The Maharajah of Baroda exemplified the princely state of mind. His court tunic was spun of gold, with only one family in his state allowed to weave its threads. The family's fingernails were grown long and then notched like the teeth of a comb, all the better to caress the golden threads to perfection. Among his most precious treasures were a collection of tapestries made entirely of pearls, into which were woven ornate designs of rubies and emeralds.
Jaipur's maharajah lorded over one of the largest and richest of India's princely states. Somewhere in the Jaigarh fort, on a peak above the palace, the private treasure of the Jaipur princes lay buried, guarded by an especially belligerent Rajput tribe, the Minas. Once per lifetime, each maharajah was allowed to visit the treasure and select a single item. Man Singh chose from the private treasure a bird of solid gold studded with rubies of extraordinary fire, so heavy that a woman could hardly lift it. Unfortunately, independence came before the last maharajah, Jai Singh, could choose. Even so, he did not do without. His jewels included a triple-stringed necklace of red spinels, the stones having been contributed by various Mughal emperors, each bigger than a pigeon's egg, along with three huge emeralds, the largest of which weighed 490 ct. Among the world's greatest polo players, Jai Singh died in appropriate form, atop his polo pony, one of the three richest men in England.
None of the Indian princes amassed greater treasure than the Nizams of Hyderabad. Presiding over one of the largest states (half the size of France), their dominion included Golconda, in former times the world's diamond center. They were the first to enter into alliance with the British, but later became indebted, thus allowing the British to gobble up Berar, a valuable part of their domain. For support during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the British wrote off that debt and awarded the Nizam the Order of the Star of India. Berar, however, remained in British hands, causing the Nizam to remark, "Generosity is uppermost in the minds of my British allies, even though their mathematics are a trifle weak.
A believer in the unani medical system of ancient Greece, Hyderabad became the only place in the world with free clinics and a hospital devoted to unani medicine, which involved good health through ingesting powdered jewels. No maharajah followed this course better than an early prince of Mysore. Informed by a Chinese sage that the finest aphrodisiacs contained crushed diamonds, he succeeded in quickly depleting the state treasuries in his princely quest for potence.
The Nizam of Hyderabad was a Muslim reigning over a largely-Hindu population, but no one could accuse him of lack of faith. Hyderabad law forbade the destruction of any legal records or newspapers in which the name Mohammed had been published. Since many of his Muslim subjects carried this name, the edict created a prodigious amount of paperwork, with wire baskets placed in the streets so the public could properly dispose of papers bearing the prophet's name.
Let us not forget the Maharajah of Patiala. He possessed a breastplate containing 1,001 diamonds. Until the 20th century, it was the custom for him to appear once a year before his subjects, wearing nothing but the diamond-encrusted breastplate, complemented by his sexual scepter, in regal erection.
The seventh Maharajah of Patiala's harem numbered 350. So obsessed was Bhupinder Singh with desires of the flesh, that he devoted an entire wing of his harem to a laboratory, where exotic cosmetics, perfumes and love potions were mixed. A team of British, French and Indian plastic surgeons stood on call, ever ready to alter the proportions of a favorite member of the harem according to the Maharajah's whim. Alas, it was not enough. In the end, Bhupinder Singh died of a most trite ailment--boredom.
But India's maharajahs had more on their minds than just jewels and sex. Witness the Maharajah of Gwalior, whose passion was electric trains. His palace was rigged up in a style that would surpass even a schoolboy's most fantastic Christmas-eve fantasies. Guests at his banquets were served by crystal trains running on silver rails, controlled by the Maharajah at an enormous control panel. And if you displeased him during dinner, the dessert train might well pass you by. During one fête in honor of the British Viceroy, the control panel short-circuited, causing food trains to careen wildly, sloshing gravy and other condiments all over the guests. It was, as Collins and Lapierre remarked, "a catastrophe without parallel in the annals of railroading."
Are the maharajahs simply relics of a bygone era? Not really, for they've been reincarnated in the oil sheikdoms of the Middle East. While visiting the European chalet of one of the Middle East's most important jewelers, my host was interrupted by a call from the secretary of an Arab monarch: "Do you remember the blue diamond you sold the King last year? He would like another one just like it, with exactly the same color, to make matched cuff links. The weight is 8.13 ct and its measurements are…" After telling the secretary that such a request was impossible to fill, my host hung up. Alas, the phone soon rang again, with the secretary imploring that the King "really wants it." Turning to me, the jeweler remarked that the monarch wanted to be "more than king." Then he quickly made plans to leave the next morning for Antwerp.
H.H. the Maharajah of Patiala, ca. 1924, in regal splendor. Sikh Sir Bhupinder Singh, the Magnificent, was the seventh Maharajah of Patiala and father of the Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes. His pearl necklace was insured by Lloyd's of London for over $1 million, and he possessed a breastplate made up of 1,001 diamonds. According to Collins & Lapierre (1975): "From his earliest adolescence, Bhupinder Singh demonstrated a remarkably refined aptitude for an equally worthy princely pastime, sex. As he came into maturity his devotion to his harem eventually surpassed even his passions for jewels, polo and hunting. He personally supervised the steady accumulation of its inmates, selecting new recruits with a connoisseur's appreciation of variety in appearance and accomplishment in action. By the time the institution reached its fullest fruition, it contained 350 ladies.
"During the torrid Punjab summers, the harem moved outdoors in the evening to Bhupinder's pool. The prince stationed a score of bare-breasted girls like nymphs at intervals around its rim. Chunks of ice bobbing in the pool's water gave the hot air a delicious chill while the Maharaja floated idly about, coming to port from time to time to caress a breast or have a sip of whiskey…."
a. This account of the maharajahs is based largely on Lord (1971), Collins & Lapierre (1975) and Allen & Dwivedi (1984). [return to "Maharajahs"]
Alexander M. Jacob, for whom the 162-ct Jacob ('Imperial') diamond is named. Variously supposed to be a Persian, Jew, Armenian, Russian and/or a British agent, he was then the most important trader of jewels and antiquities in India. Said to be a master of white magic, he operated out of a small, incense-filled shop in Simla, summer capital of the British Raj. Jacob was the inspiration for Lurgan Sahib in Kipling's Kim, as well as F. Marion Crawford's Mr. Isaacs}"
The main reason is obvious; Israel is the military superpower in the region, despite containing only two percent of the people in the Middle East. Arabs don’t like dwell on that in public, but thanks to the Internet anyone curious about Israeli military capabilities can find out in private.
What Arabs can discuss openly is the Israeli achievements in science and technology. It is no secret that Moslems, despite having a population 85 times larger than Jews, win one Nobel prize for every 33 awarded to Jews. By whatever measure you wish to use, Nobel prizes, literacy rates, patents awarded, books published or translated, GDP growth, the Arabs have fallen behind the rest of the world. Part of the problem is the Arab tendency to blame outsiders and to avoid taking responsibility. Arabs prefer to fake it and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Police state methods make it easier for the police and military to control a country, even if despicable methods were used.
The exact nature of this lethal cultural miasma can best be described by enumerating the major components. Let’s start with the fact that most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority (Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, Nejdis in Saudi Arabia). All of which means that leadership jobs are assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation. Promotions are based more on political reliability than proficiency and efficiency.
The “ruling class” (owners, officers, or officials) and everyone else are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using what the West calls middle management. Arab leaders prefer to be feared, rather than respected, by their subordinates. They consider it acceptable to lie to subordinates and allies in order to further their personal agenda. Paranoia prevents adequate training. This approach leads to poorly trained populations and low morale. Work accidents that would end the careers of Western managers, officers, or officials are ignored in the Arab world and nobody cares. Not surprisingly, in Arab cultures the ruling class is despised by their subordinates, and this does not bother the leaders much at all. Officers and managers are suddenly transferred without warning to keep them from forging alliances or networks. Any team spirit among officials is discouraged.
So subordinates prefer to fail rather than make an independent decision. Large scale enterprises are micromanaged by senior leaders, who prefer to suffer defeat rather than lose control of their subordinates. Even worse, an Arab manager will not tell a Western counterpart why he cannot make the decision (or even that he cannot make it), leaving Western managers angry and frustrated because the Arabs won't make a decision. The Arab leaders simply will not admit that they do not have that authority.
Many, if not most, Arab leaders now know that the paranoia and parochialism are bad but ancient traditions are hard to abandon. To Arabs, the value and prestige of an individual is based not on what he can teach but on what he knows that no one else knows. This destructive habit is still around, despite years of American advisors patiently explaining why this is counterproductive. While Westerners thrive on competition among themselves, Arab leaders avoid this as the loser would be humiliated. While Western military and corporation promotion lists are routinely published, this rarely happens in Arab organizations.