India’s Most Magnificent Maharanis - Maharani Gayatri Devi, Sita Devi, Durrushehvar, Indira Raje

Born with diamond-studded spoons in their mouths, these Maharanis changed how royal women behaved and paved the way for a whole new generation. You & I looks at four regal path-breakers

Our country’s erstwhile royal past is rich with stories of grandeur and decadence. It’s no wonder that when foreign settlers came to the subcontinent, they christened our nation the land of gold and honey. Some called it the Sone ki chidiya or golden bird. Over the centuries and millennia, India had been a target for pillaging armies that came as far and wide as Greece in the West to Mongolia in the East. Nonetheless, our Kings and Emperors weathered these storms and survived. One would say, even thrived. They traded in only the best and amassed fortunes that would make the Rockefeller’s and Rothschild’s of the world look like paupers. 

Though much has been written about our Kings and Emperors, very little is actually known about the women who stood by their side. These ladies came from the bluest of lineages, adhered to a silent code and oozed elegance in even their tiniest mannerisms. They mothered future Kings, sometimes acted as Regents and in some cases put on armour and fought side by side with their men on the battlefields. 

Towards the end of The Raj, India’s royals had grown plump on luxury. They compared the size of their kingdoms by the number of Gun Salutes doled out to them by the East India Company. Their allegiance was to the reigning monarch on the English throne, in an island-nation that was 1/13th the size of India. Wars and battles among neighbouring states had come to a halt, much like the Samurai in Japan before them. And like their warring brothers from the East, our royals too were headed towards a systemic change – one that would see their kind relegated to the pages of history books.

It was in this time of over-the-top riches that India saw some of its most noteworthy and flamboyant Maharanis. British influence had relegated the purdah system obsolete, and the women of royal households slowly emerged to the forefront. You & I takes a look at four of India’s Most Magnificent Maharanis from this era.     - Vishwaveer Singh

Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur

Born to Maharaja Jitendra Narayan and Maharani Indira Raje of Cooch Behar in 1919, Gayatri Devi, or Ayesha as she was called by those close to her, was the flag bearer of elegance in India during her time. No other Maharani came close to her in terms of sartorial acumen, refinement, and chutzpah for life. Married to Maharaja Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur at the age of 21, she was his third wife and sired him a son, Prince Jagat Singh. Over the years Gayatri Devi earned several accolades - being featured by Vogue as one of the 10 Most Beautiful Women in The World, winning a landslide election for the Swatantra Party in 1962, and later being made a target by Indira Gandhi and imprisoned in Tihar Jail for five months during the emergency. 

Gayatri Devi entertained Kings and Presidents, was close friends with the British Royals and lived a life littered with Private Planes, Polo Ponies, Bentleys and unimaginable wealth. An ethereal beauty, she was the subject of much attention, both in India and abroad. After the death of her husband in 1970, she became a matriarchal figure to the Jaipur royal family. In 1997 she lost her only son Jagat, who was survived by his wife, Thai Princess Mom Rajawongse Priyanandana Rangsit and his two children Devraj and Lalitaya. Towards the end, Gayatri Devi lived a solitary life at Lilypool, her official residence in Jaipur, until her death in 2009. When once asked in an interview, what her favourite song of all time was she had replied very aptly, ‘I Did It My Way’ by Frank Sinatra. 

Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda

Sita Devi lived possibly the most colourful life out of all the Maharanis in India. Born in 1917 to the Maharaja of Pithapuram, a Telugu state, Sita Devi was married off to the Zamindar of a smaller state, Vuyyuru, with whom she had a son. Always the socialite, Sita Devi met Pratap Singh Gaekwad of Baroda at the Madras racecourse and soon began an affair that would rock the Indian royal-scape. The couple found loopholes in the laws of the day and married each other before having a son, lovingly named Princie. 

The state of Baroda was particularly famous for its jewels, including the famous Baroda Pearl necklace that consisted of some of the finest natural pearls in the world. Sita Devi and Pratap Singh Gaekwad spent a lot of their time in Europe, where they had homes in Paris, London and Monaco. The couple divorced in 1956, but the Maharani continued living a life of splendour… auctioning off jewels to finance her luxurious ways. Emeralds, legendary diamonds and entire carpets made of pearls were once in the Maharanis possession, who was partial to Rolls Royces and entertaining at the highest firmament of society. After her son’s suicide in 1985, Sita Devi retired to a more docile way of life and died four years later in Paris.   

Princess Durrushehvar of Berar

Daughter to the Caliph of the Ottoman Caliphate, Abdulmejid II, Princess Durrushehvar was from a family considered to be the highest and noblest of Islamic royals in the world. In 1924, aged 10, Durrushehvar was exiled from Turkey, along with her family, when Kemal Ataturk toppled the Caliphate in favour of an Islamic Republic. The princess grew up in France and was sought for marriage by the Shah of Iran and King Faud of Egypt, before being married to Prince Azam Jah, the heir and first-born son of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan.

After her marriage in Nice, France, the Princess arrived in Hyderabad, along with her cousin Princess Niloufer, who was married to the Nizam’s second son, Prince Moazam Jah. The two Turkish Princesses brought glamour and style into the Nizami family and were often referred to by the Nizam as his heera and nagina. While most of Hyderabad’s noblewomen were still behind the purdah, Durrushehvar worked towards removing the archaic tradition and brought about a degree of modernity to an otherwise orthodox family institution. Mir Osman Ali Khan famously skipped his son and chose his grandson, Mir Mukarram Jah, Durrushehvar’s firstborn, as his heir apparent. The Princess insisted that her sons be educated in England, and when the time came to choose their wives, she chose ladies of noble-birth from Turkey. Famed for her unique features, auburn hair and regal demeanour, Durrushehvar cut a majestic picture in the foreground of the Nizami family. Towards the end of her life, she set-up schools, colleges, and hospitals and died in 2006, in London, with her sons by her side. 

Maharani Indira Raje of Cooch Behar

The mother of the famed royal beauty Gayatri Devi, Princess Indira Raje was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Born to Sayajirao Gaekwad and Maharani Chimnabai of Baroda, Indira Raje was engaged to the Maharaja of Gwalior Madho Rao Scindia, at a very young age. A chance encounter with a young prince, Jitendra Narayan of Cooch Behar during the Royal Durbar of 1911, led to love at first sight. The Princess came from a far larger sovereign state and was the only daughter of The Maharaja of Baroda. Prince Jitendra, then, was the younger brother to the Maharaja of Cooch Behar… and thus a far smaller royal compared to the Maharaja of Gwalior. This was the scandal of the day then, and the princess made things worse by sending a letter to her fiancé spelling out her intentions to elope with the young Jitendra instead. 

The couple married in a small ceremony at the Claridges Hotel in London, and Indira Devi returned to Cooch Behar, where her brother-in-law, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar soon died, leaving her husband the throne to the state and elevating Indira to the title of Maharani. Losing her husband to alcoholism early, Indira Devi spent much of her time in Europe and was a keen equestrian. She was also one of Ferragamo’s first Indian royal clients and had a shoe collection to rival any Queen’s. Her taste in jewellery, furs and an exotic lifestyle made her one of the most sought after socialites on the international jet-set back then. Indira Devi led a colourful life as a young widow and Regent to the State of Cooch Behar. She was immortalized by the famous French artist Alfred Jonniaux, who painted her in a white saree, an image the world still associates with the former Maharani and her days of decadent splendour.