subsequently turned it into a fixed income deposit as it remains to the day.
National Westminster Bank, now incorporated into the Royal Bank of Scotland, refuses to release the sum unless all three parties—India, Pakistan and the Nizam’s heirs—come to an agreement. The Nizam’s heirs have wanted the foreign ministers of both India and Pakistan to sort it out when they met in Islamabad in September, but they were disappointed. Nawab Najaf Ali Khan, the other grandson of the seventh Nizam, had even written to President Zardari seeking help. India has offered an out-of-court settlement, but Zardari has not been forthcoming. There is even a Nizam Family Welfare Association. In 2008, they met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee to help them. They are also pressuring the Pakistan government to initiate a dialogue with the Indian government. If the dispute ever gets resolved, the money would be shared between all three as India was owed crores of rupees in back taxes.
Meanwhile, Mukarram lives in penury in a small Istanbul apartment. He and his brother Muffakam Jah share a London lawyer—Allen & Overy— in a case against NatWest; at one time, he was so poor he couldn’t afford legal fees. Mukarram wasn’t as prolific as his grandfather, but he had married five times only, including a former Miss Turkey who was his third wife. Turkey has a karmic link with the Nizam—his mother and his first wife Princess Esra were Turkish. So was his last wife, Princess Orchedi. In the 1980s, when he was moving to raise sheep in Perth, he met and married Helen Simmons, who died of AIDS later. The third wife was Turkish. The match was arranged by his Turkish aide, Demir Bukey, who was sent to Istanbul with $100,000 to find him a bride. Bukey introduced Manolya Onur, whom the Nizam married in 1990 because on their first meeting in Istanbul, she seemed to him as a woman who “might open a station gate”. The marriages and subsequent divorces cost him a lot of money in alimony—Esra got alimony of £12 million. It’s thanks to Esra who returned to India a decade ago with her two children, that the Nizam’s royal residences—Chowmahalla and Falaknuma—were renovated and a semblance of order was brought to the accounts. Legal wrangles have cost the once flamboyant Mukarram dear: when the Indian government forced the Nizam’s trustees to sell the famous jewels in lieu of tax, the price the court fixed for it was only £43m, lower than the £230m the Nizam’s family had estimated. Mukarram’s share was £13m, but he did not get the money thanks to litigation by his grandfather’s illegitimate dependants. Mukarram faces 800 writs from relatives—legitimate and illegitimate—who are challenging his entitlement for the privileged share in Nizams’ private estate. In the end, he got Rs 218 crore for the jewellery. Mukarram’s inheritance originally included one of the world’s most expensive jewellery collection, starting from the 18th century to fin de siècle 20th century. The collection comprised 173 jewels that include over 25,000 diamonds, Colombian emeralds, diamonds from the Golconda mines, Burmese rubies and spinels, pearls from Basra and the Gulf of Mannar. The diamonds alone weigh over 12,000 carats; 2,000 emeralds weigh over 10,000 carats; and pearls exceed 40,000 buddums—the Satlada, the seven-stringed Basrah pearl necklace which has 465 pearls embedded in it is a legendary piece of jewellery.
Mukarram would already have known that his grandfather was the world’s richest Indian ever. In the small Istanbul flat he shares with his fifth wife Princess Orchedi, does he remember his own words to a journalist, “I’m not supposed to have financial problems... I’m supposed to have good advisers.” It seems a fitting epitaph to one of the most legendary royal treasures of all time.