“False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma” by Manu S Pillai


Following the Great Rebellion in 1857, the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deposed, packed in a bullock card, and exiled to Rangoon. The termination of Mughal rule marked the advent of the Raj, but the British still had to contend with hundreds of regional power brokers whose loyalty had to be ascertained. These so-called Princely States were semi-sovereign principalities typically headed by a Maharaja, Nawab or king denoted by an equivalent term. Retaining the aura of their royal lines but not the power of their predecessors, the Princely States were essentially reduced to protectorates of the Raj in which the Viceroy had a carte blanche to intervene as he saw fit.

India’s Maharajas have long suffered from bad press. Mocked by colonial administrators as incompetent heads of bogus states and despised by Indian nationalists as exotic props for British power, the legacies of India’s Princely States have attracted scorn. Seemingly irrelevant to the epic contest between nationalist forces and colonial oppressors, they also tend to disappear from view in histories of modern India. Their reputation as ornaments of the Raj rather than hotbeds of nationalist agitation, meant that the Maharajas ended on the wrong side of history and could be cast aside as autocratic relics of a colonial order that had been superseded by the democratic and independent nation-state.

India’s Maharajas have long suffered from bad press.

Flase Allies:: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma, Manu S Pillai (Juggernaut, September 2021)
False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma, Manu S Pillai (Juggernaut, September 2021)

In his latest book, Manu Pillai sets out to debunk the common misconception that the rulers of India’s Princely States were mere “pillars of empire” and spendthrift, decadent push-overs “lost in sexual escapades while leeching of a weeping peasantry”. Instead, as Pillai argues, Maharajas were often savvy political agents in their own right. Far from being mere British proxies, powerful dynasties such as the Maharajas of Travancore, the Wadiyars of Mysore, the Gaekwads of Baroda and the Maharanas of Mewar remained a force to be reckoned with and displayed throughout the 19th and early 20th century considerable autonomy pursuing their own agendas. More importantly, and although there were notable exceptions, several rulers endorsed modernizing policies, ranging from education to industrialization, and played a crucial role in rousing nationalist sentiments by puncturing the colonial myth that Indians were unfit for self-rule. Nuancing the prevailing cliché that casts the Maharajas as champions of the traditional feudal order, Pillai argues that we cannot grasp the making of modern India without taking into account developments in the Princely States. After all, the Princely States covered forty percent of the subcontinent and governed around twenty-five percent of its population.

Portrait of HH Sri Chamarajendra Wadiyar X by Raja Ravi Varma, 1885 (Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of HH Sri Chamarajendra Wadiyar X by Raja Ravi Varma, 1885 (Wikimedia Commons)

False Allies does not offer a comprehensive survey but opts instead for a couple of vignettes that relate, in exquisite detail, developments in Travancore (Kerala), Pudukkottai (Tamil Nadu), Mysore (Karnataka) in the south and Baroda (Gujarat) and Mewar (Rajasthan) in the northwest. This selection appears somewhat random at first, but the different locations are loosely connected through the travels of the portraitist and painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906). Hailing from Travancore, Varma acquired fame across the subcontinent with a style that imbued the European academic tradition with Indian sensibilities and iconography. Pillai uses Varma’s portraits of his royal patrons as an entry-point to explore the vanished world of Princely India. We thus get acquainted with a wide range of characters that played a role in the perpetual triangular contest between the Raj, represented by British residents placed at the court, the Maharajas and his extended family, and a group of anglicized statesmen who acted as dewan (minister) and often wielded considerable power as regents and crucial brokers between the Raj and the court.

Not the Maharajas but their unsung underlings, the dewans, emerge as the most consistent champions of “colonial modernity”. Recipients of an anglicized education at institutions such as Presidency College Madras and Bombay’s Elphinstone College, figures such as Madhava Rao, A Seshiah Sastri and Dadabhai Naoroji represented a new class of highly-skilled administrators who embraced the mantra of “progress” and used their position as dewan to put the administration of the Princely States on a modern footing. Their success destabilized imperial stereotypes but could also trigger a savior complex as in the case of Sastri’s relentless quest to rescue the teetering small state of Pudukkottai from the clutches of its spendthrift Maharaja. Like modern-day consultants and unlike their overlords, Sastri and Rao moved between different courts. This mobility lent them a certain technocratic air that was in sync with the impersonal bureaucratic rule of the Raj but could spark resentment among rulers who were weary of a further hollowing out of their royal prerogative and feared being outshone by a too powerful dewan. Pillai paints a nuanced picture of their accomplishments as well as blind-spots, and shows how dewans navigated the traditional world of courtly ritual and caste politics with the same poise as the highest echelons of the Raj. In the process, they subtly thwarted imperial condescension and asserted a measure of autonomy without tipping the scales in the direction of revolt or overt disloyalty.

Yet not all the princely protagonists of False Allies were likable characters or under the spell of a diligent dewan. Malhar Rao Gaekwad of Baroda (1831-82) was deposed after a reign of only five years and packed off to Madras where he died in obscure circumstances. The sage advice of Dadabhai Naoroji notwithstanding, he had a regrettable inclination to lavish the state’s considerable resources on all sorts of extravagances, which included a fancy for casting cannons in gold. More worrying to the British, he also attempted to poison the meddling British resident by adding a generous helping of arsenic to his pomelo sherbet. Progress was, as Pillai aptly put it, “a stick to nanny Indian rulers” and those who were unwilling to take the medicine risked their throne. Krishnaraja of Mysore, for example, was summarily deposed following misrule and rebellion but managed to have his dynasty restored following repeated petitioning and pledges of reformed rule. His successor would indeed turn into the sort of model bureaucratic king envisaged by the British and the Wadiyar restoration marked Mysore’s advent as India’s most advanced Princely State.

Other rulers, such as the Maharana of Mewar, Fateh Singh, simply ignored pontifications on progress but faced little pressure to be swayed. As the example of Mewar shows, colonial stereotypes of Maharajas were not uniform and informed by the Raj’s understanding of regional history. Although Singh neglected the development of his realm, remained an arch-conservative in all matters, and defied the Raj more than once, the British treated him throughout with kid-gloves and respected his Rajput credentials as a representative of a proud martial race. Fateh Singh was considered “personally beyond reproach”, parsimonious and a manly king of the old stamp who loved nothing better than a good hunt. Ironically, whereas the Raj had condoned Singh for almost four decades, it was social unrest among his subjects that in the end boiled over and forced him to abdicate in the 1920s.


False Allies is peppered with evocative pen-portraits that offer fascinating glimpses of rulers, residents and dewans, and provides a balanced account of the complex politics that defined the era before the rise of Congress and the emergence of a Pan-Indian nationalist movement. Pillai reminds us that “every major Princely realm presents a historically dissimilar experience” but although each state had a unique trajectory, the challenges and pressures faced by rulers and dewans alike were often quite similar.

For those less familiar with the roughly 565 Princely States that existed upon the Raj’s disintegration, the broad introduction offers essential context. Ultimately, however, it remains unclear how representative the case studies surveyed in False Allies are, especially since most of the book covers developments in the south of the subcontinent. Using Ravi Varma’s career and portraits as a lens to enter the world of Princely India also means that the painter is simultaneously central and yet marginal to the story, often making a short appearance at the edges of chapters.

These minor caveats aside, False Allies offers a meandering and delightful journey through Princely India that is well-researched and supplied with copious endnotes and illustrations. Rich in anecdote and interesting asides, this is a wide-ranging and accessible introduction to an often-overlooked and misunderstood chapter of India’s modern history.

Yorim Spoelder is a Dutch historian based at the Free University Berlin, and the author of Visions of Greater India: Transimperial Knowledge and Anti-Colonial Nationalism, ca 1800-1960.