This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.
One of my favorite parts of a recent India trip was staying at the City Palace in Udaipur. This is the seat of the Mewar kingdom—a dynasty of Rajput kings who were never conquered by the Moghals or British. Mewar joined with other Rajput kingdoms in northern India to become the state of Rajasthan in the Democracy of India after 1947.
While the Government of India doesn’t provide funds to support the old maharajas’ lifestyles—and their properties—the nobles at least had the pleasure of retaining their titles and homes. The Udaipur City Palace has a maharaja with wife and children still living in their own guarded residence—a proximity that adds glamour to the visit.
But in the historic section of the palace that serves as a museum, I began revising my ideas about what it was like to be a maharani. The zenana section in which royal women were protected from view was hot and shadowy due to the windows being carved jali screens rather than open to views. I was overcome by a sensation of being closed in. Even the women’s outdoor courtyard was small and dull, compared to other outdoor spaces at the palace.
After that short tour, the life of an Indian maharani seemed like imprisonment.
But there’s nothing like hearing the story from a maharani herself.
Recently, I was at the Ames Library of South Asia in Minneapolis. I came across an old book titled Autobiography of an Indian Princess. I knew I had to read it—and thank goodness I was able to find a reprinted edition online to add to my own library.
Autobiography of An Indian Princess was penned in 1921 by Sunity Devee, the 57-year-old Dowager Maharani of Cooch Behar, a small northeastern kingdom near Bengal that remained independent of British rule. Actually, the title’s a bit of a misnomer. Sunity was a maharani, which means queen. The English government insisted on calling Indian maharajas and maharanis “princes” and “princesses” so as not to overshadow the Empress of India: Queen Victoria.
Sunity was a commoner born of “good family” in Calcutta. Her father, Keshub Chunder Sen, was a famous minister and social reformer who converted from Hinduism to the Brahmo Samaj, a faith founded by Bengali Hindus who wanted to worship one deity (Brahma) rather than multiple Hindu gods and goddesses. The British in India thought highly of Mr. Sen and worked hard to persuade him to allow a match between 13-year-old Sunity and 16-year-old Nripendra, the crown prince of Cooch Behar. Sunity’s father had worked hard to ensure passage of a law setting the minimum age of marriage for Hindu girls living in British India at 14. The bride’s tender age resulted in considerable verbal backlash against Keshub Chunder Sen, although the actual marital cohabitation did not begin until she was sixteen and her husband nineteen and returned from his schooling in England.
Sunity and Nripendra’s arranged marriage turned out to be a very happy one. The royal couple shared interests such as traveling, fashion and jewelry, literature and art, and high society. They had four sons and three daughters, insuring the security of the royal line—which pleased Cooch Behar’s population. Sunity spoke just Bengali at the time of her marriage, but learned other Indian languages and English fluently. She was constantly in London and became arguably the most popular Indian woman in British society. Sunity was friends with Cornelia Sorabji, the Parsi woman lawyer who represented the interests of many Indian noblewomen in the early 1900s. Cornelia stayed with Sunity in the zenana at Cooch Behar so the two could discuss books. Sunity and Cornelia tried to establish a nursing school for Indian women, but it never came to be.
Reading Sunity’s autobiography, I learned that in Cooch Behar, purdah and zenana were customs observed at home only. This meant Sunity traveled in a heavily curtained palanquin so the country’s people could not catch sight of her face, and she cooked and prayed and concentrated on childcare and lived in the palace zenana. She obeyed her husband’s directive not to ride or play tennis. When Sunity was away from Cooch Behar, though, she posed happily for photographs in French couture gowns.
And while Sunity adored her British royal friends in Britain, she chafed at the way the British in India treated Indians. In exchange for the right to rule over their own lands, maharajas were forced to pay annual taxes to Britain—taxes that could be raised if the British political agent took a dislike to the maharaja. The British government also had the power to investigate a kingdom’s accounts at any time, and to even choose a successor to the throne if the maharaja didn’t have a son.
The controls over royalty were as tight or even tighter than for everyday Indians. A maharaja had no right to travel outside of India without getting permission from his British political agent. This agent might tell him where his sons must go away to school, and they created their own boarding schools for Indian noblemen inside India where they received a biased education (Maharaja Nrirenda himself went to such a place before finishing up in England). The elaborate supervision seemed meant to create a line of obedient princely states.
Sunity’s boys were all educated abroad at the order of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal—despite her wish to have them stay longer at home. As a result, the sons came home from Eton speaking French and Greek, but having forgotten their local language.
The Cooch Behar royal family was regarded throughout India as the most westernized royals—and in most eyes, this was not a compliment. They were envied, but not really able to live lives of their choosing. For instance, when Sunity’s eldest son, the crown prince Rajey, finished his Oxford education and wanted to work with his father’s ministers in the Cooch Behar government, the plan was refused. The British government said he had to join Lord Curzon’s Army Cadet Corps instead—a fancy honor guard. This diversion kept him from learning what he needed to know about Cooch Behar to be an effective ruler.
Rajey and his younger brother Jit grew up to serve as maharajas of Cooch Behar. The three daughters (Girlie, Pretty and Baby) were taught to ride, play tennis and dance, and all had sophisticated educations. The parents matched Girlie to a respectable, non-royal Calcutta boy of Brahmo faith and allowed Pretty and Baby to marry Englishmen and live in England. Ironically, the Cooch Behar princesses’ lifestyles in the 1920s were too advanced to make them suitable for marrying Indian maharajas at the turn of the century. And the England that both enthralled and frustrated Sunity was the place where she thought her daughters would do best.
I was fascinated with the idea of princesses when I was a child—and in my adulthood I’ve turned into a serious India royalty buff, thanks to the fascinating backstories of many of India’s princely states. In addition to The Autobiography of an Indian Princess by Sunity Devee, I am digging Lucy Moore’s Maharanis: The Extraordinary Tale of Four Indian Queens and Their Journey from Purdah to Parliament and Posing for Posterity: Royal Indian Portraits by Pramod Kumar. There’s a great series on the Indian NDTV channel called Royal Reservation which gives the viewer a quirky, inside tour of various palaces and has candid interviews with the royals who still live there. Watching one of the programs, I was intrigued to learn that a Muslim begum (equivalent of maharani) in Gujarat hopes to open the doors to her palace’s zenana as a hotel for women tourists.