Introduction: Princely States of India


The princely states of India were territories ruled by princes, which were, in turn, controlled by the British Empire Raj. The history of the princely states reflects the rich and colorful diversity of life styles, languages, religions, customs, and political histories on the Indian subcontinent.

In the hundreds of years of competing claims of local empires, waves of invasion, and local war lords that characterized the subcontinent, feudal arrangements had changed many times by the time the East India Company of Great Britain established control in large parts of the subcontinent.  As indigenous princes, generals, or raiders helped the ultimately victorious British, they were often rewarded with establishment of a princely state. In other cases, a local ruler acceded to the realities of power by signing a sanad (agreement) to become a princely state. These processes continued after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, when the British Government assumed control of India from the East India Company, and made it part of the British Empire.

The states changed with the everchanging circumstances. The number of states can only be estimated and varies between 562 and over 700. Throughout the Raj period, smaller states were attached to larger states, states were divided, and states existed within other states. Claiming mismanagement, or a lack of male heirs, the British dissolved some states and assumed direct control of territory.  In 1947, when the British left India, there were 565 states, which covered 48% of the area of India and included 28% of its people.

Yet the reality is even more complex: several states had noncontiguous areas, and it was common for powerful landowners to challenge the princes. Tiny Bilbari had a population of 82 in 1931 and occupied 1.65 square miles. In contrast Hyderabad was more than 80,000 square miles and contained more than 16 million people, although some internal areas were administered by the British.  States could be noncontiguous; “islands” of independence or foreign rule could exist within states; “shares” of land could be owned (like today’s stock exchanges) by several individuals.

Although most ruling positions were hereditary, there was a surprising scarcity of adult male heirs. For a long time, a sanad of adoption, enabling a ruler to choose a nonhereditary male heir, was a prized agreement from Great Britain. Then, in 1858, Queen Victoria announced that Great Britain no longer wished to extend the empire.  Suddenly, between 1859-62, 160 sanads of adoption were issued.

Women held little power in princely states, and polygamy and purdah (seclusion of women) were common.  Yet there were notable exceptions: Bhopal was ruled by a succession of four women, some operating from purdah.

Princely background was as diverse as the states and included the hereditary clan of Hindu Rajputs, Kshatriyas (Hindu warrior classes), Muslims, Sikhs, tribal families, and even an Irish raja.  The religion and ethnicity of a prince might, or might not, reflect those of the population.

The British were skillful manipulators, who used the number of gun salutes, titles, and awards to give an appearance of power to the princes.  Ruler designations, including maharaja, raja, amir, and nawab, also varied, according to the importance of the state, its traditions, and favor in which it was held.

While, in theory, the prince was autonomous within his territory, in practice, the British maintained considerable control.  Often a British Resident was stationed within an important state, or at the very least, the princes operated under a regional British official.  Child princes, who were all too frequent, gave the British another chance to exercise power.  Local control might be limited by a state’s sanad.  In many states, capital punishment had to be reviewed by the British government. Suttee (the practice of burning widows alive) was outlawed altogether.

Like all imperial powers, the British sought to profit from their empire.  India exported large numbers of textiles, rice, and spices.  Opium was also grown and, after the Chinese Opium Wars ended in 1860, India was a large supplier of the drug to the Chinese. Despite this, India made few moves toward industrialization. Treaties and records of cotton, textiles, and the like, are meticulously recorded in British records, as are the tributes that states paid to the British.

The British had outsized influence on the selection, education, and powers of the princes.  Limitation of this power was, of course, in the interest of the Raj, and more than one prince complained that, under British influence he had acquired a useless – often classical – European education and expensive tastes, but few rulership skills. Traditional customs, too, encouraged the display of priceless jewels, fancy cars, and opulent palaces. Some princes became famous polo players; others gained a reputation for womanizing.  Caught between traditional society, modernizing influences, and the illusion of power at the expense of real power, many princes led aimless lives, and died young, often of alcoholism or substance abuse.  Yet, they also built hospitals, schools, and libraries, and railroads. Bhagvat Singh, ruler of Gondal from 1878-1940 became a physician, modernized the state, published an encyclopedia and dictionary, and was so adept at state finances that he was able to abolish all taxes and custom duties.

Issuance of postage stamps was yet another honor the British could confer.  The postal stamps of the princely states are usually divided between the convention and feudatory states.  There were five states who signed conventions with the British government that allowed them to use the British-printed stamps of India, overprinted with the name of the state, and valid for postage both within the state and in the parts of India where the British had postal service.  The feudatory states, during the time of the Raj, were granted the right to print their own stamps for use within the state, or, in rare cases, across states with whom they had particular arrangements (such as Cochin and Travancore).  After independence, at least one state, Bahawalpur, issued British stamps of India overprinted with the state’s name of course without British permission. This exhibition covers only feudatory states. As this exhibition shows, stamps were colorful, varied, and often produced by primitive methods.

In 1947, at the eve of Indian and Pakistani independence, most princes were persuaded to peacefully join the new countries.  The British, India, and Pakistan assured them continued status, income, and honors.  These promises were repeatedly broken as princes were deprived of hereditary status, then lifetime status, then wealth. The “privy purse” they were supposed to receive was abolished in 1971. In 1975, Indian palaces were raided, and treasures seized. The former Maharinis of Jaipur and Gwalior even served time in jail on trumped up charges.

Today, many descendants of princely families are active in politics, with noted success in elections, as well as in commerce and acting. Saif Ali Khan, the famous Bollywood star, is heir to the throne of Bhopal.  Some opulent royal palaces have been converted to hotels.  Some members of royal families struggle, while others live in unimaginable luxury.  Their fates are as diverse as the history of the states themselves.