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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, ASIAN HISTORY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 04 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

Colonial South Asian history has focused on British India and the nationalists who later resisted and supplanted it. However, long before India’s independence from Britain, there were regions where neither the British nor the nationalists were primarily positioned. These were the approximately six hundred semi-autonomous kingdoms, or “princely states” (often referred to as “Indian India”), which spanned the breadth and length of the subcontinent. They comprised two-fifths of the landmass and one-third of the population, excluding Burma. Though their rulers were long marginalized in modern South Asian and imperial history as antiquated relics of the medieval era, oriental despots, or puppet princes, they were real forces in the governing of the subcontinent, not only during the precolonial era but also at the heyday of the British Empire and continue to play a part in modern South Asia. Native rulers introduced new systems of administration, taxation, law, religious and social reform, trade, education, public health, and technology, including railways, ginning factories, and telegraphs, to their states; served as patrons of architecture, the arts, culinary innovation, and sport; encouraged the introduction of representative forms of government; and, in certain cases, supported popular anticolonial movements. In some principalities, where ruling families practiced different faiths from the majority of their citizens, their policies would influence the political trajectories of their erstwhile states long after the end of colonialism. With India’s independence and Partition in 1947, the princely states merged with the new nations of South Asia, and in the 1970s former princes lost their economic entitlement of the Privy Purse. However, they continued to play a part in postcolonial South Asia, serving as diplomats, governors, patrons of educational and charitable institutions, local magnates, company directors, cabinet ministers and, perhaps most prominently, as elected politicians and leaders of heritage tourism.

Keywords: princely India, Maharaja, Maharani, Nawab, indirect rule, residency system, Delhi Durbar, integration of the states, postcolonial politics

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