Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Out of India: Princes schooled in whisky and women

AJMER - The British set up Mayo College in 1878 to teach Rajasthani princes to behave like proper little Englishmen, but it did not quite work as expected.

The first student, Yaswant Singh, insisted on coming to school every day astride an elephant, trailing 200 servants in his wake. While the schoolmasters droned on about democracy, the Magna Carta and a maharani named Victoria in faraway Inglestan, the elephant and the retinue lolled on the lawns, waiting for the boy.

Today, Mayo College is a trifle more egalitarian. Servants and elephants have long since been banished from the Ajmer campus, and the 750 students - only a third of whom belong to noble families - now wear blazers instead of silk turbans and jodhpurs. The college insists that Mayo boys survive on a spartan monthly allowance of pounds 3 in pocket money, which is a relief for their aristocratic parents. Few of the princelings today are rich.

In the early days Mayo College did not teach thrift. Instead, it gave the maharajahs a taste for expensive European guns, blonde mistresses and jewellery. What remained of their treasuries and vast estates was snatched away by the late prime minister, Indira Gandhi, along with their royal titles. Officially, India's thousands of maharajahs and nawabs, the Muslim rulers, have ceased to exist. At the college, these disinherited princes are nicknamed 'rajus' by the more savvy nouveaux-riches boys from Delhi and Bombay, who dismiss them as poor country-bumpkins, clinging to a code of chivalry that the rest of India has forgtten.

It was Prize Day. The chief guest, King Birendra of Nepal, had departed after signing his name in a guest book simply as Birendra, address: Nepal. After His Majesty left, things loosened up. Earlier, the Old Boys had thrashed the students in cricket and were celebrating their victory. The only refreshments in evidence were Indian whisky and a peppery snack that made you want to drink gallons of whatever liquid happened to be close by, which was the whisky.

There were young maharajahs with golden ear studs and old, portly maharajahs with long moustaches that stuck out like the wings of a vulture. They spoke of royal weddings, the do-it-yourself converting of their ruined 15th-century fortresses into hotels and shikar - hunting. It was late evening and a whisky- induced stupor fell upon the assembled princes. Then one of the Old Boys came up with the bright idea of a wild-boar hunt.

A few of the sloshed noblemen jumped up, ready to go, even though it meant driving 120 miles, weaving through lorries on the main Jaipur-Bombay road, to blast away at a few snaggle-toothed pigs. I was relieved when my companion declined the invitation.

The next morning, I visited Mahesh Mathur, an erudite and whimsical geography professor whose father and grandfather had also taught at Mayo. What happened to the little princes these days after graduation, I wondered. A few became ambassadors, lawyers or doctors, he said. Some drifted in and out of politics, relying on the loyalty - or pity, perhaps - of their ex-subjects. Others farmed or turned into reluctant hoteliers. (Rajasthan has more than 50 palaces converted into hotels - many are exquisite.) And others served in the armed services. Indian princes - Mayo boys - fought courageously at the head of their private armies on Britain's side during the First and Second World Wars, and the martial tradition carries on. But, as one teacher said: 'Their most popular pastime is hitting the bottle - hard.'

Did the British try to educate the princes? Upliftment of the 'natives' was much in vogue during the Victorian era. And, after all, the school's insignia, designed by Rudyard Kipling's father, showed a prince and a tribesmen happily side by side.

'Not at all,' replied Mr Mathur, 'The Political Agent kept watch on the princes. That way they could sort out the troublemakers from those who might be easy to manipulate - and make sure the right prince ended up on the throne.'

The last British principal was Jack Gibson, OBE. Retired in 1969, he still lives in Ajmer. He is ailing, confined to one room with a view of his English garden in the middle of the desert.

In the old days the principal had the power to make or mar the fortunes of young princes who came to him. As testimony to that, Mr Gibson was lying in bed one day last year when in walked the Indian army, navy and air force chiefs, all former students of his.

Infusing the princes with civic responsibility was not high on the imperial agenda. It was more in British interests to have the maharajahs drunk and in debt than raising potentially hostile armies. The British encouraged them to visit Europe and spend foolishly. One maharajah, on a visit to London, was so incensed by the racism of a clerk in the Rolls-Royce showroom that he bought every car on display and used them to haul rubbish.

Few former maharajahs have any Rolls-Royces left. One recent visitor to a threadbare Rajasthan palace was aghast. 'The rajah's family have become so poor. They're even selling the Belgian glass door knobs. One by one.' Mayo College is trying to ensure that some vestige of the Indian aristocracy survives long after the land and the jewels have gone.