Princely state

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A princely state or native state was a feudal monarchy in British India ruled by a hereditary ruler, who was nominally sovereign. Unlike the British provinces of India -- such as Bengal, Punjab, Bombay, Madras, Central Provinces, United Provinces, etc. -- which were ruled directly by the British government, the princes had treaty arrangements directly with the British monarch.

The princely states enjoyed a degree local autonomy and had their own laws, languages, holidays, ministers, and monarchs, but were under British protection and were essentially vassals. At independence, nearly 680 such states existed in British India, and were represented in a special chamber of the Indian legislative assembly called the Chamber of Princes.


Precedence and titles

The Indian rulers bore various titles -- including maharaja ("great king"), Padshah and Raja ("king"), Nawab ("governor"), nizam, wali, and many other. Whatever the literal meaning and traditional prestige of the ruler's actual title, the British government translated them all as "prince," in order to avoid the implication that the native rulers could be "kings" with status equal to that of the British monarch, except *.

The least prestigeous Hindu rulers often used the title "Thakur or its variant Thakore." Most prestigeous Hindu rulers -mostly existing before the mughal empire, or split from such old states- used the title "Raja," or a variant such as "Rana," "Rao," "Rawat" or "Rawal." The most prestigeous Hindu rulers usually had the prefix "maha" ("great") in their titles, as in "Maharaja," "Maharana," Maharao, etc. Their were also compound titles, such as Raj-i-rajgan, often relicts from an elaborate system of hierarchical titles under the mughal emperors - for examples, the addition of the word bahadur raised to title-holder one pec. The Sikh princes (a syncretic religion, mixing many elements from Hinduism and Islam; politically concentrated in Punjab) usually adopted Hindu type title when attaining princely rank; at a lower level Sardar was used. Muslim rulers almost all used the title "nawab" (originally the title of an amovable governor under real Mughal rule, but soon tending to hereditary succession whenever Delhi/Agra lost effective control over the province) with the prominent exceptions of the Nizam of Hyderabad & Berar and the Wali/khan of Kalat and the Wali of Swat, and other less usual titles include Jam, Mehtar (unique to Chitral), Mir (from Emir) .

However, the actual importance of a state can not be read from the title of its ruler, which was usually granted (or at least regogized) as a favour, often in regognition for loyalty and services rendered, historically by the Mughal emperor, later by the British raj succeeding it as paramount power (first the HEIC, de facto; later the British crown, ultimately assuming the style Emperor of India as successor to the emperor of the abolished Mughal realm). And although some titles were raised once or even repeatedly, there was no automatic updating when a state gained or lost real cloud. In fact, princely titles were even awarded to holders of domains (mainly jagirs) and even zamindars (in principle tax collectors), which are not states at all; various sources give significantly different numbers of states and domains of the various types and even in general, as the definition is clearly not well-established. Therefore there is also no strict relation between the levels of the titles and the classes of gun salutes, the real measure of precedence, merely a growing percentage of higher titles in classes with more guns.

The gun-salute system was used to set unambiguously the precedence of the major rulers in the area the British East India Company was active in, or generally of the states and their dynasties. Princely rulers were entitled to be saluted by the firing of an odd number of guns between three and 21, with a greater number of guns indicating greater prestige. (There were many minor rulers who were not entitled to any gun salutes, and for the rule the majority of gun-salute princes had at least nine, with numbers below that usually the prerogative of Arab coastal Sheikhs also under British protection.) Generally, the number of guns remained the same for all successive rulers of a particular state, but individuals were sometimes granted additional guns on a personal basis. Furthermore, rulers were sometimes granted additional guns within their own territories only, constituting a semi-promotion. While the states of all these rulers( about 120) were known as salute states, there were far more so-called non-salute states, of lower prestige, and even more princes (in the broadest sense of the term) not even aknowledged as such. On the other hand, the dynasties of certain defunct states were allowed to keep their princely status - they were known as Pensioners. Though none of these was awarded a gun salute, in all these categories princely titles as among salute states were recognized, as among certain vassals of salute states, which were not even in direct relation wth the paramount power.

After independence, the (Hindu) Maharana of Udaipur displaced the Nizam of Hyderabad as the most senior prince, and the style Highness was extended to all rulers entitled to 9-gun salutes. Although the dynasties had been promised continued privileges and income, the Indian government proceeded to confiscate and abolish the various princely states. In 1971 the whole princely order ceased to exist under Indian law, though many retain their social prestige informally, some still prominent in regional politics.

At the time of Indian independence, only five rulers—the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Maharaja of Mysore, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda and the Maharaja Sindhia of Gwalior — were entitled to 21-gun salutes. A further five rulers — the Nawab of Bhopal, the Maharaja Holkar of Indore, the Maharana of Udaipur, the Maharaja of Kolhapur and the Maharaja of Travancore — were entitled to 19-gun salutes. The most senior princely ruler was the (Muslim) Nizam of Hyderabad, who was entitled to the unique style Exalted Highness. Other princely rulers entitled to salutes of 11 guns (soon 9 guns too) or more were entitled to the style Highness. No special style was used by rulers entitled to lesser gun salutes. As paramount ruler, and successor to the Mughal, the King-Emperor of India, for whom the style of Majesty was reserved, was entitled to an 'imperial' 101-gun salute (in the European tradition also the number of guns fired to announce the birth of a -male- heir to the throne).

All princely rulers were eligible to be appointed to certain British orders of chivalry associated with India, The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India and The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire. Even women could be appointed as "knights" (instead of Dames) of these orders. Rulers entitled to 21-gun and 19-gun salutes were normally appointed to the highest rank possible (Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India).

Many Indian princes of the blood served in the British army (as others in local guard or police forces), often rising the high officer ranks, some even served while on the throne! Many of these were appointed as ADC etc., either to the ruling prince of their own house (in the case of relatives of such rulers) or indeed to the British King-Emperor. Many also saw action.

Neither was it unusual for members of princely houses to be appointed to various colonial offices, often far from their native state, or entered the diplomatic corps.

The doctrine of lapse

Until 1858, the East India Company maintained that it could assume the sovereignty of a state whose ruler was deemed incompetent or who died without a direct heir. This policy contradicted the traditional right of Indian rulers to adopt an heir when they had no progeny. The doctrine of lapse was pursued most vigorously by the Governor-General Sir James Ramsay, 10th Earl Dalhousie. Dalhousie annexed seven states, including the Maratha states of Nagpur, Jhansi, and Satara, and Awadh (Oudh), whose nawabs he had accused of misrule. Resentment over the annexation of these states, which turned to indignation when the heirlooms of the maharajas of Nagpur were auctioned off in Calcutta by the East India Company, contributed to the rising discontent which exploded in the Indian rebellion of 1857 (the "Indian Mutiny"). The last Mughal emperor, who was accused of aiding the rebellion, was deposed. The doctrine of lapse was discontinued in the aftermath of the rebellion, as was rule by the East India Company. Although none of the states were restored, no more princely states were annexed.


The four largest states — Hyderabad, Mysore, Jammu and Kashmir, and Baroda — were directly under the authority of the governor-general. Two agencies, Rajputana Agency and Central India Agency, oversaw 20 and 148 princely states, respectively. The remaining princely states had political officers, or agents, who answered to the administrators of India's provinces. Five princely states were under the authority of Madras, 354 of Bombay, 26 of Bengal, 2 of Assam, 34 of Punjab, 15 of Central Provinces and Berar; and 2 of United Provinces.


After independence in 1947, the princely states were forced to accede either to the hindu dominion (i.e. independent state under the British crown; both would later become republics) of India or the new islamic dominion called Pakistan (consisting of West Pakistan AND East Pakistan, i.e. East Bengal, later to break away as Bangla Desh, separated by the whole north of India). The accession was to be chosen by its ruling prince, not the residents, akin to the 16th century European principle of cuius regio eius religio. Most acceded peacefully, except for three: Junagadh, Hyderabad and Jammu & Kashmir.

Junagadh, the largest state in the Kathiawar peninsula (now in Gujarat), with a Hindu majority, acceded to Pakistan on the wishes of its Nawab. However the people revolted, and Junagadh was invaded by the neighbouring micro-state of Mangrol. Finally, in 1948 Junagarh was annexed by India, and the Nawab fled to Karachi.

A similar fate befell the Nizam of Hyderabad, a muslim dynasty which had been the highest in rank since the abolition of the Mughal at Elhi and the King of Oudh. He had chosen to stay independent if not allowed to accede to Pakistan. After a lot of political wrangling, when the irregular militia of the Nizam's prime minister (the Razakars) began terrorising trains passing through the Hyderabad state, India annexed Hyderabad by a military invasion under the rubric of a "Police Action." The Nizam was deposed, though allowed to stay in Hyderabad.

Jammu and Kashmir, ruled by a Hindu raja, was infiltrated by Pakistani army regulars & tribesmen from the North-West Frontier Province, and under duress sought military help from India to repulse them. This was given only after the raja acceded his state to India. Until that time, the raja had avoided acceding either to India or to Pakistan, hoping that he could somehow maintain his sovereignty. This has led to one of the most famous territorial disputes of the world.

The princely states that acceded to India were absorbed into the administrative system, and all the princes were deposed peacefully. They were however given privy purses (an allowance) by the government in compensation until 1975, when the privy purses were abolished.

The princes have made many contributions to India. They were the ones to have established the game of cricket in India, culminating in the famous tour of England in the 1930s under the captainship of the now infamous Maharajkumar (i.e. prince of the blood) of Vizianagaram (Vizzy). Another legendary cricketer was the even more notorious Ranjitsinghi, Jam Saheb (a specific rulers title) of Nawanagar (Jamnagar).


In Pakistans tribal region in the North-West Frontier Province, the princely frontier states were maintained till 1971 when all states were abolished by merger into the republic, all princely titles being abolished in 1972. There had actually still been a new hereditary salute granted in 1966 : 15 guns for the Wali of Swat, one of the last princely states to be created (1926).fr:États princiers des Indes sv:Vasallstater i Brittiska Indien

References exclusively devoted to Indian princely states and domains several general pages, and various states in great detail exhaustive lists of rulers and heads of government, and some biographies exhaustive lists of rulers and heads of government, and many legal dates.

For all sources not exclusively devoted to (British) Indian princely states, see also the pages on Pakistan (Bangla Desh not separately but under India), and other modern states including or constituting former salute states (some still under construction) : Afghanistan, Bahrain, Burma, Kuwait, UAE; and Sikkim (absorbed by India).


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