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Amit Paricha — Roli Books.
Maharaja Sobhag Singh of Jodhpur with his daughter-in-law and two sons. Karan Vijay Singh (left) , is a renowned polo player.

End of the Royal Fairy Tale
Two new books recall the magic of the rajas, but India's aristocrats struggle to remain relevant in democratic society

Once upon a time, India's princes and princesses lived in the kind of wealth you would only find in fairy tales. Together, their 560 families ruled over two-fifths of their country. One prince used a 162-carat diamond as a paper-weight. Another had a fleet of 72 Rolls-Royces and 100 other cars, while an especially eccentric one loved his dogs so much he dressed them in elaborate robes and equipped their kennels with telephones. Thousands of guests were invited to the wedding of one of these pampered pooches.

And then, in 1971, the Indian government did away with all royal privileges, cutting the allowances received from the state and ending the families' right to rule. With that, the princes of India were all but consigned to the country's history books. But while most of them may have lost their power and fortunes, they are not completely without support. Some historians and writers believe the princes remain relevant in a democracy and that their role in building the nation should be reassessed.

This is the theme of two recently published books on Indian royalty. They explore the role of the former rulers and find much of the romance and mystique surrounding them intact today. Sharda Dwivedi's The Maharaja and the Princely States of India (Lustre Press, Delhi, 155 pages, $125) and Costumes and Textiles of Royal India by Ritu Kumar (Christie's Books, London, 343 pages, price not specified) both present splendid photographs that highlight the opulence of the old ways.

The royals have an axe to grind. In a foreword to The Maharaja, Arvind Singh, himself a member of the Udaipur royalty, argues that the former rulers have never been given credit for their part in India's history. "Even as early as the 19th century, many played a significant and major role in the struggle for India's Independence," he writes. "Unfortunately, their contribution has never been highlighted or even acknowledged. Such is the weakness of democracy." One day, he suggests, "the true facts will emerge" and the princes' role will find a rightful place in the annals of history.

Author Dwivedi tells how some princes adapted to the sudden loss of state funds and other privileges. The wealthier ones set up trusts to look after the welfare of dependents and employees and for the establishment of institutions dealing with research, education, health care and social welfare. Others took jobs in industry, or joined the diplomatic service or became politicians — dealing on equal terms with people who had once been their subjects.

Some, like Singh, chose to capitalize on what they had and turned their fabulous palaces into equally fabulous hotels, often complete with many of the old trappings and possessions. Other homes morphed into schools and libraries. Glimpses of the rajas' vast inheritance can be seen in the wildlife sanctuaries that used to be royal hunting grounds and in the costumes, jewels, crystal and antiques displayed in museums.

Not all the former rulers fared well, of course. Many frittered away their riches or became entangled in wealth-sapping legal disputes. In other cases, says Dwivedi, the palaces became "millstones around royal necks." As a result, she says, some royals are "living in a state of near penury."

In Costumes and Textiles, Kumar, a fashion designer, says society's traditions were too deeply rooted to disappear at the stroke of an administrator's pen. Today, many royal families are still part of the social fabric. They dress in traditional costume for religious ceremonies and celebrations and some forms of royal language continue to be used in polite society.

Kumar describes the garments she features as among the "few surviving examples of India's vast textile heritage." Once the maharajas saw their lands merge with the Indian state, the traditional costumes were either packed away in trunks, donated to museums, sold to private collectors or left to decay. What a pity, she says. The attention to detail and the quest for perfection displayed in the costumes created a splendor "unmatched anywhere." Pity also that royal energies were not more devoted to the greater good.

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