India's late royals clash over scraps - Asia Pacific - International Herald Tribune (Published 2006) (2023)


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JAIPUR, If β€”When the Maharajah of Jaipur, Bhawani Singh, was born, champagne was drunk so much that his English nanny called him Bubbles. Seven decades later, the moniker lingers, but recent circumstances have tempered the family's penchant for lavish celebrations.

A spiteful dispute over how the ancestral palaces should be passed on to the next generation has pitted one half of the dynasty against the other, erupting in recent weeks into a public soap opera of the kind royal families best write.

The dignified restraint of the household was abandoned as the feud devolved into a public mud fight. The abuse was hurled through newspaper ads, press conferences and open letters. Allegations of forgery, alcoholism and marital failure have made national headlines.

The bitter dispute finds echoes in the former princely estates of Gwalior, Hyderabad and Baroda as complex royal property disputes tumble through the courts.

A generation after Indira Gandhi stripped Indian royalty of titles and government allowances, the country's former aristocracy is vying for what remains, made even more valuable by a real estate boom.

"These aristocrats were not educated for a normal life, but they are no longer able to pay for the lifestyle to which they were formerly accustomed," said Major R.P. Singh, biographer of the state's former royal family, the attorney in the City is of Jaipur, the state capital of Rajasthan, about 300 kilometers south of New Delhi.

Property feuds have always troubled royal dynasties, he said, but since India's independence in 1947, when much of the dynasties' land was confiscated, "the supply of property has dwindled, so they are pursuing these litigations with greater vigor than before."

Like many of India's former aristocrats, the kings of Jaipur have morphed into upscale hoteliers. They have opened a handful of luxury palace hotels in the ancient city, which is now a popular tourist destination for its Mughal architecture.

As India's economy thrives and tourism expands, the family's most sumptuous rooms at the opulent Rambagh Palace fetch $3,500 a night. At the heart of the current conflict is ownership of the Jai Mahal, another magnificent and increasingly lucrative palace hotel.

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"The family has been at each other's throats for ass years," said a distant relative, who asked not to be named. β€œBut in the last 18 months property prices in India and Jaipur in particular have gone through the roof. Much more is at stake now.”

The roots of the disagreements are staggering in their complexity. The last reigning Maharajah, Man Singh II, had four sons by three wives. The rivalry between these brothers and half-brothers is long-standing: a previous property dispute has dragged on for more than 20 years.

The Maharaja's last wife was Maharani Gayatri Devi, 87, India's most glamorous queen - once named by Vogue as one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world - who has amassed a fortune estimated by Indian media at $214 million.

Their only son, Jagat Singh, was left by his father in the Jai Mahal Palace. When Jagat died in London in 1997 without a will, his two children, Lalitya and Devraj, assumed his ex-wife, a Thai princess, Priyanandana Rangsit, would inherit his control of the hotel and have an interest in another family would property - polo fields, tiger hunting lodges and castle palaces.

They returned from Thailand earlier this year to find their stake in the palace hotel had shrunk from 99 percent to 7 percent, while that of their uncle Prithviraj Singh and his family had risen to 93 percent. A few months later, her grandmother, the Maharani, announced that she had uncovered a previously lost will from her father disinheriting them.

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At this point, the politely reserved dislike that the various sides of the family felt for one another erupted into open warfare. Rangsit flew to Delhi, hired a PR firm and appealed to the media, accusing the uncle of "robbing" her children. She took legal action, claiming that the grandmother had wrongly acknowledged a "false will".

The reaction was immediate and corrosive. In a statement published in Hindi and English in national newspapers, Prithviraj Singh accused his sister-in-law of causing her husband's "early death" by refusing to let him see his children, explaining that her "misconduct ' led to their divorce, concluding that it was all in any event a 'proxy war' being waged by his eldest half-brother, Bhawani

Singh to advance his interests in the earlier property dispute between siblings.

Rangsit then released a statement claiming her former husband died because he was an alcoholic and adding that her brother-in-law "lied through his teeth".

India's media does not usually follow these issues with the same degree of obsessive interest that European newspapers show royal families. But that has changed, with the garish details of the unfolding saga being gleefully chewed in the press this summer.

Dharmendra Kanwar, biographer of

Gayatri Devi, the grandmother, said that these property issues had rarely been discussed publicly before.

β€œWhatever tensions there were, it was all under the rug. It was something that outsiders wouldn't know about," she said, adding that a "line had been crossed" in terms of media coverage intensity.

Padmini Devi - the wife of Bhawani Singh, who is still known as the Maharaja despite the abolition of the titles in 1971 - spoke by telephone from private rooms in the City Palace, a vast 18th-century royal residence, and said she sympathized with the disinherited grandchildren. But it was unfortunate, she added in a 1950s upper-class British accent, that the family had been so humiliated by the public nature of the dispute.

Aristocrats "have no more responsibilities, but there's still a tremendous respect for us," she said. "We have a moral obligation not to go public with these gory details."

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"We belong to good families, and we owe it to ourselves to be conservative," she continued. "That was not dignified."

Her brother-in-law Prithviraj Singh - known as Pat to his Anglophile relatives - spoke from his small office tucked away in an outbuilding behind the pristine lawns of Rambagh Palace and said he was "sorry" he was being cast as an actor became a bad step-uncle. He hopes that the family can sit down and come to a negotiated solution. Both sides of the family are awaiting the return of the Rajmata or Queen Mother Gayatri Devi from her summer trip to London for talks to begin.

For some, the desperation of this dispute is a reflection of how India's former royal family is now struggling to find financial relief for themselves and their children in (relatively speaking) new times.

Although still fabulously wealthy by most standards, the Jaipur family lost much of their former holdings after independence. Family members were allowed to keep some important palaces and received grants from the government as compensation for the expropriated property. In 1971 these annual payments were discontinued.

Such chaotic property disputes have become a recurring drama as India's former aristocracy struggles to find a role for themselves in modern society.

Aware of the need to fend for themselves and earn a living, the younger generation of ex-royals are ruthless in their pursuit of property.

"The older generation always knew that it was their duty to provide for the public and they still have a sense of responsibility towards their subjects," said Kanwar, the biographer. "The younger generation has grown up in a modern country and has to work for a living; they don't feel obliged to the public - they conserve their energies for their own survival."

Ram Pratap Singh, the owner of another palace hotel in Jaipur, said the dispute is an example of the difficulties faced by former royal families who are still negotiating the transition to citizenship.

"For millennia, families like ours were born and bred to rule," he said. "Times have changed too quickly - you can't blame some people for not being able to adapt."


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