This article was written by Shivangi Kaushik.
Indira Devi was born as Indira Raje on 19 February 1892 to Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad and Maharani Chimna Raje Gaikwad. Her father was the Maharaja (ruler) of Baroda State (present-day Gujarat in India) from 1875 to 1939.
She was the only daughter of her parents, and because of their advanced views on education, she was the first Indian princess to go to school and college. In 1910, when she was 18 years old, her marriage with the Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior was arranged. Gwalior, like Baroda, was one of the most important Maratha states in princely India. The Maharaja of Gwalior was at least twenty years older than the princess and was already married, but he was childless and badly needed an heir. He had met the princess in England, who was by that time, slowly getting to be known for her beauty. He returned to India and sent a proposal of marriage to the Maharaja of Baroda. After due considerations, the proposal was accepted. Thus, Princess Indira Raje was betrothed to the Maharaja of Gwalior… but fate had other plans.
In the year 1911, Indira accompanied her parents to the great Delhi Durbar where the princes and rulers from all over India came to offer their allegiance to the British crown. The Delhi Durbar lasted many days, and it was here that Indira met the younger brother of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, Prince Jitendra Narayan, and it was love at first sight.
After the Delhi Durbar came to an end, all the princely families returned to their states. By that time, Indira had made up her mind. She did something that was unheard of until that time. Without her parents’ knowledge, she wrote a letter to the Maharaja of Gwalior, saying that she did not want to marry him. In Baroda, the preparations for the wedding were already in full swing. Amidst all this, Indira’s father received a telegram from the Maharaja of Gwalior asking, “What does the princess mean by her letter?”
Indira was immediately summoned and asked to explain. She admitted to writing the letter, and her parents were shocked. In India, an engagement is as binding as a marriage. A broken engagement would lead to scandal and gossip. She was given a thorough lecture on family honour and the disgrace her actions would bring upon her family. However, the letter had already done the damage – there was no question of a marriage.
Indira’s parents were strongly opposed to her marrying the younger brother of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. Cooch Behar was a smaller, less important state and its royal family was of a different caste and were not Maratha. The Prince was a younger brother of the Maharaja, and he was not expected to inherit the throne.
Apart from this, the Cooch Behar family was highly westernised compared to the Baroda family. All sorts of pressures were put on Indira to forget any plans to marry the young prince. Nevertheless, Indira continued to meet Jitendra in secret. This continued for almost two years. The young prince was even summoned by the Maharaja of Baroda and told in no uncertain terms to not have any delusions about marrying Indira. Indira’s father suspected her of planning to elope, which would result in an even bigger scandal.
Indira’s parents finally agreed to the match but not wholeheartedly. They arranged for the wedding to take place in London at the home of a friend. Finally, in July 1913 Princess Indira married Prince Jitendra Narayan of Cooch Behar. Just three weeks after the wedding Jitendra’s brother died of an illness, and as a result, Prince Jitendra succeeded him as the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and Indira became the Maharani Indira Raje of Cooch Behar.
She and Jitendra would go on to have five children together. Prince Jagaddipendra Narayan – who would succeed his father, Princess Menaka, Prince Indrajitendra, Princess Ila and Princess Gayatri Devi – who would go on to marry the Maharaja of Jaipur. Indira and Jitendra’s married life did not last long as Jitendra died of an illness after just 9 years of marriage. Indira was still only 30 years old when their eldest son was crowned the new Maharaja. He was only seven years old at the time, so Indira became regent. She managed the governing of the princely state with the help of many ministers and councillors until her eldest son was grown enough to take over the responsibilities of the state.
Besides acting as regent for her son, she excelled at decorating and arranging a house; she had an impeccable eye for furniture, fabrics and objects of arts. She could also converse fluently in English, French, Marathi and Bengali. She was considered to be one of the best-dressed women in India. She used to order her chiffons for sarees from a Paris fashion house, which had specially woven fabrics in 45-inch width suitable for sarees. In Delhi and Calcutta, the shops from which she ordered her specific designs were allowed to copy them after one year for other customers. She had a passion for shoes, which were mostly custom made by Ferragamo in Florence. She was known in India and abroad for the excellence of her parties. In a time when being a widow in India meant following an austere life confined to the house and time spent in prayers, she broke the norm. She proved that widowed women could entertain without the company of a husband or a father.
Indira spent a significant part of a year in Europe, mostly in England and France where she would charm the crowds with her beauty and elegance. In the words of her daughter Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, “Mother was quite simply the most beautiful and exciting woman any of us had known. She remains in my memory as an unparalleled combination of wit, warmth and exquisite looks.”
Nevertheless, Indira faced many tragedies. She lost two of her children; Princess Ila died at a very young age, and Prince Indrajitendra died in an accidental fire. Maharani Indira herself died in Bombay (Mumbai) on 6 September 1968.