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Chippendale chairs and huge Louis XIV mirrors was imported from Europe. Only one thing was lacking: it never occurred to the Maharajah to take the trouble to find a proper architect.

      Instead, he turned to a jobbing amateur, and instructed a local Indian Army Colonel to knock something up. Colonel Michael Filose had no formal architectural training – in fact, prior to starting work on Jai Vilas he had worked on only one building: the Gwalior jail. But the Maharajah saw this as no obstacle: he packed Filose off to Paris to see Versailles, instructing him to come back quickly and build something similar in Gwalior before the Prince of Wales arrived.

      It is not clear exactly what went wrong, but on the night the Prince of Wales came to stay, the silver train braked suddenly and toppled the port decanter right in to his lap. Later that night there was another disaster. Before she went to bed, the future Queen Alexandra decided to have a bath. As the vast marble tub filled with water, it quivered imperceptibly, then slowly sunk out of sight through the floor.

      As we were leaving Jai Vilas, Sardar Angre and I bumped in to a couple of other elderly sardars, or noblemen, from the old Gwalior kingdom. Brigadier Pawar was in the lead, accompanied by his wife, Vanmala, and another old gentlemen who was addressed throughout merely as ‘the Major’. As Angre and Vanmala stood chatting, I asked the two old sardars what they missed most about the old days when the Maharajah and Rajmata ruled Gwalior.

      ‘Well actually,’ said Brigadier Pawar, ‘the old days we miss altogether. We miss them so much you can’t pinpoint any one thing: everything is missed.’

      ‘In the old days everybody had time,’ said the Major.

      ‘There was time for processions, for riding, for tiger-shooting …’

      ‘There was not much competition,’ continued the Major. ‘Things were just there. Now you have to struggle for each achievement.’

      ‘Before it was a very much sheltered life. Now it’s more competitive.’

      ‘Unless you pull someone down you can’t go up.’

      The two old men looked at each other sadly.

      ‘You cannot imagine the splendour and affluence of those days,’ said Vanmala, filling the moment’s silence. ‘If I started telling you, you would feel it is a story I am making up.’

      ‘In those days every sardar had fifteen horses and an elephant,’ said the Major. ‘But now we cannot afford even a donkey.’

      ‘But it’s not just the sardars who are nostalgic,’ said Vanmala. ‘The entire population is nostalgic. That’s why the Rajmata – and all Scindias – are still so popular. Whenever any of them stands for election they are voted in by the people.’

      ‘But why is that?’ I asked. ‘Don’t people prefer democracy?’

      ‘No,’ said the Pawars in unison.

      ‘Absolutely not,’ said the Major.

      ‘You see, in those days there was no corruption,’ said the Brigadier. ‘The Maharajahs worked very hard on the administration. Everything was well run.’

      ‘The city was beautifully kept up,’ said the Major. ‘The Maharajah would himself go around the city, you know, at night, incognito, and see how things were being managed. He really did believe his subjects were his children. Now wherever you go there is corruption and extortion.’

      ‘Today,’ said Vanmala, ‘every babu in the civil service thinks he is a Maharajah, and tries to make difficulties for the common man. But in those days there was just one King. The people of Gwalior had confidence that if they told their story he would listen and try to redress them.’

      ‘The Maharajah and the Rajmata were like a father and mother to them,’ said the Major.

      ‘Now all of that is no more,’ said Brigadier Pawar.

      ‘That world has gone,’ said the Major.

      ‘Now only our memories are left,’ said Brigadier Pawar. ‘That’s all. That’s all we have.’

      When they died, the mortal remains of the Maharajahs were cremated at a sacred site not far from the Jai Vilas Palace. After saying goodbye to the Pawars and the Major, Sardar Angre took me over in his jeep to see the place.

      The memorials – a series of free-standing marble cenotaphs raised on the site of the original funeral pyres – were dotted around an enclosure dominated by a huge cathedral-like temple.

      ‘The complex has its own staff,’ said Sardar Angre as we drove in. ‘In each of the shrines is a small bust of one of the Maharajahs. The staff changes the clothes of the statues, prepares them food and plays them music, just as if they were still alive.’

      He jumped out of the jeep and led me towards one of the cenotaphs.

      ‘The same will happen to the Rajmata when she dies,’ he said. ‘You see, in Gwalior the people still believe the Maharajahs are gods – or at least semi-divine. They think the departed Maharajahs are still living in the form of the statues.’

      ‘You believe this?’ I asked.

      ‘No,’ said Sardar Angre.

      I laughed, but soon realised I had missed the point: ‘No, actually I believe in reincarnation,’ said Sardar Angre. ‘I think the Maharajahs are alive somewhere else in a different body, not in some statue.’

      Sardar Angre removed his shoes and led the way in to one of the shrines. In the portico stood a small marble Shiva lingam; ahead, in the main sanctuary – the part of the temple normally reserved for the image of the god – sat a statue of a large, rather jolly-looking lady in 1930s Indian dress.

      ‘This is the mother of Her Highness’s late husband,’ said Sardar Angre. ‘Look! She has a new pink sari.’

      She had, but that was not all. What looked like a diamond necklace had recently been hung around her marble neck; someone had also placed a sandalwood tikka mark on her forehead, between her eyes. A small cot with a mosquito-net canopy and a full complement of blankets and pillows had been left to one side of the statue; beside it, on the bedside table, stood a framed photograph of the old Maharani and her husband.

      Sardar Angre explained the statue’s daily routine. It woke up in the morning to the sound of musicians. Then the priest gave it a discreet ceremonial bath, after which its clothes were changed by a maidservant. Later, the statue had lunch, followed by an afternoon siesta. In the evening, after tea, it was treated to a small concert before being brought dinner: dal, rice, two vegetables, chapattis and some sticky Indian pudding. Then the bed was put out and made ready – the corners turned back – and the lights turned off. The statue was allowed to make its own way between the sheets.

      Grave goods – everything the Maharani would need for the afterlife – lay scattered all around. I felt rather as if I had stumbled in to a pyramid twenty years after the death of Ramses II.

      ‘Death is nothing to us,’ said the Rajmata later, as we went in to lunch. ‘For us it is only a change of circumstance.’

      ‘Like moving house?’


      I knew then, before it arrived, exactly what we were going to have to eat: dal, rice, two vegetables and chapattis, followed by some sticky Indian pudding. The same meal as the statues, cooked by the same kitchen, just the way the old Maharajahs liked it.

      I left Gwalior that day, both charmed and amazed by the Rajmata: it seemed impossible to reconcile the old-fashioned, slightly batty Dowager Maharani I had met with the fire-breathing fascist depicted by her detractors in the Indian press. Her eccentricities seemed weird but endearing; there was absolutely nothing sinister about her.

      I put my notebooks away in a bottom drawer, and forgot all about them.

      Then, eleven

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