She was a Rajput princess with many suitors. A succession of battles was fought to gain her hand. Unlike Padmini, she was a real figure whose story was detailed in annals and letters composed during her life and immediately after her death. The manner of that death was unique and tragic, so shameful that no bard was ever commissioned to glorify it in verse. Though she played a crucial role at an inflection point in India’s history, her life has never been explored on film or television, and doesn’t currently merit even a Wikipedia entry. And yet, it is a life worth remembering, for it illustrates, with a clarity few historical tales can match, the disgraceful nature of our culture’s idea of honour.

Her name was Krishna Kumari, daughter of Rana Bhim Singh of Mewar. Not long after her birth, she was betrothed to her father’s namesake, Raja Bhim Singh of Marwar. But after her husband-to-be died in 1803, when she was just nine years old, her father arranged an engagement with the king of Amber, Jagat Singh. Bhim Singh’s successor, Man Singh, put a spoke in that wheel, insisting he had inherited the right to marry Krishna Kumari.

Why was he so keen on the match? The Mewar kingdom was defined by an asymmetry between its social status and its actual resources. A large part of its prestige drew from a singular relationship with the Mughals. Mewar had submitted to Mughal authority like other Rajput kingdoms, but was spared the humiliation of marrying its princesses to outcaste Mughal princes. Staying unsullied, it gained bragging rights, but lost the practical benefits of marital alliances with India’s most powerful family.

As Mughal power crumbled in the 18th century, the empire’s vassals in Jodhpur, the capital of Marwar, and Jaipur, the capital of Amber, were well-positioned to benefit, while Mewar remained poor and weak. It retained its cachet, however, making the hand of Krishna Kumari the most desirable in the country.

Caught in a storm

I imagine the princess playing hopscotch with friends in the women’s quarters of Udaipur’s palace on a cool morning in late 1805, unaware of the storm gathering around her. If I wrote a film script about her life, that’s how it would open. In Jaipur, Jagat Singh was making plans to consummate the alliance with Mewar, and Man Singh was determined to thwart him. Jagat Singh appealed to the British, the rising power in the subcontinent with whom he had recently signed a treaty of friendship. But the British were preoccupied with Napoleon, and had temporarily halted their expansion in India. Governor General Cornwallis, in India for his second term, dissolved the accord with Jaipur under a flimsy excuse, and washed his hands off the Krishna Kumari issue.

That left the Marathas, who were a formidable force though not as dominant as they had been for much of the previous century. As the armies of Jaipur’s Jagat Singh and Jodhpur’s Man Singh marched on Udaipur, Daulatrao Shinde of Gwalior was induced to side with the latter, who not only paid him a lot of money but promised to abide by his counsel. Shinde demanded that all Jaipur’s forces vacate Mewar, and when that demand was not met, defeated the Mewar army and took effective control of the kingdom. The Maratha chieftain then overplayed his hand, trying to barter power for prestige by throwing his own name in the hat of Krishna Kumari’s suitors. Neither Jaipur nor Jodhpur would have cause to complain if Mewar’s princess went to Gwalior, he reasoned. He had disregarded the strength of Rajput conviction that Maratha generals were low born. Rana Bhim Singh would not wed his daughter to one of them at any cost.

Jodhpur and Jaipur attempted to put the Krishna Kumari issue behind them by sealing a matrimonial alliance of their own, but Jagat Singh considered her too great a prize to sacrifice, and hostilities resumed. Shinde’s effrontery in asking for the Mewar princess’s hand brought a new player into the conflict, the Maratha ruler of Indore, Yashwantrao Holkar. Along with him came his spearhead, the Pathan Amir Khan, who first aided Jaipur and then, feeling he hadn’t been given his due, switched to the Jodhpur side. It would be tedious to detail all the skirmishes, sieges and battles that took place over the next four years, but Rajputana, and all three major Rajput kingdoms, paid dearly in lives and tributes while gaining nothing. Just the kingdom of Jaipur handed over one crore and twenty lakh rupees to various generals and mercenaries, either for assistance rendered or as reparations.

Cruel fate

By 1810, Krishna Kumari was 16 years old, and still unmarried. Amir Khan, who had grown independent of Holkar after Yashwantrao went a little batty, raided Udaipur at the behest of Man Singh and gave Bhim Singh an ultimatum. With his back to the wall, Bhim Singh concluded his daughter was too much trouble and the ideal solution for all parties to the conflict would be if she died. Accordingly, on July 21, 1810, Krishna Kumari was given poison. The chroniclers and panegyrists tried to put their best spin on the horror. It was the Pathan’s suggestion, they wrote, as if that shifted culpability from the man who made the decision. They went on about how the princess drank the poison with a smile on her lips, how she chose death over her clan’s dishonour. The truth is, she had no choice in death any more than she did in life. Those who possessed the power to choose, Bhim Singh, Jagat Singh, and Man Singh, all chose unwisely, and did so consistently for years.

Once the threat posed by Napoleon was neutralised, the British turned their attention back to India. Within a decade of Krishna Kumari’s killing, all the players in that complicated and avoidable tragedy, whether Rajput or Pathan, Shinde or Holkar, had accepted British suzerainty.

There is an echo of this 200-year-old tale in contemporary politics. Daulatrao Shinde’s dynasty, anglicised to Scindia, continued to rule Gwalior under British patronage until Independence. The current chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, is an heir of Daulatrao, though not through a direct line of descent since he left no living son. Her entry into Rajasthan came through her brief marriage to a Dholpur royal, but she has crafted her political identity in her Maratha name. In some sense, she has succeeded where Daulatrao failed. Her rise demonstrates simultaneously how in thrall India remains to its feudal past and how far we have progressed from it. Unlike Krishna Kumari, today’s Indian women have some agency. At least, if they are princesses.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this piece mentioned Dholpur royal as Rajput royal by mistake.