The British never governed the whole of India directly. About one third of the subcontinent and a quarter of its people were ruled by Hindu Rajahs and Maharajahs and Muslim Nizams and Nawabs. However, by the early 19th Century, these proud princes were all under the ultimate control of the fair-skinned foreigners, allowed to remain on their thrones only as long as their British overlords considered them satisfactory rulers.
After 1858, their partnership with the Crown grew in strength and cordiality, and for nearly a century the ancient power of these medieval autocrats was upheld by the embrace of the modern British Empire. When that embrace was abruptly withdrawn in 1947, the princes fell from their thrones like a row of skittles.
There were still over 600 self-ruling princes of India in the mid 19th Century, even after the East India Company had annexed many of the princely states. As this page shows, they differed widely in custom, clan, character, lifestyle and age - some were only children. Although the Crown placed a restraining hand on their shoulders after 1858, they were still masters in their own houses and free to spend their fabulous wealth as they wished, right into the 20th Century. Some chose to develop their lands, educate their subjects and play the role of enlightened despots. Others preferred to play polo, shoot tigers and adopt the life of a playboy.
Hyderabad: Riches beyond Compare
Hyderabad was a vast 82,000 square-mile superlative that dominated the middle of India. It was the largest, the most populous and, with its diamond and gold mines, the richest princely state in the subcontinent.
It also enjoyed a special relationship of “ally” with the British Crown.: while other princes went to meet the Viceroy at their borders, the Nizam advanced no further than the door of his drawing room.
The seventh Nizam, Osman Ali, who succeeded in 1911, was called the richest man in the world. Rats in his treasury once ate three million pounds of banknotes: it had no noticeable effect on his wealth.
In the First World War he contributed £20 million to the British war effort and in the second additional gifts bought a squadron of Hurricanes. Later apart from an abiding weakness for luxury cars, of which he had 200, he allowed the preservation of his personal fortune to become an obsession, spending only a few pence a day on himself: enough for a few betel nuts, opium and cheap local cigarettes. At his death he was variously estimated to be worth between £160 million and £600 million.
Gwalior - A 21-Gun Salute
The ninth Maharajah of Gwalior, Sir Madha Rao Sindhia, was an archetypal “nice chap” proudly Western in outlook, a marvellous host and staunchly pro-British. In recognition of the money and troops that he sent the King-Emperor in the First World War, he was granted two extra guns to his 19-gun salute. Eager for Western-style progress, he made Gwalior one of the most advanced states in India. He balanced the budget, encouraged local industries, built schools and hospitals and provided honest judges who sent their prisoners to model jails.
At leisure activities, he enjoyed driving steam-engines, crying out to his admiring people “No danger - Sindhia drives” and had a passion for tiger shooting. He even wrote a book about it - “A Guide to Tiger Shooting” - which became prescribed reading for the British dignitaries at his hunting parties.
Baroda - From Vice to Virtue
Khande Rao, Maharajah of Baroda from 1856 -1870, devoted his life to buying diamonds, setting up gladiator fights and devising various unpleasant methods of torture. But the British did not interfere; nor did they when, after his death, his jail-bird brother Mulhar Rao, put his chief minister behind bars and pickled him to death on a diet of salt water and pepper. But when Mulhar Rao was strongly suspected of attempting to murder the British Resident, the British could ignore his excesses no longer and deposed him in 1876.
Since Mulhar Rao’s heirs were excluded from power, a distant relative, a 12 year-old farmers son named Saraji Rao, was placed on the throne. He was a complete contrast to his predecessors. Brought up by strict English tutors, he became a model ruler, removing the worst evils of the caste system and bringing in reforms.
Jaipur: Palaces and Gardens
If beautiful cities were the measure of princely standing, then the Maharajahs of Jaipur would be pre-eminent among the princes of India. The capital Jaipur, built in the hills of the north by the great Maharajah Jai Singh in 1728, as a creation of the romantic imagination, with its geometry of wide boulevards, the grand square splashing with cool fountain water, the flower vendors’ blazing marigolds. One seventh of the city was taken up by gardens, courtyards and exotic palaces, rusty pink in colour, colonnaded with shady verandas and aired by finely latticed windows.
This Elysian city was the seat of state government until 1947. The last autonomous Maharajah Man Singh died playing polo at Cirencester Park in the Cotswolds in 1970. But his ancestral home still stands as a reminder of past glories.
Udaipur: The Greatest Pride in India
The rulers of Udaipur were acknowledged as heads of the Rajput hierarchy by the other princes and privileged with the special title of Maharana. They had been the first Rajput clan to set up a Principality in India - in the 8th Century - and claimed descent from the sun. They were above all, warriors, and to avoid dishonour of defeat, they practiced the terrible rite of Johur - mass suicide. Three times when their ancient stronghold of Chitor was besieged, the women burned themselves alive in the dungeons and the men fought savagely on the bloody hillside until all were cut to pieces.
The last Johur was in 1567, when Chitor was stormed by the Mughal Emperor, Akbar. Among the women who died in the fire pits were nine princesses, and 8,000 men were slaughtered. So it was that the Maharanas of Udaipur could proudly claim never to have given a princess in marriage to the Mughals nor to have bowed to their throne.
Even under British rule, the Maharana insisted on preserving “face” every time he was called to Delhi to pay homage to the Viceroy, he confined himself to his palace with a convenient fever.
Mysore: Prince of Earth and Heaven
Like most princes, the Maharajahs of Mysore were intensely religious men. The climax of the year in Mysore came with the autumn equinox, at the tenth day of the Hindu festival of Dasserah.
Although this festival was celebrated al over India, in Mysore it had a special importance. During it, the Maharajah was revered as a demigod. For nine days, he retired deep into his palace to worship the patron goddess of the festival, Chamundi, whose silver, ten-armed statue stands in a temple upon a sacred hill two miles outside the capital. During that time, no human hand could touch him, and gradually he took on the aura of divinity from Chamundi. On the tenth night he travelled in solemn procession, to the sacred hill and there, before thousands of his people, he was purified by the priests of the temple in a final, glittering act of communion.
The purification ceremony was last performed in 1970. But a new calling had already been found. The Maharajah Krishnarajah, who ruled from 1884 to 1940, applied himself with almost religious devotion to making Mysore a modern Western state with compulsory primary education, a free health service, industry and a university. Today, Mysore remains a showpiece.
The princes of India were positively Byzantine in the manner of their wealth. They possessed vast storehouses of beautiful treasures in their palaces, forts, armouries and vaults. No one country in modern times could have contained so many fabulous collections of precious stones, priceless carpets, superb porcelain, chunks of almost transparent green jade, necklaces of cascading pearls, dark red amber, rubies and emeralds - many the size of pigeons eggs - and every variety of gold, silver and ivory objet d’art. Some of the jewels dated back to the early Mughals, who bestowed them on court favourites. Generation by generation, the collections were added to and improved.
The wealthiest of all the princes was the Nizam of Hyderabad. He possessed one of the worlds most splendid collections of silver and jade; and although it is doubtful if he, or anyone, knew just how much treasure littered the King Kothi and his other palaces, he was meticulous and well informed enough to add considerably to the fantastic fortune that his forebears had amassed.
The Gaekwar of Baroda must have been near the top of the league, possessing jewellery worth about £3 million; apart from the usual gleaming necklaces of sapphires and rubies , a string of exquisite pearls and a huge diamond aigrette, he possessed a sword said to have been worth more than £200,000 and a famous diamond collar consisting of 500 diamonds arrange in 5 rows, with two rows of emeralds. The pendant of this collar was the “Star of the South” a diamond of even finer texture than the Koh-I-noor. There was also in his palace a carpet, measuring ten feet by six, interwoven with strings of pearls, studded with diamonds at its centre and corners.
PRIVATE ARMIES Those states that possessed a private army could greatly embellish the pomp and ceremony connected with the various festivals. The Indian State Forces, which came into existence in the 1880‘s were the natural outcome of the British-officered subsidiary forces kept since the days of the East India Company by certain states as a contribution to the common defence, and usually maintained by the state in return for some special service rendered by the British. Many of the princes were not content merely to act as parade-ground showpieces, and in spite of their constitutional duties insisted on taking an active part in the last war . Three were given regular commissions in the British Army: the Maharajah of Jaipur who served in Palestine and Egypt with the Life Guards, the Maharajah of Dewas who was in the Western desert with 2/4 Mahratta Light Infantry; and the Maharao Rajah of Bundi, who fought as a tank commander in Burma with Probyn’s Horse and was decorated with the Military Cross for gallantry in the Battle of Meiktila.
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