When the Maharaja of Jodhpur was forced to earn a living, he turned his castle into a hotel and opened his fortress to the world.When his father died in a plane crash in 1952, four-year-old Maharaja Gaj Singh II inherited more than most toddlers do. There were those five palaces, the four medieval fortresses, and orchards. Not to mention the thousands of rooms filled with priceless antiques, carpets, jewelry, and artifacts. The 38th member of his family to consecutively rule Jodhpur, an area in western India roughly the size of England, the new maharaja inherited what his ancestors had been building and collecting for more than 500 years.
For the next two decades, the maharaja and his family lived in fairy tale opulence, and at the time, his family was far from alone. Dozens of Indian maharajas held sway over vast territories. On passports, their occupation was listed as "Ruler." They ate off gold plates and used diamonds as paperweights, decorated their wives with emeralds the size of eggs, lived in marble palaces, kept armies of elephants and staffs of thousands. They lent their own government money and subsidized the war chests of the Western world. Visiting European royals and U.S. presidents dropped their jaws and stared at English nannies rocking cradles made of gold.
Then, in 1971, with the stroke of a pen, India's socialist leader, Indira Gandhi, abolished all monarchies. With the 1971 Deregulation Act, the maharajas didn't just lose their titles, they lost their privy purses - the annual allowance they received beginning in 1947, in return for handing over sovereignty to India. But what really crippled the royal families were the property taxes levied on their previously tax-exempt assets. Suddenly, they faced multimillion-dollar bills.
Some auctioned off their historical collections and watched their palaces be dismembered and sold. A few fell into alcoholic despair. Others rode off into the sunset.
But not the Maharaja of Jodhpur.
"A lot of people lost everything, especially the big princes," says Kanwar Dhananajaya Singh, a bespectacled, young Cambridge graduate who is the Executive Publisher of His Highness' personal publishing company. "A very large majority of the princely families lost everything. There are some who kept a small portion of their assets, but the Maharaja of Jodhpur has maintained his assets in a unique fashion. As a maharaja, he stands alone."
"HIS HIGHNESS" is how outsiders refer to Gaj Singh II, Maharaja of Jodhpur. Or "Your Highness" when addressing him directly. But palace staff and many Jodhpur residents call him Bapji, which means "Father." At 57, His Highness is as handsome as the palace portraits would have you believe. He is charming, graceful, and totally modern. Casually dressed in loose-fitting Indian clothes (always the namesake jodhpurs), he hardly seems a king whose lineage rivals the Queen of England's. Oh, and he's modest to boot.
"Your Highness," I say, "Many locals say you've done more economically for Jodhpur in the past 30 years than has been done in the past 300."
"Well, that's not entirely true," he says. "I think what I've done was simply follow in my grandfather's footsteps. I've tried to be a catalyst with what I do in my own affairs, and to encourage the kind of activities that I think are good for the locals - by way of jobs. I try to keep craftsmanship alive, restoration projects alive. And I think that's what I've done."