noun chiefly Hinduism
• a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth; an incarnate divine teacher.
• an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea
One afternoon last July, I was sitting with the Queen of Baroda in her salon and she asked me if I would like to have some tea. I said “No, thank you” somewhat instinctively but I reversed my stance a few minutes later. I could not refuse an offer to drink tea with a maharani. It would serve as a great opener if I ran into a Silicon Valley Indian mogul in the San Francisco Bay Area. To pass up on the opportunity to let my silver spoon clink against the bone china at the Laxmi Vilas Palace that afternoon would have been a tragedy.
I had considered riding in an autorickshaw to the palace just as the maharani had suggested in her email but I rode into the grounds, instead, on four wheels, in a beat-up purple Tata Indica with worn beige covers that my cousin had rented that morning for me and fitted with a young driver called Mansingh. A tall and lanky dude, Mansingh looked like a Bollywood hero but was really a bit of a zero. The words on his red T-shirt should have been a warning to me: “Hard work pays off later. Laziness pays off now.” But Mansingh did do one thing right. He took memorable pictures of me outside the stunning Baroda palace built in the Indo-Saracenic style; in the pictures I stand—in front of those domes, balconies, stained glass panels and mosaics—looking almost regal, like a minor maharani about to glide into her Daimler.
Before I landed in Baroda I spent time reading about the life of royalty in India’s princely states. Native princes governed over two-fifths of the Indian subcontinent by the time Crown rule was established in 1858. India had 567 principalities and the British empire demanded that these big and small kingdoms owe allegiance to the Empire and to Queen Victoria who was proclaimed to be the Empress of India in 1876. The indigenous states ruled by the Indian princes retained their internal autonomy but their external relations and defense became the responsibility of the Crown. The Indian Princes were assured of protection from internal and external aggression through deployment of company troops. The Raj found many of these royals to be faithful military allies and used them as conduits to the people of India.
The Empire had a lot to gain by keeping these blue-blooded natives happy. Much of the charm of India and its exotic appeal lay in the courts of these Maharajahs. Furthermore, these royal vassals of the British really knew how to throw a party. The top officers of the Empire went hunting with the royals and took advantage of the lavish hospitality in these palaces. If India were viewed as the British Empire’s crown jewel, the pomp and glory of the princely states was a substantial part of its attraction. India’s royalty added color and heft to formal proceedings. At the Delhi darbar of 1911, all the princes were expected to be in attendance in their finery to commemorate the coronation in Britain a few months earlier of King George V and the announcement of India’s new capital as New Delhi. However, not all princes swayed to the expectations of the emperor. At that darbar, Prince Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, showed his displeasure at imperial rule by refusing to dress in full regalia. Sayajirao is supposed to have bowed only once (instead of the three bows) and he also turned his back on the emperor (princes were not supposed to show their backs to the king).
The stories I read about the maharanis of princely families made me wish I could be born a royal in my next avatar. The story of how Indira Devi, a scion of the Baroda royal family with its 21-gun salute, became the Maharani of Cooch Behar, which was only a 11-gun salute state, is one of the fairy-tale romances of India. In comparison, my life feels vapid—one without ferocity, passion, conquests, color and suitors, although I did have nine suitors followed by a tenth one who became my husband. I suppose, unlike the late Gayathri Devi, I will not die worrying about the proceeds of a large estate. Mine is all of about 3000 square feet minus a retinue of servants and plus a husband, who is an asset sometimes and a bit of a liability at other times.
Unlike my living room in Saratoga which is not larger than the smallest powder room in a palace, the darbar hall of the palace at Baroda is splashed with marble, mosaic and Venetian tiles. The classics of painter Raja Ravi Varma adorn the walls of this hall, one of the most magnificent in all of India. Today, many of these palaces are art galleries to the glories of old India and some have evolved into heritage hotels that are playgrounds for the nouveaux riches from places like the Silicon Valley.
The kings of India were purveyors of tradition and custom and patronized art and craft. Today the royal families of India are stripped of their titles and their privy purses, yet their life of privilege continues and likewise a life of responsibility. Many continue to be active in politics and public service. One of the reasons I was at Baroda that afternoon to meet Maharani Shubhangini Devi Gaekwad was to talk about her patronage of sari weavers from the town of Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh.
By the time I left Gujarat, I had experienced how life could be a royal pain with an ineffective underling. Mansingh did not only not know Baroda. Mansingh did not know Ahmedabad. And he didn’t know English. Still, Mansingh was a man with a ready smile and over the next three days, I would speak to my subject in the language of food, passing him burfi, laddoo and ribbon pakoda while we zipped around town, spinning our wheels going nowhere sometimes, thanks, of course, to Mansingh.
Despite everything I do feel privileged to have not been born into privilege. I’m happy I’m not the Maharani of Cooch Behar although, as I told my husband recently, it’s hard not to feel like the Maharani of Kuch Bhi-Nahin on some days.