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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'