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A legendary legacy: eccentric tales of Indian Royalty

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By Cosmo Brockway

India is a land rich in marvels, where the extremes of excess and poverty have danced hand in hand since the dawn of time. Visiting ambassadors and explorers sent wonder-filled reports of elephants emblazoned with jewels and palaces filled with a thousand concubines alongside famine ravaged regions and a caste system that left millions invisible. But it was the historic rulers of the subcontinent who captivated and intrigued in equal measure, often becoming legends in their own lifetimes.

The arrival of the modern press in the 19th century brought the world’s attention to the dazzling style of the Maharajas. They remain a source of fascination to this day with books, exhibitions and films delving into the near mythical wealth and panache, as well as the eccentricities, of a singular race of princes.

These potentate’s palaces were once elusive citadels, guarded by eunuchs and shrouded in  Chinese whispers of immense privilege, but now many have opened their doors to guests allowing us a tantalising glimpse into a largely vanished world.

Osman Ali Khan Credit Southreportcom
Sir Osman Ali Khan, credit southreport.com

Hyderabad’s Taj Falaknuma Palace pays homage to the last Nizam of Hyderabad, the richest man of the age and ruler of a state as big as England and Scotland combined. Sir Osman Ali Khan employed 14,718 servants when he died in 1967. One of his residences alone boasted 3,000 Arab bodyguards, 28 people to serve drinking water, 38 to dust the priceless chandeliers and several just to grind walnuts. His ‘Exalted Highness’ used the famous Jacob diamond, worth £50 million as a paperweight - wrapped in newspaper, and was said to own enough pearls to pave Piccadilly Circus. He was also known for his astonishing frugality, sleeping under a threadbare blanket (he refused to pay more than 35 rupees for a new one) and knitted his own socks. Amusingly he once surprised the visiting Prince of Wales with a gift of a chamberpot that played God Save the Queen when the lid was opened – history does not record the Prince’s comment!

Another tale that reveals the royal peccadillos of the time is that of Saddiq Muhammed Khan Abassi IV, the Nawab of Bahawalpur (in present-day Pakistan), ordering a bed encrusted with 290kg of silver from Christofle in Paris. The bed was ornamented with ‘four life-size bronze figures (of naked females) painted in flesh tones with natural hair, movable eyes and arms, holding fans and horse tails’. The four figures represented women of France, Spain, Italy and Greece, each with a different skin-tone and hair colour. The Nawab was able to set the figures in motion so that they fanned him while winking at him, against a 30-minute cycle of music from Gounod's Faust, a confection that could only be found in India.

Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi Iv Credit Masaladabbaindiaes
Nawab of Bahawalpur's bed, credit masaladabbaindia.es

The very beautiful Indira, Maharani of Cooch Behar, a woman of cosmopolitan tastes, collected hundreds of shoes, many diamond studded, from Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo and was described by an observer at a casino in Le Touquet as ‘the most fabulously beautiful young Indian lady, holding the longest cigarette holder I had ever seen, wearing a brilliant silk sari and covered with gems. She was quite poker-faced but had a pile of chips in front of her to testify to her success and, to top it all, she had a live tortoise, whose back was laden with three strips of emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, which she was using as a talisman. Every now and then the creature would crawl across the table but every time she caught it back. The crowd was totally mesmerised by her.’ An unconventional product of traditional ‘purdah’, a practice where high caste Indian women were not seen in public, Indira spent her life blazing the way for women’s emancipation, mixing freely with all walks of life, from New York to Calcutta. An early elopement with her future husband set the tone – she became a muse to Man Ray and Cecil Beaton and hosted house parties where all the male servants appeared in full drag. She also gave her children, who included the late Gayatri Devi, Maharani of Jaipur, small spinning wheels, symbols of Indian nationalism and they played games shouting independence slogans. She took houses in Kashmir ‘when the almond blossom was in full bloom’ and the Cote d’Azur and symbolised the heady indulgences of her tribe mingled with an irrepressible joie de vivre. Biographer Lucy Moore tells of Indira inviting an Italian novelist to India as her guest. Their sea-plane crashed into the sea off the coast of Alexandria. No-one was hurt and the besotted novelist recounted that ‘The Maharani sat beside me, soaking wet and puffing at a cigarette and smiling to herself at the thrills which life provided, unasked. With her nothing was dull and one felt anything might happen.’

Indira Raje Credit Thelifestylejournalistin
Indira Raje, credit thelifestylejournalist.in

The recently released film, The Viceroy’s House, depicts this world in all of its splendour. The last Viceroy of India, Earl Mountbatten and his wife Edwina relished the pomp and magnificence of the subcontinent, a world away from post-war rationed Britain. They delighted in gifts such as a gold pen concealing a pistol given by the Maharaja of Jodhpur and for their silver wedding anniversary, a solid silver replica of a palace from the polo-playing Maharaja of Jaipur. However, they also deeply treasured dog-eared letters from Indian schoolchildren and above all a note from Gandhi addressing Edwina as ‘dear sister’.

Descendants of these families relate astonishing tales of ancestral whims and misadventures. Staying in their homes, both past and present, is to be surrounded by history and relics of lives well lived – India’s heritage would be poorer without this unique legacy.

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