Formerly known as Rajputana, Rajasthan is the largest state in India and is often known as The Land of the Kings, because of its extensive history as one of the earliest seats of Indian civilisation. Covering an area of 342,239 square kilometres, this desert kingdom of old is nearly one and a half times the size of the UK, with the Thar Desert breaking off to give way to the jungles of the Sutlej-Indus river valley.
This land of extremes is to be expected from a state that birthed the fabled Rajputs; warrior clans who claimed to have come from the sun, moon and fire. This dynasty ruled vast swathes of central and northern India from the 6th century right up until the 20th, and the strength of their individual Rajasthani kingdoms was one of the main obstacles to a complete Muslim conquest of Hindu India.
The Mughal Empire
It’s said that the Rajput’s bravery and sense of honour were unparalleled across India, and the prowess and bravery of their warriors made Rajasthan the most difficult region to rule when the Mughal Empire began to vie for power. Even after the conquests of Punjab and the Ganges River Valley the Rajputs maintained their independence in Rajasthan. It was only with the beginning of the ‘classic’ Mughal Empire, when Akbar the Great took the throne in 1556, that certain areas of Rajasthan began to form alliances with the Mughal Emperor.
For the Rajasthani kingdoms that did build close relationships with the new rulers, many political marriages were arranged and certain areas of the state profited handsomely from the new order. In the 18th century though, the Maratha Empire – a Hindu warrior group from modern day Maharashtra – all but defeated the Mughal armies, and Rajasthan was brought under their influence as the break-up of the previous ruling dynasty was set in motion.
Even still, the Rajputs fought for their independence, and by the late 18th century their rulers had begun negotiations with the colonial trading power of the East India Company. By 1818, when the Third Anglo-Maratha War lost the Maratha their ruling power, every single one of the Rajput states had formed an alliance with the East India Company. The dominance of the British Raj began to spread.
The alliances brokered between the discrepant kingdoms and the British company allowed the states to continue as independent entities, with the British offering protection from the Marathas still-frequent raids on the Rajput cities. In return, the kingdoms were subject to certain political and economic constraints, whilst remaining under the ultimate rule of the Hindu maharajas.
But while the Rajput kings had survived the conquering Mughals and the battling Marathas, their alliance with the East India Company was the beginning of the end of their rule.
Despite having secured an alliance with the British, discontent began to grow and as the princely states of Rajasthan forfeited their independence in return for protection one-by-one, British residents began to move in. Although the British had eliminated the Maratha threat they had also effectively reduced the Rajputs to acting as their puppet leaders. The leaders of the states still enjoyed their regal status but the subjects of the kingdoms were poorer than ever.
The Indian Rebellion began in 1857, and the initial mutiny within the army became the precursor to widespread opposition to British rule all across India. The East India Company’s power was transferred to the British Crown in 1858, and India was divided into three administrative zones (Bengal, Madras, and Bombay).
It was Mohandas Gandhi, now known as Mahatma Gandhi, who spurred the ‘normal’ people into a non-violent resistance which led the nationalist movement. By the end of WWII India’s independence from the British was inevitable and colonialism was finally coming to an end.
For Rajasthan and the rest of India, however, a problem closer to home was developing. Within the country, a large Muslim minority were realising that an independent India would necessarily be Hindu-dominated, and the country was divided along purely religious lines. Although Gandhi and other leaders were opposed to splitting the Muslim-dominated regions from the prospective new and independent country, under pressure from the leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country was divided.
The Birth of Rajasthan
The result of the division on the 15 August 1947 was a Hindu-dominated India and a Muslim-dominated West and East Pakistan; but it was far longer before the boundaries of the new state of Rajasthan were properly defined. In 1948 only the south and south-eastern states of Rajputana were joined, and when Mewar was merged into the alliance later in the year, the ‘Venice of the East’, Udaipur, became the capital city.
Under huge opposition, the newly-appointed Prime Minister of the state dismantled the old feudal order of serfdom and kings, and installed his own Congress ministry. At this time, the now-capital city of Rajasthan, Jaipur, still retained its independence from the newly-formed India, along with the desert kingdoms of Bikaner, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer.
These landmarks of the state were finally merged in 1949 and Jaipur, as the largest and most populous city – as it still is today – was installed as the capital. To ensure the security of the newly independent India and newly-birthed Pakistan, it was vital to bring the desert border kingdoms into the new nation, and later that year the United State of Matsya was also assimilated into the new state of Rajasthan.
The vast desert land gained its current form when, in 1956, Ajmer-Merwara, Abu Rd and a section of Dilwara were added as well. To aid the transition, the princes of all of these former kingdoms were granted remuneration in the form of lavish privy purses to keep them in the luxury to which they had become accustomed.
The last bastion of the old kings’ rule came to an abrupt and relatively recent end in 1971, when Indira Gandhi, the daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, had the luxurious privy purses abolished once and for all.
The Land of the Kings Today
Today, Rajasthan still has one of the lowest literacy and highest poverty rates in India – a throwback to the old order of kings and serfs that still remains. The gaping gap between rich and poor still exists, but the momentum with which it’s closing is now picking up pace. A lot of the former rulers of Rajasthan still use the title of Maharaja but this is now only a social status.
Since 1971, the princes of old have all had to support themselves. Many have moved into business, politics, and other areas of working life. A great number still live in their palaces and have had sections of them converted into grand hotels to provide themselves with a steady income. Now, it’s possible for travellers to stay in the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur, the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, and the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur.
But Rajasthan is a state that history still clings to like the sand swept over the desert kingdoms of the Rajput rulers of old. People who’ve visited say there’s more history in Rajasthan than there is in the whole of India, and this fabled realm of warrior clans, kings, castles and palaces, still feels like a world where Maharaja’s once ruled, and warriors really did come from the sun, the moon and the fire.