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In the 18th century the British East India Company established enormously profitable trade with India and other countries in the region, like China, Ceylon and the East Indies (Indonesia) but the princes of India (particularly in the West) were historically warlike and carried on debilitating military campaigns against each other based on ancient antagonisms and religious antipathy.
The Company founded an army to protect its commercial interests and various battles between 1757 and 1818 gained commercial control of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa and territories around its bases in Bombay and Madras, encompassing most of India south of the Narmada River.
The first two decades of the 19thCentury saw accelerated expansion of Company territories. This was achieved either by subsidiary alliances between the Company and local rulers or by direct military annexation; creating the Princely States of the Hindu maharajahs and the Muslim nawabs. Punjab, Northwest Frontier Province, and Kashmir were annexed after the Anglo-Sikh Wars in 1849 and Kashmir became a princely state under the Dogra Dynasty of Jammu. Five years later Berar was annexed, and the state of Oudh was added two years after that.
India continued to be ruled by these Princes and nawabs but overall law and order was imposed by the Company and its Indian armies. This is universally reported, in the forts and palaces we visited, as a time of unusual prosperity and relative peace.
Just before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, there were over 200,000 Indians in the Company’s armies compared to about 40,000 British. The forces were divided into three presidency armies: the Bombay; the Madras; and the Bengal. The sepoys were a combination of Muslim and Hindu soldiers. Unlike the other two armies the Bengal army recruited higher castes, such as Rajputs and Brahmins and this is partly blamed for the trouble.
The ostensive reason (trigger) for the mutiny was the kind of grease used on new cartridges issued to Indian troops. This was said to be lard, either pork or beef fat. To activate the cartridge they had to be bitten and this was said to potentially pollute the soldier’s caste. Of course there were also underlying religious and cultural issues that immediately came to the fore and the grease issue (offensive to both main religions) may have been fabricated by those fermenting trouble.
When troops rebelled, the local English community together with Company employees took fright and abandoned their posts. Civilian populations took advantage of the lack of authority to riot and loot. Local rulers took the opportunity to revive old hostilities and settle differences amongst themselves. Many regiments simply disbanded and went home. Initially chaos ruled. But sufficient Indian troops remained loyal to restore order.
In Delhi the East India Company set up its guns in the Great Mosque to bombard rebel strongholds, including the Red Fort. Considerable damage was done to valuable property.
The Red Fort seen from the Mosque
The insurrection was put down, with excessive force and brutality, with the help of soldiers drawn from the Madras Army, the Bombay Army and the Sikh regiments as well as British soldiers from the Crimea. The vast majority of the forces on the East India Company side were Indian but from other areas and cultures to the local rebels and rioters.
The brutality against civilian populations that resulted appalled many in Britain and in 1858 the Government of India Act was proclaimed dissolving the East India Company and transferring its resources to the British Crown. Queen Victoria became Empress of India in 1876 and a Viceroy was appointed assuming responsibility for Indian government, at the head of a Council of Indian Princes.
In the fort palace at Jaisalmer there is a very interesting display of Indian stamps and other documents. These are split into the various kingdoms; and with each is a one page typewritten summary of each Kingdom, clearly written by English bureaucrats, probably in the 1930s. Each sheet begins by identifying the geographical position of the kingdom and then identifies the ruler; a brief history and his claim to the crown; usually describing the line of succession and any seizure by force or usurpation that took place. It was very interesting reading as several claimed a direct decadency from Shiva or another god and some had murdered a previous ruler. In one case the British commentator had added in brackets ‘(nothing new in that)’.
Elsewhere when we visited previous royal palaces (Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaipur) there were invariably contemporary photographs from the Raj. These recorded things like the Council of Princes meeting on different dates and locations (posed as in a school photo) with the British Viceroy front and centre.
The Chamber of Princes 1939 - equivalent to the British House of Lords - Governor General front row centre
The arrival of a royal personage from England at an Indian state was obviously an occasion for vast hospitality, together with feasts and hunting expeditions or elephant fights.
Some Viceroys (in their exalted status) clearly cast themselves as the chief amongst the princes. One photograph poses the Viceroy and his consort on what appear to be thrones in gowns, with his consort actually wearing a crown (not just a tiara) – quite extraordinary.
His Excellency the Viceroy of India, the Earl of Willingdon and Her Excellency the Countess of Willingdon with their pages in 1935
(from left to right), Maharaj Kumar Yeshwant Singh of Datia, Maharaj Kumar Hukam Singh of Jaisalmer,
Sahibzada Mohd Mobarak Abbasi of Bahawalpur and the Maharaj Kumar of Benares
This uber-royal status was further accentuated by the construction in 1930 of a vice regal palace (Viceroy’s House) in New Delhi (now the Presidential Palace) that puts Buckingham Palace to shame. It is the largest residence of any Head of the State in the world and sits at the head of the grand 4 kilometre long avenue that forms the east- west axis around which New Delhi was designed. This same avenue contains the largest war memorial in India (India Gate) and an eternal flame.
One kilometre long north south and west avenues also radiate from the palace and the other major roads form a series of radiating triangles and curves around this (rather Christian) cross. New Delhi was designed as a capital like Canberra but on a much grander scale. It has numerous grand avenues flanked by quite well maintained parks and is reminiscent of Washington DC. Old Delhi and anywhere much distant from the parliamentary area quickly becomes much like the rest of India.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the Viceroy began to use the less regal title ‘Governor General’ and the Council of Indian Princes became the basis of the Imperial Legislative Council. This was subsequently converted to an upper house by the Government of India Act 1919 and a new, elected, Legislative Assembly became the lower house of a bicameral parliament.
As the independence movement grew, after the return of Gandhi from South Africa in 1915, the Mutiny became a rallying point and was redefined as the First War of Indian Independence.
The Princes remained as local rulers until after partition (into India and Pakistan) and Indian independence in 1947. There was no constitutional place for them in the New India and they have been taxed to the point of needing to take in borders. Most palaces and forts are now either abandoned to the State (and the tourists) or are substantially upmarket hotels, usually with a tourist area, in which the Prince maintains a private apartment.
The palace of the Maharaja of Jodhpur - now mostly hotel
But none of these private areas (that we were aware of) is still maintained as a zenana (monogamy is now enforced by law).
In general renting out the excess rooms allows the Princes to maintain a lifestyle as a wealthy private citizen. Many of the Hindu princes continue to represent their particular god on earth and still carry out the duties of this position, with many subjects loyal to them on this basis as before. In these cases they preside over festivals, events and parades and attend polo tournaments (just like, HRH you know who – did someone say chukka?). Most are British educated so they are at home with the other Eaton and Harrow boys.