The Prince of Arcot poses by a portrait of an ancestor; ceremonial guards at one of the palace’s entrances.
Amir Mahal’s façade is deceptively simple. Official residence of the Prince of Arcot, India’s only royal descendant still holding the title of His Highness after the privy purses were abolished in 1969, it is just a stone’s throw away from Express Avenue, Chennai’s biggest mall-cum-multiplex.
Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali Azimjah, the 59-year-old Prince of Arcot with his penchant for modern attire, presides over royal tradition on the tranquil 18-acre, 144-year-old Amir Mahal.
The building is a far cry from Kals Mahal, the original palace of the Nawab of Carnatic built by Mohammed Ali Wallajah (1749-95), who ruled much of south India, from the 121-acre site overlooking the Marina sands. Yet Amir Mahal maintains a tradition of secularism passed on to Abdul Ali, who enjoys the style, dignity, title and honour of the ‘Prince of Arcot’, conferred by the British under the Royal Letters Patent by the command of Queen Victoria in 1867, though he has no state to rule.
The residents of Kals Mahal moved into Amir Mahal after the British took over the kingdom of Carnatic in 1801, reducing Nawab Umda-ul-Umra to a titular head, paying him one-fifth of the revenue. When Nawab Ghulam Ghouse Khan died in 1855 without a male heir, the British abolished the
Nawabship under the ‘doctrine of lapse’. But the erstwhile royal family went on appeal. Nawab Azimjah Bahadur, paternal uncle of Ghulam Ghouse, staked his claim as the royal heir, and the Privy Council in London finally gave him a new title, ‘Prince of Arcot’ with special honours and courtesies in perpetuity.
As part of the settlement, the British built Amir Mahal in 1867 and successive heirs have lived there. Now some 600 relatives and personal staff live on the premises at the pleasure of the Prince, whose immediate family — wife, Begum Sayeeda, two sons and four grandchildren, mother and families of two brothers and a sister — live in the palace.
The eldest son, Mohammed Asif Ali will take over from Abdul Ali, who was recognised as Prince of Arcot by the President through a government order dated July 7, 1994, after the death of his father, G M Abdul Khader. In the State Warrant of Precedence he is ahead of Chennai’s Mayor and just below the state’s cabinet ministers.
Much before that, Abdul Ali was Sherif of Madras for two terms — 1984-85 and 1988-89. It was then that Sherif Abdul Ali met Rajiv Gandhi, and the two struck up a friendship.
“Two brothers are talking,” he says pointing to a photograph of himself with Rajiv on the walls of his office — the sign just says Prince — inside Amir Mahal.
“Rajiv almost dragged me into politics,” he reminisces. “His magnetism might have melted me and I would have said ‘yes’ if he had
invited me into politics. During an earlier visit to Amir Mahal he asked me if I was interested in politics and I said ‘no’.”
“When he visited Amir Mahal on April 18, 1991 on Id and spent two and a half hours with us, he promised to return with his wife after becoming Prime Minister. He also wanted me to visit Mayladuthurai to canvas for Mani Shankar Aiyar,” he recalls.
Thrilled at the thought of sharing the dais with Rajiv at a campaign meeting, he reached a day early, only to get a call from his wife late in the night that Rajiv was dead. Friends in Chennai confirmed he had been assassinated. He immediately drove to Chennai, only to be accosted by rioters, who smashed his car and almost set it on fire. He had to hide near Pondicherry, from where he was
escorted to Chennai by police.
It was a violent 1990 communal clash in Triplicane, virtually his backyard, that brought out Abdul Ali’s social consciousness. He started Harmony India, an organisation, with prominent citizens of Chennai, to promote secular ideals and communal amity.
Today Abdul Ali is recognised as ‘the first nobleman in the Muslim community of south India’. He has served as president of the Ajmer Dargah committee for five years. He was even deputy leader of India’s goodwill Haj delegation in 1995 and 1997.
Amir Mahal is a place well known by India’s famous and powerful, from presidents to chief ministers to foreign dignitaries. When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Amir Mahal in 1955, he was so wowed by the dessert ‘Khund’, made of milk, almond and saffron, that on his next visit in 1963, he asked for the same sweet.
Even the Chief Imam of Makkah’s Kabha visited the palace in the mid-1990s and led the prayers. It is rare for the imam to hold prayers outside a mosque. “They all came out of goodwill,” says the Prince.
When the Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Mutt, Jayendra Saraswati, visited Amir Mahal, he said that it was the first Muslim house that he had visited. He made the visit to acknowledge the contribution of the nawabs of the Carnatic to Hindu temples. They had gifted vast lands — Srirangam’s “Nawab garden” and the temple tank of Sri Kapaleeswarar temple in Chennai are just two examples. Even the famous Thousand Lights mosque, a landmark in Chennai, was built by the nawabs for the Shia community.
A modest man, the Prince sees himself as a ‘political pensioner’ content in his palace unlike Azimjah Bahadur, his ancestor, who found it too small.