At the height, the Princely States during the British Raj ruled over one-third of the Asian sub-continent, with a population of 75 million under their suzerain. Famed for their extravagance and frivolity, they were – like most aristocrats, eccentric through and through. But India’s royals were not merely jewels in Queen Victoria’s Imperial crown, they were the descendants of ancient warring dynasties that could trace their blood lines back centuries. And they have throughout, the centuries woven a rich cultural tapestry in their territories and bequeathed India with a unique and dazzling legacy.
At times exotic, at times generous they were also cruel, imperious, ascetic, selfish, quirky, charming, hedonistic, self-indulgent, subtle and refined. They possessed all the human virtues and shortcomings. Potent and supreme wielders of power , their splendor and wealth beguiled and fascinated the British and European public.
Prolific patrons of the arts, the indigenous ruling class were particularly fixated with jewels and trinkets. Indeed, so much Cartier was bought by the Maharaja of Patiala and his circle that the jeweler began to create whole collections catering to this burgeoning new Eastern clientele. The famed Patiala necklace was in fact the largest single commission Cartier ever executed: containing a grand total of 29.300 diamonds!
There are also other truly stunning examples of excess, some notable if only for their peculiarity. The Maharaja of Gwalior was known to serve his dinner guests using a mobile bar in the form of a silver toy train, while the Maharaja of Kotah hunted tigers in nothing less than a custom made Rolls Royce. The Maharaja of Kapurthala even had a small replica of Versailles constructed as his residence. In fact , collecting the bizarre and the unusual consistently remained the norm rather than the exception. Osman Ali Khan, the last ruling Nizam of Hyderabad, used a 185 carat Jacob diamond as a paperweight, but having found it in his father’s shoe, he was apparently unaware of its 20 million Pound value! His coffers were practically overflowing with jewels, so perhaps the negligence is forgivable. However, despite being the world’s richest Indian, he had some surprisingly miserable qualities too. Refusing to buy cigarettes, he smoked cigarette butts his entire life!
His prodigious appetite for sex may have accounted for his shrewd money saving schemes. Not only was he said to have the largest pornographic collection in the world, but also 86 mistresses and 100 illegitimate children
The Nizam is not the only Indian ruler whose bedroom antics could be described as decadent. The Nawab of Bahawalpur ordered a custom made bed from Christophel in Paris which was ornamented with nude female statuettes. It was decorated with 290 kg of silver and, using ingenious mechanics linked to the mattress, the Nawab was able to set the figures in motion so they simultaneously fanned and winked at him as he lay in repose.
Whether it was cars or clothes, jewels or ornaments, monogrammed crockery, turbans, gold tongue scrapers, the Indian royals ordered the best and most expensive items from around the world. The luxury houses of Paris, London and Milan all enjoyed their custom.
So much so that in 1928 public opinion and the British press reflected the view that: “Indian Royals have nothing to do except live in luxury and spend money with a shovel”. This portrayal served the British government well. The pomp and ceremony was encouraged to entertain the rulers in banalities and erode their power.
During the independence process, the rulers were given the choice to merge their states into India, Pakistan or stay independent. This last choice was only taken by the Nizam of Hyderabad to have his nation military annexed by India at a cost of close to 40.000 lives. Those rulers who were to choose to stay within the new India, were guaranteed in its Constitution not only their historical privileges but also a Privy Purse in accordance to the size and revenues produced by their states. Fearful of the political power that some members of the royal families still possessed in the sixties and early seventies, Indira Ghandi’s government reneged on those promises made by her father- the first Prime Minister of the independent Republic- and unceremoniously stripped them of their titles and income in 1971 by passing the infamous law of De-recognition of the Princes as it was to be known.
It was the end of a long and opulent era, but it has not necessarily resulted in the complete demise of royal involvement in the country, Although some rulers became penniless and destitute, many others were reborn as entrepreneurs, conservationists, diplomats, sportsmen or politicians. Their palaces have since become hotels and museums and they contribute to the economic and commercial regeneration of the modern Republic in many other ways too.
His Highness The Late Maharaja of Mysore sitting on his throne in the late eighties.
Historic ties have remained- albeit in a different guise- and many families continue to feel a sense of obligation to their former population, founding institutes and charitable organizations in lieu of royal patronage. The creation of the Bourbon-Bhopal Welfare Society by Prince Balthazar IV of Bourbon-Bhopal is but one example of this. The Maharaja of Jodphur has also put his capital on the global map as a sporting and cultural center. Maharana Arvind Singh Mewar has done a magnificent job in Udaipur through the Maharana of Mewar Charitable foundation which even received an award at the United Nations in New York in 2012. Other former monarchs have played an integral role in the preservation of India’s royal heritage. Princess Siddhi of Bikaner who set up the Priachina Museum is one such custodian.
And, where funds have allowed, the modern day descendants of the Kings and Queens of India, continue to lead lavish and luxurious lifestyles. Weddings and birthdays present the perfect opportunity to hark back to ancient privileges but also herald the wealth and promise of a new generation. Monarchy no longer exists in India but, whether the political classes like it or not, still does and will continue to do so.