King’s cross
by Amar Chandel

The Princely and Noble Families of the Former Indian Empire (Volume 1)
by Mark Brentnall. Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi. Pages 374. Rs 1,250.

The Princely and Noble Families of the Former Indian Empire (Volume 1)Thanks to inspired propaganda during the 50s and 60s, which blamed the former princely families for all the ills of the country, this class is not in very good odour even today because in the eyes of the common man born and brought up on the staple diet of those salacious stories perpetuated through books, films and articles, Thakur Saheb was the villainous man responsible for everything from mismanagement of the countryside to the rape of fair damsels on whom he happened to cast his evil eye. Only now is the realisation dawning on some that these were not bad people after all. Some of the stories about them were hugely exaggerated while others were blatant lies.

This has forced many to have a second look at the erstwhile royal families. This task has also been helped by the fact that the politicians who took over the reins of power after Independence proved to be far worse as a species.

They may have got horrible Press, but the persons of blue blood were the most colourful and interesting personalities of the bygone era. They were the creatures of their times and were no better or worse than the milieu in which they functioned. The 565-odd families still have an aura around them. The Raj nostalgia is a part and parcel of their existence.

Author Mark Brenthall, an Englishman, is an Indophile by his own confession and has undertaken this highly unusual project of compiling comprehensive genealogies of these families and attaching to each a brief history of the family or the state. The last time such a project was undertaken was during the British time and since then these families have grown far bigger in size.

The book culls historical accounts from British gazetteers, princely families’ own archival material and various other books published in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. These have been then made up-to-date through personal research of the author.

To that extent, it is a near-impossible task. To collect information on so many persons, many of whom are no longer living at their old seats, requires a Herculean effort. Not only that, checking the authenticity of the information that you collect and weeding out hearsay can be equally challenging.

The first volume of this gigantic task is devoted to Himachal Pradesh. In this book, 45 princely families of the Punjab Hill States, the Shimla Hill States and a number of families whose former states and estates are now within the territorial limits of the present state of Himachal Pradesh are included. On the top are six gun-salute states of Bilaspur, Bushahr, Chamba, Mandi, Sirmur and Suket. These were granted salutes of 11 guns (Bushahr had nine) and their rulers were accorded the style of "His Highness". Then come 27 other families varying greatly in size, title and antiquity, which had sovereign status. Some of the sovereign states were also feudatories of their neighbours.

The last category is of 12 families, which lost their sovereign status either before the period of the British Raj or as a result of the policy of the British Raj. The international format of presenting family trees has been used. Since a different pattern is generally followed in India, this requires some getting used to. Given the large volume of detail that has to be included, it is a miracle that the book is not any thicker.

The persons who are the subject matter of this tome will of course lap it up. It will also come in handy to those aiming to do research on the subject. But its relevance to others is rather limited. Photographs would have made the book more lively.