The End of the Maharajas

When India became a nation in 1947, its 600 maharajas last their royal grandeur and position. Now, twenty years later. Miss Levine tells us how they and their families hare fared, from serving in the Parliament to clerking in a Calcutta hotel.

THE maharajas arc the forgotten men of India. For thousands of years they were the kings of the world, wielding the original despotic power from their peacock thrones, sitting in cloth of gold to watch their dancing girls, hunting tiger with elephant. But 1947, when the new India was born, was their Goiterdammerung. At a stroke of the pen. about 600 maharajas became obsolete, out of work, ordinary citizens in a democratic state.

Some fled to Europe or America to enjoy their wealth in an up-to-date manner. But most stayed. And the government of India did its best to keep everyone happy by offering a generous — some say exorbitant—financial compensation. The exrajas were granted an annual income equal to what they were getting when they were in power —many millions of dollars. Their sons were guaranteed half of this income, and their grandsons a quarter. So the maharajas are as rich as ever. Their palaces, their art treasures, and their animals are still intact. They have lost only their authority. Until twenty years ago they were absolute monarchs, reigning over islands of sovereignty within British India that ranged from territories the size of a few square blocks to Kashmir, which is twice as big as England. Now they reign nowhere, but have to depend on the democratic process for any office they want; their sons have to think of new ways to make a living. And if perhaps they are a little grateful when friends still call them Your Highness, it is because a psychological reorientation of this sort is not so easy.

Gwalior was the third richest princely state, powerful even though it was only a smallish kingdom, population about half a million. It was called “many-gunned,” a designation shared only with the princely states of Kashmir, Hyderabad, Mysore, and Baroda, and entitling its maharaja to full 21-gun salutes.

During the nationwide Army Rebellion of 1857, Gwalior’s king, Jivaji, made the decision — unlike the other important maharajas —to throw in his weight (100 elephants and 500 horses) on the side of the British. Had he not done so, it is possible that this first native uprising would have been successful, and independence would have come almost a century earlier. The British were grateful: in appreciation they helped him build a $3 million home in the image of Buckingham Palace. With forced labor and true Oriental splendor, Jivaji put in a foundation that went down 40 feet, a solid gold roof strength-tested by his elephants, and the largest red chandelier and most .expensive model train in the world.

Like most of India’s maharajas, Jivaji and his family, the Scindias, were Hindus of the warrior caste. They had swept up from the south in the eighteenth century, capturing Gwalior’s highly coveted 1000-year-old fortress, perched on a high plateau in the middle of wide plains and an insuperable military asset. In 1947 the dynasty was still well entrenched and powerful, with glorious memories of military victories.

The citizenry had pleasant memories as well. Grandparents in Gwalior could look back at the time when Queen Victoria, just crowned Empress of India, visited the city. And parents could dream of the wonderful triple wedding in the Summer Palace when, hardly ten years earlier, the reigning maharani had married into the family and two of her cousins had wed Scindia noblemen. The scandal stirred up by the fact that she was a Nepali and he a Maharashtrian, a frowned-upon intercommunity match and hence for love rather than convenience, had added to the magic of the month of nuptial celebration: parades, fireworks, painted elephants, blazing costumes, gold, and jewels of the great court had spilled out into the town, which was sharing, briefly, its wealth and jubilation.

But independence meant the end of such things. Gwalior, like 600 other kingdoms, found itself suddenly part of a bureaucratic and secular state. Now it is quiet, an ordinary city of 400,000 people on the arid northern plains of India, 200 miles south of the capital. There hasn’t been a parade since independence, only a few marching strikes by the workers in the textile factory. The sumptuous royal guesthouse has been converted into a national girl scout training center. Procession Avenue is deserted, and the palace is a public museum, admission thirty cents. The Summer Palace, where the triple wedding was held, has been made into a government girls’ college, and the huge assembly rooms, once used for the rani’s parties, are now hollow lecture halls. The other palaces have become movie theaters, office buildings, high schools.

But statues of the maharajas— Jivaji. Mahadur. another Jivaji. another Mahadur (one bearing the inscription “Ay, every inch a king!”) —still stand in the main squares and inspire nostalgic chauvinism in the citizens of the town. For many the postindependence period is the time when prices quadrupled and lift became more difficult in every way; when unjust personal rule and royal patronage were replaced by unjust impersonal rule and Congress Party patronage. The old glamour of Gwalior has faded, and people miss it. Some of Gwalior’s intellectuals, a head of a college, a bookstore owner, feel that the man on the street is a secret royalist, that if he had the chance he would vote to reinstate the maharaja and secede from the government of India.

In the meantime, the people of Gwalior have overwhelmingly elected the Maharani, now a fifty-year-old widow, to the lower house of India’s national legislature, making her one of about a dozen royal members of Parliament.

MOST of Gwalior’s townspeople feel themselves at an enormous distance from their Maharani socially, and they are eager to gape at her when she makes one of her occasional public appearances, such as at the temple on the god Krishna’s birthday. But there are others who, though commoners, consider themselves a part of the old coterie. One is Mrs. Uma Kunzru, a friend of the Maharani’s from their college days in Benares, and now a genial social butterfly who teaches girls Sanskrit for an hour a day. The Maharani is accessible to her old friends, up to a point, and so in the company of Mrs. Kunzru I was granted an audience with Her Highness.

We went to the Small Palace, the only one of the Gwalior structures ever used these days by the Scindias; and even this stands empty most of the year while the Rani serves in Parliament in New Delhi or vacations in Bombay, Calcutta, or Benares. It was evening, and the turreted pink stucco castle looked like a Disney fantasy in the moonlight; the upper story and balconies were all carved into lacy grill work.

Inside we climbed a huge and slippery marble stairway past lifcsize dancing Sivas in gold, past jeweled peacocks, past enormous stuffed tigers rearing on their hind legs and snarling. Full wall mirrors followed us all the way up, and an army of butlers greeted us at the top. By the time I was seated in the Rani’s drawing room sipping essence of rose and nibbling on cashews, I had decided that the Small Palace was not beautiful after all. Mixed in with the superb Rajput miniature paintings of maidens in gardens were china knickknacks — birds, animals, and cherubs of amusement park caliber; collections of seashells and rocks were scattered around, perhaps the work of a not-too-inspired royal child; and the decorative staples were stiff and unattractive group photographs and prints of sentimental Western paintings.

The Maharani’s face and neck were fat, but her body was small and thin, and her bearing was awkward. She spoke in a rapid, high voice, racing on compulsively without waiting for questions or tolerating a moment’s interruption. All the time she was speaking to us she fiddled with the end of her delicate white lace sari, pulling it up over her head in the Indian gesture of female modesty, and then pushing it off again.

Although she had been in Parliament for five years, the Maharani’s political ideas were vague, She thought that the best way to solve India’s urgent food problem was to cut down on government controls and give the entrepreneurs more freedom, counting on their “good sense and goodwill” to eliminate hoarding and black marketeering. She was opposed to India’s having an atom bomb, but was vehement about the need for military defense. She favored neutralism and nonalignmcnt, but with the proviso that America would protect India from an invasion by the Chinese (whom she described playfully as “ants”).

She didn’t really like Parliament, she said, for they were too “mechanical,” always worrying about things like finance, corruption, and Kashmir, which basically didn’t interest her; always “getting things done” instead of “thinking about the human element.” And so, by her own report, she spent a good amount of time escaping parliamentary politics with little naps in the Parliament ladies’ room.

Maharani Vijaya Raje Scindia most enjoyed talking about the days before independence. She recalled the time “we found a tiger near the guesthouse.” A servant telephoned the Main Palace to report it, and, the Maharaja being away from home at the time, the Maharani answered and at first did not believe the servant. Not until he became incoherent with fright did the Rani order her men out for the kill. They got an elephant from the stables and trapped the beast in the traditional manner. “We had ten or twelve elephants then, and another five or six down in Dubra pushing the freight cars on the sugar plantation. Now we have only four.”

Two of the Gwalior elephants were currently pushing sugar cars, she explained, under the management of an old British overseer who hated the filthy beasts. The two others were for her son, who enjoyed a little tiger hunting at home on his vacations from Oxford. “The young Maharaja,” as he was called, bagged his first tiger when lie was fifteen, and in the years since then had caught a half dozen more. His proudest trophy, though, was a rhinoceros, an animal his father had never brought down.

“Oh, but the old days were good,” began the Maharani suddenly. “We had so much to do then ! It was wonderful, remember?” And she turned to her friend Mrs. Kunzru, who had been paying scant attention to the political talk but at this point perked up.

“All the women were in purdah,” the Rani said happily, referring to the Indian custom of secluding women from men and the public. “We all stayed together,” she said, pulling her sari energetically over her head and forehead, “and the men got so jealous! We used to come back home two, three, even four o’clock at night! Remember?” Mrs. Kunzru broke out into a flurry of giggles, nodding enthusiastic agreement. “Oh, yes, yes! It was wonderful!”

“It was a women’s club we had then, a lovely women’s club,” the Maharani explained to me. “Starting right after I was married. We did so many things together; we had such a good time. Parties and picnics, and if one lady knew how to cook something, like Bengali ras gullah, she would write her name on a board and other ladies would ask her to teach them. There were classes for so many different things: cooking, embroidery. For maybe five or six ladies at a time, not everybody. All together in the women’s club were, oh, maybe one hundred women. Not everyone came every day, of course, but many did. There was a bus that brought them.

“And once we actually went out hunting, just like the men! Not really to shoot, of course, but we took two big guns just for show. And dramatics too. Two plays a year, one big one and one small one . . . No, I never acted in them myself, other women did that . . . No, no music, that was the only thing we didn’t have, I don’t know why. But so many dinners and parties! And so much fun! Nowadays when my daughter comes to Gwalior she always says there’s nothing to do, there’s nobody here.”

By this time Mrs. Kunzru was ecstatic, making little joyful noises and rocking back and forth. “Yes!' Yes!”

I asked how long the women’s club had gone on.

The Maharani stopped speaking and fell into a short reverie. “Uh ... let me see . . . uh, from my marriage, I guess that was in 1941, until, uh, yes . . . 1947.”

“Oh, 1947. Why did it stop then?”

Silence. Mrs. Kunzru also silent. No more rocking.

“I mean, it wasn’t necessary that it stop then, was it?”

The Maharani made a strange face, pained. Another pause. When she spoke again her voice was slower and soberer. “No, it wasn’t necessary that it stop then. But it did. The ladies just stopped coming. I guess it was my little dream. I thought they were coming because they wanted to, I thought they were having a good time, but it was the power . . . They were all coming just to please me ... 1 guess it was all my little dream . . . People . . . just . . . stopped . . . coming.”

The Maharani showed us the giant stuffed tiger and the rhinoceros head and begged our leave to go to a dinner party. On the way out, Mrs. Kunzru very quickly, lightly, so smoothly that I almost thought I imagined it, bent to the floor and kissed the Maharani’s feet.

NOT all the ex-maharajas can translate their traditional role into modern terms as well as the Maharani of Gwalior can. Her son seems to be following her example, and hopes, like her, to go into politics on behalf of the people who would have been his subjects.

A few other royal families have succeeded in the political arena. The central government appointed the rajas of Kashmir and Mysore to be governors of their former domains. The Maharaja of Jaipur (ruler of a kingdom of pink palaces that has been called the second most beautiful city in the world) is now India’s ambassador to Spain, and his wife, a lovely member of India’s jet set, is an MP and an unofficial leader of the Swatantra Party.

But many former monarchs are finding themselves in less comfortable situations. One poloplaying maharaja, a millionaire investor in coal and tires and president of the most exclusive Calcutta social club, is involved at the moment in a legal scandal. His son is being tried for the murder of the maharaja’s chauffeur, the latter admittedly the recipient of huge gifts of royal property and allegedly the maharaja’s homosexual consort. Recently, one maharaja was shot by his own people in a riot. Another was arrested for the theft of a gold scepter from his own palace.

Since the Muslim rulers had large harems, and the Hindus usually two or three wives at least, numerous royal offspring are spread around the country. Many are educated in fancy private schools where classes are taught in English, and often they are familiar with the latest American songs and dances. Consequently, these sons and grandsons of maharajas are prone to seek out the company of Westerners for prestige and mutual utility. Many Peace Corps Volunteers have discovered that if they play baseball and drink Cokes with royalty, they have easy access to India’s luxury and vacation world. This sort of young maharaja is likely to use his ancestry to impress girls at parties.

A different sort of royal child, however, considers his background a curse. Asoka is a ninctcenyear-old Bengali living in Calcutta, whose grandfather was maharaja of a small territory now in Pakistan. Asoka works as a clerk in a Calcutta hotel and rarely has enough money for a movie. He has been in and out of the best men’s college in the city, quitting when he found he simply couldn’t get up in the morning in time for classes. Then he did a stint in the Indian Air Force, quitting that when military life became too oppressive.

Since the royal fortune is completely gone, Asoka and his family live in a modest middle-class home in downtown Calcutta. His grandfather had the misfortune of being deposed by the people a little before independence, just missing the government doles that were to come later. What was left of the family money after a hurried departure from Pakistan has since been squandered by the maharaja’s sons and nephews in lawsuits directed against one another.

Asoka’s uncles and aunts like to reminisce about the old days, and his parents are trying to instill in him respect for the old values: Hindu religion and culture, the life of gentlemanly leisure. His father, who has never been employed, is supported by Asoka’s uncles. But like a third-generation American, this teen-ager is in violent rebellion against all that: the old days, his elders, and their values fill him with disgust. “You just liked it,”he shouts at an uncle in one of the frequent family scenes, “because you had plenty of dough and nothing to do.”

Asoka is plagued with guilt about his own laziness, his own inability to stick to one job. He is afraid he will “never amount to anything,” and blames this on his idle progenitors. His parents cannot understand what is troubling him. Nor can they understand why, at the age of sixteen, he had himself baptized and became a Christian.

His parents would like to pick a wife for him, a nice, modest Hindu girl. Asoka cannot contain his scorn for this plan, or for nice Hindu girls in general. Instead he dates girls his parents consider “fast,” and spends a lot of time at coffeehouses — behavior which would be normal in America, but which is still daring in India. He reads Kafka, Sartre, Moravia, Henry Miller, though a quirk of anti-Hinduism in his literary judgment leads him to reject the Kama Sutra as “obscene.” And he is willing to stand in line all night for a ticket to L’ Avventura or Breathless when such a film makes its infrequent appearance in the city.

Asoka’s friends, all commoners, spontaneously accord him the homage his ancestors claimed as a right. They gaze with admiration at his lean, graceful body, at his stylish Continental clothes; they dote on his casual wit. They carry his money for him on a double date or a group outing because, they say fondly, “he always loses it.” And when he dines at their houses, as he often does because he doesn’t like to go home and rarely has enough money for a restaurant, they are careful not to give him spices that are too strong or sodas that are too gassy, because they know how sensitive his stomach is. All this he accepts as his due; and despite his personal anxieties, he exudes a certain grace, halfway between suavity and blessedness.

In Asoka’s home, only one piece of furniture gives away the family’s origin. Hanging over the fireplace is an enormous clock, at least six feet in diameter, which used to hang on the bedroom wall of his maharaja grandfather’s palace. It is a startling sight in the ordinary apartment.

Asoka dimly remembers living in a thirty-threcroom mansion once, of which all but four rooms were locked. But he cannot look at the enormous clock without frowning. “He was such a lazy bastard,” says the boy, “he didn’t want to have to even turn his head when he was in bed to find out the time.”

Asoka walks out of the living room. From his own bedroom window he can see a slum community huddled behind the walls of the bigger houses. A teen-age boy down there is teasing the girls, reading comic books ostentatiously, dancing around in random twist steps. Asoka stands and watches for a long time.