Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda (1863-1939) was one of the longest-serving and most controversial Indian princes to reign during the British Raj. He was the product of his father the first Raja of Baroda’s morganatic marriage that technically disqualified he and his brothers from the line of succession. He was born in the reign of Maharaja Khanderao Gawkwad II who was a popular ruler of the third wealthiest Indian nation state.
In a story worthy of 1001 Nights, Maharaja Khanderao’s malevolent brother Malharrao had been imprisoned for hiring a British assassin to shoot the ruler dead. Malharrao had been languishing in prison for seven years when Maharaja Khanderao died in 1870. The late Maharaja’s wife Maharani Jamnabai was pregnant so Baroda’s throne remained empty until the child – a daughter – was born. Khanderao had attempted to poison the pregnant Maharani who refused to eat food prepared by anyone other than herself, slept with a dagger under her pillow and an attack dog tethered to her bed. Maharaja Khanderao acceded to the throne in 1871.
The new Maharaja was a tyrant and a spendthrift. He commissioned the fabled jewel-encrusted Pearl Carpet of Baroda and two cannons cast in solid gold. He also plotted to have the British Resident poisoned with a compound of arsenic for which the Secretary of State for India Lord Salisbury had him removed from the throne in 1875. Dowager Maharani Jamnabai was tasked with choosing a new heir from cadet branches of the Gaekwad dynasty including twelve-year old Sayajirao and his brothers. Legend has it that when Sayajirao was asked why he had come to Baroda’s capital, he replied ‘I have come to rule’. Sayajirao was adopted by Maharani Jimnabai and became a minor ruler under a council of regency led by the British Resident and the Dowager Maharani.
The Maharaja’s education was placed in the hands of tutor Raja Sir Madhava Rao and an Englishman F. A. H. Elliot. Elliot gave the Maharaja a British public school education. He rose at 6am, undertook Indian strength building exercises, rode his horses before breakfast then spent the day being schooled in languages, history and Baroda’s constitution. He was taught to sword fight, play cricket, football and hockey. When Prince of Wales, King Edward VII visited Baroda in 1875, he reported of Sayajirao ‘he is really a very intelligent youth though only six months ago he was running about in the streets adored with the most limited wardrobe’.
When the Maharaja reached his majority in 1881 aged nineteen, he began a programme of reform in Baroda inspired by the British masters. He was a passionate advocate of education, social mobility, judicial and agricultural reform. He developed Baroda’s textile industry, banned child marriage, legalised divorce, removed the stigma of the ‘untouchable’ class, developed Sanskrit, religious education and the arts. The Maharaja also built railroads and in 1908 founded the Bank of Baroda. His collection of books became the nucleus of today’s Central Library of Baroda and he opened schools and libraries throughout the state.
According to Lucy Moore’s 2004 book Maharanis, the Maharaja ‘didn’t know one coin from another’. In 1908 Time magazine rated him the sixth richest man in the world. He built the 170-room Laxmi Vilas palace – four times the size of Buckingham Palace – as the primary residence for he and his Maharani Chimnabai I (who he married in 1880). Unlike his fellow Maharajas Sayajirao did not believe in polygamy. He did believe in amassing treasures to add to the sovereign state’s wealth including a fabled seven-strand pearl necklace that he was wont to wear and a diamond collar displaying the 125.5-carat Star of the South diamond.
The Maharaja was unpopular with the Raj overlords because he consistently if unintentionally slighted the British monarchy. A teetotaller, the Maharaja was criticised for drinking Queen Victoria’s health with a glass of water. Though he attended the Delhi Durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911, he mortally offended the Viceroy at the latter. 1911 was the Coronation Durbar and the first time a British monarch – King George V and Queen Mary – would attend in person. The Maharajas were expected to dress in their finest jewels to perform obeisance before the King Emperor. The Maharaja of Baroda was the third ruler to bow to King George. He presented himself without a single jewel wearing a plain white tunic and bowed once instead of three times before turning his back on the King Emperor. The British never trusted the Maharaja again.
The Maharaja was, however, an Anglophile who visited England every year and owned Alfred Lord Tennyson’s former mansion in Surrey. He was travelling in Europe when World War I was declared. On each visit to London, the Maharaja would order Western tailoring from Henry Poole & Co. In England he favoured frock coats much to the disappointment of Queen Victoria when he was received at Windsor Castle not wearing the fabulous Baroda jewels. All of the Maharaja’s dissolute sons were educated in England though his prophecy that ‘rich children have their own dangers’ proved correct. His eldest son Fatehsinhrao was sent down from Balliol for dissipated behaviour and his second son Shivajirao died aged thirty in a clinic being treated for alcoholism.
When Maharani Chimnabai I died of tuberculosis in 1885 Sayajirao married a second consort christened Chimnabai II who was a great advocate for the rights of women in Baroda. The marriage endured for fifty-three years. When Maharaja Sayajirao died in 1939 he was one month shy of his seventy-sixth birthday. He had celebrated his Diamond Jubilee and had made Baroda one of the most advanced nation states in India. His grandson became the next Maharaja and his granddaughter the Rajmata Gaytari Devi – Dowager Maharani of Cooch-Behar – was one of the most celebrated beauties and political activists in the latter half of the 20th century. Her memoir A Princess Remembers is one of the most fascinating accounts of pre and post Raj India.
As a postscript to the Baroda ruling family’s history, in 2013 the present Gaekwar of Baroda settled a twenty-three year dispute with his family and heirs over a fortune of £3 billion including palaces, jewels and artworks. The present Gaekwar still lives in the Laxmi Vilas palace but many of the family jewels were sold and the spoils divided between the family. Cartier acquired the Star of the South diamond in 2007. Two strands of the Baroda Pearl Necklace (68 of the original 330-pearls) broke records at Christie’s in the same year selling for $7.1 million. The Pearl Carpet of Baroda was sold for $5.5 million by Sotheby’s in 2009.