The Devadasi who became a Maharani

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

Image and Narrative points 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 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.


BECOME A PATRON : Work on Indian Memory Project takes time, money and hard work to produce. But it is necessary work because parallel views on our histories matter. If you like the project, admire it, and benefit from its knowledge, please consider awarding us an honorarium to make the future of this project robust and assured. You can support Indian Memory Project for as little as Rs. 500 or more


SHARE THIS

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Hello,
    I belong to one of noble family of Dewas junior, my great great grandfather was a close friend and Sardar of HH Malhar Rao Maharaj ie Sardar Murar Rao Jadhav, they use to live together too at Shil Nath Dhuni Palace where Malhar rao Maharaj met Maharani Prabhavati raje Pawar, we have heard stories of her and my grand mother who is 90 years still speaks very high about her. Param pujya Shilnath Maharaj was the one who let this marriage happen, he did not want to see Malhar Rao Maharaj become virakt as it would have effected the Kingdom. This was a spiritual marriage arranged by god’s it was not because of any human attractions, Dewas junior still remember your family.
    we welcome you to Dewas.
    Please feel free to message me on 9907544007

  2. What a unique story! It was truly mesmerizing to relive that bygone era. Between the unfairness that life has a knack of throwing upon us frequently, it made me happy to know that there was a Maharaja like this too, who made a devadasi his beloved Maharani. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. What a wonderful story of resilient women. The past is not scandalous, it’s a testament of women surviving scorn of status and birth. That they adapted from royal to common lives is another achievement. Thanks for posting. Love the story.

  4. GREAT inspiration to all women folks

  5. I have always been fascinated about the Devadasi tradition and a keen reader of the same. Your life story of this wonderful women and men with gumption was just as wonderful and fascinaying. Thank you for sharing it and more power to all women who are out there!

    1. Hi Thank you so much, However, This isn’t Cory’s grandfather but his grandfather’s step-brother who took over the throne after the king passed away.

  6. Cory:
    Wonderful story. There are many more stories like yours- especially within the Gomantak Maratha Samaj which was the community that many Goan devadasis belonged to in Bombay at the time. If you would like to read more on the subject, I have written many essays and am also currently writing a book as well. There were many other villages in Goa that produced similar stories, including that of my own family. Do get in touch. I would love to hear more about your family archives.
    Anjali Arondekar (aarondek@ucsc.edu)

  7. Amazingly beautiful ladies in truest sense of the term. I started reading it out of curiosity, ended up with immense respect for the women of the household for their courage and inner beauty. Hat’s off to you lovely lady for the pride and the legacy that you hold. Regards.

  8. A beautiful story, full of the courage and gumption of the women of the time.
    This has so often gone unnoticed and unsung.
    I wonder when we men will learn to recognise the greatness of our womenfolk?

  9. The response from Mrudula moved me tremendously as I know that she is talking about my grandmother. I was born in 1959, after Mrudula moved, so I never met her… But my Aaji, as I called her, passed away in 1980 at the ripe age of 94, leaving me with a priceless legacy of memories, objects, recipes & a greed for knowledge, adventure & a survivor creed that has shaped my life. Thank you Mrudula for remembering the haughty, frail lady who raised me and loved me so deeply…

  10. I just love this. I wish I’d had access to thins when I was writing my story on devdasis.

  11. I have known your grandmother if she is the same frail but rather haughty beautiful lady who was our neighbor on the Third Pasta Lane in Colaba. We lived there from 1949 to 1954. This lady normally shunned outsiders, but struck a beautiful friendship with my mother who was a very talented and highly educated woman. These two women shared a very close bond and exchanged books, landscape paintings, tips on cooking, fine embroidery and such other things but never any gossip. She was a very proud and self-respecting person and I admired her from a distance. Her small flat was full of lovely things like gold-encrusted bone China dinnersets, huge paintings and portraits and also beautiful Chanderi sarees. I was her favorite and visited her often. To me, she seemed a real Queen.

  12. I second vinitas thoughts. What a wonderful story of pride grace and courage.

  13. Such an amazing story! Kudos to you for your honesty. Your ancestors were truly brave individuals. No one is responsible for where or to who they born and your anecdote is a shining example of that!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Menu