She was once feted as one of the world’s most beautiful women. As a child she grew up cosseted in a household with five hundred servants. When she grew up, she married the man she had been besotted with ever since she was a wisp of a girl. It was a fairytale marriage to one of India’s most dashing young princes. She was Maharani Gayatri Devi, the princess from the Royal House of Cooch Behar and the man she married after a whirlwind courtship was Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur. They were the darlings of the social set. The most glamorous royal family of India and no party was complete without the golden pair.
She was svelte, exotic and exquisitely beautiful. She flitted around the world, always impeccably clad in her chiffons and pearls — a ball in New Orleans , a soirée in London or a dash to look up her fillies at her stud farm in America. But she also deeply cared for the poor of Rajasthan and was completely at ease sipping tea with famers in a dusty village.
Her mother, the Maharani of Cooch Behar, Ma to Gayatri Devi, was also celebrated for her beauty in her heyday. Widowed when she was only 30, she was a well known socialite of the 1920s. Her admirers included the Prince of Wales and Man Singh. Ma slept in an ivory bed and refused to sleep in the women’s side of the palace. Her bathroom was marble, the steam bath disguised as a chaise lounge and her toes snuggled in a 14-skin leopard rug designed by Schiaparelli. Her maid was Swiss, Ma herself spoke excellent French and her shoes came by the hundred from Ferrragamo in Florence. During the winter polo seasons, the Maharaja of Jaipur was a welcome guest, arriving in a green Rolls Royce with 60 polo ponies. The head butler mixed potent Alexanders as guests chatted and servants moved softly on the other side of the rose quartz and jade studded Chinese screen. The cuisine was always international. Once the Maharani ordered one of her cooks to visit Alfredo’s in Rome so that he could learn to cook the perfect lasagna.
Her flamboyant and eccentric chef who at one time had served in the Tsar’s army was exceedingly temperamental. The dogs drank only Evian water.
Gayatri Devi, the new Maharani of Jaipur, was only 21. They had been unable to marry until 1940 because of the war. The young Maharaja although accustomed to luxury was nevertheless a practical man and he made every effort to ensure the smooth integration of Jaipur with independent India. He made a wise decision to convert the Rambagh palace into a hotel in 1958. When Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister of India, Jai was appointed the ambassador to Spain. However, Gayatri was not content to play the dreary role of an ambassador’s wife. In 1961, she headed back to India to join the new, right wing Swatantra party to attack socialism and her besotted husband supported her all the way. The villagers chanted, ‘long live our Maharani’ during the 1961 elections when she campaigned in her 1948 Buick, bringing her own sheets and cooking pots. She won the Jaipur seat with the highest majority in any democratic election in the world, making it into the Guinness Book of World Records with her 157,692 votes out of a total of 192,909. In 1970, her beloved Jai died.
In 1975, Indira Gandhi who had always been envious of Gayatri’s beauty and popularity sent the tax officials after the Rajmata ostensibly to ferret out the undeclared wealth but the real reason was to harass this beautiful and wealthy opponent. The taxmen pulled down ceilings and ripped apart precious antique paintings. Gayatri Devi imperiously dismissed them and ordered them not to come back. But they did come back in seven months with a warrant for her arrest. The charge was laughable because the gold worth three or four million pounds from the treasury had been meticulously declared but the 19 pounds found on her dressing table had not been converted into rupees.
The elegant Gayatri was thrown into a smelly cell with a rusty tap in the infamous Tihar Jail. She struggled on delicately avoiding the cockroaches and rats and was released only after five months when a lump was discovered in her breast.