Old wealth is always with us

The British aristocracy, judging by what happened in India, may be far from finished, thinks Giles M

Half a century ago a newly independent India made its first assault on its powerful ruling families and their feudal nobles. In 1947 the princely states represented about a third of the land mass. In theory, the maharajas (great kings) and rajas (kings) collected their tributes and ran their affairs guided by a resident British political agent. In practice pax Britannica lightened them of many of their duties and allowed them the leisure to spend their money on palaces, baubles, mistresses and expensive foreign travel. Not for nothing were many of the most sumptuous princely residences in India constructed at the very end of the last century, or the first half of this.

There were fewer than 600 of them in what is now India and Pakistan, a number slightly smaller than that of the hereditary peers now facing abolition in the House of Lords. As cries for independence proliferated after the first world war, the princes had helped to apply the brakes, aware that their bread was better buttered under the British than it would be under the Hindu lawyers who were likely to gain control. They hoped to gain a separate deal, allowing them to opt out of the new Congress-ruled India. Earl Mountbatten, however, showed them no sympathy: he preferred the Hindu pandits and washed his hands of the princes, leaving them to their fate.

There was a small-scale "mutiny", as we might call it now, and the army was brought in, notably to oust the incredibly rich Nizam of Hyderabad at the cost of a few hundred lives. There was a move by at least one Hindu ruler to opt for Pakistan; the rest were "mediatised". In exchange for their lands they were granted annual payments from the privy purse, and they were allowed the use of their high-flown titles.

Compensation continued until the beginning of the 1970s when Indira Gandhi banned the use of royal and noble titles and scrapped the annual payments. She was challenged by the Supreme Court, which found her action to be unconstitutional. She went to the country and Congress was returned with the two-thirds majority required to alter the constitution. All that the princes and nobles had left were their palaces and their dignity.

They were down, but not out. The state of Rajasthan is a case in point. Before independence, Rajasthan had the biggest concentration of princelings in India. Maharajas and rajas ran a classically feudal system: the ruler granted lands to the nobles (rawats and thakurs) and the right to levy taxes and administer justice. In return, the nobles paid an annual tribute and raised troops for the princes in time of war. The rulers lived in sumptuous complexes of palaces like those still to be seen in Jodhpur or Udaipur. The noblemen inhabited castles or "forts" at the centre of what was, in many instances, virtually a small kingdom in its own right.

After 1947 and even more in 1971, the choice of careers for India's noblemen was limited. Some joined the army; others went into the tea trade. Many cobbled together estates from different family parcels and farmed; still others went into local politics, where they earned votes because of the kudos they still enjoyed among the people.

Another solution was hotel management. The man who started this ball rolling was the late Maharana of Udaipur in the kingdom of Mewar. The famous Lake Palace Hotel was opened in the 1960s. Its success led the Maharana to turn more and more of his properties into luxury hotels, while he moved into smaller and smaller corners of his palace compound. It took time before Mewar's nobility followed the lead established by their former ruler, but a sympathetic new law promulgated in Delhi has now offered grants towards converting forts and palaces into "heritage" hotels. In the past few years these have been sprouting up all over Rajasthan.

One of the best of these is the Mahal in Deogargh, run by Veerbhadra ("VB") Singh Chundawat and his brother Shatrunjai. A few years ago their father, Rawat Nahar Singh, a retired history master from Mayo College in Ajmer, which continues to educate most of the Rajput princes, noticed that the fort was beginning to fall apart. He quickly made a present of it to his eldest son, who was away planting tea and coffee in the south. Nahar Singh has seen many changes. He is old enough to remember the days before 1947, when the ryots (peasants) brought in sacks of corn loaded on bullock carts. A good lord, he points out, also had a responsibility towards his ryots. The local nobility stored wheat, barley and hay in case of famine.

The absence of a substantial middle class in rural Mewar means that the old families are as prominent as they have always been. They live up at the big house, and they provide the magnet that attracts the white "sahibs" to the village. As their cars proceed through the narrow streets of the bazaar, almost all the older inhabitants shower them with blessings.

I toured some of the tribal villages in the south-west of Rajasthan with Thakur Bhano Pratap Singh Ranawat, who farms and runs a fine hotel at Fort Dhariyawad. In the past, his family protected the people who occupied some of the 180 villages that lay under his control, and now he carries on the tradition by looking after their interests with the regional authorities. As he walked through the alleys between their mud huts, men and women prostrated themselves at his feet.

In another castle-turned-hotel near the former Mewar capital of Chittor, the local rawat told me that his family had exercised their feudal rights over 90 villages. Many things had not changed: he was still headman in 23 villages, and in nearly 250 he supervised primary education. I walked through his home village on my own. It was one of the poorest I had seen, for the most part without electricity or plumbing, the lanes teeming with oxen and filthy, half-naked children. When I got back to the castle, the rawat was drinking whisky with his friends and laughing at the antics of the local peasants. He reminded me of a hobereau of the ancien regime - a member of the uncouth local nobility who got their comeuppance in the French revolution. Except that, here, the revolution had come and gone, and he was still powerful.

It might be tempting to draw the conclusion that the fate of Rajasthan's nobility provides an indication of where ours will be 50 years on, but direct comparison is hampered by arranged marriages and the caste system, which prevents any real social mobility in India. In what is still very much a poor, agricultural region, the nobility enjoys power and prestige among the locals. The father of Dushiant Singh, who runs a country hotel at Bijainiwas, exchanged the headship of the ruling house of Masuda for the job of chief minister of Rajasthan. His successor today is also a member of one of the old families.

Nahar Singh's brother was in politics, and the schoolmaster told me he would probably be elected by the local people because they respected his family. That was Rajasthan and a special case, but on a national level it is not inconceivable that old families should slip into positions of power. The man who would be Maharaja of Gwalior, for instance, is the rival to Sonia Gandhi for the leadership of the same party that robbed him of his kingdom.

Watch your back, Tony Blair. Stranger things have happened.