(My column in Mint Lounge, May 25 2019)


On 12 May 1666, the Maratha hero Shivaji came face to face with his nemesis, Aurangzeb. Mughal armies had for generations been embroiled in the Deccan, and what Akbar launched, his great-grandson was determined to bring to a conclusion. But such turmoil also opened avenues for new political ideas—something Shivaji, for instance, described as his swarajya. Battles were fought between the Mughals and the Marathas, each party celebrating victories and suffering defeat, though compromise and diplomacy remained in play. Where the Marathas embarrassed the emperor by attacking his uncle in his own camp in 1663, for instance, by 1665 the tables had turned—the Mughals cornered Shivaji, forcing him to the negotiating table.

So it was that Shivaji arrived in Agra the next summer to pay homage to the emperor. While the Marathas would become Aurangzeb’s most formidable challenge, the two sides did not at this time meet as equals. For the Mughals, Shivaji was one of numerous political representatives present—indeed, as Audrey Truschke suggests, in a long-established and ceremonious court where well-ensconced Rajputs painted Marathas as upstarts, it is hardly surprising that Shivaji was not treated with exceptional regard. As the Deccan’s foremost power, however, he took umbrage at this, added to which may have been awkwardness in an unfamiliar environment. Some say he stormed out, while others claim his protests provoked the emperor to expel him. Either way, Mughal efforts to co-opt the Marathas came to naught, and Shivaji was imprisoned.

In hindsight, and in the romance that often weaves its way through history’s tales, it is tempting to view the conflict between Aurangzeb and Shivaji as merely a clash of titans. But each side estimated the other differently, deploying contempt as well as grudging awe, depending on the context. For Aurangzeb, the Maratha warrior was a “mountain rat”—a parvenu creating chaos and lacking legitimacy. Indeed, in 1666, after the events at the durbar, several were the voices that advised a swift, murderous solution to the Maratha headache. The emperor, however, prevaricated, and Shivaji escaped. The war resumed and cost life and money both, but it would be decades before the Marathas were acknowledged by the Mughals as worthy of serious respect.

For Shivaji, however, with absorption into the Mughal system having failed, there was no way ahead but to dig in his heels. By the 1670s, as he retrieved territories seized by the emperor’s men, the Maratha champion also grew keen on legitimacy. This was intended to address Mughal contempt as well as local disdain. After all, among Marathas too, many denied Shivaji’s claims of primacy and his project to found a new state and identity. Early on, as scholar Prachi Deshpande shows, the Mores of Jawali questioned his ambition and highlighted their superiority, invoking a deity as well as service under a local sultanate. The Ghorpades of Mudhol too cast Shivaji in their chronicles as an adventurer upsetting all that was established. At best, the young Maratha was an equal—why should they rally behind his cause and declare him their leader?

Shivaji’s response to this crisis of legitimacy was twofold. To triumph over local discord and cement his position, he summoned the power of Sanskrit texts and ideals of Kshatriya dharma. Against ritual odds and objections, he had himself crowned with grand old ceremonies in 1674, acquiring a superior caste as well as a sacred thread. Then he commissioned an elaborate Sanskrit epic, eulogizing his deeds but also articulating his vision—the Sivabharata elevates the new king beyond provincial feuds, transforming him into dharma’s sword against adharma. He is Vishnu reborn to rid the world of mleccha i.e. Islamic rule, justifying his efforts to claim leadership of the Marathas. “Even a single ant,” it is declared, “can kill an elephant, by crawling into its trunk.” If anyone thought Shivaji insignificant, it was at their own peril.

As it happened, after his death the state descended into chaos, Shivaji’s heirs struggling with internecine rivalries and trying to hold on to tenuous loyalties. Here again, though, texts were deployed alongside efforts on the ground. In the 1690s, when his son Rajaram was exiled in the south and hounded by the Mughals, the SabhasadBakhar (a chronicle by Sabhasad) was composed, lending moral force to the Maratha struggle. Shivaji’s deeds were recalled, and his valour celebrated. Indeed, at a time when imperial attacks were at their worst and the state confronted an existential crisis, history was married to song to shore up urgently needed confidence and sustain hard-won validity for this troubled enterprise. As the imperial court shrewdly flirted with assorted Maratha warlords, an emotional reminder of a once-shining goal could help prevent utter disintegration.

So while, in reality, Aurangzeb viewed the Marathas with disdain, in the Bakhar, words of awe are ascribed to him. After hearing, for instance, of the Marathas’ attack on his uncle, we have the emperor express uncharacteristic horror. Even when Shivaji is about to attend the Mughal durbar, the emperor cries: “He isn’t an ordinary man.” After all, he vanquished great generals, and if “just like that he flies on to my throne and betrays me, what will I do then?” In the Bakhar, the Mughals remain redoubtable foes and the emperor very powerful, but there is respect for Shivaji. In fact, in the end Aurangzeb declares: “I sent lakhs and lakhs of horsemen; all returned subdued and harassed…I might just gird up my loins and go myself, but….While Shivaji is alive, (it is) better not to leave Delhi.”

These words were composed when the Maratha effort was desperate to stay afloat and the imperial army was at its most aggressive. But recalling Shivaji—and borrowing from his own techniques of wedding textual projection to lived action—the idea behind swarajya retained a vitality. The result was that, in the end, the Maratha kingdom survived, even as Aurangzeb went to the grave with regrets. “The greatest pillar of a government,” he ruminated, “is the keeping of information about everything…while even a minute’s negligence results in shame for long years. See how the flight of that wretch Shiva, which was due to carelessness, has involved me in all these distracting campaigns to the end of my days.”

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 18 2019)


In 1509, when Krishna Raya of Vijayanagar ascended the empire’s throne, it was with a debt of gratitude to a murdered goat. Legend has it that the prince’s half-brother and predecessor had no desire to see Krishna Raya inherit power—determined to safeguard the prospects of his own offspring, he commanded his minister to blind their rival and bring him his eyes. The minister nodded assent but acted treacherously. Sending Krishna Raya into hiding, he deceived the dying monarch with a pair of goat’s eyes. And when the man heaved a sigh of relief and took his final breath, the prince was cheerfully retrieved, returning from the political wilderness to be enthroned in Vijayanagar.

The empire under Krishna Raya—popularly known as Krishnadeva Raya—would scale great heights, the population in its capital region surpassing every city in the world save Beijing. But for all his achievements, Krishna Raya was never, it is said, expected to reign at all. He was the son of his father from an inferior wife: Nagamba or Nagi, some believe, was a lamp-cleaner. One day, the Raya’s father witnessed something dramatic in the skies—a shooting star, it is suggested. He consulted his astrologers and was instructed to lie with his lady at once. He looked for his wife, the story continues, but could not find her. So it was Nagi who went to her lord’s bedchamber. It was the lamp-cleaner who birthed a son blessed by celestial forces.

Many such apocryphal tales envelop Krishna Raya, marrying heady romance to cold reality. But even without a legitimizing preamble, what he achieved was phenomenal. Vijayanagar was not in a state of health when the prince seized its throne, so that for years he was preoccupied with stability. He fought foreign enemies even as he overawed rebellious feudatories. Swords were raised in Kanchipuram, as they were in Ikkeri, and in the field the emperor was magnificent and ruthless. He “crushed the skulls of Khurasani warriors”, for instance, and with the head of a sultan “built a gruesome effigy”. Such violence was not unusual, for spilling blood was an inevitable corollary to power—decades later, another figure would meet a similar fate, though this time it was a sultan doing the honours, while Krishna Raya’s son-in-law supplied the head.

Travellers’ accounts paint Krishna Raya as a man of tremendous physical vigour. “The king,” recorded one, “is of medium height and good figure, rather fat than thin,” with a pockmarked face. Every morning, he “anoints himself all over with…oil; he covers his loins with a small cloth and takes in his arms great weights made of earthenware”. He rode, wrestled and fenced. But equally, once exercise was out of the way, he negotiated administrative minutiae. Impressively, between everything, the emperor also found time to compose poetry—works in Sanskrit and a great kavya in Telugu. With regard to the latter, it did not matter that he was a Tuluva from coastal Karnataka: He celebrated Telugu, not only due to admiration for the language but also to cement his place in a Teluguized imperial order.

Meanwhile, as his power grew, so did Krishna Raya’s confidence. Sometimes, in fact, it could manifest in peculiar exchanges of courtly insults. In 1520, for instance, the emperor seized Raichur from the Adil Shah of Bijapur after a spectacular battle featuring not only horses and soldiers but also hundreds of guns. When the sultan’s envoy asked for the return of this territory subsequently, Krishna Raya set one condition—the Adil Shah would have to come and kiss the emperor’s foot. It is hardly surprising that the defeated enemy made excuses to avoid embarrassment, but Krishna Raya was determined. He “led a stampede of ferocious elephants against the Yavana” king, and, when the latter fled, sacked Bijapur before returning victorious (and amused) to his own capital.

Subsequent chronicles often cast Krishna Raya as a unidimensional protector of Hindu pride battling Islamic perfidy. But his policy was not quite guided by religion even if it was articulated in the language of faith—just as he lambasted “yavanas” who ruled Deccani sultanates, so too did he rail against Odisha’s Hindu Gajapatis. Certainly, his world view was inspired by Sanskritic and south Indian traditions, but that did not preclude the absorption of Islamicate influence—in a bronze image he gifted to the temple in Tirupati, for example, he flaunts a Turkish fez. Even as he lambasted Muslim opponents, he also crowned the scion of a sultanate, thereafter assuming the title Yavana Rajya Sthapanacharya: the (Hindu) king who resurrected a Muslim state.

With time, Krishna Raya developed advice, too, for princes and aspiring sovereigns. “If the enemy has a powerful army,” he proposes in his Amuktamalyada, “it is wise to treat him with gifts and respect.” But if “reports of spies reveal that the enemy is weak”, he was to be demolished right away. Great fortresses need not cause despair, he felt, for “there are mechanized weapons of various designs to penetrate rampart walls”. Similarly, it was important to keep a close eye on foreigners and trade. Merchants were to be treated “with prestige” and given towns in which to reside. “Purchase their goods at a high price,” suggested Krishna Raya shrewdly, “and ensure that your enemies are deprived of such resources.”

A warrior king, an emperor unsurpassed, a patron and poet, Krishna Raya was a pragmatist too, encapsulating in his 20-year reign all that made for a triumphant 16th century monarch. But his story too suffered, ultimately, an unhappy end. Two of his sons died as children while the third was too young when the emperor began to fade. And so, as happened with his predecessor in 1509, his own successor was not his son but a half-brother, hitherto locked away. Indeed, even that unfortunate goat returned to haunt the Raya’s legacy: In the 1520s, a story goes, he fell out with his minister. And in a fit of fury, Krishna Raya sentenced him to a particularly sadistic punishment—the man who once saved the emperor with goat’s eyes had his own gouged out.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 11 2019)


In 1877, when Queen Victoria assumed the title “Empress of India”, at the special durbar was a 10-year-old prince. Mahboob Ali Khan was the nizam of Hyderabad and came to Delhi with his regent, the formidable Sir Salar Jung. It was the latter who wielded actual power, and while there were rumours that he meant to keep the boy forever under his thumb, the man was also a genuine champion of the state’s interests. Indeed, when the viceroy pointed to Hyderabad’s “loyal allegiance” to the empire at the assembly, Salar Jung quietly translated it as “friendship” and “alliance” instead—to him, Hyderabad was not a vassal, it was “equal in sovereignty” to the British. But the viceroy would have none of it—he “corrected the intentional mistranslation” at once and made it clear to the little nizam that what he meant was unequivocal “obedience and fidelity”.

The nizams had come to Hyderabad as agents of the Mughals but quickly established their autonomy. Certainly, until 1857, they paid ceremonial homage to the badshah in Delhi, resisting British advice to declare themselves independent. Either way, by mid-19th century, it was the white man who became Hyderabad’s master, so that not only was the nizam saddled with a British army (to pay for which he was coerced to mortgage prized territory), but also debt on conditions that favoured English bankers. “Poor Nizzy pays for all,” mocked a newspaper, but successive rulers had no option but to accept such unfair terms. Resistance, when it occurred, was often through inventive non-military means. Once, for instance, when the queen sent Mahboob Ali Khan’s father a medal bearing her likeness, the nizam grabbed it before it could be pinned to his chest, and, placing it on his throne, took a seat on Her Majesty’s face.

But for all this, Hyderabad retained its importance, and though it came close to being annexed, in the end it survived imperial aggrandizement. Mahboob Ali Khan was 3 when he came to the gaddi, and such periods of minority rule in Indian states usually opened avenues for the British to widen their influence—they would appoint tutors to give lessons in loyalty to young princes and “improve” the administration in ways that dismantled old systems in favour of an anglicized bureaucracy. Salar Jung, however, prevented too many innovations—indeed, so resistant was he to British interference that as late as 1876, colonial agents lamented their lack of control—moral and academic—over the nizam. Instead, they reported that while Western education was imparted, Salar Jung had effectively turned the boy into a prisoner in his own palace, where “he is waited upon by 25 young women trained to debauch him”.

Whether or not this was an exaggeration, Salar Jung died in 1883 and the nizam came of age the next year and commenced his reign. His subjects were Telugu, Marathi, Kannada, and Urdu speakers, a large majority of them Hindu. The railways had already reached the state, as had electricity. The stage was set for great developments, and now there was also a young ruler whose generosity was proverbial. One story, for instance, relates how a stranger wrote to the nizam asking 500 for his daughter’s wedding. When Mahboob Ali Khan sanctioned 5,000, his secretary wondered if he had made a mistake. Scribbling on the file, the nizam returned it, this time with the note: “15,000 is sanctioned.” His horrified aide learnt never to ask questions again of his imperious royal master.

While several public reforms received attention in Hyderabad, the culture at court continued in a state of ceremoniousness. It was not entirely surprising—with real power clipped by the British, court protocol offered a strange consolation. Arriving in Delhi once, the nizam discovered that he was expected to walk from his train to the exit to mount his elephant. Declining to do anything half as ordinary, he simply refused to leave the coach—instead he “had his meals…played cards” and generally whiled away precious time. Two days passed, and as other trains jammed behind him, pressure mounted on Lord Curzon (whose already poor opinion of Indian princes is not likely to have improved) to allow an elephant inside the station. Mounting the animal triumphantly now, Mahboob Ali Khan went to meet this very viceroy, before whom he almost mockingly swore allegiance to the British crown.

But this luxurious format of resistance could also quickly transform into a slippery slope to excess. Against advice, for instance, the nizam purchased what is called the Jacob Diamond—it was offered for twice the actual price, and he paid half in advance before deciding he didn’t want the item after all. The seller sued Mahboob Ali Khan, causing an irate nizam to throw the diamond into a sock and store it in a shoe. It was years before his heir rediscovered it, and this time it was put to better use—as a paperweight. So, too, the nizam never repeated his clothes, with the result that not only did he end up with a wardrobe 77m long, but rumours circulated that his valet was selling him back his own old clothes, earning an illicit profit. On another occasion, Mahboob Ali Khan so liked a fabric that he had five years’ supply purchased in advance so that nobody else might wear the same material—to him, the world consisted of things he liked, and things he didn’t.

In 1911, however, this life of extravagance wound to a close. The nizam was surrounded by intrigue, with one wife reportedly placing pressure on him to declare her son heir to the throne. Storming out of the palace, Mahboob Ali Khan decided to binge on alcohol for three whole days, till he was comatose. And that is how, in his mid-40s, the man who was once described as “not wanting in ability” should he choose “to apply himself to public business” went to the grave—a legend where princely splendour was concerned but a tale of tragedy if his full productive potential was the measure.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 04 2019)


In 1629-30, a terrible famine struck what is present-day Maharashtra. As one account put it, “Life was offered for a loaf, but none would buy; rank was to be sold for a cake, but none cared for it.” Indeed, so desperate were things that “the flesh of a son” came to be “preferred to his love”. The cream of society could, as usual, survive these privations. But so bad were conditions even a step or two below them that in the middle ranks too there was utter despair. Add to this political turmoil, and the year went down quickly as one of dreadful public misery.

There lived in Dehu during this troubled time a grocer and merchant called Tukaram. Only in his early 20s, he had already lost his parents, and now watched in horror as his senior wife died amid cries of “give me food”. Shortly after her, his eldest son Santoba also followed. Where once his family was well-off, now his business folded. “I was so troubled,” the future saint wrote later, “that I lost all interest in my household.” Turning his attention “to an old broken-down temple” in his village, he began, instead, to give “musical discourses on the eleventh day of every month”.

Tukaram—now one of the most holy names in the varkaritradition of Maharashtra’s Bhakti movement —was not made for business. But before he surrendered himself to spiritual pursuits, he tried his best to succeed at his family trade. In Mahipati’s 18th century hagiography, we hear how he “carried bags of grain on bullock backs” and “paid no attention to cold or heat”. He borrowed money to resurrect his business, only to go bankrupt. Future devotees would blame his essential goodness: Even when he knew he was being cheated, he did not object. It was another matter that his family had to endure the consequences. “My husband has gone crazy,” cried his younger wife. “He carries on his trade but meets with no success.”

This failure as a householder, in fact, marked Tukaram’s life. Later chroniclers embellished his memory with tales of miracles—of God paying his debts in human form, of idols drinking from his hand—but failure and depression afflicted him throughout. His answer at first was to immerse himself in “the good sayings of saints” and to repeat them for public benefit. But one day, after the 14th century saint Namdev spoke to him in a dream, Tukaram also began to compose verses of his own. It was a moment of transformation, and, by the end of his career, the ex-grocer would leave thousands of abhangas to be recited generations down the line.

Tukaram was a Shudra and did not directly challenge caste. But the sheer act of one of his rank preaching religion upset the establishment. One Brahmin is said to have personally assaulted him (although this was partly provoked by Tukaram’s buffalo making a meal of the former’s plants). Another filed an official complaint that so tormented our poet that the latter went up to the Brahmin’s village and apologized. “You are a Sudra by caste,” announced this antagonist in return, one who had no right to discuss God. Asked what Tukaram should do with his existing writings then, the man ordered him to throw the whole collection into the Indrayani river.

Tukaram obeyed, and then went on a fast. But 13 days later, his books reappeared magically on the river “as a gourd floats on water”. The news spread and, chastened, the Brahmin set out to apologize. Receiving a premonition of this, the saint met the man halfway, accepting his regret but also himself reiterating his “low caste” and position as “a sinner”. Indeed, Tukaram did not question the concept of the Brahmin itself. “The she-ass may give ample milk,” he declared, “but that does not make her a cow.” So, too, a monkey “bathed and daubed in sandal” could not become a Brahmin—that was a birthright and even “if the Brahmin is a fallen one…he is (still) great in (all) three worlds”.

What Tukaram did challenge, however, was the claim that onlythe Brahmin might realize God. Or that scriptural excess compensated for sincere devotion. “By cramming a lot,” he declared, “they accumulate ego; their knowledge is little, (but) their pride, great.” Such hypocrites, he added, “should be beaten in the face”. On the contrary, to him, there were many examples of those who knew little of the great texts but whose love of God was unparalleled: “Gora the potter, Rohidasa the shoemaker, Kabira the Muslim, Sena the barber, Kanhopatra the concubine…Janabai the maid.” So, while the Brahmin deserved respect, the lowest too could seek the divine—that was Tukaram’s message.

In some ways, Tukaram’s thought seems contradictory, but, in another perspective, it reflects evolution too—as the years elapsed, many were the trials he endured and numerous were the lessons he learnt. At one point, he openly suggests devotion as a superior alternative to ritual and philosophy. “As long as you are attached to the hair tuft and the sacred thread, you are a slave of the Book,” he wrote. “If you break any law…you will fall and be doomed.” But if one forgot the books altogether and pursued plain, honest love without the shackles of ceremony, “you will have no restrictions”. This way too, he argued, “you can really reach Brahmanhood”.

In the end, ironically, Tukaram was weighed down by fame. By the 1640s, his name had spread, and many came to pay him their respects. He had written once that to the true devotee of God, riches and poverty were equally inconsequential. Now that he was saddled with worldly honour and affection, the saint thought all this an encumbrance. Hagiographers said he ascended a chariot and rose skyward in a blaze of heavenly light. But all we know for sure is that in 1649, the man called Tukaram disappeared, leaving behind a memory that is still alive.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 29 2019)


When Rajaram, younger son of Shivaji, died spitting blood in 1700, the news was received at the Mughal court with considerable delight. The emperor, we learn, “ordered the drums of rejoicing to be beaten” while “the soldiers congratulated each other” that yet another of their antagonists had met his maker. Aurangzeb had already executed Rajaram’s brother Sambhaji in 1689 and held the latter’s widow and son captive for years. All that remained on the Maratha side were Rajaram’s wives and their children. How difficult could it be to overpower and demolish, at last, the Maratha swaraj?

As it turned out, very difficult. The Mughals, a chronicler noted, “thought their enemy weak, contemptible and helpless”. But what they did not factor in was that both of Rajaram’s widows were formidable women. Unlike a third co-wife, these two had not committed sati. And now Tarabai, whose ancestors once served the Deccan’s vanquished sultans, seized control of the Maratha state. Restraining the person and ambitions of her rival, Rajasbai, and despite the claim of Sambhaji’s son living in Mughal captivity, she crowned her own boy king of the Marathas. And promptly, in his name, the 25-year-old began to exercise authority.

Power consumed much of Tarabai’s energy, and for years she remained a player in the Marathas’ game of thrones, now prominent, later in the shadows. Born in 1675, she had wed Rajaram at 8. When her brother-in-law was killed by the Mughals, she fled to Panhala fort with her husband. The air was thick with threats, and, as Mughal onslaughts continued, Rajaram fled south. For years, Tarabai was separated from him before she too embarked on this dangerous journey. And it was in Gingee, deep in Tamil country, that the Maratha queen gave Rajaram his son and heir.

From 1700-07, Tarabai remained firmly at the helm. She made overtures to the Mughals, only to attack them with pointed resolve. In her own enemies’ words, she “showed great powers of command and government, and from day to day the war spread and the power of the Mahrattas increased”. But she could also be audacious. Her husband had first sent out troops beyond the Deccan, right into imperial territory—now Tarabai too despatched men to attack provinces in the north. They “penetrated into the old territories”, “plundering and destroying wherever they went… Their daring,” we are told, surpassing “all bounds”.

But Tarabai was not destined to enjoy unrestrained power. When Aurangzeb took Sambhaji’s wife and son, he kept them alive in his camp. They were treated well, the boy enjoying titles and an income. Indeed, in the emperor’s court, he learnt Persian and the nuances of imperial court culture, Aurangzeb even choosing his brides. In 1703, the emperor briefly considered releasing Shahu back on to the Maratha chessboard, only to change his mind. But when the old badshah died four years later, his son went ahead and gave Shahu his freedom, transforming him at once into Tarabai’s rival.

The arrival of her nephew damaged the queen’s designs. She declared him a pretender, but others at court vouched for his identity—one of them even ate off the same plate as Shahu to confirm his status. Then Tarabai argued that after 18 years with the Mughals, the man could hardly be trusted: He held honours from the hated Aurangzeb and might return the Marathas to vassalage under Hindustan’s emperors. The charges were not incorrect, for Mughal life had left a stamp on Shahu’s style and deportment. Indeed, he acknowledged openly the supremacy of his one-time captors. But he had his reasons, for though he himself had been released, the enemy still held his mother.

Inevitably, there was war between Tarabai and Shahu. The latter prevailed and the former fled. Two states emerged—in Kolhapur under Tarabai and in Satara under Shahu—each claiming the loyalties of the Marathas. But then there was, yet again, a twist: The co-wife whom Tarabai had locked away orchestrated a revolt. In 1714, Rajasbai enthroned her own son in Kolhapur and it was Tarabai who was confined. For more than a decade and a half, the queen disappeared, watching her son die while under arrest. She reappeared briefly in 1731: Shahu had triumphed over Rajasbai’s son, and, afterwards took Tarabai with him to Satara.

But Tarabai had another 18-year wait before resurrection, languishing till then in the background. Only when Shahu was nearing death and lamenting the lack of an heir did she see opportunity again. Before her son died, she now declared, he had left his wife pregnant. And the baby that was born had been hidden away by her adherents. The boy was “found” and brought to court. When Shahu’s wife scoffed at the affair, Tarabai, it is said, had her neutralized: After the king died in 1749, his widow was allegedly coerced to burn herself on his pyre. All that was left now was for Tarabai and her nominee.

But the world of the Marathas had changed, and the 74-year-old queen found that power had shifted from the ruler to the hands of the Peshwa, his minister. Tarabai met her match in this Brahmin, while even her “grandson” now assumed grandiose airs. She promptly disowned him: The claim that he was her blood, she announced, was a lie. He was merely a gondhali, a bard, who belonged on the streets. But the Peshwa didn’t mind an heir of dubious legitimacy—it suited his own accumulation of power and contained the influence of Tarabai.

Battles were fought, and a compromise arrived at between the Peshwa and the queen—he kept power in Pune, while she was left to her devices in Satara. And so it was that Tarabai assumed a strange, subdued importance again in the Marathas’ tale. When, in 1761, the year of her death, the Peshwa lost the all-important Third Battle of Panipat, it is said she expressed regret. But as Richard Eaton writes, public regret may have concealed immense internal glee. She was, after all, Tarabai. And where this commanding woman was concerned, nothing was what it seemed.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 20 2019)


Around 1881, a prince of Cochin called Rama Varma got into a relationship with a 16-year-old girl. He had lost his wife and the new connection was with the stepdaughter of one of his uncles (who, like him, would one day sit on the throne). The girl, Rama Varma wrote, “had a regular husband and I proposed to become paramour to her”. And as “the husband raised no objection…it was done so. This kind of things (sic),” he added, “was not considered improper at the time.” In fact, on the contrary, his mother was thrilled, though rivals did complain he only entered the alliance to butter up the girl’s father. After all, as Rama Varma admitted unkindly, she “could not boast of anything which may be called beauty and…had nothing which might be considered accomplishment”. It was not surprising, then, that some in the family viewed his interest with suspicion.

As it happened, the relationship did not last, and soon Rama Varma was involved with a third lady, with whom he shared a lasting union, the previous lady presumably continuing with her first husband. But what made entering and exiting relationships a matter of ease was the nature of the marital tie itself in 19th century Kerala. For non-Brahmin matrilineal groups, it was the bond between brother and sister that was sacred, not that of husband and wife. The sexual tie was called sambandham—relationship—and designed with much flexibility. Rama Varma’s mother, for instance, was a princess of Cochin, and, in keeping with the traditions of her own dynasty, had formed a sambandham with a Brahmin. Such Brahmins were junior sons of big houses. But they had no inheritance, which made the prospect of alliances with aristocratic ladies and royal women most attractive—and often remunerative.

At its core, sambandhams allowed the elites to join in mutually beneficial unions. For Brahmin families, it gave younger sons wives of lower caste who made no claim on their patrimony—if these wives were well-born, it was better still, for they could pay the Brahmins a maintenance. For matrilineal castes, meanwhile, power and wealth vested in the female line—the husband was, in essence, an instrument of procreation. If he came from a higher caste, he “infused” their veins with the prestige of twice-born blood. The dynamics within this broader framework were, however, determined by economics. As Matampu Kunhukuttan’s classic novel Outcaste portrays, Brahmins with royal sambandhams often lived in fear that their wives might discard them and opt for new sambandhams; elsewhere, if it was the man who held power, he could access even married women, as we saw with Rama Varma, leaving the female at a disadvantage.

It was not unknown for men and women to have multiple sambandhams—a fact that recently got politician and writer Shashi Tharoor in trouble when a line from his novel was cast as an “insult” to Nair women. The examples are numerous. The Nair wife of the maharaja of Travancore who ruled between 1860-80, was first married to a Kathakali actor—arriving in Thiruvananthapuram, she met the ruler, and soon the actor was jettisoned. Their daughter was in a sambandham with the maharaja’s nephew—when she died in 1882, the latter lamented his “irreparable” loss. It was 17 years before he entered into his next sambandham, this time with the wife of a palace employee. As in the case of his uncle’s partner, this lady too relinquished her previous alliance to become the ruler’s consort. The author C.V. Raman Pillai, meanwhile, married his late wife’s sister, whose past featured threesambandhams—two terminated by death (including with the painter Ravi Varma’s brother) and one by separation.

By the late 19th century, however, sambandhams were increasingly frowned upon, and the question of whether this was even marriage came under scrutiny. Missionaries saw the system as “very revolting” and the absorption of Victorian morality upset old ways of life. From Madras, newspapers piled criticism on this “obnoxious system of promiscuous marriage”, and, as the scholar K. Saradamoni writes, “Sambandham was equated to concubinage and the women to mistresses and the children called bastards.” It was an awkward moment, for this way even maharajas were illegitimate, while the autonomy women enjoyed was translated as licentiousness. As early as 1875, in fact, the non-Malayali writer of a census report was most apologetic about the “looseness of the prevailing morals and the unbinding nature of the marriage tie, which possesses such fascination for the majority of our population”.

Scholars like J. Devika have shown how the onus fell on women: They had to be “virtuous”, which meant divorcing or keeping multiple husbands was no longer “respectable”. Inter-caste unions between Brahmins, royalty and Nairs ceased to be acceptable, and “reform” movements sprang up in each community to restrict women’s choice of spouses. Widowhood, a non-existent concept for matrilineal groups, became a mark of wifely honour. And with this came the policing of women’s bodies and the injection, through education, of a patriarchal mindset, where daughters were raised to be “good wives” and husbands vested with power over them and their children. Sambandhams became the vestige of an ugly past, remembered with embarrassment—and, sometimes, denial.

Sambandhams certainly could be abused. But, in their day, they served a purpose and defined marriage for the people involved. They could also feature great love stories—this columnist’s great-great-grandmother had a sambandham with a Brahmin in the 1880s. When she had a stillbirth, however, the alliance was terminated: The baby was a girl, and the death of a female child was inauspicious in her matrilineage. The Brahmin wept and protested but was never allowed near his ex-wife again. Decades later, the story goes, his steward showed up at the door: The man was dying, and he wished to see his former wife one last time. But the lady did not go. Not because she did not wish to, but because the year was 1915. The world had changed and she had no power—she had married again, and it was her husband who now called the shots.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 13 2019)


When Reginald Dyer was a young boy, he went out one day to shoot. His family lived in Shimla, and going into the jungle nearby, the chota sahib took aim at a bird. But no sooner had he pulled the trigger than young Rex heard a squeal—he had accidentally injured a monkey. “Tears streamed down her cheeks,” his biographer wrote, and she looked at her assailant “so reproachfully that her eyes haunted his dreams for months”. He lost all his appetite for killing animals, we are informed, with one exception. The “tender-hearted boy” could not stand snakes. Where snakes were concerned, he would “seek them out and kill them with a cane”. With snakes, there could be no benevolence.

Given what Dyer is notorious for—the murder of hundreds at Jallianwala Bagh this day 100 years ago—one wonders whether he saw that gathering as a nest to be destroyed. He was a servant of the imperial state, after all, and to him Amritsar was in rebellion, which meant only firmness was feasible. Trouble had begun on 10 April when two nationalist leaders were arrested. A mass of people sought to meet the deputy commissioner and register their protest, but their sheer size provoked such panic that shots were fired and many killed. In retaliation, violence broke out and several Englishmen were lynched and one woman horribly beaten. The white names were recorded; those of the Indians were not. They were simply “the mob”.

As is well known, curfew orders were issued, while official paranoia swelled. They were prepared to deploy bombs and aeroplanes, convinced that there was a treacherous conspiracy at work in Punjab, one of its chief objectives being to spark mutiny in the army. The appearance of posters—“fight with bravery against the English monkeys”—did not help, and neither side comprehended the other. The British authorities saw all political activity as yet another step in the execution of this seditious plot; the Indians, meanwhile, did not understand, as scholar Kim Wagner notes, how “their mass protests sent the authorities into paroxysms of panic”.

Given his actions, Dyer is today the confirmed “villain” of Amritsar. He was emblematic of the worst impulses of the Raj certainly, but the Raj, in turn, writer Kishwar Desai notes, “washed its hands” off its own culpability, presenting this “black sheep” as an aberration. There were, however, larger dynamics at play, and more complex causes behind Amristar. Wagner notes in his masterful Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire Of Fear And The Making of The Amritsar Massacre, for example, how much the Great Rebellion of 1857 haunted the British. The merest expression of discontent was viewed as the launch of the next “mutiny”, and in Amritsar in 1919, this played constantly on British minds. When they saw Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs unite, old ghosts loomed ominously again. As the deputy commissioner argued, communal amicability was a great thing “if one did not fear that the underlying motive had a sinister purpose”.

Desai’s Jallianwala Bagh, 1919: The Real Story also alludes to this paranoia. There was among British officers a genuine fear that a danda fauj was about to eject them by force. In the circumstances, therefore, the gathering on that fateful day was seen as a stroke of luck—once it was known that thousands had converged in Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer saw an opportunity to make one decisive, bloody statement. As his biographer puts it, “this unexpected gift of fortune, this unhoped for defiance, this concentration of the rebels in an open space” placed them all “within reach of his sword”. In the “narrow streets, among the high houses and mazy lanes and courtyards of the city the rebels had the advantage of position”—here they were cornered. And so, Dyer went, and he fired. It was another matter that one of the “rebels” was six weeks old.

That the gathering was unarmed was irrelevant. As one grandee declared in the House of Lords later, they may not have been “ostensibly armed with bludgeons”. But Indian crowds, he claimed, tended to have “a very large supply of bludgeons somewhere or other near”, which meant that “the mob that faced General Dyer was undoubtedly dangerous”. Better they were pre-emptively struck than allowing the risk of Dyer’s men being “overwhelmed and cudgeled to death”. There was no evidence of a conspiracy, there were no arms, and there was a peaceful gathering, yet the British were convinced of “rebellion”—a strange, murderous logic that perhaps excuses Desai’s passionate pronouncements as she calls Dyer “psychotic” and asks whether the British were “Fascist, Racist or Both?”

Though there was a commission of enquiry, and official censure, there was little remorse. Days after the tragedy, the deputy commissioner put out a notice: “The government,” he said, “is sorry that some innocent people were forced by wicked people to go there and got killed.” But what transpired was ultimately due to Indian disobedience. The lieutenant governor of Punjab wrote that at least the episode had thwarted the “conspiracy”: “The Amritsar business cleared the air and if there was to be a holocaust anywhere…it was best at Amritsar”, which “paralysed the movement before it had time to spread”. British excesses were, meanwhile, played down: When two women complained they were stripped and sticks inserted in their vaginas, they were called “low class prostitutes”. When reports suggested British soldiers were defecating in wells, the viceroy declared that “it is impossible to believe that any British soldier purposely defiled wells”.

In the end, Dyer, the poster-boy of British atrocity in Amritsar, retired to England. His health failed and he became a recluse. Initially, he did not repent: “I shot to save the British Raj…doing my duty—my horrible, dirty duty.” But in the end, doubt seems to have gnawed at his mind. As he said to a family member before he died in 1927, “I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.” Of course, regardless of God’s views on the matter, a century later we can recognize Amritsar for what it truly was: a massacre where an insecure, paranoid empire unleashed unspeakable horror.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 06 2019)


Sultan Ali Adil Shah I of Bijapur was a man who lived a rich and eventful life. A devout Muslim, he was also the adoptive son of the Hindu ruler of Vijayanagara, though this did not preclude war between their forces in 1565. A patron of the arts, it was in his reign that Bijapur produced the Nujum al-Ulum—an illustrated Persian manuscript featuring everything from cow-headed angels to scholarly expositions on halwas and sherbet. He commanded 80,000 cavalrymen, but never forgot to also carry along his books when leading them into battle. Hundreds of ships sailed the seas bearing his flag, meanwhile, and poets in faraway ports had heard enough about the sultan to sing his praises. Endearingly, Ali also had specific tastes when it came to his diet—he consumed, it is reported, at least 12 eggs a day for breakfast.

Around 1580, Ali met his maker, albeit in circumstances that matched his colourful life. There were two “handsome eunuchs who had for a long time excited his perverse attention”. One evening, when the sultan made them a proposition, they returned his advances by drawing their daggers. While it is likely that a political assassination was later rewritten to embarrass Ali as a “sodomite”, the result was that Bijapur was left in the doldrums. Ali had no son, so it was his young nephew who came to the throne. For the next many years, power slid from one grandee to the next—two of whom met predictably violent ends—before stability returned after the heir came of age. But, in this time of chaos, there was also a woman who rose to prominence, one who would electrify not only the Deccan but also the Mughals in faraway Agra.

It was on the eve of that 1565 battle against Vijayanagara that Chand Bibi was given in marriage to Ali by her father, Hussain Nizam Shah I of Ahmednagar. Barely in her teens, she was at best an instrument of politics at this juncture. But her family circumstances—where her father allowed her mother considerable influence—had shaped her personality, and Chand Bibi would never be relegated to the background. Notwithstanding her husband’s rumoured glances at eunuchs, her relationship with him was rewarding. She joined him on his campaigns, and was entrusted with matters of state when the couple sat in durbar. A sitar player who also enjoyed outdoor sports, she and Ali met as intellectual equals—she spoke, for instance, about five languages.

With Ali murdered, however, Chand Bibi was pushed more fully into the limelight. She remained at first in Bijapur, navigating endless intrigue to protect the interests of her husband’s heir. She ousted one nobleman who seized power, but the next outsmarted her and threw her in prison. From jail, the resourceful Chand Bibi conspired with another faction, whose leader soon rode to her rescue. But for all this, she had no future in Bijapur—the heir was not her son, and, with Ali dead, she became an outsider. Rivalries with her own paternal kingdom of Ahmednagar resumed, and Chand Bibi’s loyalties were questioned on more than one occasion. So when a Bijapur princess was given in marriage to Ahmednagar as part of a tenuous political alliance, the begum “escorted” the bride to her homeland. And there she spent her future, till she was enshrined as one of the Deccan’s tragic heroines.

Ahmednagar in the 1580s was a political nightmare. Chand Bibi’s brother had imprisoned their mother, later trying to murder his son by setting the boy’s bedroom on fire. His courtiers called him deewana (madman), frowning at his affection for a slave. A third sibling rebelled and fled to the Mughal court—by 1591, he would succeed in his designs and install himself as sultan in Ahmednagar. But he came across as ungrateful to Emperor Akbar for the latter’s generosity when he was in exile, and, by refusing to recognize the Great Mughal as his suzerain, gave Agra an excuse to turn its attention to the conquest of the Deccan. As a Mughal account puts it, Chand Bibi’s brother “should have increased his devotion and gratitude”. But the “wine of success robbed him of his senses”, and for this he would have to be punished.

As it happened, the Mughals were only able to come to Ahmednagar in 1595, by which time the man was dead, the court was in turmoil, and Chand Bibi was again in the fray. Balancing factions with one hand, she raised the other to defend her city. When the Mughals placed mines and breached the fort, Chand Bibi, “clad in armor…with a drawn sword in her hand, dashed forward” with her men. The Mughals were repulsed. When negotiating the subsequent truce, they formally honoured her with the regnal title “Chand Sultan”, but their generals were not entirely pleased with this formidable princess. “You, like a eunuch, are keeping a woman in the fort,” they admonished her nobles, while their own leader was “the son of His Majesty the Emperor…Do you imagine that the crows and kites of the Deccan…can cope with the descendant of Timur?”

In the end, they could not. Chand Bibi tried and failed repeatedly to push the Mughals out of the Deccan. In 1599, when the enemy returned to Ahmednagar, various vested interests within the fort lunged at each other’s throats. Fighting battles within and without, the begum decided to sue for peace. And, for this, she was murdered—not by the invader, but by insiders. “The excitable and turbulent soldiers of Ahmednagar, forgetting all the noble devotion which Queen Chand had always shown,” rushed into her palace. Breaking into her private chambers, they left her in a pool of blood. And so died, as one historian put it, “Chand Bibi, one of the noblest characters in the History of India.”

But while she went down in tragedy, there was still some justice in the end for the begum. When the Mughals took Ahmednagar soon after Chand Bibi’s death, one of their first acts was to hang the men who had assassinated this princess: daughter of the Nizam Shah, widow of the Adil Shah, but, in the end, remembered and celebrated in her own right as “Her Highness the Bilqis of the Age”.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 30 2019)


At the dawn of the 20th century, a scandal of horrific proportions reared its head before Kerala’s Brahminical elite. The year was 1905 and the setting was princely Cochin. Home to prominent Namboodiri families, this was also one of India’s principal seats of orthodoxy. The Namboodiris were fond of rules and ritual, perched though all of this was atop extraordinary social privilege. As E.M.S. Namboodiripad put it, these Brahmins “occupied the highest position among all other communities…collected fabulous amounts as rent, enjoyed undisputed supremacy over the tillers of the soil, and maintained intimacy with the ruling monarchs”. The immortal Parasurama, they claimed, had bestowed Kerala upon them, this being the fount of their legitimacy. Every other group was to serve, the Namboodiris apportioning caste status and privilege to those who subscribed to this world view. As late as 1875, the Brahmin was officially cast as the common folk’s “royal liege and benefactor, their suzerain master, their household deity”, and indeed, “their very God on earth”.

While colonialism began to chip away at this cocoon of ritual and luxury, one of the earliest cracks in the order appeared not outside, but within—in the quarters of a woman. Namboodiri women, after all, saw little of the privilege so routine for their men. The only Malayali women in purdah, they had no freedom of movement, no ownership of property, and little education. Or, as one of them put it, the antharjanam (literally, “indoor person”) was “a jailed creature”. She was “born crying, lives her life in tears, and dies weeping”. It was not an exaggeration. Even marriage—the only prospect for women in a patriarchal set-up—was denied to many of them. Among Namboodiris, there was no rule decreeing early marriage for girls, while only the eldest male was permitted to take a Brahmin wife. The result was that younger sons married non-Brahmin women, while legions of Namboodiri females lived in sequestered spinsterhood. And if they did find husbands, it was often already married men, who used the opportunity to exchange their own sisters and daughters as though this were a transaction for chattel.

In 1905, however, the world of the elite was shattered by our protagonist, since enshrined in Malayali imagination as a pratikara devata, goddess of revenge. Her name was Savitri, and she lived in the Kuriyedathu house in Thrissur district. Married at 18 to a man whose brother had sexually abused her at 10, she took it upon herself, it is said, to unleash fury upon her caste and its leaders. While Namboodiri men took wives and mistresses, the antharjanam was to be chaste and docile: It was this presumption that Savitri would demolish. As Malayali social critic V.T. Bhattathiripad put it, she challenged male sexual entitlement “with the same weapon”—she slept with men other than her husband. There were high-caste men, and there were lower-caste men; there was her brother-in-law, as there were other relations; there were Tamil Brahmins and Nair aristocrats. There was even a Kathakali star, not to speak of an epileptic. By the time her deeds were revealed, occurring in her chamber as much as the temple grounds, Savitri, then 23, had been with no less than 65 men.

It was a scandal unparalleled, because it was the first such disseminated widely through the newspaper press. There was a traditional round of interrogation by her caste men, but the furore caused the local maharaja to order a second round in his palace. Various theories circulated: As scholar J. Devika records, one of these placed Savitri as the pivot of a cunning plot hatched by the ruler. She was apprehended for fewer lovers, but prevailed upon to name many more, to get rid of an emerging class of Namboodiri modernizers challenging the orthodox old guard. But what shocked all involved—and the public witnessing—was her reported coolness. Or, as the Malayala Manorama put it, “She replied like a barrister.” For she had evidence of her trysts. She knew what marks her partners had on their persons, or if there was a wart on their genitals. She remembered dates on the basis of festivals and events, and one by one she named them—great exemplars of contemporary society, all guilty of fornicating with a Brahmin wife.

Cast as a victim seeking vengeance, Savitri has been reincarnated in fiction as well as film. Lalithambika Antharjanam retold her tale, and Matampu Kunhukuttan—whose Outcaste has been just reissued in Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan’s translation from Aleph Book Company—too describes this heroine who paid patriarchy in its worst coin. But there are others who seek nuance. She was certainly a victim, many of her “affairs” occurring when she was only an adolescent. But the emphasis on a calculated quest for revenge was perhaps an exaggeration by voices championing reform, the scholar Rajeev Kumaramkandath suggests, seeking to use these events to force change. Savitri herself had more complex experiences, as her testimony reveals. A mahout, for instance, had a bottle of rosewater she wanted: He had heard of her relations with another mahout, and offered her the bottle if she would sleep with him too. Savitri agreed. Elsewhere, she slept with a man fearing he would divulge her involvement with a third person—it was fear of blackmail that motivated her here, not necessarily a desire to ensnare more men in a web of revenge.

Still, there is in her meticulous recollection of each tryst something formidable. So too in the fact that when she was excommunicated, she took 65 men with her. All of Kerala seemed to savour the blow she dealt her community, while champions of change rejoiced at the exposure. “It is indeed a sight to watch the indomitability on their face when (the men named) go to question the woman,” it was reported, “and the grief-stricken expression when they come back.” In the years that followed, Namboodiri women began to reject their seclusion; men began to breach custom. Savitri herself disappeared into Tamil country, never to be seen again. But, in her wake, she left horror and admiration both, casting the first stone at the house of orthodoxy. No longer was the Brahmin a veritable god on earth—he had been tainted, his pretensions dismantled by a woman who was beyond shame and fear.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 23 2019)


In the summer of 1871, something thoroughly unusual transpired in princely Baroda. Its ruler had died the previous year, leaving behind a pregnant widow and an ambitious brother. The latter, whose ill-repute preceded him, had much to lose if the maharani produced a male heir. Naturally, the air was ripe with intrigue, and the brother questioned both the pregnancy of the widow as well as its legitimacy. She, meanwhile, revealed a determination far superior to what might be expected of a 17-year-old—fearing poison, the maharani refused to eat anything that was not cooked before her watchful eyes. And then, shocking everyone, she moved into the establishment of the local British representative, delivering her baby under the nose of this English military man.

Unfortunately for Jamnabai, her child was female. Triumphant, her rival now took power while she exiled herself with her infant. But it was not the end, for the man stepped straight into the bad books of the colonial state—in 1875, he was deposed, ostensibly for misgovernment, but also because of a (not convincingly proved) attempt to poison the British agent with crushed diamonds and arsenic. There were half a dozen potential heirs to choose from now, but these were all grown men—the British sought “someone of malleable age…who might be shaped according to the right ideas” (by which they meant less poison, more fidelity). Of course, it was awkward for them to openly select a new ruler, so Jamnabai entered the scene again. It was she who would adopt the man to occupy Baroda’s princely gaddi

Years later, when Sayajirao Gaekwad III, whose birth anniversary fell on 11 March, was firmly established as one of India’s great princes, a story became popular that explained his rise to prominence and splendour. He was an illiterate farmhand of 12 in 1875 when summons arrived for the Gaekwad relations to present candidates for Jamnabai’s consideration. Arriving at the palace, his brothers and he were asked why they were there. The oldest and the youngest mumbled in confusion, but the middle child declared with just the right quantity of confidence, “I have come to become king.” Jamnabai was impressed, and the boy was installed quickly as sovereign. Another version has the brothers at a feast with the maharani—the winner’s siblings acted like country bumpkins, but the future Sayajirao carefully observed Jamnabai, and lifted food to mouth like a prince.

Charming as these stories are, with a currency even today, they are also apocryphal. It certainly was the case that the man who would rule Baroda for 64 years was a nonentity at first, but his family had set its sights on power as soon as it became clear the previous maharaja would fall. In a petition to the viceroy, they disingenuously expressed hope that a deposition would not occur. But “if after the close investigation directed by your Excellency, it should be found necessary to depose His Highness”, they added, they would be humbled if a successor were chosen from among themselves. That is how our protagonist arrived in Baroda, and behind his transformation into a prince lay British designs, as much as the favour of maharani Jamnabai.

By the time of his death in 1939, Sayajirao would become an icon. Under him, Baroda became a “model state” as he launched reform after reform. He abolished infant marriage but allowed the remarriage of widows; he established the Bank of Baroda, just as he founded what would become an iconic university. By 1907, primary schooling was declared free, and he sponsored B.R. Ambedkar’s education abroad, while, years earlier, he had sent financial aid to Jyotirao Phule. Over the years, he devolved power from Marathi elites from the Gaekwads’ homeland, to a bureaucracy dominated by native Gujaratis. And he dismissed criticism from Bal Gangadhar Tilak for his unorthodoxy, even as he openly praised that other nationalist, Mahatma Gandhi.

“Sayajirao was not an original thinker,” the scholar David Hardiman has written, “but he was extremely receptive to the original thought of others.” Where his princely pride needed to be asserted, he was capable of doing so; just as when men with good ideas sought free rein, he was happy to enable this. But if the British expected him to become a textbook case in “malleable” servility, he was anxious to prove them wrong. Indeed, successive viceroys found his attitude dangerous enough to have him tailed by British intelligence. In 1911, he was lambasted for breaching protocol at the famous Delhi durbar to honour George V and his consort. Where one set of princes held the folds of their ceremonial gowns, Sayajirao was accused of deliberately turning his back in the royal presence, the English press melting into screams of sedition.

To be clear, Sayajirao was not a flawless hero. His trips abroad (one lasting as long as 13 months) caused much dismay at home, and for all his scorn for the orthodoxy, he performed expiatory rituals on his return from foreign shores. He is famous for abolishing polygamy in his state, but this did not preclude his trying to arrange the marriage of his daughter with an already married prince. His wife, Chimnabai II, was a spirited woman—one who discarded purdah and moved about her palace on roller skates—but in the 1920s, there was trouble between them after the maharaja evidently formed a fondness for his European secretary. He was also more ruler than father, lamenting belatedly the tragic, avoidable loss of three of his male offspring.

But for all that Sayajirao’s was a remarkable tale. As the scholar Manu Bhagavan notes, he was good at “combining reform with resistance through the act of reclamation”. Reclamation, that is, of Western ideas for Indian use. When he was only 13, Queen Victoria had styled him “Our Favoured Son of the British Empire”—by the time he died, the empire itself was in terminal decline. He was bombarded as a young man with Western lessons in government: 23 on the principles of administration; 27 on revenue matters; 18 on law; and so on. All these were designed to showcase him as an experiment: of British success on an Indian mind. But Sayajirao lived and died in the end as his own man—he was certainly no imperial exhibit.