On ‘Hindoo Holiday’

The double “o” in Hindoo Holiday1 immediately signals that we are returning to another time: one that was not so long ago, but is now as antiquated as its orthography. An era that was tragic, perhaps, in its essence, but comic in its particulars; a time of unspeakable wealth and inconceivable poverty, continual cultural misunderstandings, unfettered whimsy, and cruelties large and small: the age of the British Raj and the Indian princes.

The Raj was born in the wake of the 1857 Sepoy Revolt against the Honourable East India Company, which had controlled much of the subcontinent for a hundred years. Realizing that the Company could no longer protect British interests, the British government, with some reluctance, intervened. Slightly more than half of the country fell under the direct administration of the Crown, but the rest of the land was divided into 562 states, from tiny principalities to kingdoms as large as the British Isles themselves. These states enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy in their internal affairs, but all had to pledge not to pursue independent courses of foreign policy.

This meant peace for hundreds of kingdoms that had spent centuries warring. And it meant that the princes, whose pride was based on a heritage of martial valor, had to find new ways of demonstrating their princeliness. Many found the solution in the overflowing coffers of their treasuries. With war no longer draining their time and revenues, they attacked leisure as though it were the citadel of an ancient rival.

There were palaces with seven thousand servants, and a maharani whose jewels were so heavy she could stand only when supported by two attendants. There were royal hunts on the backs of four hundred elephants, where scores of tigers or tens of thousands of birds would be slain in a single day. There were children’s toys of solid gold, nursery balls encrusted with rubies, a turban with three thousand diamonds, a carpet made only of jewels.

There was a maharajah who changed his clothes when the thermometer rose or fell by one degree, and another who sent his laundry to Paris. There was an auto enthusiast with 270 cars for his personal motoring, and a Scotophile who outfitted his idle troops in complete Highland gear (with the addition of pink tights, so that the brown knees of his men would take on a ruddy Scots complexion). There was one, unlucky in love, who checked into a Paris hotel, ordered cases of Dom Perignon, and drank until he died. And another who occupied thirty-five suites of the Savoy in London and received three thousand fresh roses a day, for he said he loved nature.

A fantastic spire atop the most hierarchical society in the East, princely India was administered or advised by the stodgy, lower-middle-class members of the military and bureaucratic castes of the most hierarchical society in the West. Transformed by colonialism into aristocrats, these sahibs and memsahibs inhabited a world of pig-sticking and costume balls, puttees and topees,…

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