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A Journey of Princely Extravaganza & Opulence

Countless royal families are still remembered for their grand styles of living. We track the riches and extravagance of royal families of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Gwalior and Jammu & Kashmir and immerse in the glory of it all.

Once upon a time, India was the fabled land of Maharajas – a fairytale of lifestyle, imagination, inheritance, power, luxury and opulence at its best. It was every common man’s desire to have the good fortune of being born as a Maharaja.

It was after the 1857 Mutiny that these small and big native states were classified into salute and non salute, were termed ‘Princely’ by the then British colonial power and India became the ‘jewel of the crown’. When the world was under economic depression and battling two world wars, it was the Indian Maharajas, some of them richest on the earth, who ran the European and American luxury manufacturers. Their rich and flamboyant lifestyle still reflects till date in the form of heirlooms their descendants have stumbled upon  !

It is a million dollar question whether the present scion of the erstwhile royal family of Jaipur, head of Kachwaha clan, Padmanabh Singh knows the whereabouts of the fabled treasure of the Jaipur royal family which is known to be still guarded by the Meena tribesmen somewhere in Jaigarh Fort.

The last Maharaja Bhawani Singh may have passed down the information, but the fact remains that Jaipur Maharajas, including Sawai Maan Singh II, is said to have visited that treasure only twice or thrice during their lifetime. Legend has it that Akbar, the Mughal emperor, his general and Raja of Amber, Maan Singh I, and successors used to store the treasures they won at wars in Jaigarh Fort. During the Indian Emergency of 1975, the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, made raids at the fort, but returned empty handed.

In current times, the assets of the family are divided amongst the descendants, though legal disputes prevail. The late Rajmata Gayatri Devi owned Moti Dungri Fort, Lilypool Palace, a home in London’s Kensington along with a flat over there besides large investments in Rothschild Trust. While Prithviraj has stake in Jai Mahal Palace, Padmanabh Singh owns the City Palace and Raj Mahal Palace with the three branches of Sawai Maan Singh II having cross stakes in Rambagh, now a heritage hotel. As was the fashion in the 1930’s and 40’s, Maan Singh II embraced Cartier and gifted Gayatri Devi a stunning cabochon emerald drop necklace.

The timeless elegance of Umaid Bhawan Palace, one of the largest residences of the world, is till preserved, This 347 room property, standing on a 26 acre garden, was built by Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur at a cost of Rs 95 lakhs. Built between 1929 to 1945, it has one of the most beautiful art deco interiors by well-known Polish artist Stefan Norblin. A hotel being made partly, along with a museum, the present descendant Maharaja Gaj Singhji stays with the rest of his family in the former female wing of the palace.

Sustaining on an amount of Rs 17,50,000 till 1971, it became difficult when Mrs Indira Gandhi withdrew the Privy Purse. Bapji  as Gaj Singhji is fondly called by his people reorganised his assets into commercial enterprise and created various charitable trusts. The family still owns five forts including the Mehrangarh Fort, Jalore Fort along with Bal Samand and Sardar Samand Palace and few more properties. Though the title is gone, but the opulence and grandeur is still there on a lesser scale.

One of the four biggest Princely families, the stock value of Scindia family of Gwalior is rising by the day even though the title and kingship had been abolished. Though entangled in legal disputes, the entire family now owns properties all over India including the Jai Vilas Palace in Gwalior which is worth nearly Rs 8000 crores. The opulence of this palace can be understood from the fact that the world’s two most largest chandeliers from Baccarat, each weighing about a ton, are hung here. It is said that before hanging the chandeliers, the strength of the roof was tested by several elephants. It is also said that around 60 kgs of gold was used to paint the Darbar Hall!

Though the Scindia family is now deeply involved into national politics, their other properties include several properties in Gwalior. In Shivpuri they have Madhav Vilas, Happy Vilas and George Castle, with Kaliadeh Palace in Ujjain. In Delhi, they have the Gwalior House, a plot on Rajpur Road and the Scindia Villa believed to be worth a few thousand crores. In Mumbai, besides a flat in Samudra Mahal in Worli, they have the 700 crore worth Vasundhara Apartments on Peddar Road, Vijay Vilas and Devonshire on Warden Road. Also they have the Padma Vilas Palace in Pune, a temple at Sanquelim in Goa and Scindia Ghat in Varanasi. Not to mention several land holdings and stockholdings in numerous companies including that in Bombay Dyeing. The assets are maintained mostly by 14 trusts, making them one of the most richest families in India, at par with any industrialists.

The discovery of Toshakhana or treasury in Srinagar in 1984, belonging to the erstwhile royal family of Jammu & Kashmir, brought to light the family’s grand collections of jewels, precious stones, artefacts, silver utensils, a massive 435 piece collection. Most of them belonged to the era of Maharaja Hari Singh. While most of the Indian Maharajas sold off their heirloom, this heirloom was mostly intact. The items discovered were ceremonial horse harnesses, swords and girdles, crowns and necklaces, bracelets and woven, 24 -carat-gold belts, a two-foot-long diamond and emerald necklace, 18th century ceremonial robes with diamonds and pearls embossed on velvet, two exquisitely inlaid daggers – rubies, emeralds, and diamonds on an enamel base which are said to be outstanding works of Mughal art. Besides precious stones like heavy weight Russian Ural emeralds, tens of thousands of diamonds were found in the collection. But the finest stone in the collection is a 100 ct emerald which is a part of the ceremonial horse harness dating back to early 18th century, a semi cut cabochon drop which is simply magnificent.

Also, the family has trusts like the Hari Tara Trust and JK Dharmarth Trust. The Amar Mahal Palace in Jammu is managed by the Hari Tara Trust which has the golden throne of the Maharaja made from 120 kgs of gold while the Taragarh Palace Hotel is converted into a heritage hotel, but owned by the family. The past opulence may not be there due to lack of heirloom which is under the Government of Kashmir but the family is very much into national and state politics and still trying to maintain their legacy.

The bygone era of Indian princely states is a living example that fairytales are not mere imaginations of a common man, but a beautiful reality of myriad shades of luxury, grandeur, plush, opulence and extravaganza. The authoritative power may not be there but the class, style and ancestral inheritance that these families have is very much a part of the heritage. This is where India screams that we have always afforded the best, the finest and the most opulent luxuries in the world!

A research scholar on temple structure, Amita Roy is currently working on upcoming coffee table books on Indian estate heritage which is based on erstwhile Princely and Noble estates. She is also a prolific heritage revivalist working to merge heritage hospitality sector and heritage conservation into a full-fledged industry.