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Princely States


PRINCELY STATES The princely states of India and their rulers have been the subject of romantic novels and films, paintings, Orientalist and nationalist exposés, and advertising campaigns in which maharajas are synonymous with luxury, yet they have received relatively little scholarly attention. These political units reflected the political, cultural, and geographical diversity of the Indian subcontinent; their number varied according to different accounts that used varying criteria to define a princely state. The Imperial Gazetteer of India (1909) recorded 693 states, but that figure included the Shan states in Burma as well as Nepal. The Report of the Indian States Committee, issued in 1929, claimed 562 states. These statistics are deceptive, since many political entities included in these documents were small estates belonging to landholders who might exercise some magisterial powers. Over 360 such small states were concentrated in western India alone. The princely states that had sovereign powers of collecting taxes and distributing justice numbered less than a hundred.

When most sources refer to the princely states of India, they focus on those political units whose rulers had secured some type of quasi-legal relationship with the British colonial government in India from the late 1700s onward and then formally survived until the late 1940s. Many of these princely states had existed in India for centuries before the British emergence as a colonial political power in the late eighteenth century. Indeed, Hindu princes had been called various titles, such as raja, rana, and rao, that were more appropriately translated as "king" (or "great king" for those designated as maharaja, maharana, or maharao), but the British translated the titles of these rulers as "prince" to indicate their subordinate status to the British monarch as their suzerain. Thus the British did not create many of the princely states, but once the states entered into treaty relations, the British significantly controlled their external relations and communications networks and gradually extended their symbolic suzerainty over the princes and their states. Still, during the colonial period, the rulers of eighty to one hundred states exercised considerable internal autonomy, collecting taxes, administering justice, and in some cases launching impressive economic developments and some social reforms.


Antique states

Princely states may be grouped in three categories according to their origins. The states ruled by the Rajputs may be labeled antique, since many were founded before the arrival of the British and some even before the establishment of the Mughal empire in 1526. Rajputs, whose name comes from the Sanskrit rajaputra, or "sons of kings," migrated from Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent from around a.d. 200 onward. They spread in a broad arc from the western coast of Gujarat through the Thar desert, a region that came to be known either as Rajputana or Rajasthan, across the Indo-Gangetic Plain into the foothills of the western Himalayas. The major princely states of Rajputana include Mewar (or later Udaipur, after its capital); Marwar (or Jodhpur, after its capital); Amber (known as Jaipur, after its capital built in the early 1700s by Jai Singh); and Bikaner. The rulers of these states legitimated themselves by their military control, elaborate genealogies claiming divine descent or sanction, and assiduous maintenance of their izzat, or "honor." The rulers of Mewar claimed primacy among the Rajputs for their defense of izzat when confronted with defeat in battle and their refusal to offer their daughters in marriage to the Mughal emperors. Other Rajput rulers, most notably those of Amber, Marwar, and Bikaner, provided daughters to the Mughal emperors, accepted ranks in the Mughal mansabdari, or administrative system, led Mughal armies in battle, governed Mughal provinces, and retained internal autonomy within their states. Their entry into the Mughal imperial structure prefigured their subsequent accommodation with the British Empire.

Successor states

The second major category were provinces of the Mughal empire, whose Mughal governors gradually asserted a quasi-independent status during the mid-eighteenth century, just when the British East India Company began its initial political expansion in Bengal. Labeled successor states, they were Awadh (Oudh), Bengal, and Hyderabad. By 1856 the British ruled both Awadh and Bengal directly, but Hyderabad would survive until 1948 as the premier princely state of India, with the largest population and revenues of any princely state. Its Muslim ruler, with the title of nizam, governed a political unit in which Hindus constituted 87 percent of the population and spoke Telugu (43%), Marathi (26%), and Kannada (13%), while Urdu-speaking Muslims were a distinct minority at 10 percent of the population by 1911 (Census of India, 1921, XXI, 74, 192).

Warrior states

During the eighteenth century, the third category of warrior states arose with the decline of the centralized power of the Mughals. In return for their protection of cultivating peasants and local merchants, ambitious, enterprising, venturesome men with military resources gained political control. This group was the most disparate and ranged from Sikh-ruled states in Punjab, such as Patiala, to the Maratha-ruled states of central India, scattered from Gwalior near Agra to Baroda in Gujarat, Mysore in the center, and Travancore on the western coast of peninsular South India. Jammu and Kashmir, with the largest territory (85,885 sq. mi., or 222,442 sq. km) of any princely state, is the prime example of a warrior state created by imperial imperatives. Gulab Singh, a Dogra military ally of the kingdom of Punjab, parlayed his control over Jammu to acquire Kashmir for 75 lakhs of rupees (7,500,000 rupees) paid to the British after their victory in the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1846. At the other end of the size and geographical spectrum is the state of Pudukkottai (1,179 sq. mi., or 3,054 sq. km) near Madras (Chennai). In return for timely military service against the French and Mysore state, in 1806 the British acknowledged the Tondaimans as rulers of the internally autonomous state of Pudukkottai, which would survive until 1948. Most other rulers of such little kingdoms in South India were transformed into landlords.

Power and authority

The Rajput rulers and those of successor and warrior states owed their power to control of military forces that were in turn commanded by kinsmen, military entrepreneurs, or petty local magnates who were willing to ally with a stronger rival rather than suffer defeat and possible extinction. The successor states claimed their authority to rule from their appointments by the Mughal emperor. Rajput and warrior rulers frequently based their authority to rule on divine sanction. Thus some Rajputs traced their lineages back to the Hindu gods of the sun (Surya) or moon (Chandra). While the maharanas of Udaipur claimed to be the servants of Shiva in his form as Eklinga (an iconic pillar with one face), the maharajas of Bikaner proclaimed themselves to be the prime ministers of an incarnation of Vishnu. Maharaja Martanda Varma (r. 1729–1758) of Travancore dedicated his state to an incarnation of Vishnu, and his successors claimed to rule as servants of this god. Muslim rulers, including the nizam of Hyderabad, sought to legitimate their political power by tracing their descent from Muslim holy men and patronizing pan-Islamic institutions, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Indirect Rule

Subsidiary alliance system

As European politics began to affect the activities of European trading companies in India, the British East India Company obtained the diwani, or the right to collect land revenue, in Bengal, inaugurating its metamorphosis from a trading company into a regional Indian political entity. By the end of the eighteenth century, the company had waged several wars against the Maratha and Mysore states, its two main competitors for political domination. Upon his arrival as governor-general in 1798, Lord Wellesley embarked on a resolute policy of imperial expansion. Relying upon an increasingly effective military force of British officers and mixed other ranks of Britons and Indians, he constructed a subsidiary alliance system incorporating earlier treaties with Indian states. These new alliances extended British control, exterminated some Indian states, and ensured the continued existence of other Indian states. In return for British protection from external enemies and internal dynastic rivals and a guarantee of their internal autonomy, Indian rulers who concluded subsidiary alliances with the British achieved some security in exchange for accommodation. The Indian rulers had to relinquish the power to wage war, the right of direct relations with other princes and external countries, and their control of communications networks, and sometimes were required to pay an annual monetary subsidy or to support contingents of troops for British use.

The state of Mysore is one example of how this system worked. In 1799 Arthur Wellesley defeated Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler whose father had usurped the Mysore gadi (throne) from its Hindu rulers, the Wadiyars. The East India Company annexed the western coastal districts, attached them to its Madras presidency, gave some Mysore territory to Hyderabad, which had entered into a subsidiary alliance in 1798, and restored the Wadiyar family to its gadi in return for the largest subsidy that the British would demand of any princely state.

British officials—termed "residents" if they were posted to important states such as Hyderabad, or "agents to the governor-general" or "political agents" if in charge of several smaller states—conducted relations between the company and the princes. Replacing the vakils, the agents that states used to maintain at Mughal and other princely courts, the British political officers were to implement British policy in the states but also to represent the interests of the princes and activities within their states to the British official hierarchy. These company servants could intervene dramatically in the state administrations, especially when the heir was a minor and a council of regency governed.

Ambivalent British policies toward princely states

After Wellesley was recalled to London in 1805 because company directors deemed his expansionist policies too costly, despite the use of Indian allies, there was a temporary lull but not a total cessation of the expansion of this system of indirect rule. Lord Moira, later Lord Hastings, governor-general from 1813 to 1823, offered treaties to the Rajput states in Rajputana. He sanctioned military campaigns that further reduced the territories of key Maratha rulers—Gaekwad of Baroda, Scindia of Gwalior, Holkar of Indore, and Bhonsle of Nagpur—and integrated them more firmly into the subsidiary alliance system. Lord Dalhousie, governor-general from 1848 to 1856, orchestrated the last major extension of British direct rule on the basis of three criteria. Defeat in war occasioned the final annexation of the kingdom of Punjab; the lack of an heir, the so-called doctrine of lapse, led to the annexation of the Maratha-ruled states of Satara, Jhansi, and Nagpur; and charges of maladministration were used to justify the annexation of Awadh (Oudh), an early entrant to the subsidiary alliance system.


"The fundamental principle of His Excellency the Governor-General's policy in establishing subsidiary alliances with the principal states of India is to place those states in such a degree of dependence on the British power as may deprive them of the means of prosecuting any measures or of forming any confederacy hazardous to the security of the British empire, and may enable us to reserve the tranquility of India by exercising a general control over those states, calculated to prevent the operation of that restless spirit of ambition and violence which is the characteristic of every Asiatic government, and which from the earliest period of Eastern history has rendered the peninsula of India the scene of perpetual warfare, turbulence and disorder."

Tupper, Indian Protectorate, pp. 40–41.

Political Structure

During the early 1800s, most princely states had autocratic, relatively simple administrative structures. The prince was the source of political authority and power, combining the roles of policy maker, chief judge, and sometimes commander in chief of state forces or military units dedicated to British service. A council of ministers, sometimes with a diwan or chief administrator, supervised departments such as home (internal order), finance, justice, and household. In many states, princes had granted or confirmed the right to collect revenue from specificd tracts within their states to relatives, military allies, or indigenous hereditary aristocrats in return for services rendered during the establishment of the state and for continued loyalty. By the middle of the nineteenth century, some Indian princes on their own initiative, along with some British officials, sought to centralize the administrations of princely states to enhance the power of the princes as well as that of the British at the expense of intermediate landholders. Their measures, frequently termed "reforms," tended to alienate the hereditary aristocracy, who would be losing both financial resources through new land revenue settlements and political influence at the princely durbārs, or courts, with the introduction of administrators recruited from outside the state, frequently men with education and bureaucratic experience in British India. A few British officials favored maintaining the nobility as a check on the autocracy of the princes, but increasingly the British supported more rationalized administrations. As late as 1938, Raja Rao Kalyan Singh, the thikanadar (holder of a small state or estate) of Sikar in Jaipur state, challenged the efforts of the Jaipur state to intervene in his internal affairs. A combination of British officials, Indian nationalists, and popular peasant leaders assisted the state administration in squashing his revolt.

Legitimation of British Suzerainity

By the end of 1856, the East India Company directly ruled three-fifths of the territory of the Indian subcontinent, and the Indian princes indirectly ruled two-fifths of the territory and one-third of the population. To reward the loyal support of most princes during the "Mutiny" or Revolt of 1857, the British Crown, which assumed the governance of India with the liquidation of the company, announced an end to any further annexation and extended treaties or sanads (letters of agreement) to many states, recognizing their right to adopt heirs. With minor variations, the map of princely states was set until the late 1940s. Although a few princely states, such as Hyderabad with prime cotton-growing tracts and some coal reserves, Mysore with the Kolar gold fields, and Patiala with fertile soil, were centrally located and had valuable natural resources, most princely states were concentrated in areas more remote and less economically productive than the British Indian provinces. The latter category ranged from Jammu and Kashmir, strategically important on the northern borders of India but dominated by inhospitable mountains, to states such as Bikaner and Jodhpur in the desert tracts of Rajputana, those in the salt marshes and dry lands of western Gujarat, and those in the ravines of central India and jungle tracts of Orissa.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the British articulated rhetorical and legal rationales for their system of indirect rule. The princes were declared the natural leaders of their people, in contrast to the ever more vocal Western-educated middle-class critics of colonial rule. To integrate the princes into an imperial hierarchy, the British granted various honorary titles to the princes and regularized a table of salute, with Queen Victoria accorded 101 guns, and the princes deemed most significant given salutes ranging from 21 guns (Baroda, Gwalior, Hyderabad, Mysore, and later Jammu and Kashmir) down to 9 guns. Princes could earn an increase in their salutes by notable contributions to British military ventures or by undertaking internal reforms that modernized their administrations. By 1945 the table of salutes embraced 117 princes. Schedules of personal and local salutes enjoyed by princes within their lifetimes or states were developed to assuage princely anxiety over their izzat.


Rustum Beg of Kolazai
slightly backward Native State
Lusted for a C.S.I.
So he began to sanitate.
Built a Goal and Hospital
nearly built a City drain
Till his faithful subjects all
thought their ruler was insane.

Rudyard Kipling, Verse: Definitive Edition.

Garden City, N.J.: 1940, p. 8. First published in Departmental Ditties, 1885.

The British as paramount power

The British claimed suzerainty over the princes because of the British self-proclaimed status as the paramount power in India. Their assertion of paramountcy was based on precedence that was cobbled together from earlier official correspondence and treaties. The elastic concept of usage was invoked to justify changing British policies. Political officers, such Charles U. Aitchison (1832–1896) and William Lee-Warner (1846–1914), who usually had more experience at the provincial and central secretariats than in the princely states as political agents and residents, compiled procedural manuals and theoretical works to guide policy makers and political officers in the field. Lee-Warner averred that usage "amends and adapts to circumstances duties that are embodied in treaties of ancient date, and it supplies numerous omissions from the category of duties so recorded" (Native States, p. 204). Thus the British could demand new duties from their princely clients in order to adapt to changing circumstances. In other words, treaties and sanads were not written in stone.

In January 1877 Lord Lytton, the governor-general and viceroy from 1876 to 1880, presided at an Imperial Assemblage in Delhi at which Queen Victoria was declared the Kaiser-i-Hind, or Empress of India. Sixty-three princes paraded as loyal feudatories who received banners with newly created coats of arms from the representative of their empress. As late as 1893, Charles Tupper reiterated this interpretation when he declared that the British relationship with the princes was a feudal one since "the Indian Protectorate rests on ideas which are fundamentally indigenous. . . . There were many tendencies making for feudalism in the India of our predecessors; and . . . our protection has been sought in India as vassals sought the protection of their lords" (Indian Protectorate, p. 240).

The Twentieth Century

Twilight of empire and internal autonomy

Major challenges confronted both British power and princely rule by 1900. During the late nineteenth century, a few princes launched substantial administrative, economic, and social reforms and consequently acquired the reputation of being "progressive" rulers who were modernizing their states. Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad (1863–1939) of Baroda inaugurated universal compulsory primary education and mobile public libraries to help his subjects maintain their literacy, founded the Bank of Baroda, and fostered textile and chemical industries. Maharaja Krishnaraja (1884–1940) of Mysore undertook an ambitious program of industrial development and established both a university and an institute of technology. The rulers of Travancore and Cochin promoted education at all levels and extensive public works programs that fostered internal trade. By the 1930s all four states and about twenty others had representative assemblies and later legislative bodies with limited powers. Still, princes remained benevolent autocrats who retained much of their power and tried to contain or dampen popular political activity. In many states, reforms of revenue systems sought to increase state revenues and to eliminate intermediaries who might divert revenue and squeeze peasant taxpayers. Police departments were reconstituted to ensure more effective control over not only criminals but also popular political leaders critical of state policies.

Old and new roles for princely clients

Confronting defiance from Indian nationalist leaders and the burdens of World War I, the British government of India initially affirmed the role of the Indian princes and their states as military allies. Princely contributions included military contingents, money, and war matériel, and princely rulers in Punjab permitted extensive recruiting for the British Indian army within state territories. When urging his subjects to enlist, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh (1891–1938) of Patiala argued that it was far better to meet the angel of death on the battlefield than in bed. Nizām Osman Ali Khan (1886–1967) of Hyderabad issued a firman, or decree, declaring that the war was not a jihad but a war over politics; Indian Muslims could therefore legitimately fight with British forces against the Ottoman Empire, whose sultan was also the caliph of Islam.

Simultaneously, the princes began to function as political allies for their imperial patron or as representatives of their religious communities. In India the nizam of Hyderabad was strongly opposed to the Khilafat movement, and several Hindu princes intervened in a controversy over the construction of irrigation works on the Ganges near the sacred city of Hardwar. Abroad, princes began to attend imperial and international conferences as representatives of India. Maharaja Ganga Singh (1880–1943) of Bikaner was at the Imperial War Conference in 1917 and was a signatory of the peace treaty of Versailles.


"[T]he new attitude towards us is that the States are interpolated pages, apocryphal additions, in this history of India. I need not point out to you how wrong this view is, how fundamentally opposed to the evolution of our history. To forget the persistent regionalism of our people which finds expression in the Indian states is an error which as from time to time spelt disaster for Indian in the past. If the nationalist movement in its desire for a symmetric pattern of Indian political life decides to act as if the States did not exist, the prospects before the whole country are gloomy indeed."

Punjab State Archives at Patiala, Chamber Section, Case No. II (a) 34 of 1930, Vol. 2.

Constitutional efforts to integrate the states

Among the British rewards to the princes for their support during World War I was the inauguration of a Chamber of Princes, an advisory body, in 1921. Dominated by a small group of princes from middle-sized states in North India and with the viceroy as presiding officer, the Chamber's resolutions ultimately had relatively little impact on British policy. The Chamber was more significant for bringing together a group of contentious princes who began to debate common issues, to develop some contacts with moderate British Indian nationalists and conservative British politicians, and to lobby with British officials for a definition of paramountcy that would reduce British intervention in the internal affairs of states.

Threatened with the Indian National Congress's demands for swaraj, or self-rule, and the possibility of a renewed civil disobedience campaign by Mahatma Gandhi, in 1930 the British invited the princes as well as a wide spectrum of Indian and British politicians to attend what became a series of three Round Table Conferences in London to discuss possible constitutional reforms. In 1935 a Government of India Act envisioned a constitutional federation of British Indian provinces and princely states in which the states would balance the British Indian provincial governments now to be formed from the majority parties in the provincial legislatures. Princely desires to reduce British intervention in their internal affairs, reluctance to concede essential powers to a federal legislature, and concern about any additional financial demands to support the federal institutions, as well as opposition from Conservative forces in Britain, stymied negotiations over federation. Upon the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the government of India suspended these negotiations.

Popular political activity

During the 1920s embryonic state's people's groups emerged to challenge princely autocracy and to demand certain civil rights, such as the freedoms of speech, of the press, and to assemble. These groups generally did not deny the authority of the princes to rule but frequently blamed corrupt or over-bearing administrators for tyrannical policies. The Indian National Congress, under the direction of Mahatma Gandhi, did not formally become involved in the internal politics of the princely states until the late 1930s. Initially neither Gandhi nor other Congress politicians were particularly successful in either organizing a mass base or achieving changes in state policies. By the 1940s, however, the Congress was able to develop effective organizations in a few states such as Mysore.


As the process of decolonization in India unraveled, the increasing demand for the creation of Pakistan and escalating communal violence overshadowed the situation of the princely states. Although the princes clung to the forlorn hope that their treaties with the British Crown would ensure their future existence, their fate was sealed once Lord Louis Mountbatten and the British government decided on the partition of the British Indian empire into two independent states. Governor-general and viceroy from 1946 to 1948, Mountbatten advised the princes that their future involved accession to either India or Pakistan. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (1875–1950), the home and states minister in the interim government of India, and V. P. Menon (1894–1960), secretary of the states ministry, used a carrot-and-stick approach in their negotiations with the princes. Mollified with boons such as privy purses and various honorific concessions and threatened with possible deposition, most princes gradually agreed.

Three notable holdouts were Nawāb Mahabat Rasulkhanji, who sought to accede to Pakistan even though his state of Junagadh did not share a contiguous border with Pakistan, and the rulers of Hyderabad and Jammu and Kashmir, who wanted to remain independent. Jawaharlal Nehru launched a police action in 1948 that brought Hyderabad into the Indian union, and Maharaja Hari Singh (1895–1961) of Kashmir signed a letter of accession as Muslim tribesmen invading from Pakistan threatened his capital of Srinagar. In 2005 Pakistan controlled two-fifths of the former princely state as Azad (Free) Kashmir, and India had the other three-fifths.

The dispute over Kashmir has triggered three wars and several other military campaigns and remains the major impediment to normal relations between India and Pakistan. Smaller princely states that acceded to India were either integrated into new states created from British Indian provinces or were formed into unions of princely states. Hyderabad and Mysore were the only princely states to remain distinct political units, until 1956 when they were incorporated into the new states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, respectively.


"When a new fully self-governing or independent Government or Governments come into being in British India . . . the rights of the States which flow from their relationship to the Crown will no longer exist and . . . all the rights surrendered by the States to the paramount power will return to the states. . . . The void will have to be filled either by the States entering into a federal relationship with the successor Government or Governments in British India, or, failing this, entering into particular political arrangements with it or them."

V. P. Menon, The Story of the Integration of the Princely States, Appendix II, 475–476.

Princes in independent India

The most important rulers were appointed as governors or deputy governors of these unions or other states and occasionally as ambassadors. A few princes or their consorts entered electoral politics. Most notable were Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, who won a seat in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India's Parliament) in 1962 with a plurality of 175,000 votes, and Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia (d. 2001) of Gwalior, who moved from the Congress Party to a leadership role in the Bharatiya Janata Party. In 1971 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi secured a constitutional amendment that terminated the privy purses and other personal concessions to the princes. At the beginning of the new millennium some scions of former princely families enjoyed success in electoral politics. In 2005 Amarinder Singh from Patiala was serving as the Congress chief minister of Punjab state, and Vasundhara Raje (b. 1953), the daughter of Vijayaraje Scindia, was the Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Rajasthan.

Barbara N. Ramusack

See alsoBaroda ; Hyderabad ; Jammu and Kashmir ; Pakistan and India ; Patel, Sardar Vallabhbhai ; Punjab


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