The British classified most social groups into either castes or tribes. Under British rule the Hindus became managers and government clerks while Muslims were employed in more menial professions. Muslim also felt their traditions were ignored and they began to resent the British more than Hindus.

In the early 19th century, Governor General William Bentinck outlawed the custom of widow burning and tried to clampdown on the practice of thuggee.

The British Army recruited Indians who were often divided by group. They included the Bengal lancers, Rajputs, Gurkas, Marathas, Dogras, Punjabis and Sihks—all with their own elaborate and unique uniforms. The British hired Sikh troops to guard ammunition depots because their religion prohibitions kept them from smoking. The Jodhpur lancers fought in the trenches of World War I.

Maharajahs, Nawabs and Nizams

Heredity rulers were—and to some degree are—called maharajahs, nawabs and nizams. Maharajahs were at the top. Raja is a Sanskrit word for king or ruler. In Europeans, perhaps maharajahs were close to dukes or barons except they commanded large armies. Below them were nawabs and nizams, who generally owned smaller tracts of land but sometimes were just as powerful as maharajas. The English word “nabob” was coined to define a corrupted Anglicized version of a nawab or nouveau riche adventurer. Young gentlemen were called “memsahib”

Many of the maharajahs were from warrior castes. Some of the maharajahs were descendants of Hindu warriors who expanded or pushed back the frontiers of the Mughal empire and were rewarded with big chunks of land. They lived in hilltop forts and proved their worth by fighting other maharajahs and Muslim invaders. Within the Mughal administrative system, the warrior aristocracy (mansabdars) held ranks (mansabs) expressed in numbers of troops, and indicating pay, armed contingents, and obligations. The warrior aristocracy was generally paid from revenues of nonhereditary and transferrable jagirs (revenue villages).

Many of the maharajahs were considered by their subjects to be god-princes, descendants of the sun through the Hindu god Rama or offspring of the moon through the god Krishna. They presided over religious festivals and acted as judges in disputes.

Some maharajahs were isolated and extravagant wastrels but others were elected by the people and spent much of their time dealing with the problems of their subjects. One man from a princely family told TIME. "My grandfather used to be under canvas [in a tent] for more than six months of the year, touring his kingdom. He was a man of the people."

Indian Princely States under the British

Before and after the arrival of the British, India was divided into hundreds of princely states led by heredity rulers, who were essentially feudal lords supported by the taxes paid from millions of poor villagers. By one estimate at the time the British arrived there were 350 princely families, ruling about a third of India. The rest was ruled by the Mughals and other large kingdoms.

Under the British divide and rule policy, the number of princely states increased. Britain recognized more than 550 princely states, run by maharajas. These princely rulers were autonomous but swore allegiance to the British crown. Other areas enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy.

India under the maharajahs was much like Europe during Middle Ages. Some of the states were huge. Kashmir was larger than France and Travancore had more people that Portugal. Each state had its own laws and armies and some had their own currency. Villagers paid taxes in return for protection by the warrior castes loyal to the maharajah. Within the large kingdoms there were often a dozen or more maharajahs who controlled estates of around 100 square miles.

In the 19th century rebellious kingdoms were subdued by the British. The princes who swore allegiance to the crown were allowed to keep feudal control over their territories. During British rule there were essentially two Indias: one ruled by the British themselves and other controlled the princes under the watchful eyes of the British. Under British control, the maharajah's no longer fought among themselves. They raised taxes, controlled their military forces and enjoyed what amounted to absolute power, including the right to put subjects to death without British interference.

Maharajah Life

The Maharajahs were famous for their extravagant lifestyles. They lived in huge palaces and owned jewels the size of hen’s eggs and gold-plated Rolls Royces. The maharajahs were equally famous for their grand displays. During their coronation ceremonies they had to circle the throne before they could ascend. At the wedding ceremonies elephant fights between rutting males were often held. Many Indian rulers became enamored with the British and European way of life and set about building palaces modeled after Windsor Castle and Versailles.

Maharajahs were often accompanied by a servant with an umbrella to protect them from the sun. Some palaces were outfitted with huge spikes on the door to prevent enemy elephants from knocking them down with their heads. Some maharajahs slept in gem-studded rooms and cooled themselves around marble pools. It was not uncommon for craftsmen to spend ten years making a single gold piece for a maharajah.

Maharajahs don a wedding crown during their marriage ceremonies. Other symbols of royalty include a ceremonial umbrella, yak tail fly whisk, sword and jewels. "Let women," says the Laws of Manu "be constantly supplied with ornaments at festivals and jubilees." Wedding gifts are delivered to the bride during a wedding on trays carried by attendants of the groom. [Source: "Royal Wedding at Jailsmer" Marilyn Silverstone, National Geographic January 1965]

Maharajah Hunts

Hunting was often the primary hobby of maharajahs. As many as 1,000 people participated in their huge tiger hunts. Maharanis (the wife of a maharajah) also used to hunt tigers. One maharajah used poor village widows and babies as bait for their hunts. They also kept wild cats as pets. One Maharajah had 30 cheetahs and some pet leopards that he allowed to roam his palace at will. Some maharajahs used eagles for falconry.

Maharajahs shot dozens, sometimes hundreds, of tigers each and decorated their palaces with tiger pelts and tiger heads and posed in front of piles of dead tigers. The Maharajah of Surguju was a very old man when he shot his 1,100th tiger with a rifle balanced on a stick. When he died he had killed 1,157 tigers, many from the backs of elephants. Tiger were still numerous enough in the 1950s when 130 were taken in a single hunt in northern India.

Maharajahs used to hunt tigers with hundreds of helpers and dozens of elephants. They often hunted tigers using several hundred stick-carrying beaters who called out "Bagh! Bagh!" — tiger! tiger! to flush the tiger out of the forest to a place where Maharajis and British sahibs waited on the backs of elephants and special hunting towers o mow dpwn the tiger when it appeared.

Sometimes tethered goats and other animals were used to attract tigers. One maharajah reportedly used elderly widows and small chidlren as bait. Nepalese aristocrats developed a technique later adopted by British hunters in which roles of white cloth, which tigers reportedly will not cross, where laid out to funnel tigers to an area where hunters waited.

Mughal emperors used to have stables with hundreds of hooded hunting cheetahs. One Maharajah had 30 cheetahs and some pet leopards that used to roam his palace at will. The cheetahs didn't have the endurance to chase their prey for more than a few hundred yards. After each run its trainer walked over and fastened the animal to a leash. After an hour’s rest the cheetah could run again. When not hunting the cheetahs were chained in the palace garden to a rope netting stretched across a wooden frame.

Extravagant and Eccentric Maharajahs

The maharajahs were notorious for the eccentricity and extravagance. The Nawab of Junagadh spent a fortune on a royal wedding for favorite dog while denying his subjects basic necessities. The Maharajah of Bharatpur purchased all the Rolls Royces in a London showroom after a perceived slight from a salesman. One maharajah doused one of his polo ponies with kerosene and then set it one fire after losing a match. Another built a 90,000 square meter palace and never lived in it.

The Maharajah of Jaipur was one of the richest ex-potentates in India. He ruled over a state roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont and collected taxes from about seven million people in 1947. Among his possessions were water jars taller than a man made of solid silver (the largest silver objects in the world). Each was filled with water from the Ganges, the only water the maharajah would drink or bathe in. [Source: "India in Crisis" by John Scofield, National Geographic, May 1963]

One of the most notorious Indian princes was the nawab of Arcot, Muhammad Ali. "Though constantly entwined in shady deals and entangled in ceaseless financial wrangles," wrote Pico Iyer, this "tall and dignified gentlemen somehow contrived to live like a king for 50 years. Each day, palanquins filled with Europeans determined to collect money owed would line up outside his Chepaul Palace in Madras; each night the same men would be seen retreated, still unpaid but thoroughly won over by his charming ways. At his death, the Ali left behind outstanding debts of more than 30 million pounds."

Maharajah Ranjit Singh was a one-eyed Sikh ruler famous for harem, his opium addiction and his prize possession, the Koh-i-noor diamond. His Sikh empire was defended by a well-trained army led by European mercenaries. "The British systematically alienated us from the real world. They demolished our capability of order," Arvind Singh of Upiador, told TIME. He was the scion of a 1,400-year-old family, perhaps the world's oldest.

Nizam of Hyderabad

The Nizam of Hyderabad were perhaps the most famous of all the local rulers. They were a Muslim dynasty that ruled the southern Deccan Plateau in southern India, first as subjects of the Mughals, and then as allies of the British raj. The first nizam was favored by the great Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The family remained in power until the state of Hyderabad was merged with India in 1948, a year after India gained independence.

The six Nizam of Hyderabad was a profligate spendthrift. He reportedly never wore the same set of clothes twice and accumulated the world’s largest wardrobe. The seventh Nizam of Hyderabad was once regarded as the richest man in the world. He used the Jacob diamond as a paperweight and owned 50 Rolls Royces, one of which had a solid silver body and an interior upholstered with gold brocade. He was notorious for hoarding cash. Once he lost three million pounds when rats ate through a big pile of British banknotes stored in his basement. He was so cheap he reportedly smoked the cigarette butts left by his guests. He surrendered his kingdom after a failed rebellion against the Indian government in 1948.

Maukuran Jah, the man who would have been the eighth Nizam, fled India to get away from tax officials, greedy relatives and conniving acolytes. His attempt to run an Australian sheep farm ended in disaster and his second wife, an Australian, contacted AIDS. He returned to Hyderabad for a while, married two more times and in the 1990s lived mostly in Europe.

Jewels of the Nizam of Hyderabad

The Nizams of Hyderabad were renowned for one of the greatest jewel collections in the world. Among the hundreds of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other jewels they possessed were the 184-carat Jacob Diamond; the 277-carat Nizam diamond; a set of 22 emeralds, with the largest 59 carats; a turban ornaments known as sarpech, made of diamonds and walnut-size emeralds set in gold; and pearl and diamond necklaces made for Napoleons's wife Josephine. The collection, valued at more that $2 billion in 2001.

Many of the jewels were obtained through the centuries-old custom of nazar: tributes of gold and jewels given by nobles and vassals to show their loyalty. They included rubies from Burma, emeralds, from Columbia, diamonds from India and South Africa and pearls from the Persian Gulf. The Nizams claimed the finest diamonds from the legendary Golconda mines which were part of their kingdom.

The duck-egg-size Jacob’s diamond is regarded as one of the largest and finest diamonds in the world. At 184.75 carats is almost twice the size of the famed Kohinoor diamond. It is believed to have been found in a South African mine and sold by a dealer named Alexander Malcon Jacob to the Sixth Nizam in 1891. The sixth Nizam liked clothes but was reportedly not so fond of Jews. After his death, the seventh Nizam found the diamond in the toe of slipper and then used it as a paper wight. In the early 2000s the diamond was valued at $90 million.

An emerald ring—with a large, square emerald set in gold and inscribed with the title “boy-swordsman”—was given to the first Nizam by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. After the death of the seventh and last Nizam the jewels were put into a trust and finally purchased by the Indian government in 1995 after a three decade court battle for the equivalent of $71 million. In August 2001, the jewels were displayed at the national museum in New Delhi. Most of the time they are locked away in a vault at the headquarters of the Reserve Bank of India.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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