Andrew Buncombe: An India where it's still the 1930s


In 1971, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi pushed through an amendment to the Indian constitution which, in an instant, did away with the rights and privileges of the country's royalty.

At India's independence in 1947, a total of 565 princely states existed, each of which had its own treaty with London. One of the ways the newly formed nation persuaded these maharajahs and nizams to accede was to promise to ensure they kept their titles and a decent annual payment. But by scrapping the so-called privy purse, Mrs Gandhi put an end to all of that. Overnight, hundreds of aristocrats had to think about how to make ends meet.

One of the consequences, 40 years later, is a network of former princely homes that now serve as hotels open to the public. From maharajah's palaces in Rajasthan to the walled compounds of female Muslim rulers (or Begums) in Madhya Pradesh, India is dotted with the equivalent of Britain's stately homes, needing to find a way to pay for themselves. All of them proudly boast of their regal heritage.

At the weekend, we took off to Pataudi palace, the one-time residence of the Nawab of Pataudi, a Muslim prince who held sway around 40 miles south of Delhi. The elegant property, with an abundant, manicured garden and noisy peacocks hooting from the trees, was built in the 1930s by the 8th Nawab, Iftikhar Ali Khan.

The Nawab was something of a cricketer, playing for both the English and Indian teams (a unique record) and on the walls of our cavernous room were black and white photographs of him, a slightly built man with Brylcreemed hair combed from left to right and wearing a striped blazer, sitting with members of the Worcestershire county teams of 1932, 1933 and 1934.

The Nawab's son, Mansoor Ali Khan, the 9th Nawab and the final one to receive a stipend and officially bear the title, was also a fine sportsman, captaining the Indian cricket team and playing in 46 Test matches. Among his teammates, the Nawab, who is still alive, apparently had the nickname of Tiger. He and his wife have a beautiful, if slightly smaller, home adjoining the main palace. (There are peacocks there too.)

As monsoon-season thunder rumbled in the distance, I lay by the pool, thinking about the history this house, now in need of a new coat of paint, must have witnessed, the changes it must have seen, both of its own fortunes and of the nation as a whole, as India endured its growing pains. I thought also about the things that had remained constant; as a fat yellow sun descended, the call to prayer sounded from the palace's private mosque, still in use, and in the dining room that evening, it seemed the décor had not changed since the 1930s.

For all of modern-day India's solid republican credentials, the maharajahs and princes still retain special status. A couple of years ago I met Brigadier Bhawani Singh, the last official holder of the title of Maharajah of Jaipur. The brigadier, who died earlier this year, was almost deaf and not in good health, but he retained a retinue of uniformed courtiers wearing white tunics and bright red turbans, who served on him in his 18th Century palace in the centre of the pink city.

At Pataudi, the regal connection also persists in another more subtle way. The 9th Nawab's son is Saif Ali Khan, one of the leading actors of Hindi cinema and the partner of starlet Kareena Kapoor. If the nawabs and nizams were the aristocracy of an earlier India, then the stars of Bollywood are the royalty of today.

A Gandhi in your name guarantees a crowd

If there's one prince above all in India, it is Rahul Gandhi, the son of the late Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister, and Sonia Gandhi, who today controls the ruling Congress party. His grandmother was Indira Gandhi, the woman who scrapped the privy purse, and his great-grandfather was Jawaharlal Nehru.

He may not be a true royal but it's hard to get better lineage than that. Last week, I caught up with the 41-year-old scion, in the humble surroundings of rural Uttar Pradesh, where he is campaigning on the issue of illegal land acquisition.

The man, who by his own admission was born with the most silver of spoons in his mouth, has become a self-styled champion of the farmers and dresses in the simple cotton clothes favoured by the Congress party down the years. He has even taken to sleeping in the spartan homes of the villagers he visits.

But it was not hard to make him out in the crowd. Everywhere he went, he was followed not only by his security guards, but by supporters and aides. Earnest young men from his party's youth wing cheered and clapped his every word. As locals came to greet him, he acknowledged them with a well-practised wave.

All must hail the Queen of the untouchables

The land-acquisition battle focuses on a new road between Noida, a satellite city of Delhi, and Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, constructed by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife. The 100 mile expressway, in turn, is the project of the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a woman called Mayawati. Mayawati is a sharp-elbowed politician who has risen to power with the support of the Dalit community, the supposedly low-caste "untouchables" traditionally at the very bottom of the Hindu hierarchy. Mayawati has urged Mr Gandhi to cease his "political drama".

Across the state of Uttar Pradesh, there are endless statues both of Mayawati and her hero, BR Ambedkar, who perhaps did more than anyone to campaign for equality for the Dalit community. Mayawati has a liking for seeing herself venerated this way and for surrounding herself with fawning courtiers. No small irony that some refer to her as the Dalit Queen.