Kings for a day: India’s last real royals celebrate in glittering style

Once a year, regal trappings are restored to five descendants of tribal rulers in Dangs region, Gujarat state, but all isn't as glittering as it seems

Trikamrao Sahebrao Pawar beamed with pride as he rode in a gleaming chariot drawn by horses with decorated coverings. Around him, revellers danced to the beat of drums in a unique procession to celebrate India's only titular kings.

It is the time of the year when the five descendants of former tribal Bhil rulers — all wearing matching brand-new, crisp white outfits, complete with a turban — come together for an extravaganza.

However, these monarchs' reigns only last a single day each year.

“I feel overwhelmed with all the attention. I enjoy it all, even if it is just for a day,” Mr Pawar, 48, told The National. This year, the entire festival lasts from March 11 to March 15.

The ancestors of Mr Pawar and four other male relatives were tribal kings of Dangs region — a forested belt in the Western Ghats mountains — now a small district in western Gujarat state, with about 300 tribal villages.

They represent the “kingdoms” of Pimpri, Linga, Daher, Gadhvi and Vasurna, located among teak forest.

But while other descendants of Indian royalty still live in opulent palaces and enjoy regal luxuries, despite losing their titles decades ago, these kings have rather more modest lifestyles.

During the rest of the year, they live like their ordinary “subjects”, working in the fields, rearing cattle and running their households.

Mr Pawar and others say they are peasants and have no inheritance. They live in extreme poverty with their extended family in thatched houses, toiling hard to make ends meet.

Their children have received no education and work as drivers or do manual work to supplement the family's income, while their queens take charge of the household. Their make a living out of cutting plantations in the forests.

The royals are held in respect by the tribal population, who invite them on special occasions like weddings and continue to hold sway on social issues in the tribal community.

But ahead of the Hindu festival of colours, Holi, the government holds an extravagant five-day Dang Darbar festival to honour the men and their royal lineage.

They are officially treated as kings for a day and sit with the government dignitaries and receive their annual pension while holding their annual “court”, in a tradition that began in British colonial times.

The men are brought to the district headquarters where they are groomed, given a haircut and gifted new clothes. Photo: Divyesh Mahati

“It is a tradition that we maintain to honour the history and dignity of the Dang Darbar,” district official Bhavin Pandya, told The National.

In the mid-19th century, the British tried to conquer the tribal lands on several occasions but were pushed back by the warrior Bhil kings, who defeated the colonisers each time.

Britain made an accord with the kings in 1842 for the lease of the forest to fell teak, in lieu of an annual sum and recognition of their rule over the vast tribal lands.

The colonialists also introduced the tradition of the annual unique ceremony where they lauded the kings and handed over the annual sum.

Dangs never became part of British India, and neither was its occupied by any neighbouring kingdom.

But when the British left India in 1947, New Delhi made Dangs a part of the former state of Bombay, before its inclusion in the state of Gujarat in 1960.

In 1954, the government passed a resolution that took away all the rights and privileges of the kings, granting them a hereditary political pension instead.

It abolished the privy purse of nearly 500 erstwhile rulers in 1971 to reduce the financial burden, but continued to give political pensions to the Dang kings, along with their official recognition of the royal title.

The 'kings' are carried in a golden-coloured chariot drawn by caparisoned horses as dancers frolicked to the beats of drums in a procession. Photo: Divyesh Mahati

In the tradition's current form, the descendants of the Bhil kings are brought to Ahwa, the district headquarters of the Dangs, every year, where they are groomed, given a haircut and presented with new clothes.

On the day of the main event, they are carried on decorated, gold-painted carts, along with their chieftains, in a procession to receive their pension from the state governor.

While the kings, whose ages range from their 30s to 60s, say they appreciate the government endorsement of their title, they are less pleased with the sum they receive as a pension.

The state governor on Sunday handed 3 million rupees ($39,200) to the royals descendants, which is divided between the kings and other court royals.

Each king received an average pension of 8,000 rupees a month.

Chhatrasinh Bhavarsinh Suryavanshi, 38, ruler of the Linga dynasty is critical of the government's treatment of the kings.

“We have nothing left except this name and a few acres of land but we don’t make much money. And then they give us peanuts in pension,” Mr Suryavanshi told The National.

Mr Suryavanshi said his grandfather was one of the richest kings in the tribal land, with silver coins worth millions of rupees in his possession.

But now he and his family live in a wooden hut.

“My grandfather had an elephant, horses and treasure worth 30 kilograms of silver coins. But he buried it in the forest and nobody knows where the coins are,” Mr Suryavanshi said.

“We have no inheritance and no scope to make extra money. We are not educated and know no other skill,” he said.

However, the government is planning to increase the pension amount, after years of demands from the one-time royals.

“With the positive approach of the state government, the amount of political pension would be increased soon,” Gujarat Tribal Development Minister Nareshbhai Patel, said at the event.

The tribal kings are elated with the announcement.

“The government already respects us. If they also raise our pension amount, all our problems will end,” Mr Pawar said.

Updated: March 15, 2022, 8:40 AM