Still glamorous—and imposing—at 88, the Rajmata of Jaipur is one of India's living legends.
Jaipur’s faded splendor lures tourists to the pink-walled city, where they thrill to exotic chaos in the markets and marvel at the romantic decay of old forts and palaces. But for Her Royal Highness the Rajmata of Jaipur, who, at 88, knows the place better than almost anyone, modern Jaipur means nothing but heartbreak.
Tucked behind the Rambagh Palace hotel, just past the Rajmata Gayatri Devi Tennis Academy, where barefoot boys play a morning game, stands Lily Pool, the Rajmata’s peaceful hideaway. Military men casually guard the gates, and a golden retriever sprawls in the shade. “I have a lot to do today,” says Her Royal Highness, descending the stairs barefoot and looking every inch the queen in her turquoise sari, with her silver hair cut in a bob. “This won’t take long, will it?” After all, it’s wedding season in India. The calendar offers only so many auspicious days, and she is one of social India’s most coveted guests.
“As maharani, she had the power to make heaven fall to earth,” says Gem Palace scion Sudhir Kasliwal.
And it doesn’t take long for the famously outspoken Rajmata (the title given to a widowed maharani, or queen of India) to deliver her opinion of the city she calls home. “When I first came here, there were no high-rise buildings, and all this advertising, these billboards, wasn’t allowed,” she says, her clipped accent thoroughly British. “To tell the truth, I often think, Thank God I’m not young so I won’t have to watch the further destruction of Jaipur.” It’s true, ads cover every available surface, right down to the delivery boys’ buckets. To the clueless outsider who moons over the picturesque city regardless, the Rajmata offers only tart politesse: “Jaipur is no longer beautiful, but I’m glad you think it is.” Lobbying for restoration, she concludes, is hopeless. “Knowing the government, all they want to do is make money,” she says. “Jaipur will become a ruin.” Case closed.
Since arriving here from West Bengal in 1940 as the 20-year-old bride of the dashing Sawai Man Singh II, Maharaja of Jaipur, the Rajmata has experienced India’s government from the inside out. In 1962 she won a seat in the parliament by what the Guinness World Records book confirmed was the largest proportional majority ever won in a democratic election. By 1975, however, her opponents had gained the upper hand, and the Rajmata found herself locked in a cell at the Tihar Jail on the outskirts of Delhi. A member of the opposition party at the time, she was never formally charged by the government, which was then headed by Indira Gandhi. But foreign currency found in her dresser—19 British pounds and 10 Swiss francs, exceeding India’s legal limit—was excuse enough to keep her behind bars for months.
The Rajmata was born Princess Gayatri Devi of Cooch Behar, but from the start her mother, the Maharani of Cooch Behar, called her daughter Ayesha, after the heroine of a novel she was reading while pregnant. Ayesha Jaipur, as she’s now known to family and friends, is descended from a string of India’s real-life romantic heroines. Sunity Devi, her paternal grandmother, was the first reigning maharani ever to visit Britain, where she befriended Queen Victoria in 1887. Her maternal grandmother, Chimnabai, the Maharani of Baroda, was a strong-willed early advocate for Indian women’s rights. Her mother, Indira, approached liberation from a different angle, causing a sensation when she broke off an arranged engagement to wed her dreamy prince. Indira’s chic was potent enough to change the national fashion in saris, ushering in the use of chiffon and draping over the left shoulder instead of the right. At the Cooch Behar palace she hosted a nonstop parade of European royals, British aristos and Hollywood stars, including Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
Lily Pool is something of a shrine to that legacy. Over a sofa in the living room hangs a portrait of Indira lounging on a divan in Paris in 1932. Photos of Prince Charles, Queen Sofia of Spain and Queen Elizabeth riding an elephant crowd the side tables. Snapshots of grandchildren and of Jagat, the Rajmata’s son, who died in 1997, are everywhere, alongside antique polo trophies. Most prominently displayed are the images of the Rajmata’s late husband, the handsome Maharaja, whom family and friends called Jai: cheek to cheek with Ayesha in a nightclub banquette; on the White House lawn with Jackie Kennedy; in jodhpurs after winning a polo match in 1933. It’s easy to see why the young princess fell for him.
The Maharaja of Jaipur was a flirty ruler from an important, wealthy state, not to mention one of the country’s best polo players in the Thirties. Their nuptials were organized by a team of 59 planners, and the couple’s wedding gifts included a pair of elephants, a Bentley and a grand house in the Himalayan foothills. In the Forties and Fifties the Jaipurs—as they were known—jetted around by private plane, following the polo circuit and hosting glittering guests at their stunning residences: the City Palace, used for formal occasions, and the Rambagh, their everyday palace, which later became the Rambagh Palace hotel. Ayesha, a renowned beauty, met the Maharaja, who was about eight years older, when he was a guest at her parents’ home. She was his third wife, but unlike his first two marriages—which were arranged in the interest of dynasty building—theirs was a love match. Though only 20, she was well traveled and boarding school–educated, and she quickly became the woman who stood by his side. The couple lived together at the Rambagh, while his other wives had their residences in the City Palace’s zenana, or designated women’s quarters.
The Rajmata has often nudged India toward change. After a relatively freewheeling upbringing, she arrived in traditional Jaipur, where the hundreds of women in the royal entourage lived under the rules of purdah, a custom by which women were kept carefully guarded from view. During festivals and state functions, she obeyed the rules, covering up or keeping to the zenana. Otherwise, “I played tennis, went horseback riding and drove my own car,” she says. Eventually the women of Jaipur followed her lead.
In 1943 she founded Jaipur’s Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls’ School, enrolling 24 girls from wealthy families, who were most isolated by purdah. “In the beginning some girls had hardly seen the sunlight,” says Gayatri Devi Bakshi, the principal of the school, who shares the Rajmata’s name only by coincidence. These days MGD is considered one of India’s top schools, and the Rajmata has also founded a school for less privileged children who live in the outlying villages.
She’s also a passionate conservationist, involved with groups such as Elephant Family, which undertakes projects on behalf of elephant welfare. “Elephants were all over India when I was young. I know how to drive them, and they are part of my childhood,” the Rajmata says. “She brings knowledge of a time when India was different,” says Mark Shand, the cofounder of Elephant Family, who was a close friend of Jagat’s. “She can talk with authority about how this country has mucked up its wildlife.”
The Rajmata insists that no one ever notices her in Jaipur—“I am no one in India. I am nothing now”—but her star power is plain. “Even now when she enters a room with 100 people, there is pin-drop silence,” says Sudhir Kasliwal, scion of the Gem Palace jewelry dynasty, who has known the Rajmata since he was a child. “She’s got a lot of wit, but she can behave like a maharani if need be, become very commanding. That’s only natural; as maharani she had the power to make heaven fall to earth. But she’s also changed with the times.”
And she’s learned to laugh at herself. “I’ve been with her when kids have come up to ask for her autograph,” says Shand. “Knowing her sense of humor, I snatched one of their books for a moment. She was signing ‘Marilyn Monroe.’” (Shand was also at Lily Pool some years ago when the Rajmata related her beauty secrets to a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily, W’s sister publication: “Tell them I drink a bottle of whiskey a day, and I dye my hair black with boot polish.”) After India won independence in 1947, the Maharaja became governor of Rajasthan. He was known as an enlightened ruler, but by the mid-Fifties he was edged out of power and later accepted an ambassadorship to Spain. He died in 1970 while playing polo.
For her part, the Rajmata entered parliament as outspoken as ever, once openly scolding Prime Minister Nehru over his Chinese foreign policy: “If you had known anything about anything, we wouldn’t be in this mess today.” (Her frank 1976 autobiography, A Princess Remembers, records every quip.)
The Rajmata served three terms, until the Seventies, when Indira Gandhi led a crusade against India’s royals. Conditions during the Rajmata’s stint in jail were hardly four-star, though at Christmas she did receive caviar and a Fortnum & Mason cake from a British friend. Once released, she continued to campaign for the opposition. “But that’s all in the past now,” she says. “There’s no one I’d like to campaign for, and I have no party affiliation.” Despite her lack of official post, the Rajmata retains her devotees. Last January she was unwell, and a group of poor farmers traveled a full day from the Maharaja’s home village to see how she was doing. “They sat on the grounds all day, hoping she would be well enough to come down to see them,” relates the Rajmata’s friend Sarah Dyer. “It’s not just society who reveres her.”
Still in frail health, the Rajmata doesn’t follow polo as closely as she once did, but she does root for India at the Cowdry and Windsor matches when in England, where she spends about half the year. And at her stud farm next door to Lily Pool, some 50 horses, including eight polo ponies, relax under the shade of the banyan trees. The Maharaja sold the Rambagh in 1956, after he lost his governorship, and the couple moved to less grand quarters. “It was sad for us to move,” says the Rajmata, who continued to use the palace’s swimming pool for some time after it was made into a hotel, posting a maid to keep guests away while she did her morning laps. In 1975 she landed at Lily Pool, which had been built in the late Thirties as a place to throw summer parties. Though it was converted into a house in the Sixties, the place retains its Art Deco chic, as does the Rajmata, surrounded by her photographs and kept company by her memories. “I liked living at the Rambagh better,” she says, direct as ever, “but this is home now.”