Of all the honours that friendly kings and grateful potentates showered on him, only one title really mattered. For most of his life, the Nizam of Hyderabad was the richest man in the world.
So rich, in fact, that on finding rats had nibbled through £3 million in old banknotes stuffed into trunks in a palace cellar, he shrugged off the loss.
It was said the Indian princeling had so much jewellery that the pearls alone would pave Piccadilly Circus, and that he kept brown paper parcels full of emeralds in his bedchamber.
His collection included the fabled Jacob diamond, a 185-carat gem the size of an ostrich egg and reputedly worth £50 million, that he found in one of his father’s old socks and liked to use as a paperweight.
This week the legendary profligacy, decadence, debauchery and meanness of the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad, who came to power in 1911, were back in the spotlight after the High Court ruled that the Nizam’s two elderly grandsons were entitled to a £35 million fortune that has been languishing in a British bank.
The Nizam, a 5ft 3in chain-smoker called Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan, was certainly an eccentric.
He lived in fear of a revolution, and under tarpaulins in his palace gardens stood row upon row of rusting lorries, their tyres perished and sinking into the ground. Each truck was laden with precious stones and gold ingots.
The seventh Nizam of Hyderabad is pictured at a time when he was one of the richest men in the world
The lorries were so he could escape with some of his riches if the need came. But then he lost interest and left the trucks to rot.
For personal protection he had a private army of 3,000 North African bodyguards. He also employed 38 people whose sole job was to dust the palace chandeliers, and a further 28 to fetch drinking water. Several more were employed just to grind his favourite walnuts.
Soon after becoming the absolute ruler of 17 million people in an area the size of Italy, he took to roaring about his kingdom in a Rolls-Royce, drank whisky from his own distillery and led his own jazz band in playing his favourite song, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.
At one stage his fortune was said to be £100 million in gold and silver bullion and £400 million in jewels — more than £50 billion at today’s values.
But over time, he came to take a dismissive view of his wealth. Latterly he became miserly and frugal and wore the same tattered fez for 40 years, knitted his own socks and favoured patched, threadbare clothes that he didn’t change for months, even though he possessed a wardrobe half a mile long that was bulging with exquisite silks, brocades, damasks and muslins.
He ate simply off a tin plate, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and supplemented his meals with an occasional opium pill. In old age he slept on a simple veranda which he shared with a tethered goat.
When the Queen married Prince Philip in 1947, he presented her with a diamond necklace — she wore it in her 2007 portrait by the American photographer Annie Leibovitz (pictured)
Yet despite this austerity, he had a prodigious appetite for sex. Placing hidden cameras in the ceilings and walls of his guest quarters, he assembled India’s largest collection of pornographic pictures — and in his lifetime supposedly sired 100 sons by 86 mistresses.
Every night he was said to make a stately progress around his busy seraglio. The man who enjoyed the title His Exalted Highness was known by court flunkeys as ‘His Exhausted Highness’.
When he sailed to Britain in 1934, he chartered his own liner and brought with him his entire harem of senior begums — women of high social status — as well as an entourage of 300.
His fortune was starting to come under pressure, however. The eldest sons of his four legal wives ran up millions in debts and the children of the 42 concubines who used to be presented to him on his birthday, freshly bathed in sandalwood oil, formed a union to force him to support them.
So the Nizam deposited £1 million, a huge sum in those days, with the Westminster Bank — now part of NatWest — in London.
He feared in particular that the money would be appropriated by the new Indian government after the British withdrew from the sub-continent in 1947. And those funds stayed put, accruing interest to reach the sum of £35 million today.
The money was the subject of decades of legal wrangling and countless rival claims until the High Court’s ruling that his grandsons are entitled to it.
Under the 7th Nizam’s autocratic rule, Hyderabad was like something out of the Arabian Nights. It was India’s premier state and he was first among India’s 560 princes or maharajahs.
His collection included the fabled Jacob diamond, a 185-carat gem the size of an ostrich egg and reputedly worth £50 million, that he found in one of his father’s old socks and liked to use as a paperweight
The 1920s Cartier diamond necklace gifted to the Queen is pictured here
One highly profitable custom meant that any subject of the Nizam who was received by him had to leave a calling card in the form of gold and silver coins.
At four annual galas when he entertained thousands at lavish banquets, he would personally collect these tithes, dropping the gold and silver into separate bags.
He was once said to have ordered his collection of pearls to be removed from their sacks, to preserve their lustre. It took the servants three days to lay them out.
A Dutch expert who came to value the collection demanded a fee of £25,000 because, he said, the task would take years.
Beloved by the British as India’s most generous host for his donation of £25 million to two world wars — including a squadron of Spitfires — the Nizam was an attentive host.
When the then Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, visited him in 1922, the Nizam wanted his guest to feel at home and installed a chamber pot in the royal bedroom that, when the lid was lifted, played the National Anthem.
And when the Queen married Prince Philip in 1947, he presented her with a diamond necklace — she wore it in her 2007 portrait by the American photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Getting around the windswept kingdom required cars and elephants, and the Nizam had plenty of both initially. In 1913, two years after his coronation, a grand Silver Ghost was sent to Hyderabad.
Pictured: The seventh Nizam of Hyderabad was so rich, in fact, that on finding rats had nibbled through £3 million in old banknotes stuffed into trunks in a palace cellar, he shrugged off the loss, writes RICHARD KAY
The handbook stated it was a ‘semi-state coach’. It was indeed a sort of ‘throne car’, with gold mountings and upholstered in gold silk brocade.
This was only one of the Nizam’s 50 Rolls-Royces, as befitted a man who employed 12,000 servants in just one palace.
He had at least one car adapted to take an elevated rear seat because he felt he should sit higher than his subjects.
His Rolls-Royce fleet had barely covered 1,000 miles when he died in 1967, aged 80.
In addition there were another 150 cars — in later life, when he became more thrifty, he took to riding around in a bone-shaking Model T Ford.
He once instructed a servant to buy him a new blanket, with strict orders not to pay more than 25 rupees (about 28p today).
The retainer came back empty-handed because a new blanket cost 35 rupees — 40p — so the Nizam made do with his old one.
Stories of his parsimony began to abound. He was said to have rebuked an ice-cream vendor for charging a ‘high price’ (3p) and was said to scrawl dinner invitations on bits of paper torn from the bottom of old letters.
He disciplined himself to live on the equivalent of £1 a week and smoked the cheapest brand of cigarettes, relighting and smoking the discarded butts.
There were other, more admirable aspects to his character. His rule saw the expansion of roads, railways and the postal system, and he established universities, hospitals and factories. Indeed, he was adored by his subjects.
His funeral procession was one of the largest ever seen in India but much of his staggering family wealth had been looted and frittered away.
What was left of the dwindling fortune passed to the Nizam’s grandson, whom he had named as heir after disinheriting his Old Harrovian playboy son.
The 8th Nizam emigrated to Australia, where for many years he ran a sheep station. Now 84, it is he and his younger brother, 80-year-old Prince Muffakhan, who stand to finally inherit the last of their grandfather’s fortune.