Tiger House Party: Last days of the Maharajahs
by Emily Hahn

Doubleday & Co (1959)

A headline in a British newspaper I was skimming through read “Indian Princes Threatened with Extinction.”  It made me wonder.

This short but interesting book collects together four feature articles which were originally published as a series in the New Yorker magazine in 1958.

Emily Hahn reports on how India’s 600 or so dethroned princes were faring in the period not long after partition and India and Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947.  

Never fully part of the British Empire, the princely states were semi-independent.  As arrangements for the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan (East and West) proceeded, creative negotiation was needed in some cases to persuade the princes to join India rather than Pakistan.   Dethroned, the princes were given no formal role in the new constitution and were transformed from rulers of states with powers of taxation to citizens almost overnight.

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Nevertheless, although divested of all formal power, the former princes were merely down but not out and remained as a social class.

While the princes were getting used to their new order, Hahn was invited by the Rajah of Bundi to a house party at Phoolsagar Palace to celebrate his 37th birthday.  Hahn considers the history of the royal family of Bundi and their descent from the sun and, as well as attending the Rajah’s birthday celebrations and of course describing the party, she joins a tiger hunt, goes flying, takes part in the festival of Holi, visits the old royal palace and also meets the Rajah‘s daughter Princess Kitten.  

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Hahn is not Bundi’s only literary claim to fame.  Rudyard Kipling visited Bundi and is supposed to have written (or at least have been inspired to write) his novel Kim here.  He also wrote the poem, The Last Suttee about the death of the king of Boondi, whose wives mourn his passing and prepare to throw themselves on to the funeral pyre in defiance of the English ban of the traditional practice of suttee.

In 1887/8, Kipling also toured Rajahstan (known as Rajputana at the time) for the Pioneer in Allahabad and wrote a series of letters for them.  The letters which were collected and published as Letters of Marque (available online here, and here) contain his famous description of old Bundi palace:  

To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impossible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams — the work of goblins rather than of men. It is built into and out of the hillside, in gigantic terrace on terrace, and dominates the whole of the city. But a detailed description of it were useless. 

By the time Emily Hahn visited Bund in the 1950s, the royal family had all but abandoned the old palace and moved in to Phoolsagar which, built in the 1940s, had more modern comforts.  Hahn is an entertaining and witty guide to life inside the Rajah’s household, more so because of the wry perspective she gives on the women in the Rajah’s life and the ‘proper’ place of a woman during a tiger hunt…    

As well as being available on Amazon, Last Days of the Maharajahs is also available in the New Yorker’s archive or free online at the Internet Archive:

Emily Hahn had a long and prolific career as a journalist and author.  She wrote over 200 articles for the New Yorker over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those), and made her final contribution at the age of 96.  In addition, Hahn travelled widely and wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects including her extensive travels.  

Read more about Emily Hahn’s travels here on Travel Without Moving, more about her life in the New York Times obituary, here, or more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here

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