The word Maharaja, which literally means “Great King,” is derived from the ancient Sanskrit term Maharajadhiraja or King of Kings. Few rulers in ancient India were, however, addressed as such. More common was Raja or Rana (overlords) with some rulers of larger Kingdoms, taking on on the title of Maharaja.
After the first Indian War of Independence in 1857, when most of India came under direct rule of Britain, ‘Maharaja’ became a generic term to mean all of India’s rulers of the 562 princely states. The largest and most powerful of them were the rulers of Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Baroda, Jaipur and Patiala.
Their powers clipped, their armies emasculated, most of the Maharajas were vassals of the British court and spent their time with grand ceremonies in their durbar or royal courts from where they conducted the business of their kingdoms. The also organized spectacular royal events, processions and other activities to symbolize their royal attributes. They had some autonomy to collect taxes, deliver justice and generally look after the welfare of the people. A British resident was appointed to the court, who advised or coerced the Maharaja to take decisions in line with the Royal British policies.
The Maharajas continued to live in splendour until India’s independence when most of the princely states merged with the Indian Union. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1971 abolished the ‘privy purses’ or the generous monthly allowances given to the rulers from 1947 onwards.
Many of the erswhile princes have since played stellar roles in the political and administrative life in India and some of them have become military heroes in the new Indian Army. Several books have been written about the Maharajas of India during the past several years, with focus on their opulent lifestyles, fleets of Rolls Royces etc, although only a fraction of the rulers lived ostentatious lives. Stunning exhibitions have also been held in world cities of costumes, jewellery and weapons and the cultural aspects, illuminating the world of the Indian Maharajas.