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Death of Indian ‘queen’ triggers royal squabble

The death of an Indian queen who personified a lost era of aristocratic privilege and exotic glamour has sparked a bitter inheritance dispute among her surviving family.

Maharani Gayatri Devi

Gayatri Devi was one of the most celebrated beauties of the last century, mixing traditional palace life in the royal city of Jaipur with private aeroplanes, cocktail parties and shopping trips to London. She and her dashing husband, the Maharajah of Jaipur, Man Singh, whom she married in 1940, were idolised by Jaipur’s local population and the international press, but her death has revealed a family at odds over property and money.

Indian newspapers have reported that many relatives are in conflict with each other and that, since Gayatri Devi’s death on July 29, they have been positioning themselves for the coming battle over her will.

The Times of India predicted an “ugly showdown” over a fortune estimated at between 200 to 400 million dollars, with the lease of the stunning Rambagh Palace in Jaipur likely to be one of many areas of dispute.

Gayatri Devi and the Maharajah lived in Rambagh when they first married before it was converted into a 80-room “heritage” hotel.

After her husband died in 1970, she lived in Lilypool, a smaller house in the palace grounds.

Local media reported that a door she used to walk between the two buildings had been mysteriously bricked up since her death — an apparent first move in the complex legal wrangles that lie ahead.

Gayatri Devi’s only son, Jagat Singh, died in 1997, and the Times reported that her grandchildren, Devraj and Lalitya, have been waiting until official mourning finished at the weekend to press their claims.

“Things will be clear only after the will is read out,” an unnamed associate of Devraj was quoted by the newspaper as saying. “Disputes will send a wrong message and damage the family’s reputation.”

Gayatri Devi was the third of the Maharajah of Jaipur’s three concurrent wives and when he died on the polo field the title passed to Bhawani Singh, the son of his eldest wife.

Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur (R) poses with an unidentified man next to a custom built Rolls-Royce in Jaipur. AFP

Different branches of the family still exert control over the Jaipur estate, which has remained partially intact long after the system of “princely states” was dismantled following independence from Britain in 1947. The fate of Gayatri Devi’s legacy — including stakes in at least 17 palaces, forts, hotels and houses, plus a famous jewellery collection — is unclear even to insiders. The Statesman newspaper suggested that she may have changed her will at the expense of her two grandchildren.

Her son married into the Thai royal family and left India, but the marriage ended amid much acrimony. “He was not allowed to see or communicate with his children,” Gayatri Devi told one interviewer recently. “He took to drinking to offset his unhappiness and in the end this caused a liver problem and eventually his death.”

She also admitted becoming estranged from Bhawani Singh, the current Maharajah.

Such troubles were in sharp contrast to the public image of the Jaipur royals, who were seen as an ideal family — equally at ease with poor local people as with friends such as Queen Elizabeth of Britain or US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

But in truth, disagreements and legal battles soured the last years of Gayatri Devi’s life.

Her son clashed with the new Maharajah over an ownership dispute that went to the High Court and resulted in some royal belongings being placed in the care of receivers in 1992.

She herself also fell out with her Thai daughter-in-law and was accused of trying to take back property from her, though the two were reportedly reconciled just months ago.


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