Page last updated at 01:07 GMT, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Indian royal splendour on display

By Alastair Lawson
BBC News

Maharao Umed Singh of Kota hunting at Night
Many of India's maharajas showed they were able to adapt to changing political landscapes

When it comes to majestic grandeur, few monarchies in the world matched the opulence of India's royal courts in their heyday.

The Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum in London has brought some of that splendour to life in a new exhibition featuring more than 250 rarely seen objects, including thrones, gem-encrusted weapons and even a life-sized and bejewelled maharaja's model elephant.

Organisers say that Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts is the first display that comprehensively explores the world of these exotic rulers and their rich culture.

The exhibition centres on the golden period of maharaja power: from the beginning of the 18th century to the mid-20th century. Many of the magnificent objects on display have been loaned by India's royal families.

The aim is to illuminate the plush and sometimes ostentatious lifestyles of maharajas that existed right up until the end of British rule in 1947.

'Fascinating story'

"There has never been an exhibition like this before, showing the spectacular treasures of the courts of the maharajas," said V&A director Mark Jones.

Howdah, 19th century

"Many of the objects have left India for the first time to come to the V&A.

"This exhibition shows that India's rulers were significant patrons of the arts, in India and the West, and tells the fascinating story of the changing role of the maharaja from the early 18th century to the final days of the Raj."

One of the most fascinating items on display is the Patiala Necklace - one of jeweller Cartier's largest single commissions. Completed in 1928, it originally contained 2,930 diamonds.

Divided into sections, the exhibition starts with a recreation of an Indian royal procession, before examining the political, religious and military leadership roles a maharaja had to assume.

A brilliant and no doubt priceless display of oils, watercolours and sketches show how the secular and sacred power of an Indian king was expressed most spectacularly in the grand public processions that celebrated royal events and religious festivals.

Lavishly dressed maharajas can be seen riding richly caparisoned elephants or horses, surrounded by attendants bearing the symbolic attributes of kingship: a royal parasol, fans and staffs of authority.

Justice and punishment

"The vision of a king in all his splendour was believed to be auspicious. It was central to the concept of darshan, the propitious act of seeing and being seen by a superior being, whether a god or a king," exhibition co-organiser Anna Watson told the BBC.

Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, Late 19th century
Maharajas have worn some of the world's most splendid jewellery

"Although originally a Hindu notion, the idea of darshan became an integral aspect of kingship throughout the subcontinent."

The exhibition also examines changes in the balance of power and changes in taste in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the disintegration of the Mughal empire and the impact of expanding British influence.

It explains how even under the British, Indian rulers were expected to exercise rajadharma - the duties and behaviour appropriate to a king.

These duties include the protection of their subjects, the adjudication of disputes, and the ministering of justice and punishment.

"Martial skills were as important as administrative and diplomatic ones; as well as being wise and benevolent, kings were expected to be fierce warriors and skilled hunters. Rajadharma was also exercised through the patronage of poets, musicians, architects, artists, craftsmen and religious foundations," Ms Watson is quoted as saying in exhibition publicity material.

When Mughal power collapsed completely in 1739, a new breed of maharajas popped up all over India to replace them.

'Modern maharajas'

The exhibition explains that they were seldom known as "maharajas" - a word meaning "great king".

Instead, they enjoyed a multiplicity of titles - Raja, Rana, Maharana, Nawab and Nizam.

Detail showing Maharana Ari Singh at the Jagmandir , 1767
Maharajas were renowned for their patronage of the arts

The final section explores the role of "modern" maharajas and the increasing European influence on their lives and possessions.

The exhibition explains the Raj essentially operated as a two-tier system - the British had direct control over three-fifths of the subcontinent, known as "British India", and indirect control over the remaining territory.

Although Indian rulers were guaranteed their borders and rights, the British continued to interfere in the day-to-day running of their states and to limit royal authority - most dramatically in deposing rulers they viewed as unsuitable.

Around this time the number of Indian princes - as rulers were now termed - grew enormously as the British bestowed titles on landowners and chieftains.

A system of imperial orders was introduced to integrate Indian rulers into a western-style feudal hierarchy.

The most important states were ranked within a system of gun salutes; Queen Victoria was entitled to 101 guns, the viceroy and members of the royal family to 31, while the princes had between 21 and nine depending on their status.

But just as Indian rulers began to become fully adapted to the new imperial regime - as they did with the Mughals centuries earlier - they had to change again when India became a republic after independence in 1947.

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