On this day 85 years ago, “over a million subjects” lined up on the streets of Patiala to pay their “last homage” to the man who would come to embody the overindulgence of royals in British India.
Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, was not just any provincial ruler. By the time of his death at the age of 47, he was the Sikh numero uno, patron saint of the perilous ‘Patiala peg’, and captain of the first-ever Indian cricket team to play in England.
In the over eight decades since, Singh’s infamous exploits have seeped through the cracks of historical writings into popular imagination — from tales of his extravagant lifestyle at the Moti Bagh Palace to his overly vigorous sex drive or his outlandish spending sprees in Europe.
Yet, his legacy has been a subject of contention, with some reducing it to that of a hedonist on steroids, and others painting him as an “unhappy man” who “deeply regretted wasting his early youth in gargantuan dissipation”.
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Orphan prince to Lt Gen.
Born on 12 October 1891, Bhupinder Singh ascended to the throne at the age of nine after his alcoholic father Rajender Singh died in a riding accident in 1900. His mother, Jasmer Kaur, too had died some years earlier due to tuberculosis.
The scion of the Phulkian dynasty, or ‘Tikka Singh’ as he was known then, the orphan prince was packed off to Lahore’s Aitchison College in 1904 to complete his studies. He returned to Patiala in 1910 and was anointed the ruler of its 1.5 million residents in a ceremonial investiture presided over by Viceroy Lord Minto.
By 1914, Patiala had 40 state hospitals, 262 public schools, a college, a good network of canals, railways, and post offices, and estimated revenue of Rs 9 million. Singh, though, is said to have spent “most of his time sleeping, drinking brandy, playing cards and shooting”. He was also, as his grandson-in-law Natwar Singh later described in the 1998 book The Magnificent Maharaja, an “incorrigible collector — of books, cars, carpets, clothes, dogs, horses, jewels, manuscripts, medals, paintings, watches, wines, all of the best quality”. Over the years, the Maharaja gained a reputation for being an exceptionally generous host, throwing lavish parties, and entertaining doctors, artists and people of repute from around the world.
He was equally, if not more, passionate about sports. It was under his patronage that Patiala cricket and polo teams were counted among the most formidable in British India. He also built the Chail Cricket Ground — the highest in the world — at his summer retreat at the hill station.
A staunch ally of the British, he commanded the first Patiala regiment, which won 43 honours for its display of courage in Flanders, Gallipoli, Italy, Palestine, and Mesopotamia in the First World War.
It was his allegiance to the crown that saved him from a conviction after being accused of murder, and other serious offences, in a 1930 report titled Indictment of Patiala. JAO Fitzpatrick, agent to Governor General for Punjab States, conducted an inquiry into the 12 allegations mentioned in the indictment, and in a report to the Viceroy, exonerated the Maharaja on all charges.
Besides serving as chancellor of the Chamber of Princes comprising rulers of 108 provinces, Singh gave the impression of a crafty politician who wielded his Sikh identity to his advantage.
He was also among the handful of Indians who were granted an audience with Italian PM Benito Mussolini and German chancellor Adolf Hitler in person.
‘Tantric sex cult’
The Maharaja of Patiala, though, was best known for his stratospheric indulgences.
According to British socialite Yvonne Fitzroy, the Moti Bagh Palace, built by Maharaja Narinder Singh, the great-grandfather of Bhupinder Singh, “would make Versailles look like a cottage”. In the palace, Singh is believed to have maintained a harem of 332 women, of whom only 10 were recognised as Maharanis, about 50 as Ranis, and were mistresses or servants. While the tales of his virility are now no more mere palace intrigue, Singh has been infamously accused of having “invented a new Tantric sex cult”.
As for his utter disregard for financial prudence, it suffices to say that The Savoy Hotel in London and shops in Milan still remember Bhupinder Singh as one of their most high-flying benefactors. It was during one of his eight trips to Europe that he “bought a zoo of European beasts and birds at enormous expense”.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)