This queen would travel with thousand sarees, furs, shoes

This queen would travel with thousand sarees, furs, shoes

The most flamboyant Indian Maharani of all times was Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda who passed away on February 15, 1989 in France at the age of 72. She was rumoured to travel with no less than a thousand sarees,  coordinated with shoes and furs. 

Her Paris dressing room was reputed to contain thousands of sarees, each matched with shoes and a purse. A Monsieur Erigua opened a factory called Saree & Co, to create French chiffon sarees for her. 

The last order before the maharani’s death in 1989 was for 260 exclusive sarees. The factory was shuttered upon her passing! Van Cleef & Arpels were her favourite jewellers and she was fondly known to them as Mrs Brown, because of her dusky skin. 

Commissioning solid gold tongue cleaners only endeared her to them more. At a time when most Indian women and maharanis were photographed with their heads demurely covered, she was often seen at the Waldorf Astoria of New York or The Dorchester of London, her hair thrown back to show off earrings and necklaces, hands posed so as to show off her bracelets and rings to best effect. Even her cigarette holder was studded with rubies.  

She was a car enthusiast and was reportedly very fond of her Mercedes W126 which was custom-made for her by Mercedes Benz. At the 1969 Ascot Gold Cup, she invited guests to touch the 30-carat (6.0 g) sapphire on her right hand for good luck. Esquire Magazine included Sita Devi and her son Princie in their list of “fun couples” for 1969.Maharaja Surya Rao and Maharani Chinnamma Roads are two innocuous streets in Alwarpet in Chennai commemorating the Rajah of Pithapuram and his wife. The Pithapuram family, when in Madras, lived at Dunmore House, at Maharajah Surya Rao road. To this couple, in this home on May 12, 1917, was born Sita Devi. Stunningly beautiful, she married the zamindar of Vuyyur, and had three children. In 1943, Maharaja Pratapsinh Gaekwad of Baroda attended Madras races and met Sita Devi, who made him lose all sense of proportion.

The lady, reciprocated the adoration. But as yet Indian society was not willing to let a Maharaja live openly with another man’s wife. The ruler’s lawyers sat together and soon the lady had converted to Islam. Then she implored her zamindar husband to get converted to Islam, as she was anxious, that he should have the benefit of the excellence of her new religion. It is said that her husband did not even bother to react to this stage show. 

A week later, the lady had obtained divorce from her Hindu husband under Islamic canons. She was free. Scarcely had she obtained the divorce, when she converted herself back to Hinduism by Arya Samaj rights. And then her lover, the Baroda Maharaja, married her despite having a highly respected Maharani, with four of his children, waiting for him in Baroda.

Even though the British were used to the vagaries of the Indian princes, they found this drama too much. Further, as per the laws of Baroda state — ordained by the illustrious Maharaja Sayaji Rao, the grandfather of Pratapsinh — nobody in Baroda state could take another spouse if the earlier one was alive. The Viceroy summoned the Maharaja and told him that he had violated the law by his action. 

The Maharaja replied, that on the day of his marriage, Maharani Sita Devi, his new wife, was an adult and unattached Hindu lady. Further, he told the Viceroy that the laws forbidding bigamy were applicable only to the subjects of Baroda state and that, he as their ruler, was exempted from this ban. Legal advisers told the Viceroy that the Indian ruler was correct and all that the British Government could do was to not address the new Maharani as Her Highness. Further, the British officials attending functions in Baroda were asked to leave the assemblage if Maharani Sita Devi came to the hall.

But none of these interdicts bothered the royal couple. By 1946, after World War II had ended, the couple was free to go to Europe. As the famous principality of Monaco (French-controlled) had been spared the war ravages, they chose that city to buy a magnificent mansion and settle down there. Then cabin loads of the great treasures of Baroda state (the Maharaja was known in those days to be the eighth richest man in the world) were transferred to Monaco. 

As a Maharaja, he had every right to take the valuables, wherever he wanted. Till today, no oneknows the full extent of the loot of Baroda treasury by Maharani Sita Devi. The list  included the famous Pearl carpet, a seven-strand necklace of priceless pearls, and the famous three-strand diamond necklace with the famous Star of the South 128.80 carat diamond and the English Dresden of 78.53 carat as the pendant. When in 1947 freedom dawned for India, with other princely states Baroda had to accede to the Indian Union.

As the Government of India took over the treasury and tried to separate the state-owned treasures and personal jewels of the Gaekwad, they were shocked to find that literally nothing was left. 

They forced the Gaekwad to bring back a number of valuables, including the seven-strand pearl necklace — of which two strands had been snipped away. Soon, the foolhardy Gaekwad provoked the government to depose him. But in the far-off Europe, Maharani Sita Devi was not worried. She promptly transferred many of these jewels to her name.

However, it is doubted whether any of the Baroda treasures could have been rescued, for Sita Devi adored having her jewels reset. From the late 1940s, the New York and Paris branches of Van Cleef & Arpels remounted thousands of her old stones in new settings.

In 1968, Pratapsinh died in exile in London, and Sita Devi spent her remaining years dodging tax officials of several countries, with only her son, Princie, for companionship. His life in her gilded cage ended dramatically one night in May 1985, when after his 40th birthday, he slit his throat with a knife and brought to a close aimless years of alcoholism, drug addiction and seedy sexual adventures. Soon after, Sita Devi herself died in Neuilly.  

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