The period from the 1700s to the 1940s is one of dramatic change that spanned Great Britain’s rise as a world power and its colonization of the Indian subcontinent through the region’s independence from British rule and its partition into the modern-day countries of India and Pakistan.
Like European kings and Chinese emperors, Indian kings adopted elaborate dress and rituals that conveyed their wealth and power. They performed religious and military rituals, conducted court business and participated in spectacular processions. Their palaces were filled with the finest works of art and luxury goods, made in palace workshops or commissioned by the court.
The word maharaja, which means “great king,” is rooted in the ancient concept of “king above kings” (in Sanskrit, maharajadhiraj). Although rulers were sometimes addressed as “maharaja,” this lofty title was rarely adopted formally until the nineteenth century. After 1858 when India became a British colony, it came to be used as a generic term to describe all of India’s kings, but both Hindu and Muslim rulers were also known by other titles including maharana, maharao, nawab, and nizam.
What it Meant to Be a King in India
Indian rulers were expected to exercise the duties and behavior appropriate to a king (rajadharma in Sanskrit). It was an ideal ruler’s responsibility to create a stable environment in which his people could fulfill their individual obligations to perform religious duty, earn an honest living, enjoy the pleasures of life, and attain salvation, as prescribed in the ancient texts. A king protected his subjects, settled disputes, and issued justice and punishment. His military skills were as important as administrative and diplomatic ones: besides being wise and benevolent, kings were expected to be fierce warriors and skilled hunters. Royal duty was also exercised through the employment of poets, musicians, architects, artists, craftsmen, and religious foundations.
The Royal Assembly (Durbar)
The durbar, or royal assembly, was the forum at which the ruler conducted state business. It was attended by officials and nobles, and the proceedings were governed by strict protocol and etiquette that varied slightly by region and culture.
Many royal courts also held public audience sessions at which ordinary citizens could present petitions, disputes, and other matters directly to the ruler. At its most formal—for instance when celebrating the king’s birthday—a durbar was a grand public event. The king was adorned with fine clothes and jewelry, and carried ceremonial weapons and regalia signifying his power and royal duties. Courtiers paid homage and presented him with a gift, usually a gold coin.
The Religious Role of a Maharaja
In Indian royal courts, as in many others throughout the world, a powerful concept underlying the institution of kingship and giving it greater authority was that the righteous ruler was blessed and guided by divine forces. In order to confirm and express this idea, royal duties included worship and participation in public religious rituals to ensure the well-being of dynasty, state, and subjects.
A ruler’s support of religious activities was an important way of securing his image among his people of being a good king. In addition to supporting their own faith, kings sometimes also built Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh temples; Muslim mosques; and shrines dedicated to saints and holy men, in order to meet the needs of their people and win their support. Rulers offered gifts to support the upkeep of these buildings and extended charity to holy men and religious institutions.
The power of an Indian king was expressed most spectacularly in grand public processions that celebrated royal events and religious festivities. Riding a richly adorned elephant or horse, the ruler was lavishly dressed and jeweled, and surrounded by attendants carrying ceremonial objects symbolizing the attributes of kingship.
Seeing a king in all his splendor was considered auspicious. It was central to the concept of darshan, the dynamic exchange of seeing and being seen by a superior being, whether a god or a king. In the religious context, the deity, in presenting itself for darshan, gives blessings to the worshipers who by their act of seeing make themselves receptive to this transfer of grace. Although originally a Hindu religious notion, the idea of darshan became an integral aspect of kingship throughout India, and was conveyed through royal processions.
Military and Hunting Skills
Rulers, in ancient Indian texts, belonged to the warrior social group, whose primary duty was to fight and protect in order to maintain internal and external security in the kingdom.
Military skills remained central to the concept and practice of kingship for all Indian rulers, whether Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh. A king needed the physical and mental skills to lead his troops in battle, and even royal women were sometimes trained in the martial arts. Weapons therefore featured prominently in public ceremonies and in visual representations of the ruler.
Hunting was not just a royal sport—it provided a king with practical experience for war. It also demonstrated a ruler’s ability to protect his subjects, offered evidence of his virility, and symbolized his control over the natural world.
The private lives of Indian kings—their marriages, family relationships, pastimes, and pleasures—were actually intensely public and political. The palace complex was not just a residence for the extended royal household but was like a small city. It was where state business was conducted and the court held; it also housed troops and maintained artisans’ workshops.
A division was drawn between the public areas of the palace open to men and non-family members, and the private quarters reserved for the ruler and women of his court. The women’s quarters were extensive. The royal household included members of the ruler’s extended family as well as his immediate dependents. Polygamy was common in Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh courts, where rulers usually married for political reasons and as a result had multiple families. Royal women, especially a ruler’s mother, favorite wife, daughter, or sister, were often influential figures at the court and important patrons of religion and the arts.
Courtly pastimes for the ruler and his family members included activities such as hunting, watching sporting events, playing games, listening to music and poetry, enjoying dance performances, and looking at paintings.