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Heads High, India's Royals Are on Road to Ruination

Denizens of dark, moldy mansions remain secure in their superiority. 'We dislike even to mingle with commoners,' a prince opines.

June 13, 2004|Tim Sullivan | Associated Press Writer

NEW DELHI — In an old hunting lodge hidden on the fringes of India's capital, in a room where pigeons fly among hand-carved pillars and Persian carpets rot in the gloom, a princess dreams of a long-gone kingdom.

And lights. That would also be nice. "We have been left in darkness," said Princess Sakina Mahal, whose family, as rulers of the Kingdom of Oudh, once reigned over a large swath of central India. These days, royal rule doesn't extend beyond the crumbling 700-year-old stone building she calls home.

The hulking lodge, built by a long-dead sultan and concealed deep in an overgrown park, has no doors and no electricity. Pools of black mold grow on the ceiling; weeds sprout on the roof. But Sakina is still a princess, raised to believe that her position in the world has nothing to do with the poverty that engulfed her family.

"The decline is there, but our vanity shall never fail," she said, her clothing elegant but frayed, her voice rising to an unsettling urgency. In the shadows, her brother, Prince Riaz, nodded. "It shall never fail, though the regal ruination is before you!"

The past few generations have been devastating to the House of Oudh (pronounced a-wadh), reducing it to these middle-aged royals whose grasp on reality can seem as fragile as the rusting sign out front warning, "Intruders Shall Be Gundown."

But they are far from alone. Decline is familiar to all of India's 565 royal families, a fact of aristocratic life that accelerated dramatically after independence from Britain in 1947. The various royals -- maharajas and maharanis, nawabs, begums, nizams, princes and princesses -- have seen their powers stripped away, their land seized. Their payments from British colonial rulers and then the Indian government have been cut off.

Struggling to stay afloat, they've sold off piles of jewelry, fleets of Rolls-Royces and armories of heirloom rifles.

Some have found their way. A handful have become powerful politicians and a few are business leaders. A number have turned family palaces into hotels that sell hazy memories of the British Raj. Others are professional celebrities, lending their names to polo tournaments and frequenting newspaper pages.

Princess Gayatri Devi of the desert kingdom of Jaipur, a still-glamorous octogenarian, is the pitchwoman for diamond jewelry that promises the "Aura of Royalty" to the nouveaux riches.

But most of the old aristocrats have disappeared into obscurity. They may carry weight where their families once ruled, but in the wider world, most are well-named nobodies struggling to keep up appearances.

"I always feel so sorry for these poor deposed Indian princes," Queen Victoria wrote more than a century ago.

It has only gotten worse.

Today, India is a nation where a multibillion-dollar software industry and burgeoning middle class exist alongside 200 million people living in desperate poverty -- and where ancient traditions can be trumped by something as tawdry as money. Many royals are simply unable to cope.

"There's this nostalgia for the past," said Abhilasha Kumari, a professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications. "You hope that by clinging to certain traditions, you can keep it alive."

A member of a north Indian royal family, she has seen a number of relatives return to the family's former kingdom, giving up careers for the life of a semi-royal, still greeted on the streets with shouts of "Huzzoor! Huzzoor!" ("Your highness! Your highness!") "It's too much of a privilege, too much of an advantage, to let go," she said.

That's not surprising, given what these families once had.

Just 60 years ago, royalty controlled nearly a third of India. Rulers could levy taxes, settle disputes and raise armies.

But while technically independent, nearly every Indian king was shadowed by British colonial officers, and each knew that he remained enthroned at the price of fealty to Britain.

It was a situation that bred excess. Bored royals became famous for their palaces, their playthings and their mistresses. Their spending habits became folklore, from the maharajah of Patiala with his silver bathtub to the maharajah of Bharatpur with his 22 Rolls-Royce garbage trucks.

By the time they were stripped of power in 1947, most Indians took little interest.

But decades later, most royals insist that it's not so simple. Today, some still mediate local disputes and act as one-family charities. Perhaps most important, they say, they are symbols of a simpler past.

"You wouldn't understand it," said Princess Gayatri Devi, sitting in her Jaipur mansion amid fading photographs and a painting of her late husband on a polo pony. Then she tries to explain.

A few years ago, she returned to her ancestral home in Cooch Behar, which she had left decades earlier to marry. "I went to a remote place in the country and about 10,000 people had gathered. They'd come to see their princess," she said.

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