The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 28, 2001

Foibles of caste-conscious maharajas
K.R.N. Swamy

DESPITE the fact, that the British King-Emperor was an all-powerful suzerain, the Indian Maharajas were so conscious of their "high caste" that they did not want to lower themselves by dining with him, if possible. In fact, one of them did not want to be "contaminated" by touching King George V, so much so that he planned to wear gloves, while shaking hands with the emperor. The furious monarch, came to know of this decision, and sent word to the Indian ruler that, if he were to use his gloves, he would be sent off peremptorily from Buckingham Palace. The Maharaja had to shake hands, although unwillingly.

Again the banquet given to the Maharaja of Alwar by the Viceroy of India — Lord Willingdon and the Vicerine Lady Willingdon in the early 1930s was a grand one. The Maharaja sat next to the Vicerine and soon the magnificent diamond ring the ruler wore on his right hand caught the attention of Lady Willingdon. "How fabulous!", she exclaimed and wanted to see the ring. Ceremoniously, the Maharaja removed the ring and gave it to her. She examined it carefully and after a few minutes gave it back to the Chief. But he did not take it. Politely, but decidedly, he asked one of the bearers to bring the fingerbowl filled with water and asked him to wash the ring before handing it over to him. As the astonished and surprised Viceroy and his wife watched this act, only then did he put it on his finger. The reason for this pantomime....? Well, he considered himself to be of such a high caste, (he called himself the direct descendant of God Rama, or a Suryavanshi) that he did not want to touch the ring, once it had been "made unclean" by the Vicerine’s handling of it... The amazed guests could not do anything for they knew that it was the custom of the land and the foibles of the maharajas.


Even earlier, before he came to the party, the Maharaja of Alwar had stipulated that none of the chairs or cushions offered to him should be of leather nor did he want any dogs in his vicinity, as these items would have "sullied" him.

The most orthodox among the Indian Princes ensured that they did not have to "break bread" with the "unclean" Sovereign. King Edward VIII, while visiting India as the Prince of Wales in 1921, went to Udaipur and the host — the Maharana of Udaipur— was "missing" in all the banquets given to the future Emperor of India. At the crucial moment, he would excuse himself from the ‘eating’ and would reappear as the dinner party would draw to a close.

In the state of Travancore, state guests, especially Europeans, had to see the Maharaja in the early morning hours. One notable, irked at this unseemly hour, wanted to know the reason and was told that, unvariably, His Highness considered himself polluted by the "interviews" given to the unclean "Europeans" and after seeing all his "guests" would take his morning bath, making himself clean again!. Hence, you had to see him before his morning bath.

Among marriages between the scions of the maharajas, caste restrictions were very much prevalent. If there was an alliance between high caste/low caste scions, there were a lot of conditions put in favour of the high caste spouse. For example, if the daughter of the Maharana of Udaipur known as the "Sun among the Hindu Princes of India" married any other prince, it was understood that irrespective of the seniority of his other wives (for they invariable had more than one wife till the 1940s) only the male child of the Udaipur Princess would be declared as the future heir-apparent.

Even while meeting other co-maharajas, these rules were observed. Visiting Mysore in 1910, Lord Hardinge (the Viceroy of India), camped in the forests for a hunt and soon found that there was a nearby camp belonging to the Maharaja of Gwalior. One evening, while meeting the Maharaja of Gwalior, the Viceroy casually enquired as to why he was keeping on a camp by himself and was not the guest of the the Maharaja of Mysore. Sheepishly, the ruler explained that Mysore considered himself much above Gwalior in the caste hierarchy and would not eat with him!

Another Viceroy found, that when a high-caste Indian potentate visited him in Delhi, a separate new cottage (to ensure that no beef would have ever pollute the pure atmosphere) had to be built in the Viceregal compound to house the kitchen of the ruler. The only problem was that the cook (invariably a Brahmin) considered himself to be of a higher caste than his employer, that he would eat the food much earlier than the Maharaja. In fact, if the ruler’s shadow had fallen accidentally on the food before he ate it, the cook would rather go fasting rather than eat such polluted food! Real Nemesis.

As the Upper Crust — a gourmet food magazine — in its July 2001, issue stated, some of the caste regulations are so strict even today — that the present titular Maharaja of Banaras does not allow even his wife, the Maharani, to be present, when he is taking his food.. The cook, of course never gets a chance.

As a soldier of the Kshatriya caste, one eminent Maharaja had no such qualms. Historian Henry Newbolt has written a poem on an episode which shows the courage and broadmindedness of a great Rathore. (Sir Pertap Singh of Jodhpur/Idar) in the early 20th century. A British subaltern, a friend of Sir Pertap, had died in Jodhpur.Four Englishmen had been briefed to carry the coffin. At the last moment, one of them was struck down with fever and was unable to help out. No palace official would touch the coffin without losing caste — once he touches the "Sahib’s" corpse.. There were no volunteers. The only expedient seemed to be a commandeer an outcaste scavenger. Sir Pertap Singh stepped into the breach. "a soldier knows no caste with a brother soldier", he said, and took the place of the fourth pall bearer.