For centuries, regions of the Indian subcontinent were ruled with quasi-autonomy by kings known as Rajas. Though their roles and responsibilities invariably changed over time, they remained permanent fixtures of Indian society. After the establishment of the British Raj in 1858 however, India was officially subsumed into the British Empire, raising questions about the position of the Rajas within the hierarchy of the imperialsystem.
In keeping with imperial policy, British officialdom elected to maintain many of the Rajas rather than replace them with colonial officials. Indeed, the Raj allowed ‘native chiefs’ to rule 175 princely states throughout India. Nevertheless, Indian rulers were henceforth made to emulate Western customs.
Long gone were the days of the nabob – during which white European settlers actively immersed themselves in Indian culture. The British Raj considered Indian men to be, not only racially inferior, but effeminate, and inherently incapable of self-governance. This perception could hardly be further removed from that of the powerful Indian kings who had long ruled the vast Indian subcontinent.
Although their power was curtailed by imperial authorities, including being demoted from kings to ‘princes’ and ‘chiefs’ by colonial rhetoric, many Rajas and Maharajas (‘rulers’ and ‘great rulers’) successfully retained some degree of autonomy. They continued to maintain order, collect tax, and implement reform within their kingdoms.
In fact, some positively thrived in this period; expanding women’s rights, increasing access to education, outlawing child marriage, and legislating against caste discrimination. Some Rajas took it upon themselves to better their kingdoms in the face of the empire on which the sun never set.
Gaekwar of Baroda (Maharaja Sayyaji Rao III) took this further still – infamously disrespecting George V at the 1911 Delhi Durbar (a mass assembly in Delhi to mark the coronation of King George V) by turning his back on him. Each Raja had been expected to perform proper obeisance to the newly crowned Emperor of India by bowing three times before backing away without turning.
This public humiliation of the Emperor took place against the backdrop of the Indian Independence Movement. Thirty-six years later, India and Pakistan achieved independence from Britain.
Following independence, many Indian provincial rulers became bankrupt as a result of declining incomes. Others however, transformed their palaces into hotels, opened museums, and flourished on the political scene.It is testament to the adaptability of the Indian Rajas that todaymany remain important symbols of regional identity.