Scandals of the Raj - Sita Devi, Indira Devi, Nawab Faizullah Khan and Viqar Ul Umra

Born with diamond-encrusted golden spoons in their mouths, the princes and princesses that ruled Indian States under the British Raj led extraordinary lives. While much has been made of their wealth and regal surroundings, few know of their scandals and stories of palace intrigue. You & I takes a look at some of the Raj’s most scandalous royals and the deeds that got them labeled as rakes and rogues.      —  Vishwaveer

The Curious Case of Sita Devi

Sita Devi lived perhaps the most colourful life 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. Then went on to have a son, lovingly named Princie, after whom the famous pink diamond (once owned by the Nizams of Hyderabad and later bought by the Maharaja of Baroda) was named. Their alliance was only accepted by the British Raj after Sita Devi, on the recommendation of the lawyers of Pratap Singh, converted to Islam, thereby nullifying her previous marriage. The anti-bigamy laws of the State were brought up by the Viceroy in New Delhi, before whom Pratap Singh had to state his case. Though she was accepted by the British, she was never bestowed with the title of ‘Her Highness,’ as was the protocol for the consorts of Indian rulers. 

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 possession of the Maharani, who was partial to Rolls Royces and entertaining at the highest levelsof society. After her son’s suicide in 1985, Sita Devi retired to a quieter way of life and died four years later in Paris.  

The Gwalior-Cooch Behar Debacle  

Indira Devi of Baroda was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time. Born to Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III and his second wife Maharani Chimnabai in 1892, Indira Devi was a prize catch for any of India’s eligible royal bachelors. Her parents agreed to an alliance with the State of Gwalior – one of India’s premiere royal households – with a 21-gun-salute, the ultimate act of acknowledgement from the British Empire. In 1911, however, when the 18-year-old Indira Devi was attending the Delhi Durbar, she fell head-over-Ferragamo-heels for Prince Jitendra of Cooch Behar. The younger brother of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, Jitendra was a far cry from the Maharaja of Gwalior, Madho Rao Scindia. Taking matters into her own hands, Indira then committed the gravest breech of royal protocol when she wrote a letter to Madho Rao Scinida, professing her love for Jitendra and requesting the Maharaja to dissolve their engagement. 

Perturbed by their daughter’s brazen flaunting of rules and etiquette, the Maharaja of Baroda tried everything he could, even calling the Prince for a scolding, but to no avail. The couple were ultimately allowed to marry in London, without any member of their family in attendance. This, only after the Maharaja of Baroda had received a letter from Madho Rao Scindia stating that he understood the situation and would not hold it against the Baroda family. Once married, Indira Devi and Jitendra moved to Cooch Behar where, within a few months of the wedding, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar passed away, making Jitendra the ruler of the State and elevating Indira Devi to the position of Maharani. The couple famously sired Gayatri Devi, who would go on to marry the Maharaja of Jaipur, and later become a force in her own right. 

The Missing Jewels of the Nawabs of Rampur

One of the smaller princely states of Uttar Pradesh, Rampur came under the rule of a new dynasty in 1774, headed by Nawab Faizullah Khan. This was around the same time as the steady decline of the Mughal Emperors, which created a lucrative market for rare jewels and art. As the Mughals disbanded, they carried along with them their famed sparkly possessions, which they sold to other Muslim princes around India. By the time Nawab Faizullah Khan’s descendent, Hamid Ali Khan, became the ruler of Rampur in the late 1800’s, things had changed tremendously for the State. Not only had Rampur flourished in agriculture, it had also morphed into an industrial hub producing everything from sugar to textiles. Their revenue soon rivaled the earnings of far larger States in UP. 

A byproduct of Rampur’s success was the enormous wealth and riches its rulers enjoyed. Nawab Hamid Ali Khan carried on the traditions of his ancestor and procured some of the most noteworthy jewels of the land. His son, Nawab Raza Ali Khan, built the acclaimed Khasbagh Palace, which was truly a wonder of the Raj at that time. The Nawab’s bed was gold-plated, his dressing table made of pure silver, and art was imported from across Europe to adorn the walls of the palace. In the middle of the palace was a giant vault, where all of Rampur’s stately jewels were stored. In his diary, Lord Mountbatten, when he was the Viceroy of India, described a trip to this very vault – “Special tables with white tablecloths and chairs around them were erected in the courtyard outside the jewel house. Officers of the household struggled with heavy caskets which were opened in turn and spread before us. I can never describe the Arabian Nights effect of this unbelievable quantity of jewellery.” 

Following Independence, Rampur’s royal family fought over the rights to the jewels of the State. Different factions had come up, each claiming the jewellery for themselves. When the courts finally allowed the families to access the vault in Khasbagh Palace in early 2020, it took several workmen and drillers an entire month to break open the strong room. Having waited all these years, the Rampur descendants were looking forward to staking their claim to this legendary cache of jewels. Unfortunately for them, though, the vault was found to be completely empty. No jewels, no bags filled with pearls and precious stones and no legendary crowns and tiaras, all leading one to question: Where are the jewels of Rampur today?

The Fight for the Paigah Baubles

The Paigah’s of Hyderabad have long been known to be one of the Deccan’s most prominent aristocratic families. Very close to the Nizams of Hyderabad, the Paigah’s for centuries married into the Asaf Jahi dynasty. Several members of the family were also made regents of the State. The famous Falaknuma Palace was in fact made by Viqar Ul Umra, a Paigah Nawab, but then gifted to the Nizam, who insisted on paying for the magnificent palace. As their influence grew, so did the family’s riches and estates, making the Paigah jewellery collection truly remarkable. Many historians have noted that the Paigah jewels were in fact as good as the Nizami collection, because the families had for centuries exchanged jewellery through marriage. Stored in a state-of-the-art vault at the Paigah Palace in Begumpet, the jewellery was said to consist of several necklaces and sarpench, bejeweled swords and daggers, gold belts and amulets. Loose stones and pearls were kept on trays in the vault, the keys to which were always kept with the lady of the house. Since the family was quite large, several cousins and siblings kept their jewels with the main family in the same vault. 

In 1952, though, fearing that the newly formed government would confiscate their prized jewels, the Ameer-e-Paigah, Nawab Zahir Yar Jung decided to take the bulk of the family’s jewellery along with him to London. While traveling with his wife, the Nawab boarded an Air India flight from Mumbai to Cairo.The flight had to be turned around, since customs were notified by authorities, who’d been tipped off by a Paigah relative who feared that her own jewellery was among the baubles being taken away by Zahir Yar Jung. Since then the jewels have been the subject of a grand legal battle between the State and the descendants of the Paigah’s. Rumored to be currently held at the SBI Bank in Abids, the collection of jewels are said to be worth hundreds, if not thousands of crores today.

The Andalusian Maharani

Born in Malaga, Spain in 1890, Anita Delgado was a flamenco dancer who caught the eye of the Maharaja of Kapurthala while he was attending the marriage of the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII. Maharaja Jagjit Singh then had to leave Spain but met Anita again in Paris, where he began teaching her French. The couple soon married and even took part in a Sikh wedding ceremony in India. When news of the Maharaja’s betrothal to a Spanish flamenco dancer broke out, it created quite a stir among the Indian royal community, where marrying dancers was seen as an unforgivable act. Together the couple had a son, and the Maharaja is said to have doted upon Anita, whom he had renamed Prem Kaur Sahiba. Eventually, however, once the Maharaja had taken his seventh wife, Anita decided to separate and moved back to Paris where she lived out her remaining days. A ship containing her jewels was said to have sunk on the way to Europe, but Anita did manage to keep a few pieces which were said to be truly exceptional.