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Royal vignettes: Jaipur: In touch with reality

The titles may be gone, the privileges no longer there, but to family members and staff, the scion of Jaipur is still His Royal Highness and very much a figure to be treated with awe. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM writes.


The magnificent palace ...

HE is quite a Prince Charming and this is a love story with a happy ending. Young, handsome and intelligent, Narendra Singh, is the son-in-law of Sawai Bhawani Singh, 72-year-old head of the royal House of Jaipur. Bhawani Singh's and his queen Padmini's only daughter, Princess Diya Kumari, fell in love with Narendra Singh, a commoner, and married him amid controversy in 1997. But does blue blood not make for royalty? Charismatic and capable, Narendra Singh has won over the sceptical with his organisational abilities and his sure reins over the family fortunes.

That morning, Narendra Singh is busy. It is Princess Diya's birthday and poojas are on in Chandra Mahal, the part of the City Palace at Jaipur which the royal family occupies. Outside in the courtyard, tourists wander in clusters, stopping to gape at the enormous jars, the largest silver objects in the world, which are displayed in the Diwani Khas, the Durbar Hall, or making forays into the museum to admire the exhibits. More than five feet high, the jars were used by Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II in 1902 to carry Ganga water on his visit to England to attend the coronation of King Edward VII. The grand arches of the pink-hued City Palace are among the most recognisable tourist landmarks in the country while the latticed windows of the Hawa Mahal are a symbol of Indian tourism.


His Highness Bhawani Singh ...

"The beauty of Rajasthan owes itself to its rulers," says Narendra Singh offering you a seat in the gracious room of the Chandra Mahal which serves as his father-in-law's office. An autographed photograph of Prince Charles and Princess Diana can be seen in the background for they were guests of the Jaipur royals during their famous visit to India in 1992 when the world realised their growing apartness. There are several other reminders and snapshots of celebrity guests — Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, President Clinton.

"Take away the palaces and forts of Rajasthan and what do you have?" asks Narendra Singh. "The architecture, culture and administrative structure were all provided by the rulers. The people are nostalgic for the past and wherever we go, they greet us warmly. Every day, at least 20 people come to meet my father-in-law with some request or the other. He is in the office promptly at 10 every morning."

Brigadier Bhawani Singh, recipient of the Mahavir Chakra, suffered a stroke a couple of years ago. After schooling at Doon and Harrow, he joined the Indian Army and distinguished himself during the Indo-Pakistan War in 1971. He helped train the Mukti Bahini before the Bangladesh war. Bhawani Singh was Indian High Commissioner to Brunei in the 1990s. Though he contested in the elections in 1989, since Rajiv Gandhi wanted him to, there was a wave and we lost badly," says Narendra Singh.

A brilliant polo player like his father, Bhawani Singh is also a patron of the arts.


The largest silver object in the world.

The first child to be born in the Jaipur royal family in 100 years (successive rulers were adopted since 1880), Bhawani Singh's birth saw the popping of champagne bottles by the hundred and won him the nickname "Bubbles".

Bhawani Singh is the eldest son of Marudhar Kanwar, Princess of Jodhpur, seniormost among Maharaja Man Singh II's three wives.

Famed among the three former queens is of course the charismatic Gayatri Devi, the Princess of Cooch Behar. Celebrated in her prime as one among the 10 most beautiful women in the world, the princess, in pearls and chiffon, is the defining picture of Indian royalty for many in the West. She contested as a candidate of the Swatantra Party during the 1961 elections and entered the Guinness Book of Records winning by the largest number of votes in any election in history. A great deal of public sympathy was generated when she was imprisoned during the Emergency along with the Rajmata of Gwalior. The "age cannot wither princess" is a much sought after figure to grace social dos and functions even at the age of 80. Efforts to interview the Rajmata prove futile. Very much interested in women's education, she started the Maharani Gayatri Devi School for Girls in Jaipur.

Princess Diya is a product of this institution and now runs a nursery school within the palace premises.

Man Singh II was the earliest among the princes in Rajasthan to turn his palace into a hotel in 1958. His intuitive acceptance of change led him to become the Raj Pramukh of Rajasthan after Independence.

A number of hotels are now run by members of the royal family in the various palaces since the property has been divided among them. But property disputes seem to remain an inevitable part of life.


... and the family.

The City Palace, built by the founder of Jaipur, attracts as many as 3,000 tourists a day. At the museum are invaluable manuscripts and precious miniature paintings, such as the "Ragamala" series of the 17th Century.

Changing times have loosened the royals' ties with the people but the former make an effort to keep up the bond, according to those close to them. All the major festivals — Teej, Gangaur, Dussehra and rath yatras — start from the palace, as they have for centuries and weekday visits to the temple of Gobind devji are mandatory for the family. But Narendra Singh admits candidly that royals do not play a major role today except in social life.

Narendra Singh and his princess have two adorable children — a three-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl. The official photograph of the family, with the members decked in their regal finery (as in the case of the other royal houses) seems to belong to an ornamental page of history.

But it is obvious Narendra Singh has his feet firmly in the present. He feels it is time to look ahead. "We have depended on tourism for 50 years, it has now reached its peak. We have to think of some parallel source of income and of exploring new avenues."

In the major royal houses of Rajasthan, tourism managed cleverly has helped maintain the huge properties. "But the Government has not used our expertise well. They forget the contribution of this family which ruled for several hundred years," Narendra Singh.

Asked about a typical day in the life of the royals, he smiles, "We are like any other ordinary working people. We are also human beings like the others. You can't help looking sceptical. In most of the former leading royal houses of Rajasthan, which have managed their properties well, the lifestyle is still opulent. The wealth and social standing and the lovely palaces, crammed with priceless artefacts, ensure that.

The titles may be gone, the privileges no longer there, but to family members and staff, the scion is still His Royal Highness and very much a figure to be a treated with awe. You certainly do not know anyone whose lifestyle bears the faintest resemblance to those belonging to this charmed, rarefied world.

* * *

The Pink City and the Dynasty

THE Kachhawaha dynasty is a 1,000 years old. With its capital at Amber, it flourished, especially after it forged links with the Moghul rulers. Jai Singh I and then Man Singh I distinguished themselves as generals in the Moghul Army.

The strategic location made it advantageous for the rulers to ally themselves with the Moghuls as they were constantly wary of their neighbouring kingdoms.

Two emperors of Hindustan, Jehangir and Shahjehan were sons of Kachhawaha princesses.


Maharani Gayatri Devi

Jai Singh II shifted the capital from the impressive fort of Amber to Jaipur which he built in 1728. Jai Singh, who was a skilled astronomer, scholar, architect and scientist, had the city planned perfectly and the blueprint was made after studying some of the best cities in the world. Surprisingly, it was not painted pink when it was first built. Man Singh I (1835-1880) was the ruler who gave it the roseate hue.

The Kachhawahas, like the other dynasties of Rajasthan, were patrons of the arts and lovers of architecture.

The city's buildings and beautiful handicrafts — the tie and dye (Bandhini) fabrics, the gems and semi-precious stones and jewellery, the blue pottery, the lacquer work — make Jaipur a paradise for aesthetes and tourists.

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