Most Maharajas of India were fiercely loyal to their British masters and went out of their way to demonstrate their loyalty whenever British royalty came visiting. The British monarch was given a red carpet treatment, which ranged from the extravagant to the comical. A sprinkling of Maharajas were anti-British and did not make any attempt to mask their hostility, although they were a minority among a sea of obsequious rulers.
When the Prince of Wales visited India in 1875, he shot elephants and bagged six tigers before lunch, was showered with extravagant gifts such as a silver bathtub, a gold bed, gold crowns studded with emeralds, gold and silver swords, shaded by gold umbrellas, and carpets of pearls and turquoise to walk on. The British royalty was devoid of any racial prejudice and was dismayed at the attitude of the British government officials and various other British residents to the native Indians, who were routinely referred to as niggers and barred from various clubs.
When the future King George V came to India in 1905 as the Prince of Wales and later with Queen Mary in 1911, they both enjoyed their stay immensely but were horrified at the attitude of the puffed–up members of the Raj.
They were struck by the manner in which all salutations by the natives were disregarded by the persons to whom they were given and the Indians were treated more or less as inferiors or schoolboys.
The Princes could not be members of any of the clubs frequented by the Europeans. It was only in 1947 that the Indians were able to reclaim their rights and the strongholds of white supremacy like the Willingdon club.
When George visited India in 1911 for the last and the grandest Delhi Durbar as King-Emperor, Delhi was transformed into a magnificent tented city.
Some 40,000 tents of red, aquamarine and chrome yellow were spread across the Delhi plain and each royal canopy was unique.
The tent of Ranji, the ruler of Jamnagar was studded with oyster shells, symbols of the seaside State in Kathiawar. The King’s camp alone occupied 83 acres and included 233 tents, complete with marble fireplaces, carved walnut and mahogany panels, gold dinner plates and crystal lamps.
A crowd of some 1,00,000 thronged the tented city with many villagers come to celebrate the coronation of a man they assumed must be a god. George V did not disappoint them although his entry into Delhi lacked the grandeur they expected of a grand potentate. Instead of being seated in a golden howdah on a stately elephant, he came on a dark brown horse wearing a white helmet.
But the ceremony itself was very grand as the King and the Queen sat on gold thrones sheltered by scarlet and gold umbrellas, while courtiers in dark blue velvet carried jewelled gifts for them on gold trays. The Nizam of Hyderabad was the first to acknowledge his King–Emperor and was followed by, in order of priority, the Maharajas of Baroda, Gwalior, Mysore and Kashmir, who were clad in formal brocade coats and carried jewelled swords.
But the Maharaja of Baroda turned up wearing simple white cotton trousers and a coat. Instead of bowing before the royal couple, he waved his stick jauntily at the King and defying all convention, turned his back on the monarch while returning to his seat. There were cries of ‘Shame, shame, hang the traitor’ when this moment was shown as a film at a theatre in London.
The Maharaja of Indore was rather over-confident. He walked up to the dais twirling his bejewelled stick but slipped and fell on his way, collapsing in a crumpled heap of brocade and silk. The Maharana of Udaipur, the light of the Hindus, had always been stridently anti-British and had never attempted to mask his feelings. A tall, distinguished figure, he had been offered a seat alongside the king but he refused and gave a cursory bow.
Later, he was persuaded to accept the highest honour that the King could bestow on him, the Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India.
He complained that the sash and jewellery were the sort that his humblest peons wore and draped it around his horse’s neck. When asked why he was given this honour by the British, he quipped that they were grateful he had not seized Delhi while they were occupied with World War I.