(My column in Mint Lounge, March 16 2019)

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Uthram Tirunal Martanda Varma was a man with fascinating interests and a sunny disposition. Raja of Travancore from 1846-60, this prince was perhaps the first Malayali to appear in Western costume, sitting for a portrait in “European dress”. A lover of Kathakali, he was also an amateur actor. Thwarted by courtiers who decreed it unbecoming for a ruler to perform on stage, Martanda Varma satisfied his thespian yearnings before his bedroom mirror. He dabbled in medicine and was fascinated by anatomy. And when Brahmins shook their heads and pronounced bones impure, the raja merrily assembled a skeleton made of carved ivory. A man of infinite curiosity, as a ruler, though, Martanda Varma was not as much of a success. When, for instance, he spent lakhs of rupees on weighing himself in gold and conducting festivals (also simultaneously pleading lack of funds to pay tribute to the East India Company, his suzerains), the colonial establishment was apoplectic.

Martanda Varma was, however, a man of charm and diplomacy. The rulers of his house sat upon an ivory throne, the prestige of which had been elevated considerably during the reigns of his mother and brother. In 1849, the raja was in the process of constructing a new seat for himself when news arrived about what would become the Great Exhibition in London of 1851. It was an event designed by Queen Victoria’s husband to showcase the arts and industrial output of the empire, and Martanda Varma was also called upon to contribute to this exercise in imperial propaganda. “A very satisfactory collection consisting of all the raw products and manufactures of Travancore was made,” an officer under the raja recorded, and the latter decided to add his new throne as well. This was, after all, “a fit specimen of Travancore workmanship”. The queen was impressed—decades later, when she was proclaimed empress of India in 1877, her official photograph showed her enthroned in this very “magnificent chair”.

At one level, the throne (or “chair”, depending on who was looking at it) was simply an object of beauty: a “native” masterpiece representing “native” accomplishment. With diamonds, emeralds and rubies, it married Indian motifs to European designs. Its feet were shaped like lions’ paws, and the armrests ended with lions’ heads. “The back,” we are told, “is in the form of a shell supported by elephants, rampant.” Along with such recognizable Kerala elements, the throne also featured the unicorn and the dragon, borrowed from the royal coat of arms of the UK. The seat was made of elephant teeth and the chair “has a gold and silver tissue draper around the underside of the frame, finished with tassels and richly chased ormolu ornaments”. The cushion, in green velvet, was embroidered with gold and silver, so that, all in all, it was no wonder that the throne attracted, as the TheIllustrated London News put it, “much notice” in London.

But Martanda Varma’s present to the British sovereign was also a political act at a time when the East India Company was breathing down Travancore’s neck. A few years earlier, when his brother was in power, for example, the latter was nearly driven to abdicate, and Martanda Varma too confronted difficult dynamics with his overlords. As real power slipped out of the hands of his family and company representatives began behaving increasingly like schoolyard bullies, the throne became, as scholar Deepthi Murali notes, a means for the raja to reach out directly to their faraway queen. In the letter Martanda Varma sent her, he hoped that “Your Majesty will graciously condescend to receive this friendly, but humble tribute”, carefully emphasizing their unequal relationship. But he also reminded the queen that he, “like every one of his predecessors”, was a “faithful ally and dependent of the British Government”, hoping to uphold “a relation which I humbly trust will continue to the end of time”.

There is a strange irony in the whole exchange, which revealed the status of India’s princely states in general—the fact that a throne designed for Travancore’s ruler was shipped abroad for Victoria’s amusement is telling of where power resided. When the queen responded to Martanda Varma in 1851 with a letter under her sign-manual, he was, therefore, thrilled. “As this was the first event of the kind in Travancore, nay, in any native court of India,” a court chronicler recalled, “His Highness considered it no ordinary honor.” A durbar was organized and every house in town was ordered to have its gates decorated with flowers (and, interestingly, get its compound walls whitewashed). The grandest elephant available was commandeered to carry the queen’s kharita, accompanied by a large procession. When the letter was actually handed over to Martanda Varma, he held it up and touched it to his forehead, “while his eyes were filled with tears of joy”.

These were all efforts at winning imperial favour, but our charismatic prince only belatedly realized that such attempts did not compensate entirely for lack of support from local company authorities. Only a few years later, for instance, mounting expenses, missionary complaints about “abuses” suffered by low-castes, and more, delivered a “most dreadful” communique from Company to palace. Annexation was threatened, and the raja had to subscribe to colonial notions of “progress” and modern government. New officers, who enjoyed British approval, were appointed, and debts had to be cleared before the threat was withdrawn. But the dance of protocol continued regardless, ostentatious ceremony making up for the absence of real autonomy.

So when Victoria sent Martanda Varma a present (a belt) in 1860, another grand durbar was organized where the raja declared himself “the most fortunate among all the Princes in India”. And then, when the celebrations were over, he quietly went to the side of his ailing wife, who died that very night. A few months later, Martanda Varma too was dead. And his heir now took his seat on the old, less ornate throne of Travancore, while the “splendid chair” of Victoria’s grand public spectacle was added to the royal collection, sitting to this day in Windsor Castle.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 09 2019)


In 1899, when Lord Curzon sailed to India as viceroy, he lugged along not only his famously imperious temper but also a catalogue of administrative proposals. “The government of India,” he sniffed disdainfully, “is a mighty and miraculous machine for doing nothing”—and so everything, from railway networks to telegraph rates, found itself on his corrective desiderata. A committed votary of Britain’s “civilizing mission”, the man was certainly determined to leave his mark. But what made Curzon unusual even by his own overzealous standards was his concern for a subject otherwise low on the imperial programme. “In the past we have scandalously neglected this (particular) duty,” complained the viceroy, “and are now only tardily awaking to it.” And so, he would take a personal interest in the matter and ensure that this state of affairs was promptly rectified.

It was the state of India’s monuments that so vexed Curzon, and he allocated not only money and physical resources to their repair but also much of his viceregal energy. Indeed, admiration for his tenacity emerged from unlikely quarters. “After every other Viceroy has been forgotten,” Jawaharlal Nehru declared, for instance, “Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India.” Curzon stood out even among his fellow Englishmen, though it was not always approval that he received from the latter. But the viceroy’s resolve was firm. “If there be anyone who says to me that there is no duty devolving upon a Christian Government to preserve the monuments of a pagan art or the sanctuaries of an alien faith, I cannot pause to argue with such a man,” he announced. To Curzon, art and architecture were “independent of creeds”. They were marks of human genius and born of the “common religion of all mankind”. That alone was enough to justify his actions.

While the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), till then desperately starved of funds, was at last provided a respectable place in the official scheme of business, there was one particular monument that captured Curzon’s fullest attention: the Taj Mahal. To be fair, he was not the first British governor general to be seduced by Shahjahan’s creation. As early as 1834, Lord Bentinck had devoted attention to this structure, noting how “in a country where we have erected no monuments, it is a satisfaction to see that the Taj is at least cared for”. Curzon himself beheld the Taj long before he was installed as viceroy. Visiting Agra at the end of the 1880s, he was transfixed. He studied the mausoleum at dawn and gazed upon it in moonlight. “The Taj,” he wrote ecstatically thereafter, was “the most beautiful building raised by human hands in the world”. When he looked upon this “entrancing spectacle”, it overwhelmed him so much that he had to “shut my eyes” and take some moments to compose himself.

In general, Curzon could get violently furious when he saw the condition of some of India’s monuments. One contemporary recorded his “untiring activities, in spite of sun and heat”, and “long climbs among the ruins”. One day, they came across “one of the most beautiful Moslem buildings”, somewhere in the north. In it they found, of all things, a post office, and “the Viceroy in his indignation ordered the whole staff to quit on the spot”. But despite such episodes, nothing received the budgetary largesse Curzon allocated for Agra—about £50,000, which was nearly half the total earmarked for the subcontinent as a whole. Some of his “reforms” could even be eccentric. In the Taj, for instance, he had all the attendants dress up in “Mogul” uniform, and even as he was on his way back to Britain (in relative disgrace after the fiasco that was the partition of Bengal), he stopped in Cairo to commission an ornate lamp to hang over the grave of Mumtaz Mahal.

But Curzon was also all about order and efficiency; a certain geometric exactness that was as rigid as the steel girdle that kept his damaged back straight. The British never possessed riches that would allow them to construct in India anything surpassing the Taj—instead, they left their mark on the existing structure by stamping as many changes as were possible. For Curzon, this came in the form of redesigning the gardens. From his palatial residence in Kolkata, he barked orders at the local authorities. “I think the removal of the flowers and the substitution of simple grass in the plots bordering the water-channel…is an improvement; but I think the cypresses are planted too thickly.” The British had already removed the traditional fruit trees and started replacing them with plants of botanical and aesthetic appeal. But Curzon went further so that even in the 1930s there were complaints about his innovations. Indeed, the viceroy was so possessive that Sir Herbert Baker couldn’t make up his mind whether Curzon cared for the Taj as a “lover or a child”.

In general though, as Eugenia W. Herbert notes, the viceroy’s principle was simply: “When in doubt, plant grassy lawns, then decide whether shrubs or flowers should be added.” He did seek a certain continuity with Mughal styles (of which, incidentally, he knew little) and at one time had a number of “garish English flowers” removed. But, all the same, he transformed the Indian gardens around the Taj—with its large apple, guava and other trees, whose produce was sold in local markets—into a park that was more in consonance with European tastes. In this, he was guided entirely by his own conviction, and the fact that he did not trust local hands: “I have supervised and given orders upon every single detail myself,” he noted on one occasion. Local talent was “destitute of the faintest artistic perception; and if left to themselves, will perform horrors that make one alternately laugh and weep.”

Thanks to Curzon, many of India’s monuments received a new lease of life. But while it won the villain of Bengal unlikely adulation from nationalists, he himself saw only the Taj as his beloved. Even “if I had never done anything else in India,” he recorded in 1905, “I have written my name here (in Agra)”—a quite literal claim since the Cairo lamp was inscribed with his name. And these letters, he finished, were to him “a living joy”.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 02 2019)


There was once a little girl called Bahina, whose calf had a coat as dark as coal. And wherever the little girl went, the calf was certain to follow. It drank only if Bahina poured it water and ate only the grass she held up before its nose. So close was their bond that the calf would not seek even milk unless the little girl led it by the neck to its mother. It slept by Bahina’s mat, and she loved it like none other. A wise man declared theirs a spiritual connection: “The calf is her guru; the calf is her means of salvation.” Others believed the animal to hold within it a pious soul, a bhakta reborn in bovine form. To Bahina, either way, the calf was an extension of herself—when they were separated, her anguish was unparalleled. Bahina wept, and the calf eventually died. And with it, something inside Bahina also perished.

This is one of many tales left behind in the autobiography of the 17th century Maharashtrian Bhakti saint, Bahina Bai. While much about it can be discounted as creative excess—the calf, for instance, unexpectedly recites a shloka (verse)—the episode is the first in a sequence of many that shook this poetess to the core. When she was born in 1628, ironically, astrologers made grand announcements of promise and success. “She will be one to possess good fortune. The cord of her life shows great strength.” Strength Bahina Bai certainly cultivated, but “fortune” for her had little to do with its conventional manifestations. Where others saw wealth and power as marks of fortune, for Bahina, this would come through the pursuit of salvation for the spirit.

The pantheon of female Bhakti poets is dominated largely by women who questioned the status quo, their voices challenging norms designed by men. The 12th Lingayat saint Akka Mahadevi, for instance, rejected even clothes, while Meera opposed what was expected of her as a Rajput widow. Bahina Bai too faced moments of frustration. “The Vedas cry, the Puranas shout,” she lamented, “that no good can come of a woman. I was born with a woman’s body—how am I to attain the Goal?” “I may not say ‘Om’, I may not hear mantras’ names,” she cries elsewhere. How, then, would this Brahmin’s wife find the almighty? Yet, unlike Mahadevi and Meera, who walked out of their homes, Bahina Bai made her peace with the world. “A woman’s body is a body controlled by somebody else,” she concluded. How, then, could she dream of finding her own way?

Bahina Bai was only 3 when she was married to a man of 30. Her father, a bureaucrat, found himself facing prison when she was about 7—bailed out by his son-in-law, “a man of very angry disposition”, the family left its home. They settled eventually in Kolhapur, often begging their way through. Before long, little Bahina was showing an inclination for the teachings of Bhakti saints, attending a discourse once with her calf in tow. The guruthere, in the course of events, blessed both by placing his hand on their heads—an action that upset Bahina Bai’s husband. “He seized me by (my) braids…and beat me to his heart’s content.” Her parents watched, and the girl later asked, “In what duty to my husband had I failed?” It was now that she was forcibly separated from her calf, soon losing it forever to death.

In her grief, Bahina Bai had a vision of her contemporary Tukaram, already a famous man. Deeming herself his disciple, the adolescent was quickly absorbed in bhakti. Her husband, predictably, did not approve. He thundered, “Who is this Sudra Tuka, who appears in a dream?” As an orthodox Brahmin, he could venerate the Vedas but not voices of Bhakti, which often bent tradition. More injurious to his pride was witnessing Bahina Bai win admirers. “People will bow to her. To her I’ll seem like a piece of straw,” he feared. “Look at the people come asking for her…. Who cares about me with her there?” When she was pregnant, therefore, the man decided to discard her. An illness—and Bahina Bai’s dedication while nursing him back to vitality—led to a change of mind, and the husband too prostrated before Tukaram.

But for Bahina Bai this opened up a larger question: how to reconcile the expectations placed on her sex by the shastraswith her individual spiritual yearnings? Her answer, after she passed through a suicidal phase, was to combine the two and eschew radicalism. “My husband’s the soul,” she wrote, and “I’m the body…. My husband’s the water; I’m a fish in it.” Why would she think of domestic, conjugal life as a barrier if this became her attitude? She, who first questioned shastricinjunctions against women, became more accepting of the scriptures. Indeed, if someone rejected the Vedas and assorted texts, “know him to be impure within and without”, she declared.

Bahina Bai did, however, try to gently question caste without upsetting the apple cart. Birth, she argued in a style still fashionable, could not make a Brahmin—wisdom alone did. Mere learning too did not mark anyone as special. “All castes,” she felt, “are able to explain words and sentences and even poetry…. Even Muhammadans exhibit learning. But who regards these as truly Brahmins?” So, while she accepted rules laid out for her after a period of crisis, Bahina Bai attempted a quiet compromise. It does not make her a powerful example for our standards today, but, as Anne Feldhaus notes, “Bahina Bai realized a powerful Hindu ideal.” By the time she died in 1700, she had “achieved something not achieved either by the many dutiful wives who did not become saints, or by the saints who were not good wives.” She became, instead, that voice of Bhakti who espoused the middle path—one that upset nobody even as it delivered her the thing she craved: oneness with god.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 23 2019)


By the mid-18th century, the city of Pune was in the ascendant on the political map of India. As the seat of the Peshwas, hereditary ministers to the Maratha king, this riverside town of little previous significance grew into a prominent centre of commerce and diplomacy, attracting large numbers of traders, artisans, courtesans and mercenaries. A massive season of construction was launched as the Peshwas—descendants of a clerk risen to greatness—left their enduring stamp on the city. They renamed areas that honoured previous Islamic rulers and introduced new temples and festivals into the lives of various castes and people. There was a massive population explosion too: One estimate suggests that Pune rose from being home to 25,000 residents in 1700 to 100,000 at the dawn of the next century, making it “equal to Copenhagen, bigger than New York, a little smaller than Marseilles”—but either way a major urban node in pre-colonial India.

Pune during the Peshwa period, however, is also an interesting study in the management of life under indigenous governments before the Raj. Certainly, the Peshwa-era elite, like their counterparts elsewhere, lived in considerable style. Persianate clothes were worn, fabric for these imported from Bengal and Multan. The scholar Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, in fact, notes a contemporary record that refers to “pants made of elk-skin and another to a shirt made of rat-skin”, suggesting that some people, at any rate, had the time and wherewithal to make interesting decisions vis-à-vis their wardrobes. Tobacco was available easily, and there was also demand for Chinese tea, while fruits were imported from faraway places to cater to the appetites of the aristocracy. In the early 19th century, with British influence growing, there was even vaccination from smallpox available, administered to as many as 12,000 people by an English doctor.

But how did such a city manage itself at a larger level? As Brahmins, the Peshwas were orthodox in matters of caste, but there was a dispassionate bureaucratic machine that operated their capital on an everyday basis. N.K. Wagle’s study of police documents in Pune between 1767-91 offers a fascinating view of contemporary life, and of the issues the authorities had to arbitrate. “By far,” he notes, “the most numerous offences in the Kotwal’s Papers punishable by fines are the cases of sexual misdemeanor,” and this included adultery, “male and female homosexual activities”, as well as “bestiality”. One woman called Rakhmi was assaulted by her father-in-law, who defended himself by insisting it was an accident—he was on his way out to urinate, and somehow “I stumbled and my hands fell on Rakhmi’s breasts”. The police found the man guilty. “Even in a husband-wife relationship,” notes Wagle, “sex without consent constituted rape.” Lakshmi, wife of Jugraj Pardesi, for instance, complained that the latter forced himself on her, and for this he was slapped with “a hefty fine”. So, too, if a customer beat up a prostitute, she had the right to report the matter and see him punished.

The Kotwal’s role, however, didn’t begin and end at keeping the peace and upholding the law. One occupant of this position, who sat in the seat for half a century, had a salary of over 600 a year. A Brahmin from Kannauj, his duties, writes Gokhale, also involved the “supervision of markets, enforcement of the use of approved weights…control of singers, barbers and prostitutes, sanitation, streets, safety of buildings, drainage, care of visiting dignitaries, registration of documents of sale and contract…and the taking of censuses”. He was assisted by three clerks, 10 officers, and 118 policemen, spread over six stations. For the Pune police, there was never a dull day: One man reported that his wife beat him when he was “on his way to the washroom”. In another case, a woman was arrested after she was found guilty of murdering her husband “by administering poison in sweet potatoes”. Yet another would-be murderess mixed powdered glass into a lump of dough and tried to feed her other half the treacherous bread that emerged.

Justice was often dispensed in a systematic fashion, though matters of custom were determined through the most conservative texts—the Peshwas took it upon themselves to demote castes and upgrade others on the basis of various codes. In everyday affairs, the courts were swift. One celebrated judge called Ramshastri Prabhune served for 25 years, deciding a little under 1,400 cases, his reputation so tall that even disputes from outside the Peshwa’s dominions were argued before him. Indeed, Prabhune is best known for passing the death sentence on Peshwa Raghunathrao for the crime of having murdered his predecessor. It was another matter that the sentence was never carried out, but the prestige attached to the judge only multiplied, as did faith in the system. It was, however, still not an ideal universe and things could go horribly out of hand—that very Kotwal who served for 50 illustrious years was at the end of his career lynched by a mob of angry men after a case of mass custodial death.

At the end of the day, however, Pune was run by a Brahmin elite that dominated all avenues of power. Many of them were bankers with networks across the country, and in their time over 200 temples were constructed in the city. Pune also offered a rare occasion for the orthodoxy to exercise direct political power. The fall of the Peshwas in 1818 put an end to this chapter as British imperium replaced the reign of the Brahmins, and power slipped to centres elsewhere. Elite resentment grew but the ferment also birthed a churn from below—the work of Jotirao Phule, for instance, against caste and its injustices. These dynamics sparked the birth of west-Indian nationalism and brought to the fore firebrands like B.G. Tilak and others. But even as they thundered for swaraj (self-governance), these leaders also recalled the days when the Peshwas were strong and Pune was proud—when an Indian elite reigned, before they were displaced by white men from afar and the challenge of those once deemed low.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 16 2019)


In 1352, Bukka Raya, one of the five brothers who founded what would become the empire of Vijayanagar, flaunted a most extraordinary title in a royal inscription. Along with such typically flamboyant styles as “punisher of enemy kings”, “vanquisher of kings who break their word” and “auspicious hero”, this son of Sangama introduced something unusual, used previously in India only by his brother: He assumed the title of “Hinduraya Suratrana”, or sultan among Hindu kings. It was a remarkable claim to make, adopting all at once the nomenclature of “Hindu”—hitherto applied by foreigners to describe Indians in general—while also transcribing into the Sanskritic vocabulary and imagination the concept of “sultan”, a potent new form of kingship which resounded across the land as Islamic dynasties entrenched themselves in the north, and took fire and steel into the south.

As part of imperial bombast, “Hinduraya Suratrana” was essentially employed in Vijayanagar, though a stray reference evidently appears also in a 1439 inscription in Sadri, Rajasthan. But the Sanskrit translation of sultan as suratrana itself was not a Vijayanagar innovation. In 1323, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq appears as Suratrana Gayasadina, and, three years before Bukka, we find the term in Nepal—after his invasion in 1349, Shamsuddin of Bengal was remembered there as Suratrana Samasdina. The term was in vogue even in the 17th century, used to describe the Mughals. And yet some deny any connection between this Sanskrit term and its Arabic root. Suratrana, to them, comes from sura (god) and trana (protector), which would mean that Bukka Raya saw himself as a protector of Hindu deities, and was not borrowing an Islamic title. The etymology could be entertained, but the fact is that in practice the words were certainly used synonymously: where the Delhi Sultanate’s coins used the Arabic sultan on one side, the reverse was inscribed in Sanskrit with suritana. So too when literary works referred to the Suratrana of Yoginipura (Delhi), it is unlikely they were flattering Muslim kings as guardians of Hindu gods.

In the larger picture of the interaction Islam had with India’s diversity of traditions and cultures, this indigenization of a foreign title is hardly surprising. The dominance Muslim rulers enjoyed for centuries saw the import of Persian culture into the subcontinent, and much from Farsi and Arabic blended with Indian tongues. Persian’s place as the language of diplomacy, for instance, meant that as late as the 1810s, communication between a Malayali queen (whose minister was her dewan) and the English East India Company were conducted in that language. In some Indian languages, in fact, Persian and Arabic left imprints that are indelible, marking their nature as much as their cultural and literary identities. Marathi, for instance, borrowed a great many words from these foreign bhashas so that, as the scholar V.K. Rajwade noted, “old Marathi documents are as unintelligible to a non Persian-knowing Maratha, as to a foreigner”. The 19th century Maharashtrian thinker Vishnushastri Chiplunkar too had no qualms admitting that the “roots of our language” lay as much in Persian and Arabic as in Sanskrit. And just as the emperors of Vijayanagar projected themselves as Hindu sultans, the Deccani hero Shivaji was described in the Sabhasadbakhar (a kind of Marathi historical chronicle, derived, evidently, from the Persian akhbar) as a Maratha padshah.

While suratrana and padshah were titles related to dynasts and kings, foreign influences made their presence felt even at lower levels, travelling down to our own time. Scribes who worked for Muslim kings and wrote their Farsi letters were called Parsnavis, from which emerged today’s surname of Parasnis, just as the Maharashtrian name Daftardar is descended from an official bureaucratic title. Fard-Navis, or secretary/note-taker, is what birthed Fadnavis, the last name of the present Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Maharashtra. The bharud drama-poems and poetry of Eknath, the celebrated Bhakti saint, meanwhile, are replete with words of Persian origin, while even personal names used by Marathas sometimes had a foreign provenance: names like Sahebrao, Serfoji, Rustamrao, and so on. Shivaji’s own father and uncle were named Shahaji and Sharifji to celebrate a Muslim pir called Shah Sharif his grandparents admired.

Shivaji, it is true, made a pointed effort to erase Persian influences and concepts from Marathi, even commissioning a dictionary to help discard yavana (foreign) words and replace them with Sanskrit alternatives. But as the power of the Marathas spread across large parts of the country, Persian’s status as a link language made its resurrection inevitable. The Peshwas, a dynasty of hereditary ministers to the Maratha king, were orthodox; but even their title was Persian. In a 1775 letter the prominent Maratha figure Nana Fadnavis sent on behalf of the Peshwa to the British monarch, the scholar Sumit Guha actually highlights words that are of Perso-Arabic origin (daulatbiradarbahutmahzabat, and so on), noting that though not as extensively as before, these were back in circulation. Such Islamicate influence was not, to be fair, limited to language, administrative jargon and titles alone: The Marathas also adopted Persian sartorial fashions and styles of architecture, so much so that the samadhi of Shivaji’s grandfather has been mistaken for a tomb owing to its striking resemblance to Islamic mausoleums.

Considering the plurality of influences that as a rule makes up Indian culture—a civilization with no single origin—none of this ought to surprise anyone. By the 19th century, however, efforts were already under way to “purify” languages and give them a classical pretence by overcompensating with Sanskrit words and trying to divert everything Persian and Arabic along religious lines to a specific class of people. In many respects, the project is still ongoing, and there is among certain sections of people even today a quest to find the “true” essence or purest version of the past. The irony, of course, as history shows, is that such a past does not exist, and what exists is not “pure” but rich and layered and splendidly complex—a past where there are Hindu sultans and Maratha padshahs; where forebears of a Hindu king could name their sons after a Muslim pir.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 09 2019)


In December 1971, Indira Gandhi famously abolished India’s princely order, terminating the privileges enjoyed by retired maharajas and nawabs since the integration of their states in 1949. To uphold titles, “customary rights, special privileges and privy purses without any relatable functions and responsibilities” was, in her mind, “incompatible” with “the spirit of the times”. Debate on this had begun well before, in fact, and, by 1967, there was considerable sparring in Parliament. The Bengali Communist leader, Bhupesh Gupta, for instance, described privy purses as “blood money” to feed a “parasitic class”, thundering that the Indian state was not an instrument to subsidize royal harems. Others, like Dahyabhai Patel of Gujarat, argued that reneging on a constitutional guarantee was not becoming of our nation. Would the government, he asked, “repudiate one by one all the agreement(s) that it has made, all the covenants it has entered into”? What authority would the state’s word possess in sensitive cases such as Kashmir, then?

Beyond contentious privileges—ranging from reserved pastures for their horses to immunity from legal prosecution—many were the constitutional issues involved in dissolving official recognition of India’s maharajas. In fact, Mrs Gandhi’s initial attempt had failed after the Supreme Court intervened, following which it was decided to amend the Constitution and discard the provisions standing in her way. And so it was that in the winter of 1971, the princes were relegated to the margins of history. Indeed, in one of her speeches in Parliament, Mrs Gandhi encouraged umbrageous maharajas to actually supporther—which, she averred, would leave them looking “considerably enhanced” in public estimation—instead of aching for gun salutes and vanities in a country so poor. The princes, predictably, were not pleased with her unsolicited advice, but it was too late: Mrs Gandhi carried the day, and with that the President ceased to recognize any more “rulers”.

Of course, India would not be India if broad legal positions translated immediately into lived reality. For there are still princes around the country who continue to be “recognized” and enjoy special rights despite Mrs Gandhi’s triumph in 1971. Indeed, even princely lines which were derecognized boast of public prestige and political power: Of the Scindias of Gwalior, the last maharani was a stalwart of the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, while her son and grandson went on to become leading politicians in Mrs Gandhi’s own party. In Mysore, a man was adopted in 2015 to “succeed” to what is strictly a non-existent title, essentially because the position retains religious and social significance. So too in Jaipur, the princely state whose maharani was at the receiving end of unusual hostility during Mrs Gandhi’s emergency rule, there is a 20-year-old titular maharaja, who holds in trust palaces and an extraordinary art collection, commanding considerable local reverence.

But if these are instances of princely descendants possessing respect for reasons of faith, custom or wealth, in Chennai resides a personage who is still recognized officially by the President. “His Highness the Prince of Arcot” is, even in 2019, a legal entity, with the perks of a Tamil Nadu cabinet minister. “Other special privileges,” a 1991 India Today feature noted, “include a full police escort, a state funeral” and some exemptions of income and motor vehicle tax. The arrangement may seem at odds with 1971, but Arcot was never affected by Mrs Gandhi’s zeal to begin with: That was aimed at princes who entered into agreements with the Indian union in 1949. Arcot’s status, as it happens, was decided well before. When, in 1855, the nawab of the Carnatic died, the East India Company annexed his territories under the notorious Doctrine of Lapse. The dead ruler’s uncle, who claimed succession under Islamic law, protested. And so, in 1871, a compromise was designed by which the uncle was created “Prince of Arcot”, with an allowance and specific prerogatives. The state’s obligations to his heirs were passed on by the British to independent India, the result of which is that the “prince” still enjoys legal sanctity in our anomalous democracy.

Kerala too is full of petty royalty with de facto recognition. For instance, while the privy purse of the Travancore maharaja was abolished in 1971, individual allowances settled on his family members by V.P. Menon, the civil servant who assisted Sardar Patel, are still disbursed: A niece of the maharaja, for instance, was aged 9 when the state merged with the Union. She was granted 833 per month then; today, at nearly 79, she still receives a stipend, raised to 3,250 in 2009. In north Kerala, meanwhile, treaties executed by the East India Company guide official obligations. When taking over Malabar, the Company had agreed to pay its princes certain sums in perpetuity. The Company disappeared after the rebellion of 1857, but its commitments were inherited by its successors: first, the British Crown and then the Indian Republic. So, even today, there is a “Zamorin of Calicut” entitled to about 5,000 per month according to an 1806 agreement; eight other title-holders in his 826-person family also receive pensions. As each incumbent dies, another succeeds and the state dutifully pays its legal dues to the newest arrival in this titular royal court.

The case of these surviving princes in our socialist republic is, in some ways, reflective of the countless ironies that make up Indian democracy. India remains, in many ways, a marriage of awkward histories and feudal legacies with the idealism of liberal thought and constitutional values. They do not sit easily with each other always, and sometimes jostle with force to make their presence felt. And yet the enterprise moves forward, one way or another: which perhaps explains why, even as we celebrate a Dalit president, newspapers descend into a frenzy at the advent of babies to freshly adopted maharajas; how even as a “chaiwallah” rises against the odds to become prime minister, there are princes and rajas to whom his government still owes a royal pension.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 02 2019)


When Kabir, the poet-saint, died five centuries ago, he could not have predicted he would be reimagined over and over again, to allay the anxieties of every succeeding generation. To most, of course, this icon of Bhakti is a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, his Arabic name sitting cheerfully alongside the chant of Ram. Indeed, soon after his death, Abul Fazl, emperor Akbar’s chronicler, described him as “the asserter of the unity of God”, one who “discarded the effete doctrines” of his time, “revered by both Hindu and Muhammadan for his catholicity of doctrine and the illumination of his mind”. Sikhs too looked upon him with respect, dedicating to his work whole passages in their Adi Granth. And in the 19th century, European missionaries laid claim to the weaver-saint of Varanasi, delighting in his barbs against caste, finding in his sayings a reflection of such thought which could only, they were convinced, be Christian in origin.

“Kabir appears to modern India,” Charlotte Vaudeville pointed out, “to be the true symbol of non-conformity.” And yet everything about him is immersed in myth and awe. He was the poor son of Muslim weavers, though the vocabulary of his devotion led early on to Hindu claims upon him. Some invented for him a miraculous birth—he was the conception of a Brahmin widow, delivered through her palm. Abandoned, he was raised Muslim. Others said he descended enveloped in lotus leaves and light from the heavens, floating upon a lake where he was discovered by his Julaha father. He certainly did celebrate Hindu imagery over Muslim theology, evidently also enjoying the tutelage of the guru, Ramananda. But by most accounts he was definitely a Muslim, with a wife and children, coming to mean so much to Hindus that stories were invented to drag him, as Wendy Doniger records, “over the line from Muslim to Hindu”.

While he lived, ironically, there was enough in Kabir’s message to upset Hindu and Muslim elites alike. To Brahmins he asked whether they were born with a caste-mark on the forehead, or whether their mothers delivered them through a special canal. “And if you say you’re Turk,” added Kabir, “why weren’t you circumcised before birth?” So, too, he sneered, it was “dumb” if people sought salvation in ritual. “If going naked brought liberation, the deer of the forest would attain it first. If a shaven head was a sign of piety, ewes would be pious too.” That low-castes and kafirs were doomed to their fate by the accident of birth was nonsense. Only those “who don’t have Ram on their lips” were ignorant; they alone were the low-born of the earth. “Those who read the Vedas call themselves Pandits, those who read the Quran call themselves Maulana; they give themselves different names…(but they) are all,” announced Kabir, “in their own delusions, not one of them knows the Lord.”

Like many in the Bhakti tradition, Kabir too knew persecution, therefore. Many are the tales that place him at the receiving end of the ire of Sikander Lodi, sultan of Delhi. Punishment was ordered, and suffering inflicted, but here again Kabir laughed at the irony. Giggling, it is said, in the presence of the emperor himself, the weaver is said to have declared, “All my life I have tried to impress upon the Hindus and Muslims that God is one.” He had tried to build a bridge between different paths, only to be ridiculed: “How could a Brahmin demean himself by joining hands with a low-caste weaver? How could a maulvi degrade himself by allying with a kafir?” They did not listen to words of wisdom, but hate achieved what Kabir had failed to bring about: “They could never bear to stand together in the court of (God) the King of Kings, but today it amuses me to see them standing united in the court of a (mortal) king.” And this because the custodians of the faiths universally disliked Kabir and his message.

It was his large following—those like him, illiterate, weak, and devoid of books—that made him an asset to wardens of the great traditions after he went to the grave. Indeed, they fought over his remains when he died, till, legend claims, only flowers remained under the funeral sheet: Some were buried, the rest cremated, and both sides got to claim a share of Kabir’s legacy. He might have chuckled at the feud over rites and ownership. “His death in Benares,” he once sang, “won’t save the assassin from certain hell,” just as “a dip in the Ganges won’t send frogs—or you—to paradise.” Matters of ritual were futile: mere instruments to enthral the susceptible, shrouding true wisdom from the masses. But no sooner had he died than Kabir too became an instrument. “I say the world is mad,” he had laughed. “If I tell the truth, they rush to beat me; if I lie, they trust me.” Now that he was dead, owning him trounced his message—and for this, things he eschewed became now truly imperative.

Of course, Kabir was no perfect man. His message resonated with the masses, and with quiet confidence he stood up to the power of those who held the keys to heaven. But he too had prejudices. “Woman,” he declared once, “is the refuse of the world” so that “noble men will put her aside, only the vile will enjoy her.” Elsewhere, he compared the female to a 20-hooded serpent, and “if she stings one,” he warned, “there is no chance to survive”. We can try and console ourselves that perhaps this streak of misogyny was a reflection of his age; that he never himself claimed to be a perfect man, or the one true soul in whose words lay answers for all. He was merely Kabir the weaver—a mortal made of flesh and blood—and he cared for Ram alone, not for the world and its numerous other battles.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 26 2019)


In the summer of 1795, soldiers attached to a Mughal jagir in present-day Uttar Pradesh rose up in mutiny and chained their commander-in-chief to a gun carriage. It was the nadir of their ultimately foiled enterprise, but the whole episode was packed with extraordinary drama. To begin with, the commander-in-chief—who languished for a whole week in the heat—was a woman. She had launched her career as a dancing girl, rising not only to become the begum of Sardhana, but also to win the affection of the emperor in Delhi who styled her Zeb-un-Nissa (“Jewel among Women”), Farzand-i-Azizi (“Beloved Daughter”) and Umdat-al-Arakin (“Pillar of the State”). She had spent her youth by the side of a much older German lover, inheriting his fortune, and later joined a Frenchman in a doomed marriage. Now, as she lay shackled and humiliated in public, riding heroically to her rescue was a former Irish paramour, one who would title himself the “Rajah from Tipperary”, becoming famous for his own military exploits.

Begum Samru, as our protagonist is best known, was born in the 1750s to the junior wife (or mistress) of a petty Mughal nobleman. The early death of her father saw both mother and child turned out on to the streets, and by the time she was in her teens the part-Kashmiri girl, who would one day take the name Joanna Nobilis, was a courtesan in Delhi. It was at this time that she encountered Walter Reinhardt. A serial deserter turned mercenary, he had upset everyone, including the French and the British, the latter placing a bounty on his head after he presided over the massacre of dozens of Englishmen in Patna. Known also as Sombre, a French corruption of Somers (a name he assumed while attempting a cunning reincarnation), he readily added the dancing girl to his entourage. And before long, despite the existence already of an Indian bibi, this young girl had become his partner, living with him for over a decade, sharing in his numerous adventures.

This period with Reinhardt, in fact, transformed the begum. Accompanying her “husband” on military campaigns, she also became his right hand in managing his jagir. After Reinhardt’s death in 1778, she played her cards with uncommon shrewdness, having Delhi recognize her, and not her husband’s hopeless son, as heir to his estate and all its appurtenances. Even though her dead spouse’s reputation as the “butcher of Patna” continued to plague her for years, she won admirers across the board; all of them noted her determination, charm and store of wisdom. Indeed, successive commentators recorded her “masculine” gifts, which, in that patriarchal age, as Julia Keay wrote, was their highest compliment. The begum too encouraged such an image: She sported, unusually, a turban, also appearing unveiled in paintings, with a hookah pipe in her hand. Essentially, she was making, as Alka Hingorani argues, “subtle alterations of traditionally masculine prerogatives”.

In 1781, Begum Samru took the unusual step of converting to Catholicism, an act as much of religious conviction as of political imagination. Though she shared no tongue with the priest who baptized her, and despite disapproval for having retained an Islamic appearance even after her conversion, the begum spent lakhs of rupees on Christian institutions (besides exchanges with the pope), constructing also what is considered north India’s largest church. All the same, becoming a Christian seemed a suitable strategy for a woman unhappy with Islamic restraints on her sex: Catholicism gave her the freedom she required to rule Sardhana while creating a legitimate (and distinct) space in contemporary Hindustani politics. Some, in fact, claim that she foresaw British dominion and wished to curry favour with India’s future masters by accepting the Christian faith—a claim not borne out by evidence, even if it lends itself to heady speculation.

As a military commander, Begum Samru showed all the qualities that marked leadership in her tumultuous age. When it was necessary, she could be ruthless: Two maidservants who set fire to her buildings were buried alive at her orders. When the Mughal emperor was imperilled, it was she who rode more than once not only for the defence of his imperial person but also of his capital. All the same, the begum also had to balance factions within her own armed forces. A motley crew of European adventurers and assorted Indian sepoys, they had their own politics, the worst of which the begum suffered after she married an unpopular French gun-founder, provoking that mutiny which saw her tied up and left to die in scorching heat. She survived the debacle and was restored to power, but never again permitted her heart to reign over her head.

By the early 19th century, the middle-aged begum (“a bejeweled vision of delight”) became a British ally. Instead of military engagements, it was her soirées that now attracted Europeans for whom she was also an object of curiosity. As late as 1834, when she was “bent in two” and “shriveled like dried raisins”, her energy didn’t cease to dazzle. In fact, writes Brijraj Singh, she actively “preferred European people and things to their Indian counterparts”—a potential adjustment to altered political realities after the emperor and his dynasty went into terminal decline and British supremacy became India’s new normal. Of course, though they admired her, Company officials never saw her as an equal. But it didn’t matter to her, either, in the big picture: She had begun life in poverty and crisis and worked in a public house. Now, by the eve of her demise, she not only enjoyed military salutes, but was also one of India’s richest women. As her memorial in Sardhana records, then, when “Her Highness Joanna Zeb-ul-Nissa” died on 27 January 1836, she was “revered and lamented by thousands of her devoted subjects”—not a predictable ending for someone who was once a courtesan, and whose successes so bewildered the world that rumour insisted she was actually a witch.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 19 2019)


Manubai Tambe was a woman of formidable spirit, long before she was lost to a nationalistic fog of myth and legend. Arriving soon at your nearest movie theatre with her more elaborate name, Manikarnika, she was, for instance, a sharp judge of horses. She wrote official letters in Persian and during the rebellion of 1857 famously led men—and women—into battle. Round of face, she was taller than most of her peers, and is said to have favoured simplicity, unlike the bejewelled depiction chosen by today’s film directors. “She bore,” an Englishman later recorded, “all the outward signs of a powerful intellect and an unconquerable resolution.” But if there was one thing that ruined the impression she left, it was her voice: as her legal adviser bemoaned, when the Rani of Jhansi began to speak, substance of great intelligence was conveyed in a sound that could only be described as “something between a whine and a croak”.

Lakshmibai, a name bestowed after her marriage (and one which she would make famous), was not born royal. Her father, Moropant, was a retainer of the Peshwas of Pune, serving the latter even after they were deposed by the British. It was in Varanasi that the future rani was born to this Brahmin, though the auspiciousness of the setting was dulled somewhat by the loss of her mother. But Moropant gave her both affection and the confidence born of education: she read, she rode, she fenced, and saw to it that her male playmates treated her as an equal. Many are the tales woven around her fascinating personality: once, it is said in a story that survives in multiple iterations, the Peshwa’s adopted son refused to take her along on his elephant. Years later, when she was granted three wishes on her wedding, she expended one of them to courier to this old friend the present of a particularly mighty elephant.

It was as a child-bride that the heroine of 1857 first arrived in Jhansi. The Newalkar family in power here were minor royalty of recent vintage. A late 18th century creation of the Peshwas, their loyalties were ceded in the early 19th century to the East India Company. “Maharajadhiraj Fidvi Badshah Jamjah Inglistan” (Devoted Servant of the Glorious King of England) was a title Lord Bentinck bestowed upon them in 1832, transforming this line from subedars to maharajas. And it was when Lord Dalhousie withdrew favour in 1853 that their fortunes were reversed. In 1851, meanwhile, young Manubai had given her husband an heir, but the baby did not survive. Two years later when the raja followed his child to the grave, there was nobody to occupy his place. With that the stage was set for the drama that now cements Lakshmibai’s memory: as the “Jezebel of India” in unkind Victorian eyes and as a patriot in the Indian imagination.

The annexation of Jhansi, as is well known, was opposed by the rani. It so happened that from his deathbed, her husband—a bibliophile whose love of drama sometimes saw him also appear personally on stage, according to scholar Joyce Lebra-Chapman—had adopted a relation as his heir. The British, of course, decided there was no compelling reason to recognize any of these proceedings: they had upgraded provincial officers into princelings, and they reserved the right to demote them now. Interestingly, this was despite popular sentiment: their own local representative had expressed confidence in the young widow (she was “highly respected and esteemed” and “fully capable” of ruling in her husband’s place), while another argued that since adoption had been recognized in a neighbouring state, there was no reason to deny the privilege to the Newalkars as well. The rani herself, meanwhile, petitioned the governor-general, arguing her case logically, highlighting portions from assorted treaties to show the latest British decision to be what it truly was: an injustice.

In an April 1854 letter, Lakshmibai appealed to Dalhousie to remember “How loyal the Rajas of Jhansi have ever been; how loyal are their representatives; how strong are the inducements that they should continue to be loyal in the future.” Her husband had not, she pointed out, any warlike characteristics, and Jhansi’s military capabilities were limited to “five thousand rusty swords worn by people called the army”. “Helpless and prostrate,” she ended, “I once more entreat Your Lordship to grant me a hearing.” Of course, she was exaggerating her helplessness and the impotence of her armies, but at this stage she was willing to plead with Dalhousie—if only he had relented, in 1857, she might even have stayed loyal, like other princes, to the British. Instead, however, the governor-general dug his heels in, leaving Lakshmibai to protest the “gross violation” of previous understandings, warning that this would cause “great disquietude” among India’s nobility, with lasting repercussions on the future of the Company and its designs.

Dispossessed, at first the rani declined the British offer of ₹60,000 per annum but was soon persuaded to accept the settlement. In the years that followed, however, there was much bickering and haggling—over the late raja’s debts, which were deducted from her allowance; over the continuation of the pension to Lakshmibai’s adopted son, which the British were against; over a temple; and even such issues as cow slaughter. When the rebellion broke out, at first the rani was undecided—in a letter dated June 1857, she hoped the rebels would go “straight to hell”. Even months later, by which time the local British presence was destroyed through a massacre, Lakshmibai was uncertain. It was only early in 1858, when many of her old friends, including the aforementioned Peshwa’s adopted son, became confirmed leaders of the rebellion and she herself was being viewed with suspicion, that she made her final choice: a choice that saw her ride out bravely on horseback towards tragedy, and enshrined her in India’s national history.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 12 2019)


In 1857, when the great rebellion swept much of north India into a storm of gunpowder and rage, one of the consolations the embattled British possessed was the loyalty of numerous Indian princes. Even as maharajas issued proclamations of fidelity, a number of them mobilized actual armies in service of the East India Company. Thus, for instance, leading princes of Punjab stood with the British, just as the reigning Scindia in Gwalior “strove hard to keep his…subjects faithful to his liege lords.” In Rajputana, similarly, support came despite public sympathy for the rebels. “At every town through which we passed,” an officer wrote of Jaipur, “the inhabitants cursed and abused us.” But the local ruler pitched his flag with the British, lending them troops who not only served the Company gloriously but even punished those “refractory villages” for flirting with mutiny.

From his position, it was a shrewd stand to take, for had it been otherwise, Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur himself might have been deposed and banished to the footnotes of history. Described as “a ruler of singular intelligence and enlightenment”, Ram Singh was only 22 at the time of the rebellion, and it was after some hesitation that he decided to endorse the cause of the British. He had spent his formative years under the guardianship of a regency council, which was really a coterie of noblemen. When in 1851 he succeeded to full powers, he had to balance several interests—in order to actually exercise his authority, he proactively sought the “active official support” of the British. But all the same, his courtiers remained influential, so when they showed sympathy for the rebels in 1857, it took some time for Ram Singh to make up his mind—on whether he should raise swords in the name of the mutineers, or fight for a foreign power which buttressed his own princely authority.

Ram Singh was one of the 19th century’s more remarkable Indians. That he was interesting was clear early on. When prince Alexei Dmitrievich Saltykov of Russia met him in the mid-1840s, the “plain-looking” adolescent left on his visitor a sparkling impression. He wanted to know, for instance, “where Russia is located and how long it would take to go there from Jaipur”. As an adult, the maharaja carved for himself an even more striking reputation as a modernizer. In 1867, he set up the first girls’ school in his capital despite “popular prejudice” against such ideas in a feudal environment. He set up the Maharaja College, where English and Sanskrit were taught side by side, even as he established a school of art, a public library, and a hospital. Gas lights were installed along thoroughfares in his capital, while other projects ranged from waterworks to a postal network. Changes in administration were also made, launching modern governance in the state. Meanwhile, fluent in English as well as Western thought, Ram Singh became a bridge between two worlds, tuned into evolving times, but also married firmly to his roots and to Indian tradition.

What really distinguished him, though, was a royal pastime that graduated into an enduring passion. When Louis Rousselet, the traveller, met Ram Singh in 1866, he was surprised that the maharaja’s “dress was handsome, but showed an indifference to ornament”; instead of jewels and a sword, there was “an immense revolver thrust into his belt”. But more interesting even than the ruler’s appearance, the Frenchman recalled, was their conversation on photography—Ram Singh, he realized, was not only “an admirer of this art, but is himself a skilled photographer”. In fact, for about a decade, the maharaja had been a member of the Bengal Photographic Society, long before he acquired his first camera in 1862. And while princes across India developed a fondness for photography, few mastered it in the way he did—or created a collection that encapsulates a world in which the Victorian and the Indian met both constructively as well as to do ideological battle.

It was portraiture that caught the maharaja’s attention. In 1870, for instance, he photographed Queen Victoria’s son just as he did his palace doctor. But what are more stunning are the portraits he made of women in his harem. There were Hindus and Muslims; senior concubines (pardayats) and junior mistresses (paswans). But, as scholar Laura Weinstein notes, to photograph women in purdah was “completely without precedent”. While Ram Singh never made portraits of his senior wives, by bringing his establishment into view through the camera, he dispelled multiple stereotypes about the harem. Where the British painted the zenana as a sinister place, lacking in fresh air and guarded by scheming eunuchs, the women who appear in Ram Singh’s photographs are powerful, dignified and far from Victorian cliché. “The zenana portraits,” tells Weinstein, “reveal no sickness or dirt, depraved or deviant faces, exposed bodies or sexually suggestive poses.” What they show is a world where there is no pressing demand for Western “light”—where there is nobody crying to be “rescued” from despotic oriental hands.

It is tempting to think that Ram Singh was making a conscious statement as he Indianized the gaze of the Western camera. By turning his lens towards the harem, he struck at norms that concealed royal women; and by photographing the zenana’s inmates in confidence, he was challenging colonial tropes about Indian women and royal depravity. Indeed, for all the things he achieved in his remarkable life, this is one of the most memorable. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, even as he carried out his programme of administrative reform in Jaipur, the maharaja honed his skill with the camera. And by the time he went to the grave in 1880, Ram Singh had journeyed through a world of experience: from the young prince of 1857, who gambled in favour of the British, to the photographer-maharaja who claimed for himself the right to depict Indianness and reject hackneyed images perpetuated by the Raj.