A Prince and hid palace have their price

The days of empire have long since passed for this maharajah - his role in modern India means home is now a museum and hotel

By , Special to The Christian ScienceMonitor

In 1971, his highness Maharajah Gaj Singh II, a freshly minted Oxford University grad, found himself aboard a train bound for home - unsure of his future or that of his people. An amendment to India's Constitution had just removed the last remaining vestige of princely privilege, the privy purse. The young prince was suddenly bereft of income to support the administration of the vast kingdom that was his birthright. But as he neared Jodhpur, the fabled western desert kingdom in the state of Rajasthan that was once the third largest in India, he was showered with gifts and realized that the derecognition of the Princely Order was but a creation of the bureaucrats and legislators in New Delhi. "My people still have expectations. I still am head of the clan," Mr. Gaj Singh recalls reasoning almost three decades ago. "Despite whatever has been taken away by a stroke of a pen, this position does not change. I must adapt. If I need a new role in modern India, so do my buildings." So the prince took a pragmatic approach, converting his 347-room red sandstone Umaid Bhawan palace into a hotel and museum, keeping the purdah wing (rooms formerly used by women only) for his personal residence and as a means to preserve his identity. The income generated by the commercialization of his home allows Gaj Singh to maintain the palace as well as keep employees that have been loyal to the family for decades. In addition to adapting an array of royal properties, the maharajah, as leader and provider of the Rathore clan, founded a variety of philanthropic concerns in and around Jodhpur to preserve and extend tradition as well as care for his people. THE year before the maharajah, 38th king of the Rathore clan of Jodhpur, was born, India's independence from Britain in 1947 marked the beginning of Indian democracy. But it also meant 565 Indian princes lost titles and governance over their kingdoms. In the former feudal society, the maharajah administered the land, distributing it among his people and levying taxes. Under the British, war among the clans ceased, and the princes and their royal counterparts shifted their focus to polo, pig sticking, wild- game hunting, and building palaces. The Indian royalty were known as the "courtiers of the British" and maintained their independence under colonial rule. Today, bajpi, or father, the informal name for the maharajah, seeks to be both moral compass and forward thinking leader. He makes public his views on a variety of topics - from discouraging child marriage, female infanticide, and use of opium during traditional rituals to encouraging widow remarriage, education for girls, and environmental awareness. The days of empire have long since passed for Gaj Singh, and in their stead now lies a devotion to hotel management and philanthropy as a means to preserve his royal heritage. The Meherangarh Museum Trust remains one of the finest fort museums in the country as well as a center for academic research, the maharajah's Religious Trust supports temples throughout the city, while the Educational Trust maintains some schools throughout the region of Jodhpur. The Medical Trust manages a free hospital in the walled city, organizes clinics in outlying villages, and can be mobilized in case of famine or flood. Though he is in touch with modern day India, the maharajah views his role more as one "of historical continuity." When asked, "Can you maintain being both an aristocrat and businessman in the 21st century?" he simply replies, "My son will be the businessman." A member of his extended family, a Rajput who in days past would have lorded over a fiefdom but now finds himself owner of another cultural heritage hotel, says: "As a race, we tend to live in the past. Loyalty will slowly fade because we own our land now. The king continues to command our respect and we will be forthright, but more and more this will [be] only if he is a good man, not just because he is our king through blood lineage." The young Rajput stares off into the distance and concludes, "We [the royal class] have outlived our utility. Perhaps the meek shall inherit the earth in the 21st century."

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