Kingship in India

The Meaning of Maharaja

The word maharaja (“great king”) conjures up visions of a splendid turbaned and bejeweled ruler with absolute authority and immense wealth. But this image fails to do justice to the role of the maharaja in India’s illustrious history.

Indian concepts of kingship derived from ancient texts and changed over time in response to political as well as to religious, social, and cultural changes. By the early 1700s, a notion of kingship emerged that had gradually and selectively developed from a mix of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim ideals.

Taken from the Hindu belief system, the concept of darshan—the propitious act of seeing and being seen by a superior being, whether a god or a king—became central to the idea of kingship. Viewing a king in all his glory was an act that transferred blessings and grace to the witnesses.

To enact darshan, a lavishly dressed ruler riding a richly ornamented elephant or horse presented himself in grand public processions, surrounded by attendants bearing symbolic attributes of kingship: a royal parasol, chauri (ceremonial whisks), fans, and staffs of authority.

These spectacular events expressed the king’s secular and sacred power, ensured the well-being of dynasty, state, and subjects, and affirmed that the righteous ruler was blessed and guided by divine forces.