The Divine Tights of Kings
Some tortures devised by humans are fiendishly clever. I don’t mean the type you can find in the Museo de la Tortura in Toledo. That institution holds several examples of the cruder form: an iron maiden with a rather mournful expression and a chair made of iron spikes that were heated before anyone sat down, plus lots of other contraptions intended to inflict excruciating pain in order to get a confession. One wonders what value such confessions had. What did the torturer get for all his efforts? Certainly not the truth. No, some tortures are more refined. Keeping wild birds in cages, for example. What is the attraction in that?
At Sanliurfa in eastern Turkey the men keep partridges in small baskets and take them to parks for fresh air and picnics. The partridges do get some benefits: they are well-fed and safe from predators, but they never get to fly. The owners often spend large sums of money to provide the birds with tasty food and handsome cages. It’s like they want the birds to enjoy their captivity.
There is one specialised form of torture that does inspire my grudging admiration because it so refined and exquisite that no one involved even realizes that it is torture. I am talking about the keeping of royalty. It’s not as common as it used to be, but a surprising number of otherwise sensible countries do practise this ancient custom. On a winter trip to Norway once, I chanced across a group of schoolchildren sitting on reindeer skins and interacting with two rather stiff-looking adults who were perched on a log. The two looked a bit familiar so I asked another skier who had stopped to watch. “That is Prince William of England and his wife Kate,” he said. “They came to visit their cousins who are our king and queen.” I suddenly felt a pang of pity for the royal pair, trapped in some mind-numbingly dull photo opportunity and unable to behave naturally. Everything they said, and everything that was said to them, would be refracted through the prism of royalty. I imagine they can never forget that, and so they never say, or hear, anything genuine.
Like the partridges of Turkey, the modern monarch is kept in a beautifully-made cage and given everything that they desire, except freedom, or truth. Little wonder that in human history, monarchs have often ended up insane, or believing they are gods, with predictably disastrous results for them and everybody else.
In 1997 while travelling in India, I met royalty for the first time.
At the Rajneesh ashram in Pune the girls are very pretty and everyone wanders about at half speed. In the meditation hall they are fanning the guru to keep him cool, not the self-proclaimed godman himself, you understand, but his garlanded picture. The man himself is dead, a career move that was unexpected in a divine being, but Osho never did anything predictable. A brilliant and rebellious youth, he embraced poverty and became the proud owner of 96 Rolls Royce cars.
In the evening I watch a video of him talking, but it’s his diamond-encrusted wrist watch that really catches my eye. His message is that, in the past, kingship made divinity possible, but now, he claims, kingship is available to everyone.
In the road outside a hooded crow is picking delicately at a dead kitten. I take an autorickshaw and tell the driver I want to meet a king. He waggles his head. “Very good, Sir.” He takes me to see a friend of his who comes from Palanpur in Gujarat. He gives me a phone number which I ring and am told to catch the train to Mumbai. There I meet the contact. He gives me a number. I ring it. I’m passed to another man who offers to pick me up in his car. I’m taken to a large apartment block and catch the lift to the 12th floor. I enter a spacious white apartment with acres of marble dotted with glass-topped tables and an indoor waterfall. Everything is white except for the sandalwood effigies of deities and some pieces of jade.
Mr Mehta is a smiling elderly man wearing white robes and a diamond ring. He is not royalty, but he is close to it. He is a diamond dealer. There is something utterly open and yet totally closed about Mr Mehta. He introduces me to his wife and they take me to their bedroom. Inside a cupboard is a foot-high statue of a deity in pinkish crystal. It is clearly a hugely valuable item, not least because its forehead is studded with large diamonds. But why is it kept in a cupboard in the bedroom? I’m not sure.
The Mehtas glide silently about, barefoot on the marble. Mr Mehta telephones the Nawab of Palanpur and introduces me. A suave civilized voice on the line. “Good Afternoon. Would you come for tea at five?”
The Nawabs of Palanpur are thought to have originated in Afghanistan before becoming sultans of Bihar during the 12th century. A scion of that royal house married into the family of the Mughal emperor Akbar and was appointed ruler of Palanpur. Under the British they enjoyed princely status and a 13-gun salute, but on Indian independence Palanpur State was dissolved and they lost all royal privileges.
I meet the ex-king at Bombay Cricket Club. He’s in his 80s, carrying a walking stick but sprightly. He orders the waiters to put two wicker chairs out on the pitch and bring tea and sandwiches.
“I was the 30th nawab,” he tells me. “Aurangzeb asked us to move over to Palanpur in 1704, but there is no role for me now. It’s a very quiet place.”
Palanpur was small, around 1800 square miles, but wealthy. As a child he had experienced the life of kings. Up at 6.30am every day followed by two hours of military training or riding, then lessons with a private tutor. At lunch his father, Tale Muhammad Khan, would hold court and locals would arrive with questions and problems. In the evening there would sessions with ‘notables’. No one ever taught him how to be a king, he was meant to pick it up by watching his father. Most important were the three annual processions, particularly the celebration of Rama’s victory over Lanka. The Nawab, a Muslim of course, would then lead a vast cavalcade of his Hindu subjects. There was all sorts of regalia involved, including an umbrella that had belonged to Emperor Akbar. If his father was away, then he would lead the ceremonies. His face lights up at the memory. The first time had been in the mid-1920s. “All the streets were lined with people saluting as we passed. I had a bodyguard of British lancers.”
After stopping to accept an offering of sugared lentils from his subjects, the boy-king consulted with brahmins who divined which gate, out of seven, was the most auspicious. Then they left the city via the appointed exit.
We eat chicken sandwiches and drink tea. His legs shake and the talk soon tires him. I wonder how it must be to fill your life with only ceremony. Every action is symbolic. Perhaps that explains the Indian ex-kings love of cricket. There’s a lot of rules. Action is contained and controlled. But when everything is only ceremony and protocol, life becomes sterile and meaningless - like cricket without Ben Stokes.
With the arrival of the British in India, all the real power was taken away from the Nawabs. They had been warrior kings, but they became mere symbols and eventually, for that reason, disposable. They were allowed to keep the Akbar umbrella.
“Shouldn’t it be in a museum?” I ask. The ex-Nawab’s eyes flash with sudden fury.
“Never,” he snarls. Our interview is over. Later I discover that the chicken sandwiches have given me the runs, which doesn’t seem fair. It’s not cricket.
I met a lot of ex-kings on that trip. It was half a century since the abolition of the princely states, but there were a few still around who had actually ruled. Some had been sufficiently wealthy to leverage their way into the high life of the new India, others sat on crumbling verandahs and grumbled. One kept a giant ruby in a sock in his drawer, as you do, for a rainy day.
Twenty years later I am in Kathmandu. There has been an earthquake and a lot of older buildings are held up with giant wooden props. I enter a lovely wooden palace in which there is a small courtyard. A crowd of tourists is gathering under a dark window. Servants stalk around sternly enforcing the ‘no photography’ rule. Everyone is staring at an upper window, waiting for something to happen.
After twenty minutes there is a movement. A small podgy girl with a rather sulky face appears at the window and stares down at the crowd, who stare back. No one speaks. She is wearing a garland of marigolds and her eyes are heavily daubed with kohl. She looks about four years old.
The kumari is considered to be a divinity, a pure and virginal being possessed by the spirit of the goddess Durga. She is selected according to rigorous criteria which include having a neck like a conch shell, the body of a banyan tree, and the voice of a duck. We don’t get to judge her duck-like voice because she says nothing. At the instigation of a servant, everyone in the crowd presses their hands together and says, “Namaste”. The girl stares down belligerently.
When the kumari experiences her first menstruation, her time as a deity is finished and she leaves by the back door of the palace. Having been treated as a goddess for a decade, readjustment can be difficult, but at least people stop staring.
We continue to stare. After a few minutes an attendant appears beside the toddler goddess and ushers her away, back into the gloom of the dark palace that is held up by props. The ceremony is over. By normal calculation she has about eight more years as a supreme being, then she’ll be spat out the back and have to think about what to have for dinner.
I’ll be travelling for a few weeks from now, so possibly no stories until Christmas. Depends on the signal!