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Maharaja

[mah-huh-rah-juh, -zhuh]

The word Mahārāja (also spelled maharajah) is Sanskrit for "great king" or "high king" (a karmadharaya from mahānt "great" and rājan "king"). Due to Sanskrit's major influence on the vocabulary of most languages in India, the term 'maharaja' is common to many modern languages, such as Punjabi, Bengali, Hindi, Gujrati, etc. Its use is primarily for Hindu potentates (ruler or sovereign). The female equivalent title Maharani (or Maharanee) denotes either the wife of a Mahārāja or, in states where that was customary, a woman ruling in her own right. The term Maharaj denotes separate noble and religious offices, although the fact that in Hindi the suffix 'a' in Maharaja is silent makes the two titles near homophones. Maharaj is also used to denote the chef (chief cook) at religious or wedding feasts. In 1971, the then government of Indira Gandhi abolished the titles and privy purses of all Indian rulers. Nevertheless some individuals continue to claim such titles. Maharajas today are of historical and anthropological interest.

Indian subcontinent

Maharaja as a ruler's title

On the eve of independence in 1947, India (including present day Pakistan) contained more than 600 princely states (see that article for context), each with its own ruler, often styled Raja or Thakur (if the ruler were Hindu) or Nawab (if he was Muslim); there was a host of less current titles as well.

The British directly ruled two thirds of India, the rest was under indirect rule by the above mentioned princes under the considerable influence of British representatives, such as Residents, at their courts.

The word Maharaja may be understood simply to mean "king" (as in Jammu and Kashmir), in spite of its literal translation as "great king". This was because only a handful of the states were truly powerful and wealthy enough for their rulers to be considered 'great' monarchs; the remaining were minor princely states, sometimes little more than towns or groups of villages. The word, however, can also mean emperor in contemporary Indian usage.

The title of Maharaja was not as common before the gradual British colonization of India, upon and after which many Rajas and otherwise styled Hindu rulers were elevated to Maharajas, regardless of the fact that scores of these new Maharajas ruled small states, sometimes for some reason unrelated to the eminence of the state, for example support in World War I or World War II. Two Rajas who became Maharajas in the twentieth century were the Maharaja of Cochin and the legendary Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala.

  • Variations of this title include the following, each combining Maha- "great" with an alternative form of Raja 'king', so all meaning 'Great King': Maharana (as in Udaipur), Maharawal (as in Dungarpur/Jaisalmer), Maharawat (Pratapgarh), Maharao (as in Kotah, Bundi) and Maharaol (as in Baria).
  • "Maharajah" has taken on new spellings due to time change and migration. It has even been shortened to "Mahraj" and "Maraj" but the most common is, of course, "Maharajah" and "Maharaj."
  • Despite its literal meaning, unlike many other titles meaning Great King, neither Maharaja nor Rajadhiraja ('King of Kings'), nor even its equivalent amongst Maharajas, 'Maharajadhiraja', ever reached the standing required for imperial rank, as each was soon the object of title inflation. Instead, the only Hindu title which is commonly rendered as Emperor is Samraat or Samraj(a), a personal distinction achieved by a few rulers of ancient dynasties such as the Mauryas and Guptas; the Muslim equivalent of emperor would be Padshah, applied to the Mughal dynasty.

Salute states in present India

The gun salutes (crucial in protocolary respect) enjoyed by the princely states that acceeded to the Dominion of India on 14 August 1947, included more Maharajas than any other title, and in most of the classes, though predominantly in the higher ones:

Compound and dynastic ruler titles

In the Mughal empire it was quite common to award to various princes (hereditary or not) a series of lofty titles as a matter of protocollary rank. Many of these (see also above) elaborate explicitly on the title Maharaja, in the following descending order:

  • Maharajadhiraja Bahadur (or Maharajadhiraj Bahadur): Great Prince over Princes, a title of honour, one degree higher than Maharajadhiraja.
  • Maharajadhiraja (or Maharajadhiraj): Great Prince over Princes, a title of honour, one degree higher than Sawai Maharaja Bahadur.
  • Sawai Maharaja Bahadur: a title of honour, one degree higher than Sawai Maharaja. (the term bahadur, originally 'brave' in Mongolian, was often used for 'one degree' higher', and 'sawai' is 'one and a quarter higher', i.e. just a step above bahadur)
  • Sawai Maharaja: a title of honour one degree higher than Maharaja Bahadur.
  • Maharaja Bahadur: a title of honour, one degree higher than Maharaja.

Furthermore there were various compound titles simply including other princely styles, such as :

Certain Hindu dynasties even came to use a unique style, including a term which as such is not of princely rank, e.g. Maharaja Gaikwar of Baroda, Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior, Maharaja Holkar of Indore, three of the very highest ranking ruling houses

Nobiliary and Honorary use

Like Raja and various other titles, Maharaja was repeatedly awarded to notables without a princely state, such as zamindars

  • One Raja of Lambagraon, a Jagir (in Himachal Pradesh) who served in the colonial army was granted personally the non-hereditary title of Maharaja of Kangra-Lambagraon and a personal 11-guns salute, so neither honor passed on to his son and heir
  • In the major, Muslim realm of Hyderabad & Berar, there was a system of ennobling titles for the Nizam's court retainers, conferring a specific rank without any (e)state of their own, not unlike peerage titles without an actual fief in the UK, the highest titles for Hindu nobles being Maharaja Bahadur and Maharaja, above Vant, Raja Rai-i-Rayan Bahadur, Raja Rai Bahadur, Raja Bahadur, Raja and (the lowest) Rai; for their Muslim counterparts there were alternative titles, the highest being Jah and Umara; e.g. the Diwan (Prime Minister) Maharaja Sir Kishen Pershad, held such a Maharaja-title.

Derived style for princes of the blood

Maharaj Kumar (or Maharajkumar) means son of a Maharaja; the female equivalent is Maharaj Kumari (Maharajkumari): daughter of a Maharaja.

Malay world

Indonesia

As many Indonesian states started out when the archipelago was still predominantly Hindu (Bali still is) or Buddhist, some have been ruled by a Maharaja, such as Srivijaya and Kutai Karta Negara (until that kingdom converted to Islam in 1565, when the Muslim title of Sultan was adopted). Traditional titles remain in use for the other members of this dynasty, such as Pangeran Ratu for the heir.

Malaysia

In peninsular Malaysia:

  • Maharaja was the title of the Monarch of the peninsular Malay state of Johor(e) from 1873 to 1885. The Arabic, Muslim title Sultan, often considered of higher rank, was re-adopted later and remains in current usage.
  • the title Bendahara Seri Maharaja was used by the ruler of Pahang (1623 - 1853 in personal union with Johor, eventually becoming a fief of the Bendahara family), till on 6 August 1882 Tuanku Ahmad al-Muadzam Shah ibni al-Marhum Tun Ali adopted the title sultan

In northern Borneo, the title Maharajah of Sabah and Rajah of Gaya and Sandakan was used 29 December 1877 - 26 August 1881 by Alfred Dent (compare White Rajah)

Ireland

In the Republic of Ireland, the Maharaja O'Malley is known for his dealings with American college students studying abroad.

Philippines

In the Philippines, more specifically in Sulu, Maharaja (also spelled "Maharajah") was a title given to various subdivisional princes. Parts of the Philippines may have also been ruled by a Maharajah under the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires.

Compound titles

The word can also be part of titles used by Malay nobility

  • Maharaja Lela was the title of the ruler of the State of Naning (founded 1641), until it was annexed by the UK to Malacca in 1832

Most famous was Bendahara Seri Maharaja Tun Mutahir of Malacca (executed 1509) and Datuk Maharaja Lela Pandak Endut of Perak (executed 1876).

The palace marshal of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (federal elective Paramount ruler) of modern Malaysia is called Datuk Maharaja Lela Penghulu Istana Negara.

Philippines

Sulu

The name Maharajah Adinda was given to one of the lineages of the Sulu Royal Family. And as a result, sultans under this lineage append "Maharajah Adinda" as a title to the beginning of their names.

Indonesia

Aceh

Maharaja was also part of the titles of the nobility in the Sumatran sultanate of Aceh. In the past the title of Maharaja is given to leader of the unreigning noble family and the Prime Minister Maharaja Mangkubumi. The last Prime Minister of Aceh who was installed to be the Maharaja Mangkubumi, Habib Abdurrahman el Zahir, also acted as the foreign affairs minister of Aceh but was deposed and exiled to Jeddah by the colonial Dutch east Indies authorities in October 1878.

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