What do a wildlife photographer, hotelier, painter and communications professional have in common? In India, they are members of a new breed of royalty – professionally successful, community-oriented and yet firmly rooted in their rich heritage.
In July 1971, India’s abolition of the almost 3,000-year monarchy left hundreds of royals across the nation at a crossroads as they grappled with the changing nature of what it meant to be a noble in the modern world.
With the privy purse cut off, some sold their jewellery and assets, but almost five decades later, many today remain elites of society and still control up to billions in wealth, even as they see themselves as ordinary Indians with day jobs.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
While many Indians acknowledge the role that royal families have played in India’s arts, culture and heritage, the relevance of these once-illustrious families continues to decline in a nation where poverty is widespread and hereditary privilege is viewed by most as offensive and anachronistic.
Many royals have navigated the shift in status by merging the old with the new, such as by repurposing their centuries-old palaces into heritage hotels.
The royal family from the northern Indian town of Mandawa, known for its warriors, was among the first to open their ancestral home to heritage tourism.
The Castle Mandawa, built as a desert fortress in 1755, was converted to a luxury hotel with 80 rooms in 1980. Princess Priyanjali Katoch runs the hotel with her mother, brother and sister.
Meet Jaipur’s 21-year-old billionaire maharaja who calls a palace home
Mandawa, with a population of around 25,000, is a popular tourist attraction dotted with rows of painted havelis, or town houses, with intricate frescoes on walls. The hotel employs local staff and plays a role in boosting the town’s tourism sector.
The Mandawa royal family is also involved in efforts to revive the traditional art of weaving in Gujarat.
“Privilege always comes with responsibility,” Priyanjali says. “We are always aware of our role in Mandawa, where people look up to us, and we are expected to dress a certain way and observe a certain protocol.”
Meenal Kumari Singh Deo, 52, the princess of Dhenkanal in eastern India, runs her family’s 200-year-old palace as a heritage homestay, which is furnished with arts and crafts from the region.
“In ancient India, the patronage of most art forms, music, dance and architecture, was thanks to royalty,” says Meenal, who is also a creative designer with her own crafts line.
“Even today, when I walk into the weaving village set up by our ancestors, I am overwhelmed by the respect that they have for us based on past initiatives,” she says. “I feel I have to live up to