Characters from the past: the Maharajah of Alwar in The Life of Lord Halifax

One of the books I’m currently reading is a biography of Edward Wood, Lord Halifax. He is the Briton probably most famously remembered as Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary, who stood by his Prime Minister on return from meeting the German Chancellor heralding ‘peace in our time’ to the world’s media. Their policy of appeasement soon dissolved into dust when Hitler invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany.

Perhaps less well known is not only Halifax’s stint as ambassador to the United States, thereafter, sent by Winston Churchill; but also Halifax’s incumbency as a Viceroy of India (1926-31).

The biography, written in 1965, is engaging, peppered with colourful characterisations, including the following of the poisonous Maharaja of Alwar (1882-1937), which I encountered last night -

Towards the end of May the Princes would gather in Simla for their Council, and the Viceroy became acquainted with these picturesque figures whose characters were as various as the size of their domains and the efficiency with which they were administered. He was much taken with the panache of these rulers, saying of one of them that he was ‘the greatest gentleman he had ever met’, but he noted their backslidings with a shrewd eye.

One of the first to pay his respects was the deplorable Maharaja of Alwar, who claimed to be descended from the Sun God and whose continued presence on his throne was thought by many to be an affront to public decency and a reproach to the Government of India. Here was a strong and baleful personality; a tall man of reptilian beauty and remarkable accomplishments, a philosopher, a scholar and a fine orator even in a day rich in the power of speech. Clearly a victim of schizophrenia, he was known to be a sadist and a pervert, and he had developed towards the English a manner at once insolent and correct that was difficult to endure. He was commonly supposed to have murdered more than one person who had crossed his path, and was said to have tethered a recalcitrant polo pony to the side of the hill in the hot weather, and made daily visits to watch it dying of thirst. Indeed, he was later to have a goat tied outside [Dorothy Wood, the Viceroy’s wife’s] window in his palace at Alwar so that it might be killed in the small hours of the morning by a tame panther and terrifying her by its dying screams, but she was fortunately able to forestall these hospitable preparations by releasing the goat.

Like some Sultan in the seraglio on the Golden Horn he went in constant terror of assassination, and yet was so brave that, disdaining the safety of a machan, he would hunt panther on foot with a spear and follow wounded tigers into the jungle without a qualm. He was a man who could literally produce a shiver in those who encountered him.

Part of Alwar’s insolence consisted in having all dogs removed from his sight, however distinguished their owners. Their proximity, he said, made him feel sick, and it speaks volumes for the man’s personality that he was able to force this intolerable rule on the Secretary of State, Birkenhead, and the Viceroy, two men in whose lives dogs played a large part.

He was also given to a cynical pretence, in order to cause inconvenience, that as his religion forbade him to touch leather he could not ride in an ordinary saddle, a claim that was never made by other Hindu princes, or hold ordinary reins. A buckskin saddle had to be found for him to use on the ride to Annandale, and brown silk gloves prevented contamination by the bridle. The rule of this evil man, who seemed to belong to some other age, was eventually ended by an uprising of his subjects, and he was to die miserably in Paris.

- from ‘Halifax, The Life of Lord Halifax’, by The Earl of Birkenhead (pp.184-5)

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