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161 – The Devadasi who became a Maharani

My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Devas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931

My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Dewas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931

Image and text contributed by Cory Walia, Mumbai

This picture is of my mother, the little girl in the center, and her immediate family taken around 1931 or 1932 in a British photo studio in south Bombay [maybe Kalbadevi]. There is no stamp on the photograph so I can’t tell which studio it may have been. My grandfather in this picture brought his family to Bombay specifically for having a series of photographs taken in the studio. He was very fond of studio portraiture and would travel to Bombay often to get his pictures taken.

My grandfather, His Highness Malhar Rao Narayan Rao Puar was a King of a small kingdom in now Madhya Pradesh, near Indore called Dewas. Originally his family were Rajputs who like several of the other Rajput nobility embraced the Maratha/Peshwa fold and began adopting the Maratha language and customs in addition to their Rajput heritage. His family claimed to be descendants of Vikramaditya, the legendary emperor in ancient India. I hope it’s true.

Seated on the extreme right is my maternal great grandmother, a lady called Krishna Rao Salgaocar. She was a commoner and belonged to the erstwhile Devadasi tradition from the Devadasi house of Saligao in Goa. In this photograph, she wears black (or navy blue) because she considered herself to be a widow of the father of her children, who while alive was a leading businessman of that time but refused to accept his children as legitimate – as was usual at the time when it came to relationships or children with Devadasis. The social status of the Devadasis had gradually fallen from tradition of respectability and equality over the centuries.

On the extreme left is her daughter, my grandmother, the lady who partially raised me and inculcated in me the love for art, mythology and cooking. She was born a Devadasi and was named Indira Salgaocar. Devadasis couldn’t take the last name of the men they were with, so they took the name of the house that they belonged to. My great grandmother belonged to the Salgaocar house from Saligao – one of the two villages in Goa who produced some of the most beautiful and most famous of Devadasis. The other village was Mulgao.

My grandfather, the King was an early widower with no children, and so someone in court sent to him my grandmother, a young beautiful woman as a diversion and to keep him company. He found my grandmother to be a beautiful, sprightly, lively, ambitious and a highly intelligent woman. She was immensely attractive to him as a companion. Given that she was a Devadasi’s daughter she was skilled in all sorts of arts, crafts, and cooking – a woman of multiple talents. He fell in love with her head over heels and decided that protocol will be damned. He married her in 1915, and made her his queen, his Maharani. As long as he was alive, no one could question him or say anything, but given that my grandmother was a commoner, the British called it a Morganatic marriage – A marriage of unequal social rank that would prevent the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage.

When Indira married my grandfather she became Her Highness Prabhavati Raje Puar – a new name that was chosen for her based on her horoscope as per Maratha customs. In front of my grandfather are their two children, my mother Princess Shashiprabha Raje Puar, age 10 and her brother, age 12, my uncle, Prince Martan Rao Malhar Rao Puar.

Two years after this photograph was taken, my grandfather, the king suddenly passed away and my grandmother and her kids were banished from the kingdom of Dewas. The marriage to the king no longer had a place in their society and the throne of the Kingdom of Dewas was succeeded by my grandfather’s step-brother.

My grandmother, the banished Maharani along with her two children and some personal assets moved to Bombay – They first lived in Walkeshwar, then in Gamdevi and lastly in Colaba until the 1980s. For a while, they lived off their personal assets of gold, silver, cars and jewels, but in time all the wealth was spent and the world too had changed. My uncle, the Prince in the photograph served with the British Army until his death at the age of 51. He was a really gentle and a very nice man.

My mother Shashi too grew up to be a beautiful amazing and an amazing woman. She met my father Kanwaljeet Singh also known as Cammii, at a ball dance at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in the 1940s. They fell in love, eloped and got married in a temple in 1942. They had two daughters but soon realized that a temple marriage was not recognized by the court of Indian law and my father had to move the Supreme Court of India to get the law changed and make his marriage legally recognised.

After I was born and my parents got divorced, my mother worked in my school as a nursery teacher, then in a passenger liner as a children’s stewardess. Considering the reality checks in her life, my mother was pragmatic enough to handle her past as a royal princess and her humble life after, with utmost grace.

There have been people who have pointed out the scandalous past of my maternal family and I have shown them the door. I think the women in my family were strong, individualistic and beautiful women who made the best of their lives. Many people in India are embarrassed to talk about their Devadasi origins because society and history don’t look very kindly upon it, but it was their reality – and yes, it was highly exploitative state of affairs. Some of our early singers and actresses in Indian Films came from the Devadasi tradition because they couldn’t afford to be ashamed. They were forward and bold women who decided to earn their own keep. I don’t see the frowning upon as justified, but everyone is entitled to their own point of view. I have fashioned my own life upon not caring about society’s opinions, and it has worked out just fine.

Earlier, when I looked at this photograph I used to feel a sense of lost glory, but now I feel great pride in my ancestry. My grandfather was a good man, a spiritual man and he didn’t care that his wife came from the background of a Devadasi. He was proud and happy to have her as his wife and welcomed his mother-in-law, also a Devadasi, in his palace. Not many people would have the gumption to do that, even today.


160 – The Purana Qila Incident

Standing in the middle, my grandfather George O'Brien. Delhi. Circa 1947

Standing in the middle, my grandfather George O’Brien. Delhi. Circa 1947

Image and text contributed by Simon Digby, UK

My grandfather, George O’Brien, was born in Meerut in 1900. His grandparents had fled Ireland in 1847 to escape the Great Potato Famine. My great great grandfather then joined the British army and the family moved to India. In India, they became part of the Irish diaspora, but they were alive and being fed by their old enemy, the British.

During the Second World War, my grandfather volunteered to be the Indian Home Guard. He had his own platoon of part timers whose role was to keep the peace and defend India against her enemies. At the end of the war, the platoon was retained to maintain order as Indian Pakistan Partition was tearing the country apart. 

In September of 1947, thousands of displaced Muslims were taking refuge in the Purana Qila in Delhi and were extremely agitated as they feared attacks on their journey to Pakistan. Mahatma Gandhi heard of their terror and drove to the fort to allay their fears. The crowd listened to their leader, but a more agitated group worked themselves into a frenzy and started to attack Gandhi’s car. My grandfather’s platoon had been called to the incident and arrived to see the mob smashing the car windows and shouting violent threats. I am told my grandfather, George climbed on top of the roof of Gandhi’s vehicle and shouted in Hindi, “This is the only man that can save you!” and managed to placate the crowd long enough to get the car out. 

Unfortunately, Gandhi was assassinated the following January. A great global leader was lost, but my grandfather George O’Brien had played his small part in history. My grandfather told me that a reporter called Ralph Izzard (a famous Daily Mail hack) wrote an article which appeared in The Times titled, ‘Mad Irishman saves Gandhi‘. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track the article down because he never told which ‘Times’ it was; The Times of India or The London Times or another Times!), and my Grandfather was too modest to keep a copy for himself. But his story concurs with Gandi’s visit to the Purana Qila on September 22, 1947. 

My Grandfather spent his whole life in India living in Delhi & Meerut. He was born in 1900 and died in 1986. He married Sheila Gately, my grandmother who was of Irish lineage too. Sheila’s brother Michael Gately won a gold medal at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics playing field hockey for India with Dhyan Chand, the legendary player, on the team

After leaving his job as a home guard, he worked for the rest of his life with the British Motor Corporation and referred to it as ‘Bugger My Car’ company, although this was down to a great sense of humour rather than a derogatory comment about his employers.  My grandfather also loved fishing and at one time had the record for the largest Rainbow Trout ever caught in Asia. His daughter, my mother got a scholarship to study in Dublin when she was 17, she met my father (an Irish doctor) and then stayed in Ireland. They had a family of five; me being the middle one.

 I was lucky enough to stay with my grandfather for a month in 1983, at Church Street, Meerut. It was the only time I met him and I was filled up with so many questions I had about my heritage. I am very proud of my Indian heritage and have visited India with my own family to give them a taste of their past. We now live all around the world, but Ireland is home.