The British East India Company and Events of 1857–1858
The British East India Company was one of the European trading companies who were attracted to India for the lucrative trade in spices, textiles, and other resources. Competing companies included the French, Portuguese, and Dutch. First founded in 1600, the British company negotiated trading rights with the Mughal emperor in 1612. They, like the other Europeans, established trading posts (known as factories) in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. They also maintained armies that included British officers and Indian soldiers, ostensibly to protect the trading facilities, which gradually enabled them to gain political authority.
The British East India Company became increasingly powerful and oppressive from the mid eighteenth century, and Indians resisted this growing power. This led to a number of regional armed uprisings, and finally in 1857 a full-scale rebellion broke out, triggered by a mutiny of Indian soldiers in the British army.. Members of various Indian royal families played prominent parts on both sides of this conflict, and the eighty-one-year-old Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II was made the nominal leader of the uprising.
The Company’s numerous and disparate opponents had varied interests and goals and lacked a cohesive strategy. The conflict ended in 1858 when the British government, with the help of powerful Indian allies, was able to gain command. Among the casualties of the revolt were the Mughal dynasty and the East India Company itself. From then on the British government took control of the former Company territories. The British sent the Mughal emperor into exile and abolished his title. The Company had to surrender its control of India, and Queen Victoria of England was declared Queen Empress of India.
Maharajas Under British Colonial Rule
British rule in India was known as the Raj (“rule”). The British government had direct control over areas previously administered by the East India Company, now known as “British India,” and indirect control over the remaining territory. The British rewarded Indian rulers and local leaders by creating new princely states and expanding existing boundaries. The size and importance of these states was based on the support the British East India Company received during the 1857–1858 Uprising. Although Indian rulers were guaranteed their rights and the sovereignty of their border, the British continued to interfere in the day-to-day running of their states and to limit royal authority, even deposing rulers they considered unsuitable. As the largest, wealthiest, and most productive colony of Britain’s empire, India became known as “the jewel in the crown.”
Indian rulers adapted to the new British imperial regime in various ways. Incorporated into the hierarchy of empire, the British recognised them only as “princes” or “native chiefs,” rather than “kings.” Yet the maharajas were not mere puppets of the Raj. They continued to maintain order within their states, tax their subjects, allocate revenue, and patronize cultural activities in a way that fused traditional royal duty with Western models of governance.
During the period of British colonial rule, India’s kings found themselves in an almost impossible position. Often viewed as exotic beings who epitomized India’s role as the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown, they were obliged to live within traditional boundaries and appear as the stereotypical “maharaja.” Yet, educated by British tutors, they were also encouraged to think along Western lines and behave as British gentlemen. Some refused to tolerate these conflicting demands, but most accepted the dominant British model of modernity, emulating Western customs and acquiring the trappings of a European lifestyle as part of a new royal identity.
Adoption of Western modes could be seen in many aspects of their lives, from dress and dining habits to social life and recreation. Palaces were built on Western models and furnished in a European style, often with goods ordered from Western firms that had opened branches in India to capitalize on the expanding princely market. The influence of the West was also seen in the evolution of new styles of painting and in the enthusiastic adoption of photography as a means of portrayal.
During the British colonial period, Indian rulers continued to perform the traditional rites and rituals of kingship. Certain aspects of court life, such as hunting, took on a diplomatic aspect as rulers sought to maintain relationships with the British and with fellow princes. Those rulers who upheld royal duty improved the lives of their subjects, instituting social and educational reforms, and introducing technological advances in medicine, transportation and irrigation. Some also played active roles in the larger British political arena by fighting for the British empire in the Boxer Rebellion in China and the First World War, or by participating in activities such as the sport of cricket.
At the same time, a sustained movement for self-rule emerged under the visionary leadership of Mahatma Gandhi in the face of widespread discontent with British rule. Indian rulers were increasingly marginalized within this shifting political environment, both from the pro-Independence and pro-democracy movements within India and from the British. In response to these forces, the maharajas formed the Chamber of Princes in 1921, under the leadership of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner (r. 1887–1943), to represent a unified front for the interests of the Indian states. They sought to protect their interests by undertaking wide-ranging reforms in their territories.
The Modern Maharaja
Travel to the West greatly expanded Indian princely patronage, as rulers began to acquire goods directly from European firms rather than through agents in India. They commissioned fashionable portraits of themselves and placed orders with couture and jewelry houses, often establishing a creative relationship with artists and designers. This patronage had a profound effect on the production of luxury goods in Europe, as manufacturers responded to the tastes of their new clients. These exchanges in turn led designers such as Cartier to introduce Indian-inspired designs to their European clientele.
Acquiring exquisite objects from the West was a modern manifestation of the traditional role of the king as a patron of the arts and possessor of the rare and wonderful. But conspicuous consumption of foreign goods confirmed the stereotype of the maharajas as extravagant and frivolous. It was antithetical to Gandhi’s ideology of self-sufficiency, which stressed reliance on domestic products.
Maharajas after Independence and Today
In 1947 India won independence from British rule, and most princes willingly signed the Instrument of Accession, by which their territories were integrated into the new nation-states of India and Pakistan. In both countries the princes initially retained their status, some continuing to play a political role. The Constitution of India had guaranteed the princes their privileges and a “privy purse” (allowance), but these were stripped by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1971.
Faced with escalating costs and declining incomes, many princes were forced to sell their assets. Yet the maharajas have survived, adapting to changed circumstances as they did under the British. Some have prominent political careers, while others have transformed their palaces into hotels, opened their collections as museums, and initiated wildlife and heritage conservation programs. Others became penniless. Many maharajas remain potent symbols of regional identity even today and continue to exercise their royal duty, acting as guardians of the remarkable culture of India’s royal courts.