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Her Highness Maharani Shri Gayatri Devi Sahiba, Maharani of Jaipur    |     home
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The Life of the Maharani

 Introduction to Her Highness Maharani Gayatri Devi

          "She is the daughter of the Maharaja of Cooch-Behar, and the widow of the Maharaja of Jaipur. She was raised in a sumptuous palace staffed with five hundred servants. She shot her first panther when she was twelve. After she won a seat in the Parliament of India, President John F. Kennedy introduced her as "the woman with most staggering majority that anyone has ever earned in an election." She has appeared on the lists of the world's most beautiful women. Her Grandfather is Maharaja Sayaji Rao III Geakwad and her Grandmother is Maharani Chimnabai of Baroda.

          Maharani Gayatri Devi has lived a tomboy childhood with her brothers and sisters in the palace of Cooch-Behar, and has had adventurous trips with their elegant mother, the Maharani Indira Devi, to London and the European Continent. He had a six year secret courtship with internationally renowned polo player Jai, the Maharaja of Jaipur. When she married the Maharaja she entered the glittering life of the City Palace of the pink city, and had to adjust to the unfamiliar customs and to life with Jai's two other wives.

          The Maharaja's liberating influence, combined with Gayatri Devi's own strong character, took her well beyond the traditionally limited activities of a Maharani. She founded several progressive school and won unprecedented success in the political arena. In recent years the Maharani has had to face tragedies as great as her former triumphs."

From the book,  A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur


 Maharani Gayatri Devi's Birth

          The Maharani Gayatri Devi was born in London on May 23, 1919 at eight o'clock in the morning. According to Hindu astrologers the Maharani's auspicious letter was 'G' and was named Gayatri. To her friends and family she is more commonly known as Ayesha. According to the Maharani, her mother, the Maharani Indira Devi, was reading a Rider Haggard's novel and decided that she would name her child Ayesha, after the heroine. A few days after the birth of Gayatri Devi, an Islamic friend of Indira Devi reminded her that Ayesha is a Muslim name, but since the family was already calling her Ayesha; the name remained.

          Maharani Gayatri Devi's mother is the Maharani Indira Devi. She is the daughter of the Gaekwad ruler Maharaja Sayaji Rao III and Maharani Chimnabai of Baroda. Her father is the Maharaja Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, and is the son of the famous Maharani Suniti Devi Sen and Maharaja Nripendra Nayaran Bhup Bahadur. The Maharani also has two brothers, Jaggadipendra Narayan Bhup and Indrajitendra Narayan Bhup, and two sisters, Ila Devi and Menaka Devi. It is with her siblings that the Maharani had spent her carefree childhood in Cooch-Behar.

 The Wedding of Maharaj Kumari Indira Devi and Maharaj Kumar Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur

          In 1910 a scandal emerged between two most prominent Maratha ruling families when the eighteen year old Maharaj Kumari Indira Devi of Baroda was engaged to marry the Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior. The Scindia of Gwalior was forty years old at the time and already married, but since his Maharani was childless he needed to marry again for an heir to the gaddi (throne). The Maharaja had met the Maharaj Kumari in 1909 when he went to London for the season, and after returning to India he began negotiations with the Maharaja Sayajirao of Baroda. With the astrologers consulted, horoscopes compared, and the date finalized the two were officially betrothed.

          The Maharaj Kumari was informed of her engagement and unhappily accepted the match. She was concerned about the marriage because she knew that the Maharaja of Gwalior was twenty years her senior, and also was a very conservative person. She was worried that her life would be spent in the palace of Gwalior in strict purdah. She would have to spend  all  her time in the company of women and the only man she would be allowed to see is her husband. Though Indira Devi was devoted to her brothers she knew she would rarely see them. This is the life a well educated eighteen year old girl faced.

          In 1911 Indira Devi accompanied her parents to the Delhi Durbar when all the Princes of India gathered to pay allegiance to the British Crown. This Grand Durbar was held to  commemorate the accession of King Emperor George V and Queen Empress Mary to the British throne. The event is also important to Indian history because it is the first time a sitting monarch visited the subcontinent. This durbar also marked the transfer of the capital of the Raj from Calcutta to the historic city of Delhi. The durbar would last several weeks with all types of festivities from polo matches, to garden parties, to ladies durbar, and many other entertainments. It was during this period Indira Devi met the princesses of Cooch-Behar with whom she was acquainted with since her time at the finishing school in Eastbourne. The princesses were sisters to the Maharaja Shri Sir Raj Rajendra Bhup Bahadur Narayan. Indira Devi spent more and more time with the princesses at the Cooch-Behar camp where she met and fell in love with the Maharaj Kumar Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, the Maharaja's younger brother.

          As the Delhi Durbar festivities ended and the Princely families prepared to return home, Indira Devi wrote a letter to the Maharaja of Gwalior without informing her parents in which she expressed to the Maharaja of Gwalior that she did not want to marry him. The wedding preparations in Baroda were in full swing when the Maharaja Sayajirao received a telegram from the Scindia of Gwalior: "WHAT DOES THE PRINCESS MEAN BY HER LETTER?" Indira Devi was brought forth who admitted to her stunned parents what she had done. Indira Devi was lectured, pressured and belittled by her parents, but with full support from her brothers she remained adamant about her love.

          The Maharaja of Gwalior was most understanding of the situation and wrote that he was not upset of what Indira Devi had done. Later, he would marry the Maharani Gajra Bai Raje Sahib daughter of Sardar Baba Sahib Vithal Rao Rane, Sar Desai of Sankli. They would have two children together the Maharaja George Jivajirao Scindia and Maharaj Kumari Mary Kamba Bai Raje Sahib. The names George and Mary were given to them because King George and Queen Mary were their godparents.

          Though the Maharaja of Gwalior did not pose as an opposition to Indira Devi, there were many who did not look at the match between Baroda and Cooch-Behar with a keen eye. The Maharaja of Baroda was not worried about the fact that Cooch-Behar was smaller than Baroda, or the family was not part of Maratha heritage, or the Maharaj Kumar was the younger son and not intended for the throne. However, what concerned the Maharaja was the Cooch-Behar family was very much westernized. They were very social amongst the Europeans and led a very "Edwardian" lifestyle. In fact the Maharaja Nripendra Nayaran Bhup Bahadur and Maharani Suniti Devi were favorites in the court of Queen Empress Victoria, and both of the Maharaj Kumar's sisters married European men The Cooch-Behar family had a reputation of being unorthodox amongst the Princely states, and this is what disturbed Indira Devi's father.

          Even though Indira Devi was encouraged, or rather pressured, to forget the Prince from Cooch-Behar they continued their love affair for two years through secret correspondence and meetings. However, Maharaja and Maharani of Baroda's efforts were fruitless and in 1913 they gave their daughter permission to marry her prince, and was sent to London for the wedding. In July of 1913 the two were married without the presence of the Maharaja or Maharani of Baroda. The Maharani Chimnabai did not speak to her daughter for two years until Indira Devi gave birth to her first child, Maharaj Kumari Ila Devi after which she resumed relations with her daughter.


 The Ascension and Starting a Family

          Within three weeks of their wedding Indira Devi and Maharaj Kumar Jitendra Narayan would become the new sovereigns of Cooch Behar. By 1913 the Maharaj Kumar's eldest brother, His Highness Maharaja Raj Rajendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, was very ill. Two years earlier the Maharaja had fallen in love  with the English actress Edna May, and wanted to marry her. His family, however, would not allow such a marriage to take place, and the Maharaja swore to them that if the family continued to oppose the marriage he would drink himself to death. Unfortunately the Maharaja Raj Rajendra died in 1913 and since the Maharaj Kumar was the oldest of three surviving sons, ascended to the Cooch Behar gadi.

          The new Maharaja and Maharani divided their time between Cooch Behar, Calcutta, and Darjeeling and began a family. The Maharaj Kumari Ila Devi was born on October 1st, 1914. A year later, on 15th December 1915,  the Maharani Indira Devi gave birth to Maharaj Kumar Yuvraj (Crown Prince) Jagaddipendra Narayan. On July 6th 1918, while the Maharaja and Maharani were in Poona, Maharaj Kumar Indrajitendra Narayan was born, and a final reconciliation took place between Indira Devi and her parents. After World War I ended the Maharaja and Maharani decided to take a long holiday in Europe where the Maharaj Kumari Gayatri Devi was born on 23rd May 1919, and a year later the Maharaj Kumari Menaka Devi was born on 5th July 1920.


 The Untimely Death of His Highness Maharaja Jitendra Nayaran Bhup Bahadur

          The children of the Maharaja and Maharani were growing up fast, but simultaneously the Maharaja's health was also deteriorating. Maharani Indira Devi felt she could not cope with five small children and an ill husband. She made arrangements to send Indrajit, Menaka Devi, and Gayatri Devi to India with their governess Miss Oliphant to India. However, at the last moment the Maharani decided to keep Princess Gayatri with her.

          In her book, the Maharani Gayatri Devi remarks that she does not have many  recollections of her father. She writes about a, "mental picture of him standing in front of the fire in the drawing-room at Hans Place. He was wearing his dressing-gown and held a glass of whisky in his hand. He was very tall - nearly all the men in the Cooch Behar family are over six foot - and extremely handsome."  The Maharaja Jitendra was an active football (soccer) and polo player. He was also a keen musician. He would attend concerts and play the music back by ear. He was also very fond of children. It is said that he used to drive around town in Cooch Behar and pick children and brought them back to the palace. At the palace "he would teach them songs, laugh and joke with them, and give them sweets before driving them home again."

          "His horoscope had predicted that if he lived for more than thirty-six years he would achieve great things. He died on December 20, 1922, his thirty-sixth birthday." At the time of his death Maharani Indira Devi was only thirty years old and was married to her Maharaja for nine years. The Maharaja's ashes were brought back to India and immersed into the Ganga (Ganges) River.


 A New Maharaja and Life at the Palace of Cooch Behar

          The Maharani Indira Devi did not have time to grieve for her Maharaja, for there was much to do. The seven year old Jagaddipendra Narayan was crowned the new Maharaja of Cooch Behar. It became the Viceroy Lord Reading's responsibility to consult the British-Indian government of Bengal and the state government of Cooch Behar to appoint a regent and a council for Maharaja Jagaddipendra's minority. The viceroy asked Rajmata Indira Devi to serve as regent.

          Though during this time most princesses lived in strict purdah, but it was not unusual for women to be consulted in state matters. There were many women rulers and regents throughout Indian history. Maharaja Ram Singh's (Maharaja of Jaipur) mother and Maharani Gayatri Devi's Cooch Behar great grandmother both served as regents while observing the strictest of purdah. The men whom they advised never saw their faces. During this time the state of Bhopal was being run by the Begum, and during the 1890s the Rajmata of Gwalior served as regent for her young son.     

          After the coronation ceremonies, civil and religious,  for the new Maharaja were completed, the members of the Cooch Behar royal family resumed their daily routines. Cooch Behar was an idealistic fairy tale type of town. Since there were no local stones, the houses were built of bamboo and perched on stilts so they can be protected from flood. Their roofs were covered with scarlet plumes and hibiscus. The roads were made of red gravel and lined with palm trees on either sides. This quaint town was spotted with small white temples in gardens with little oblong ponds where worshippers took their ritual baths before approaching the temple. One of the biggest ponds in Cooch Behar was Sagar Diggi surrounded by trees, lawns and benches. Around the Sagar Diggi were the state offices of Cooch Behar which included the treasury and the council house. These buildings and the house of the Maharaj Kumar Victor Nitendra Narayan were the only ones in town made of brick. The Maharaj Kumar Victor Nitendra Narayan was Maharaja Jitendra Narayan's younger brother and Maharani Gayatri Devi's uncle.  

          On the outskirts of the town stood the royal palace with its huge central durbar dome and two long wings spanning on either side of it. It was built in 1870 by an English architect who was also employed by the Maharajas of Kolhapur, Panna, Mysore, and Baroda to build their palaces. The palace was built to withstand the hot Indian sun and was protected by verandahs on all sides furnished with sofas, chairs, and carpets. The palace was surrounded by a large garden with pavilions and small ponds in which the royal children played and rode their bicycles.

          The palace staff was as large as four to five hundred people. This staff included the following: "For the parks and grounds there were twenty gardeners, twenty in the stables, twelve in the garages, almost a hundred in the pilkhanna (elephant stables), a professional tennis coach and his assistant, twelve ball-boys, two people to look after the guns, ten sweepers to keep the drives and pathways immaculate, and finally, the guards."

          "Indoors there were three cooks, one for English, one for Bengali, and one for Maratha food. Each had his separate kitchen, with his own scullery and his own assistants. There were besides, six women to prepare the vegetables, and two or three bicycle sowars whose job it was to fetch provisions from the market every day."

          The Maharaj Kumaris each "had a maid in addition to their governess and tutors, while Indrajit had one personal servant and the new Maharaja had four. The Rajmata Indira Devi's "entourage included a secretary (who, in turn, controlled another secretary and typist), ladies-in-waiting, and a number of personal maids."

          Along with this large staff there were five to six ADCs (Aide de Comp) who were from good families and could not be considered servants. These ADCs had the responsibilities of running different parts of the household. They escorted the Rajmata Indira Devi where ever she went and also helped entertain guests at the palace. These ADCs also acted as filters between the Rajmata and the who ever came to see her. "They sifted out the genuine visitors from the curiosity-seekers and those with manufactured complaints or petitions." Finally, about forty people compiled the state band who played before dinners everyday and during ceremonials occasions.

          Though the Rajmata levied many of the responsibilities to comptrollers, clerks and ADCs the final decisions were always her's and her's alone.      


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