| The maharaja of Jaisalmer with his wife and son. (Reuters)
Britain took away their kingdoms, New Delhi their state incomes. But for some of India’s maharajas, the modern world can never take away their duty.
Fifty-five years after India’s birth, its once-omnipotent royals find themselves trapped in a time warp where demands on them have not faded but their power and wealth have.
“Sometimes you’re frustrated,” says 34-year-old Brijraj Singh, the community-minded maharaja of Jaisalmer, an ancient Silk Route city in Rajasthan. “You want to do so many things for the people and for Jaisalmer, but your hands are tied.”
Singh, who traces his ancestry back to Krishna and ascended the throne when he was barely a teenager in 1982, is at his desk in the red-carpeted office of Mandir Palace in Jaisalmer, where a black and white puppy sidles up to visitors.
The office is the heart of Singh’s new empire of civic work — from saving Jaisalmer’s picture-postcard 850-year-old Golden Fort to HIV/AIDS programmes and cultural projects, to a children’s library, cleaning up the city and wooing tourists.
“There are a lot of responsibilities. There are no titles, but still people look up to you,” he says, a British-style topee on a sidetable. “They still have their feelings of love. And that’s commonly held — I love them, too.”
The 250-year-old Mandir Palace, where goats and tourists wander the passages and barnyard noises drown out the soothing mantra of surrender to Krishna in the temple that gives it its name, is one of the country’s few working palaces open to all. Locals and foreigners meander freely among the horses, cows, dogs and ducks roaming the walled but unguarded courtyard and walk unchallenged into the temple below Singh’s office.
“I am very ordinary. The Jaisalmer (royal) family has always been close to the people,” he said. “It’s an open house. There’s nothing hidden between the people and the ruler of Jaisalmer.”
Although he has no formal title or power with the government, Singh daily finds himself a go-between for his more than 60,000 subjects and the obstructive bureaucracy. “I try to meet everybody who comes. They feel more close to me than they feel to the administration because they know I understand their problems.”
In this dry, farming and tourism-dependent part of Rajasthan, many of the petitions revolve around drought relief, water issues or what to do about falling tourist numbers.
Tourism weighs heavily on Singh’s own mind, too. He survives — and pays a staff of 150 red-bereted workers — on the earnings from an elegant brown sandstone royal guesthouse, which has been turned into a 22-room boutique hotel.
At the hotel, near Mandir Palace in the shadow of the fort, a lone young camel stands outside the long row of stables that once housed the royal family’s extensive collection of cars.
Today, Singh is driven around in imported silver four-wheel-drive with his red coat-of-arms on the number plate.
Like other princely states, Jaisalmer and its desert were never formally conquered by Britain, though it was essentially protected by and paid taxes to the British Raj.
After Partition, the rulers of these states had to choose between India and Pakistan. Although Jaisalmer is 40 per cent Muslim, Singh says his grandfather felt “more comfortable” with India.