Krishna Kumari: female maharaja who took up women's liberation
After her husband died in a plane crash, she acted as regent, then ran for office
Rajmata (Queen Mother) Krishna Kumari, who has died aged 92, was the queen mother of the royal family of Jodhpur and the last reigning maharani (female maharaja) of the Indian princely state, from 1947 to 1949. After the death of her husband, Maharaja Hanuwant Singh, in a plane crash in 1952, she acted as regent for her son, Maharaja Gaj Singh.
She was born Krishna Kumari, princess of Dhrangadhra, now in the Indian state of Gujarat, on February 10 1926, and was educated by British governesses and at the Dhrangadhra Palace school with her brothers and male cousins.
As one of her brothers recalled, their head teacher drilled them in the dates of William the Conqueror and William Rufus, but taught them nothing about the history of India: "I doubt if he'd heard of The Vedas or Emperor Ashoka or even of yoga."
The ruling house of Dhrangadhra belonged to the Jhala Rajputs, a warrior clan who originated in Baluchistan and came to India in the 8th century. In more recent times, the kingdom contracted alliances, through marriage, with the wealthier princely state of Jodhpur.
When, in 1943, Krishna Kumari married Yuvraj (Crown Prince) Hanuwant Singh of Jodhpur, it was part of a deal that also required her brother Meghrajji, Maharaja of Dhrangadhra, to marry Hanuwant Singh's adopted sister, Brijraj Kumari.
While Krishna Kumari was considered a beauty, Brijraj Kumari was rather less so and, being adopted, her status was questionable. Nonetheless, after initial hesitation, Meghrajji agreed to the match on the grounds that it would strengthen ties between the two Hindu Rajput kingdoms.
Krishna Kumari was 16 when she married the 20-year-old heir to the throne of Jodhpur at the Suraj Mahal Palace in Dhrangadhra and she recalled being so nervous that she lost her voice and appetite. The ceremonies lasted several days, at the end of which she was whisked away to Jodhpur with the groom in a fleet of white Rolls-Royces.
She might well have been nervous because her husband, a tall, portly figure known to friends as Big Boy, had a reputation as a playboy and an eccentric given to emotional outbursts. He succeeded to the throne of Jodhpur on his father's death in 1947. After independence in 1949, when the maharajas lost political power, he would be one of the most progressive former rulers in adapting to the new political climate.In 1948, however, the maharaja took as a second, though unofficial, wife, a 19-year old Scottish nurse called Sandra McBryde, with whom he travelled to England. While Krishna Kumari was giving birth to his son and heir, Gaj Singh Rathore, in Jodhpur, the maharaja and McBryde were ensconced in a suite in Claridges hotel.
The maharaja's second marriage ended, however, after he fell in love with the singer and actress Zubeida, a Muslim divorcée whom he installed in Jodhpur as his mistress and, despite opposition from his family, married in 1950. They had a son, Hukam Singh, also known as Tutu Banna.
In 1951, the maharaja decided to stand in the first Indian general election. Jawaharlal Nehru had threatened to withdraw the privy purse (state subsidy) of any maharaja who stood for election, so Hanuwant Singh voluntarily gave up his allowance and took to the skies in his light aircraft, often accompanied by Zubeida, to canvass as an independent candidate for the seat of Jodhpur. He won, but posthumously, for on January 26 1952 he and Zubeida were flying dangerously low when the plane hit power cables and crashed, killing both passengers.
The long-suffering Krishna Kumari, with whom the maharaja also had two daughters, stepped into the breach and brought up her husband's son by Zubeida. Perhaps not surprisingly, the boy grew up to be a troubled young man and in 1981 he met a gruesome end when he was found beheaded on the streets of Jodhpur - reportedly killed in a mysterious encounter with a group of sword-wielding assailants.In the meantime, following her husband's death, Krishna Kumari took over as regent for her four-year-old son, Maharaja Gaj Singh. Recognising the new realities, she sent him to England to be educated at Cothill House, then Eton College and finally Oxford, where he graduated with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics in 1970. "She didn't want me growing up in a palace, with palace retainers, thinking nothing had changed," Singh recalled recently.
The new maharaja went on to become a progressive and entrepreneurial custodian of his inheritance, converting many of Jodhpur's palaces into luxury hotels.
His mother became a champion of women's rights and girls' education, collaborating with her son to found the Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girls Public School, regarded as one of the best in India, and the Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girls Hostel, a women's welfare centre, in Jodhpur.
In 1971 she stood as an independent for the Jodhpur seat in elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's bicameral parliament, winning by a record margin. She retired from the Lok Sabha in 1977.
Her children survive her.