In Praise of the Indian Maharaja

Stephen de Silva (1972)

Rising out of the Lake Pichola, the Taj Lake Palace evokes a sense of magic and mysticism. The floating palace is a dream of white marble and mosaic glistening in the moonlight, reminiscent of the most beautiful tourist cliché in the world; the Taj Mahal. Conceived in romance, the palace was built in 1746 by Maharana Jagat Singh II, 62nd successor to the royal dynasty of Mewar.

I took three weeks off in October 2012 in order to attend a 40 year school reunion at Mt Abu in the State of Rajasthan (land of the kings), India. I had the good fortune of arriving a day earlier than my mates, and was graciously hosted by Maharaj Daivat Singh of Sirohi [classmate batch of 72], at his palace. I had the pleasure of chatting with him into the wee hours of the morning. It was his unbridled enthusiasm on the current state of affairs in India and his intimate knowledge of history that inspired me to delve deeper into the lives and works of the Maharajas. My travels were confined to Udaipur and Mt Abu, during which I visited a few palaces.

There is an immense appetite among people today for that fascinating phenomenon of the Indian Maharaja, an ancient and unique kingship, the like of which can never be recreated. That phenomenon continues to be the subject of media, be it films, TV or print.

Indian children of past generations grew up on a plethora of fascinating stories that often began with the phrase “Ek tha Raja”—‘Once upon a time there was a King.’ Indeed, there were in the past, many great kings and kingdoms in India, for the institution of monarch in the country goes back several millennia in time.

In India the definition of a King is “he whose duty it is to please.” In effect the king is a servant of the people, and their agent, besides being a humble guardian of the state he holds in trust. As against sitting on a throne to be crowned the new King in India, the successor merely ties the turban of his deceased father while sitting on the floor on a cushion, a “gaddi”. It is only this mere cushion which separates a king from his people. The pomp, ceremony and opulence are simply an indication of one's fortunes.

There were in 1858 over 500 rulers in undivided India. Their combined territories, which formed two fifths of India, varied considerably in size and wealth. While some were as large as France or Italy, others were as small as Luxembourg. Some states had budgets comprising millions of rupees while others had merely a few hundreds.

Even in the days of the Mughal and British empires, the head of every Princely State, the Maharaja, Raja or Nawab, wielded extraordinary powers. Many states minted their own currencies, had their own armies, and in later years ran their own railways. It almost goes without saying that many palaces are great works of art and architecture. Current generations have inherited these memorable structures steeped in history.

The popular image of the Indian princes is often blurred, with the negative magnified and positive contributions glossed over. Their contribution to the independence movement, law, administration, legislation and education were unprecedented. Their interest in art and architecture was matched by their compassion for the deprived sections of society. They were the first to introduce free and compulsory education for girls, realising how important it was if women were to be empowered at all.

City Palace, Udaipur, is a palace complex in Udaipur in the Indian state Rajasthan It was built by the Maharana Udai Singh 1559. It is located on the east bank of Lake Pichola and has several palaces built within its complex. 
Historical legend has it that Maharana Udai Singh was on a hunting trail in the Udaipur hills, when he met a hermit meditating on the hill above the Pichola Lake.  The hermit advised the Maharana to build his palace at that very spot and that is where the palace complex came to be established in Udaipur.

The fact is that the Maharajas by and large were and are patriots, and their love for the country is second to none. The sacrifice they and their fathers made in voluntarily surrendering their absolute power at the time of Independence in 1948 is a forgotten story. So are the contributions made by many illustrious ex-princes in strengthening the democratic process. In the contemporary period many have served as Members of Parliament or as Members of State Legislative Assemblies. Others have distinguished themselves as Central and State Cabinet ministers. This is no small measure of their popularity among the people, and their intimate knowledge of the people’s aspirations. Moreover their patronage, especially of cricket, polo and the arts deserves to be acknowledged by historians and contemporary sport and art critics.

The Indian rulers had amassed enviable collections of jewellery since time immemorial. The most celebrated bejewelled artefact ever produced in India was the Peacock Throne, pillaged from Delhi by Nadir Shah of Persia. The most famed jewel in the world, the Kohinoor diamond, which adorns the crown of the British Queen, comes from India. Other marvels including the Pitt, Orlov and Hope diamonds left India to dazzle the Western World. Many however remained in India in the unfathomed coffers of the Maharaja.

The dazzling collection certainly is the most beautiful that could be imagined in the way of precious stones. Chandeliers encrusted with meteorite dust, streams of diamonds, diadems, necklaces, rings, bracelets, costumes and mantles embroidered with pearls and precious stones of marvellous riches.

Housed in the Fateh Prakash Palace is the world-famous Crystal Gallery; it’s spread across the upper gallery of the glittering Durbar Hall. Crystal Gallery has been hailed as probably the single largest private collection of crystal anywhere in the world. The visitors here are privy to one of the most exclusive and exquisite crystal collections. In 1877 Maharana Sajjan Singh (reign: 1874-1884) ordered the crystal collection from the Birmingham-based F&C Osler company. The collection include a bewildering number of objets d'art, dinner sets, perfume bottles, decanters, glasses, washing bowls and even furniture. The Crystal Gallery also houses the only crystal bed in the world! The collection has been customised for the House of Mewar; the Crest of Mewar being delicately etched on the crystal, adding yet another amazing facet.

The grand Durbar hall is Fateh Prakash Place's venue for weddings and buffets. Gigantic crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling and colossal portraits of the royalty are on the walls. The hall can accommodate 300 people.

However, the most significant and perhaps the most ignored contribution of the Princely Order is its ardent involvement in the preservation of the vast and varied cultural heritage of India, including the flora and fauna of the country. On them lies the absolute onus of maintaining and restoring the magnificent and ancient buildings – testimony of unique workmanship and architecture.

Housed in most of these buildings are priceless artefacts, paintings, crystal, sculpture, stained glass and much more. Beyond just the material wealth and these old buildings, the Maharajas are the custodians of India’s history and therefore irreplaceable. The country’s tourism industry is a good example of how erstwhile feudal families have successfully turned crumbling fortresses and places  into hotels and hospitality houses of international standards, generating employment for thousands of local people.

Swaroop Bhavan Palace Mt Abu—Home of Daivat Singh [Maharaj of Sirohi] whose palace we would frequent during our school days.