A scene from Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom portrays a table full of Indian Maharajas enjoying a feast which includes baby snakes from the belly of a cobra, beetles, chilled monkey brains, and eyeballs swimming in soups. The rulers of India’s erstwhile princely states might be rolling in their graves faced with such perverted portrayals but then we wonder how they would contend to the other prevalent rumors and legends, each of them worse than their culinary tastes. There are thousands of unimaginable stories, which plaqued the 562 states and their Maharajas, full of their ludicrous habits and lavish tastes, but perhaps none are as awe-inducing as that of Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja Of Patiala.
The mystique and aura that surrounds India’s Maharajas appears to have been a product of design. Dominic Lapierre and Larry Collins’ Freedom At Midnight charts an unusual night in early July, 1947 in New Delhi when a circle of British bureaucrats were busy destroying bundles of documents on the order of an Indian Civil Servant by the name of Conrad Corfield. Corfield served as political adviser to the Viceroys in India and acted as the official link between the Viceroy and the Indian Princes. An impassioned supporter and advocate for India’s princes, he even presented their case to London, urging the British Government that the Princely States should be allowed to determine their fate after Independence, whether to join India or Pakistan, or remain independent.
What we know now is that Corfield was ensuring that the Raj’s carefully documented history of the Maharajas, spanning five generations and 150 years, would never make it into the hands of either India or Pakistan. The documents contained some of the most tantalising vices, indiscretions and scandals committed by the rulers or their predecessors, perhaps vital for the new dominions as a blackmailing or negotiating tool for inducting a Princely State into submission. When Jawaharlal Nehru was alerted to these burnings, he immediately protested but to no avail as Corfield had already received the approval of the Attlee Government. A similar exercise was now being executed across Princely States such as Hyderabad, Indore, Mysore, Baroda, Porbandar, Chitral and Cochin, with perhaps varying levels of efficiency as many concealed exploits of India’s Maharajas found their way into public domain. Bhupinder Singh’s chronicles was one of them.
Dan Bilzerian couldn’t compete with opulence like this
Bhupinder Singh was born in 1891 in the Sikh state of Patiala. The death of his father Rajinder Singh saw Bhupinder being crowned the Maharaja at the mere age of nine. A council of regency ruled until he could assume power in 1909 and the young ruler went on to serve the administrative units for the Allied Forces in the First World War, receiving the titles of honorary Lieutenant Colonel and honorary Major General, as well as proved to be a quick social climber amongst the British,Indian royalty, and even his European counterparts.
He would go on to assume vital positions such as honorary Lieutenant General, Chancellor of the Chamber of Indian Princes, and even represent India at the Imperial War Council in World War I and League Of Nations, as well as represent Sikhs during the Round Table Conference. But for anyone alive at the time, Indian or European, Bhupinder symbolised the epitome of luxury.
It is hard to gauge whether it was hereditary opulence or the Maharaja’s own whims, which guided the excessive pleasures he would indulge in. For instance, Freedom At Midnight talks about a diamond breastplate owned by the Maharaja of Patiala, which was insured with the specialist insurance agency Lloyds in London for one million dollars at the time, encrusted with 1,001 matched blue-white diamonds. The book narrates that until the turn of the century, a custom dictated that the Maharaja would come out and greet his loyal subjects annually, adorned with nothing but the diamond breastplate with his naked genitalia in full display of an erection. The Maharaja’s walk about would be greeted with cheers and acknowledgement of his organ and its apparent ability to radiate magical powers, which could drive evil spirits from the land. The first automobile in India, a French made De Dion Bouton was, in fact, imported by the state of Patiala in 1892. Bhupinder Singh would outdo even these hereditary indulgences with a penchant to impress the royal households of Europe.
He commissioned a 1400 piece dinner set to mark the Royal tour by the Prince Of Wales in 1922. The entire set made of silver gilded with gold was auctioned off by Christies with an estimated value of 1.5 million pounds. Bhupinder also became the first person in India to own an airplane, even making a runway for it in the state. He is said to have owned a fleet of Rolls Royce with their numbers estimated from 27 to 44, with more than 20 of them forming a part of his motorcade even if he was simply touring the state. In 1935, he is said to have insisted on meeting Hitler when in Berlin. The Fuhrer seemed to have taken such a liking to the Maharaja that he gifted him a personalised edition of a ceremonial Maybach.
But perhaps his most shining example of opulence came in 1926 when he sent a trunk full of precious stones and jewellery including the seventh largest diamond in the world–a 234 carat De Beers diamond to Parisian Jeweller Cartier SA–to create a ceremonial necklace worthy of a king. The resulting Collier De Patiala or the Patiala Necklace was created after three years of labour with 2,930 diamonds and a weight of 962.25 carats. The necklace became famous for its unmatched brilliance and extraordinary design in what is the single largest commission ever to be executed by Cartier. The $25 million necklace is said to be one of the most expensive pieces of jewellery ever made.
Early patron of Indian cricket
The Maharaja was also an avid sportsman, credited with giving a vital push to cricket in the sport’s earliest days in the country. His father built the world’s highest cricket pitch in Chail and even invited British coaches to India while Bhupinder captained the Indian team’s tour of Britain in 1911. But his most durable contribution lies in his donation of a trophy for the Cricket Championship of India, now known as the Ranji Trophy. The same trophy is still handed down to winners of the tournament, even today. He was also a passionate polo player and had accumulated several silver trophies through his Patiala Tigers team, with his stables harbouring 500 of the finest polo ponies.
The other side
But if the narration of his extravagant and charitable lifestyle impressed many, his debauched interests and fantasies gave way to an equal or higher number of detractors. While reviewing a book titled ‘The Magnificent Maharaja’, Khushwant Singh lambasted the author for trying to sanitise Singh’s legacy. ‘He was a headstrong bully, a debauch, drunkard, womanizer and philanderer,’ described Khushwant Singh as he enumerated various facts to support his argument. He supported the actions of General Dyer at Jallianwalla Bagh, while he worked his way into the Akali party in order to spy on them for the British so that he could get a 19-gun salute, a few more medals, and titles to go with his name.
Khushwant narrates an incident when at the age of 16, he saw a group of Maharajas near the Parliament House with the only Sikh in the group unmistakeably being Bhupinder Singh as he smoked his cheroot. The sight baffled Singh as Sikhs were forbidden from smoking. But the indiscretion of smoking, as it turns out, was the smallest of Bhupinder’s ills.
Sex as a sport
The Maharaja’s appetite for sex was said to rival even that of his food, a statement which becomes even more profound when one learns that he could allegedly consume 20 pounds of food in a day. The passion for copulation, which started in adolescence even surpassed his passion for sports and hunting by the time he achieved maturity. The harem, which he personally ‘curated’ would eventually reach a strength of 350 women at its fruition. He would constantly embark on a program to remodel or redesign his concubines as he pleased with the help of a perfurmers, jewelers, hairdressers, beauticians, and dressmakers along with a team of French, British and Indian plastic surgeons. The plastic surgeons would be used to change the appearances of his favourites as per his fluctuating tastes or the dictates of London’s Fashion magazines. A wing of the harem was converted into a laboratory with test tubes and vials being used to create an exotic blend of scents, cosmetics, lotions and philters.
The summers would draw the harem’s concubines out by Bhupinder’s pool in the evening where the prince would station scores of bare-breasted women at regular intervals at the rim of the pool. He would swim in the ice-filled water of the swimming pool as he would come from time to time to the edges of the pool to caress a breast or to sip a whiskey. The walls and ceilings of the Prince’s private quarters would have representations of erotic sculptures from India’s temples, with some of the most exquisite positions ever attempted by human beings. A wide, silk hammock would be used by the prince as he attempted some of the most difficult positions proscribed by his ceilings.
‘Maharaja’ a scandalous book by Diwan Jermani Dass, whose credibility has been repeatedly questioned, went on to narrate an even more appalling account, which involved sacrifices of bullocks with 150-400 members, including mostly virgin women, with men including the Maharaja pouring alcohol over the women. They would then suck the liquor off the bodies of the virgins going on to partake in an orgy. A 1930 enquiry committee in Patiala even charged with prince with gruesome crimes ranging from lechery to murder, only to be exonerated by the Prince’s one-man enquiry committee.
Even if one dismisses the Diwan’s wild accounts, the daunting task of maintaining 350 concubines is an arduous task to say the least. The number of Singh’s wives are said to range from five to ten with an estimated fathering of 88 children from his various sexual exploits. The frequent sexual activities naturally took a toll on Bhupinder Singh who would then rely on aphrodisiacs provided by Indian doctors, concocted from gold, silver, herbs, spices, pearls, and iron, while a potion of shredded carrots and crushed brains of a sparrow aided the voracious prince. But when even these treatments seemed to fail, the prince enlisted the help of French doctors and their radium treatment.
But none of the treatments could solve the prince’s most serious condition, best summarized by Collins and Lapierre in their book. ‘It was not a lack of virility that afflicted the jaded and sated prince,’ say its pages. ‘His was a malady that plagued not a few of his surfeited fellow rulers. It was boredom. He died of it.’
Words: Devang Pathak
[ The narration of Maharaja's personal tastes and the destruction of 'Royal secrets' was taken from Conrad Corfield's interview with Dominic Lapierre and Larry Collins in Freedom At Midnight]