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Truth or Fairy Tale?
May 13, 2000

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I enjoyed visiting Jaipur's beautiful palaces...but could you imagine living here?!
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Once upon a time, in a land of infinite desert dunes, and vibrant, rich oases...A land ruled by the most chivalrous breed of kings and warriors that have ever roamed this earth...A land governed by an ancient code of honor, pride, and courage, where a kingdom knew only victory, for if ever it was defeated, the women and children threw themselves on a funeral fire while the men, in their best uniforms, rode out to confront their deaths...

Once upon a time in a land as magical as this - Rajasthan, or the Land of the Kings - a princess was born to the Maharaja (king) and Maharani (queen) of Coch. A divine gift she was, of breath-taking beauty. The new princess was called Devi (goddess in Sanskrit) and she would grow up to be one of the most beloved of all rulers.

Map

Devi and her siblings grew up in the palace of Coch. The high, engraved ceilings and marble floors kept them cool from the scorching sun outside. The delicate spray of the fountains was heard echoing through the long, elaborately carved hallways lined with doors inlaid with pure gold and silver. In the reception rooms hung paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses, of previous maharajas hunting tigers in the jungle, and of kings and beautiful women in love.

Inside the fortress walls life continued, in many ways, as it had for hundreds of years. Devi and her sisters went to the zenana for lessons (the women's area in the palace). Even though they were not raised under a veil, their mother and her servants taught them of the glorious past when the royal women were kept pure and safe in purdah, which meant they never had to face the grim chaos of the outside world. The royal women had always lived this life of honor, having no contact with any members of the opposite sex except their own male relatives. Much to the older women's grief and pity, Devi and her sisters were raised in the modern ways of the twentieth century.

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Hawa Mahal, or the Palace of the Winds, is where the royal women of Jaipur, secluded in purdah, would come to watch parades and processions from behind the delicately carved windows.
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While inside the zenana the girls learned heroic tales of old queens sacrificing themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres and old secrets of how to keep the skin soft and the hair shiny. Outside they joined their brothers and learned hunting skills. From an early age, Devi began accompanying her brothers and sisters and father into the jungle. These were memories Devi would never forget - the terror the first time she witnessed the bloodcurdling rage of a wounded tiger or panther, the exhilaration of riding on an elephant's back as it followed the tracks of prey, the thrill of shooting into the wild with her smooth rifle. Along with the skills of rulers, the Maharaja was teaching his children the courage to confront their own fears. By the age of twelve, Devi had killed her first panther.

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A typical Rajput warrior, in his brightly colored turban and sweeping moustache, stands guard in front of a golden door of the Rambagh Palace.
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Outside the fortress walls, though, the world was changing quickly, and Devi's father was determined that his beloved children be prepared for it. The British were tightening their hold over India, and the Rajput (warrior caste) kings maintained only a symbolic sort of independence. The British levied huge taxes on India, while taking all of its resources back to Europe. As Rajasthan suffered year after year of drought and the people became poorer, the rulers were forced to send money to the queen and to allow the British to deforest the land to build fancy railroads. As much as the Maharaja may have disliked the British and their changes, he realized that if his children were to continue royal traditions he would have to conform somewhat to the British influence. The Empire looked favorably on those "natives" who seemed appreciative and who took advantage of the "civilized" changes.

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The warrior Rajputs loved their guns!
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Whereas in the past a princess would have already been engaged to a king by the age of twelve, Devi was learning English and studying with private tutors. She took up sports like polo and accompanied her family on trips to England and around the continent. She went to lavish balls attended by the international elite.

That's when he first caught her eye. Suave and debonair, he rode through the fields on his horse with control and ease. It seemed he won at everything he tried -- polo, cricket, whatever the game. He traveled to Europe for parties at the queen's invitation. All the girls loved him, the young Jai of Jaipur.

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The City Palace in Jaipur's old city was started by Jai Singh II and has since been added to by subsequent Maharajas
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Devi caught his eye, too, with her fair skin, her thick, black hair, and her big, beautiful eyes. He was attracted to her worldly attitude and education, her progressive and modern air. He admired her ability to look as elegant in a flowing sari as she did rugged and cool in her riding clothes.

But it couldn't be. He was set to marry another lucky woman from another royal state. This generation of Rajasthani had to balance the old ways with their new ones. They attended parties in England and drove cars into the jungle, yet they still honored the traditions of marriage, royalty, and religion. Unless their parents arranged the pair's marriage, it would not happen.

For six years Devi and Jai carried on a secret courtship. Finally, though, their parents approved of a union between the royal states of Coch and Jaipur, and they were married.

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A mere wing of the enormous Rambagh Palace in Jaipur
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Although she was thrilled to finally marry her love, marriage meant enormous changes for Devi. She had to leave her home in Coch and move to Jaipur, the legendary "Pink City," where she had to adjust to a whole new way of life. But first, she had to adjust to being the third wife - for Jai already had two. It was common for rulers to have multiple wives. Still, Devi came to love her home in Rambagh Palace and the beautiful old city of Jaipur.

Jaipur, Rajasthan's legendary "Pink City"

In 1727 CE, when Mughal (Indian Muslim) power was waning, the great warrior-astronomer Maharaja Jai Singh II decided to move his capital from the cramped hillside of Amber to the open plains below, thus founding Jaipur. The city gets its nickname from the colorful pink and orange buildings of the old city. Today Jaipur is the bustling capital of the state of Rajasthan, and while you can still spend a night at the Maharaja's old Rambagh Palace or see camel carts bringing vegetables in from the villages to the markets, you can also sip a sweet cappuccino in an air-conditioned Internet cafe or speed down the streets on a motorcycle to catch the latest movie at the Raj Mandir cinema!

But there was another transition Devi and her peers had to face, one for which no tradition or custom could prepare them. Rajasthan and the country as a whole were facing this - the transition to independence. Indians all over the continent had had enough of British rule and British taxes. People were protesting the oppressive regime in the North and the South. By the end of World War II, it was clear that Britain no longer had the power to rule over such a large and distant colony, and India's independence was at long last imminent. But Rajasthan had never officially been a part of the greater India. For a thousand years it had been its own land of loosely connected kingdoms. Even when foreign invaders had gained control of most of India, Rajasthan had maintained its kingdoms and royalty. Powerless figureheads they may have been, but the maharajas were part of Rajasthani life. Now Rajasthan was to become a part of the greater Indian nation, a democracy ruled by elected officials, not maharajas and maharanis. The new country would settle its conflicts through votes and laws, not epic battles and wars.

Vocabulary

chivalrous - polite, generous, and loyal
purdah - seclusion of women from public observation among Muslims and some Hindus, especially in India
pyre - a pile or heap of wood or other combustible material
debonair - suave, urbane, light-hearted and assured, polished
sari - a long piece of cotton or silk worn around the body with one end draped over the head or shoulder
imminent - soon to happen
figurehead - a person who is head of a group in title but actually has no real authority or responsibility

Devi's skill at rising to new situations helped her through this transition as well. As the Congress Party paid off rulers around Rajasthan to sign their states over to the new nation, Maharani Devi was not so easily defeated. She loved her people and her people loved her. From the palace at Coch to the palace of Jaipur, Devi was a born ruler, and independence didn't stop her. She went on to be the most popular elected official in parliament, and continued to rule for the newly freed nation of India.

Now for the surprise ending you've all been waiting for: This is a true story! This isn't another one of my fantastical historical tales about royal life in a distant land. From shooting her first panther at the age of twelve to becoming the third (but favorite) wife of the jet-setting Maharaja Jai of Jaipur, the story of Gayetri Devi is more phenomenal than any fairy tale I could ever make up. And from sandstone fortresses to chivalrous warriors on horses and women in bright silks and stunning jewels, Rajasthan is a dreamy, exotic land full of history that makes even our most fantastic legends seem dull.

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

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