The Fall and Rise of a Modern Maharaja

January 25, 2016

Gaj Singh II tells the story matter-of-factly, as if it might have happened to anyone: He was four when his father, the tall, dashing Hanwant Singh, crashed his plane and died. The boy was told only that his father had “gone away” and that he would become the 29th maharaja of the princely state of Jodhpur. On the day of his coronation, thousands of people celebrated in the streets. The air thrummed with the echoes of trumpets and drums, and the new king, resplendent in a tiny turban and a stiff-collared silk suit, was showered with gold coins.

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It was 1952. Five years earlier, India had become independent through the transfer of power from the British crown to the successor states of India and Pakistan. Singh’s mother, Maharani Krishna Kumari, recognized a new reality. She sent her son to England to study at Cothill House and then Eton College. “She didn’t want me growing up in a palace, with palace retainers, thinking nothing had changed,” Singh, now 68, recalled recently.

Tall and mustached, with combed-back hair, Singh is usually photographed while at parties in a festive turban, holding a glass of champagne, mingling with celebrity guests like Mick Jagger and Prince Charles. But in person he appears frail. He walks with care, and his voice is low and gravelly. Often seen in jodhpurs, the trousers named after the seat of his former kingdom, he is this day dressed simply in a green cotton tunic and pants.

Although Singh visited India during school vacations, he returned home for good in 1971, only after earning a graduate degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Oxford. He was 23, and things had indeed changed: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was determined to strip the royal families of their titles and eliminate the “privy purses,” or allowances, that had been offered to them as recompense for disbanding their princely states after independence.

Several royals, led by Singh’s uncle, the maharaja of Baroda, formed a committee to negotiate with Gandhi, asking that any changes in their circumstances be introduced gradually. But Gandhi ultimately prevailed. “We became the bad boys,” Singh said, shrugging his shoulders while not quite hiding the sting.

Stripped of his $125,000-a-year allowance, Singh needed to find a way to offset the maintenance costs of the palaces, forts, jewels, paintings, and cars—including a Rolls-Royce Phantom II—that made up his lavish inheritance.

Young, decisive, and armed with a handful of advisers, he formed trusts and companies to protect and reinvest his assets. While in Europe he’d seen how the nobility had turned stately homes into hotels and thrown open their magnificent gardens to ticketed tours. “That made me think: We can do it as well,’’ Singh said. He approached some of India’s best conservators and environmentalists. “I was more open to advice [than some other royals],” he added with a smile. “I took a chance.”

The chance he took—and its payoff—is manifest today throughout Jodhpur, in the state of Rajasthan. The five-centuries-old city is a fairy-tale maze of ornate entryways, ancient temples, and mysterious gated havelis, or mansions, many of which originated with Singh’s family. An ancestor, Rao Jodha, founded the city in 1459 as the home of the warrior Rathore clan of the Rajput community. Jodha’s descendants—Singh’s clansmen—still live here.

The men are recognizable as Rajputs by their handlebar mustaches, the ends twirled to a fine point. Shiny gold hoops gleam in their ears. The women are draped in gauzy, bright-colored saris but cover their faces in public out of modesty.

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