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A Passage in India : Ex-USC Student's Princely Wedding Bows to a Lavish Past and a New Order

December 16, 1987|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

GWALIOR, India — The bridegroom rode to the ceremony in a solid silver carriage. A coachman held a golden umbrella over his turbaned and plumed head. Around his neck were seven strands of pearls so outrageously large they looked like perfectly round pigeon eggs. He wore another necklace of sparkling diamonds and rubies as red as blood.

The tiny, nervous bride was practically carried to the altar by jewel-encrusted female relatives who gripped her firmly by the elbows. She was covered head to knee by a red veil spun of gossamer Benares silk as fine and sheer as a spider's web, so translucent that it barely dulled the brilliant sheen from her saree.

'Only' 40,000 Spectators

The wedding of Prince Vikramaditya Singh, a 23-year-old former polo-playing student at USC, and Princess Chittrangada Raje, 20, may have seemed grand to outsiders, but by the standards of Indian royalty, it was fairly intimate--only 40,000 or so folks gathered in front of a 455-room palace to see the offspring of two of India's noble families joined in wedlock.

And only one elephant. A perfectly fine elephant, nevertheless, painted electric blue with the portrait of a tiger on the sides of its head so that every time the elephant blinked its giant lids the tigers came to life.

But only one, after all, and this caused some of the several dozen kings, maharajas and princes assembled for the occasion to sniff in disdain, using their finest Oxford-Cambridge English to do the damage.

A Mind-Boggling Event

"I suppose this is a grand wedding by today's standards," said Maharajhiraj Himmat Singh, 62, uncle to the former Maharaja of Jodhpur, "but if you really wanted to see something you should have seen my younger brother's wedding in 1946. . . . We were greeted by 10,000 camels in full regalia. By God, that was a mind-boggling event. You can't imagine. Ten thousand camels. Life magazine was there and so was the (National) Geographic."

To be sure, that was before India won its independence from the British empire, before the lands of the Indian princes had shrunk to a few hundred acres, before their royal allowances were terminated by the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to make a political point. And it was before they were forced to sell their palaces to hotel chains and pose in them like living relics, tired, tweedy old men with their memories and their polo scars.

The marriage of Prince Vikramaditya, son of the former Maharaja of Kashmir, and Princess Chittrangada, daughter of the man who once stood to inherit the princely throne of Gwalior, was a revival of sorts for the princely Indian traditions that were protected and even pampered by the English imperialists--steeped as they were in their own indulgence of caste and pomp.

As it turned out, it was a revival with a twist, a curtsy to the past that was also a bow to a new political order in which one-time maharajas engage in democratic politics. This was also a political marriage, something equivalent to Sharon Percy, daughter of the former Illinois senator, marrying John D. Rockefeller IV, or, as Karan Singh, the father of the bridegroom, volunteered, "Nixon's daughter (Julie) marrying Eisenhower's grandson (David)."

Karan Singh, 56, is the former Maharaja of Kashmir, the beautiful mountain valley in northwest India. Madhav Rao Scindia, 41, the father of the bride, once was in line to inherit the kingdom of Gwalior in what is now Madya Pradesh state. The kingdoms were formally abolished at the time of independence. But traditions are slow to change in India, and a surprising amount of the power and influence remain intact.

Two Cabinet Ministers

Both fathers--still informally called maharajas--have served as cabinet ministers in the ruling Congress Party government. Karan Singh has been touted on occasion as a potential ambassador to the United States. Scindia still sits as minister of railways and is a close political ally of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

"We are the only former princes to be in the Cabinet," said the irrepressible Karan Singh, who hands visitors a short autobiography when they enter the elegant study of his New Delhi residence. "We are both of us active and successful political figures."

Both the bride's father and the bridegroom's father are referred to as "21-gun maharajas." Assigning gun salutes to the various Indian princes was another one of the British imperial touches; the more important the maharaja, the more guns fired in his honor.

The other, unmentioned similarity that connects the two fathers is that they have managed to keep money in their respective families. Karan Singh still owns the hillside palace that is the best hotel in the tourist mecca of Srinigar, the Kashmir capital. Scindia has money in cotton gins and textile factories; he is Gwalior's biggest employer.

Palace Painted White

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