“End of an era” is a hackneyed trope of speech employed far too frequently by commentators and journalists. Too many departures from the world of fashion, sport, politics, or any of the myriad fields of popular life, are unjustifiably lamented as an era’s end; at the hands of the eulogiser, perhaps only “genius” is subjected to greater misuse.
Yet, though clichéd, there are few phrases more apt to describe the death on 1st August 2010 of HH Meghrajji III, Maharaja of Dhrangadhra-Halvad, the last Indian prince to rule his state prior to Independence and the last surviving member of either the Chamber of Princes or the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire.
Ruler, moderniser, legislator, intellectual, heraldist, socialite, traditionalist and anglophile: The Maharaja of Dhrangadhra-Halvad embodied the brief but glorious period I style the ‘Raj Renaissance’, the flowering of an intoxicating blend of the richest cultural, institutional and intellectual legacies of East and West. As comfortable in turban and jewels seated upon the gadi (throne) in his ornate palace as he was decked in white-tie speeding around Oxford in his blue jaguar, His Highness might have been casually dismissed as another playboy prince; but his erudition and deep intellectual curiosity, his committed public service and concern for his peoples’ welfare, and his kind-hearted nature and generosity of spirit gave short-shrift to such unfair comparison. His passion for heraldry, genealogy and chivalry provided further evidence that this was a peerless prince.
I was first introduced to the Maharaja of Dhrangadhra-Halvad by Professor John McLeod of the University of Louisville, a noted authority on the Indian Princely States. Following Prof. McLeod’s kind introduction, His Highness and I enjoyed a long correspondence on various subjects of mutual interest, which included royalty, heraldry, chivalry, genealogy and the Raj.
Even in his eighties, His Highness was never short of exciting ideas: “Here’s a book project for you! A compilation of exchange of correspondence with heads of states granting and receiving insignia”, “Why not collect all the British insignia and display them in their own little gallery, in one of the galleries or museums?”, “Write a book about expulsions from the Order of the Garter! Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor Hirohito and the erasure of their names from the brass plates above their respective stalls in St George’s Chapel etc. Great fun! Describe the whole procedure and process. Your readers will be enthralled!”
To be afforded the opportunity to correspond with such an erudite individual, a participant in so many notable events and an acquaintance of so many historic figures was an honour. I was fortunate that my eloquent interlocutor was a natural raconteur. Skimming through our correspondence, a number of anecdotes strike me as sufficiently noteworthy to record for posterity.
H.H. Shri Shaktimant Jhaladipati Mahamandleshwar Maharana Sriraj Maharaja Sir Mayurdwajsinhji Meghrajji III Ghanshyamsinjhi Sahib Bahadur, Maharaja Raj Sahib of Dhrangadhra-Halvad was born on 3rd March 1923. To mark the happy occasion Meghrajji’s father sounded the war drums and released all of the state’s prisoners. The young prince’s early years were spent at home, but in 1933 he left for public school in England: firstly Millfield, then Heath Mount in Hertfordshire, and finally Haileybury College. Returning to continue his studies in India in 1941, Meghrajji succeeded his father as Maharaja the following year.
Upon his accession, the young Maharaja embarked upon a policy of economic reform and political modernisation which reinforced his subjects’ inalienable rights, afforded women the right to remarry and own property, introduced compulsory state-funded primary schooling and ended segregation for the “untouchable” caste. From 1945-1947 he served on the Standing Committee of the Chamber of Princes, an institution established by royal proclamation in 1920 to provide a means for India’s princely rulers to communicate with the government in British India.
In 1947 the Maharaja of Dhrangadhra-Halvad arrived in England for the final House of Commons’ reading of the Indian Independence Bill and for a private audience with King George VI (“while he was still Emperor”). Whilst in London the India Office arranged for Garter King of Arms, Sir Algar Howard, to take His Highness on a tour of the College of Arms. Unsurprisingly, the Maharaja asked to see the College’s collection on the Indian princes but he was disappointed that they only possessed, in his words, “a little exercise book...with rough sketches, painted in watercolours.” Upon checking his family’s Sanskrit motto he discovered that the version embroidered upon the banner presented by Queen Victoria had the last two words missing, “which made nonsense of it.”
The visit to the College was not entirely fruitless, however, as His Highness was provided with the name and address of the son of Robert Taylor, deviser of the Dharangadra arms and author of The Princely Armory, the classic armorial for all of India’s ruling princes, prepared for the Imperial Assembly held at Delhi in January 1877. His Highness contacted Taylor’s son, offering to purchase whatever he had concerning his father’s work. For sentimental reasons the son declined to sell.
At the dawn of Indian independence, the Maharaja of Dhrangadhra-Halvad was amongst the signatories to the Instrument of Accession, which handed over to the new Government of India powers previously exercised by the British Paramount Power. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire later that year, one of the last to be so honoured. With the ink on the Instrument barely dry, His Highness chose to continue his life of service, successfully seeking office as a member of the Constituent Assembly of India, the body tasked with writing the constitution and functioning as India’s first parliament. In 1948 His Highness ceased to rule as an absolute monarch, merging Dhrangadhra-Halvad into the United State of Kathiawad and, a month later, into the Union of Saurashtra. His Highness subsequently served as Saurashtra’s Deputy Governor and as president of its state bank.
In 1952 the Maharaja of Dhrangadhra-Halvad went up to Christ Church, Oxford. Arriving in England His Highness again tried to purchase Robert Taylor’s material. Taylor’s son having recently died, the Indian items were now in the possession of the author’s daughter. His Highness was able to purchase everything, including a copy of The Princely Armory (the print run was only 25), the copper plates for the book, and Robert Taylor’s correspondence (which included his complaints about the poor compensation he had received from the Viceroy!).
His Highness enjoyed Oxford, immersing himself in philosophy, art and heraldry (designing ties was one of his hobbies). His BLitt thesis dealt with the Hindu sacraments but, revealing the broad scope of his interests, his course work included a paper on ‘Jewish Antecedents of Christian Ritual’ and another on the schisms in the Christian Communion (in Europe).
Of course, scholarship was only intended to form part of the Oxford experience and His Highness enjoyed a rich social life: “European aristocrats at Oxford tended to gravitate towards me. Curiosity? My Sherry?” Maximillian von Habsburg, Princess Maria Gabriella von Urach von Würtemburg (Mrs. Desmond Guinness), and (the subsequently infamous) Baron Michael de Stempel, were amongst the many guests to his four-room set at Oxford, where they were ably attended to by His Highness’ personal ADC, his secretary and two liveried servants.
In 1953 the Maharaja was invited to attend the Coronation of HM The Queen at Westminster Abbey, an occasion he found deeply moving. When I reported recent news stories of possible alterations to the Coronation service in order to better represent a multi-faith society, the Hindu scholar was unequivocal in his condemnation: “If the Coronation ceremony in its traditional form and all its glory is abandoned I shall mourn its loss as an exquisite part of our world heritage. It would be like the wanton destruction of a national, indeed a world monument, – say Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal.”
During his time in England the Maharaja (a member of the Heraldry Society) met John Brooke-Little and struck up friendships with Hugh Trevor-Roper, LG Pine and Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk who, His Highness recounted, “knew the genealogies of all the great Rajput houses backwards (I don’t count amongst them).” Iain Moncreiffe and his wife Puffin soon became firm friends of His Highness and invited the Maharaja, his wife and his sister (the Rajmata Sahiba of Jodhpur) to stay at Easter Moncreiffe, a visit they thoroughly enjoyed—although His Highness “did not approve of the tortoises with escutcheons painted on their backs”! The Maharaja returned the hospitality and hosted Sir Iain in Bombay following the latter’s divorce.
In 1967 His Highness became a member of the Gujarat State Assembly and from 1967-1971 he served as an MP, during which time he attempted to protect the status of India’s princely rulers, including their titles and their right to the privy purse. Determined to maintain India’s royal traditions, the Maharaja held the office of Intendant-General for the Consultation of Rulers of Indian States in Concord for India for approximately forty years.
The Maharaja’s final trip to England was in 1995. As a distinguished Old Millfieldian he had been invited to participate in Millfield’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations and to open their new Meyer Theatre. For the occasion His Highness wanted to wear the insignia of a Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire. Tragically, his own insignia had been stolen in Delhi the year before (along with a large number of other items, including Robert Taylor’s material). His Highness enlisted the assistance of his former Oxford secretary, who had subsequently been appointed Secretary to the Governor of Windsor Castle before moving on to Buckingham Palace. Although long retired, she was able to contact the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood at St. James’s Palace and arrange for the loan of the KCIE insignia. His Highness was delighted and extremely grateful to the then Secretary of the Chancery, Colonel Robert Cartwright, for so speedily and un-bureaucratically acquiescing to his request. Thus, Millfield School can now proudly claim to be the last place in the world that a member of the Order of the Indian Empire wore his insignia.
As was his right, and in keeping with the tradition of the orders and medals of the other Indian Princely States, the Maharaja of Dhrangadhra-Halvad was the founder and sovereign of his own dynastic order: the six-class Sri Saktimat Makhapraphulla Order of Jhalavad. The insignia was produced by Cartier. His Highness’ love of tradition, ceremony and symbolism never wavered. In April 2006, to mark the 100th birthday of his cousin, HH The Maharaja of Wankaner, the 83 year old Maharaja of Dhrangadhra-Halvad presided at an elaborate ceremony at Wankaner’s Ranjitvas Palace where, assisted by the Registrar and Acting Secretary of the Order of Jhalavad, His Highness invested his cousin with the insignia and mantle of the Order.
In 1943 His Highness married Brijraj Kumari Sahiba (daughter of Lieutenant-General H.H. The Maharaja of Jodhpur, GCSI, GCIE, KCVO) who survives him and by whom he has three sons. His eldest son, Sodhsalji (b. 22 March 1944), succeeds him as Maharaja of Dhrangadhra-Halvad, Sovereign of the Order of Jhalavad and head of the Jhala clan.