Until the 19th century what is now India (like Europe) was a patchwork of over 650 princely states, like kingdoms, ranging from the small and relatively unimportant, to the large, immensely wealthy and powerful, ruled over by men (mostly) with a wide range of titles in addition to the familiar maharajahs and rajas.
Under an ancient Hindu custom, to avoid a disputed succession to the throne, a ruler with no born-to heir could adopt a male of any age from another branch of the ruling family and appoint him heir apparent. This parallels similar customs in ancient Rome and during the Chinese Qing Dynasty.
In the Rajput kingdoms, a ruler might adopt a number of boys, called bhayats, who would live in the palace and be groomed for the succession together. An heir apparent would eventually be selected from this pool of candidates if no competent born-to son were produced (an obviously unsuitable or treasonous born-to son could be excluded from the succession). If the ruler died before adopting a successor, one of his widows could adopt an heir, who would immediately accede to the throne. The adoptee would cut all ties with his birth family.
When the British Empire came to India in 1757, among the land-grabbing stratagems devised was the Doctrine of Lapse, which abrogated the ancient custom. Under this doctrine the British arrogated to themselves the right to veto the succession of an adopted heir, and instead, to annex the territory concerned, although the adopted successor and his heirs were usually allowed to keep their titles and a substantial annual allowance. States annexed under this doctrine include:
Indian anger at this transparently corrupt means of extending the Raj was a major contributing factor to the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, which marks the real beginning of almost 100 years of agitation for independence. The Doctrine of Lapse was finally abandoned by the Raj in 1859, and the tradition of adopting a successor was again recognized.
The following sections deal with a few individual princely states and their adopted rulers:
The princely state of Satara in central India was founded in 1674 by Shivaji the Great (1627-1680) and ruled by the Bhonsle dynasty (who also provided the rulers of the states of Chittor and Udaipur) from then until it was annexed by the British Raj in 1848. During this period and up to the present day the dynasty has seen a number of adoptions. These are the adopted rajas of Satara:
Shrimant Shahu Shivaji Raje Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj (1682-1749) Raja of Satara from 1707 to 1749, was not in fact adopted, but he was taken captive by the Mughals at Dohra in 1689 and only released in 1707, under conditions which rendered him a vassal of the Mughal emperors. It was his defeat of his half-brother Shrimant Raja Shahu Shivaji II Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj (1696-1726) and the dowager maharani and regent in 1707 which split the kingdom, with Shivaji II becoming raja of an independent Kolhapur until 1714. Although he had four wives who gave him two born-to sons and four born-to daughters, Shahu Shivaji also adopted two sons:
Shrimant Maharajah Shahu II Raje Chhatrapati Maharaj Sahib (?-1810). Also known as Abba Sahib , Shahu II was born Vithoji Bhonsle, the son of Shrimant Trimbukji Raje Bhonsle of Wavi and adopted by Rajaram II shortly before his death in 1777. Shahu II was succeeded by his born-to son, Maharajah Pratapsinh Chhatrapati Maharaj Sahib, (deposed by the British and sent into exile in 1839), but the next raja …
Shrimant Maharajah Shahaji III Chhatrapati Maharaj Sahib, also known as Abba Sahib  or Jangli Sahib Bhonsle Maharaj (1802-1848), was another adoptee. He, like Shahu II Raje, was also the birth son of Shrimant Sardar Trimbukji Raje Bhonsle. He was adopted by Maharajah Pratapsinh and succeeded him in 1839. It was on his death in 1848 that the Doctrine of Lapse was invoked, to veto the succession by his adopted son …
Shrimant Maharajah Venkuiraje Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj (?-1864). Venkuiraje, also known as Bhau Sahib or Ventakji, was born the son of Shrimant Ambajirao Bhonsle and adopted by Shahji III on his deathbed. He was deposed in 1848 but continued to enjoy the titles and life-style of a non-ruling prince. Ventakji died in 1864 without having either born-to heirs or having adopted one, but after his death, his widow, Rani Saguna Bai Maharaj, adopted …
Shrimant Sardar Rajaram Bhonsle, who took the name Shrimant Raja Pratapsinhji I Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj as heir, and he succeeded to the titles in 1865, reigning until 1874. Pratapsinhji I also died without either a born-to or adopted heir, and his widow, Tara Bai likewise adopted a son to succeed him …
Shrimant Raja Rajaram III Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj, who reigned 1874 to 1904. The next two rajas, Anna Sahib and Bhav Sahib, were both the born-to sons of Rajaram III, but yet again, when Bhav Sahib died in 1925, he left no born-to or adopted heir, and his widow, Tara Bai Sahib Maharaj, adopted an heir to succeed him …
Captain Shrimant Raja Shahu Pratapsinhji Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj (1918-1950), born Shrimant Chandrasen Bhonsle. He succeeded to the title in 1925, immediately after his adoption. The following two rajas, including the present one, are not adoptees.
In 1707-10 a dispute over the succession led to the splitting of Satara into two: Satara proper and Kolhapur. These are the adopted rajas of Kolhapur:
Shrimant Raja Shahu Shivaji II Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj (1756-1813) was born Shrimant Mankajirao Bhonsle, son of Shrimant Sardar Shahajirao Bhonsle. The previous raja, Srimanant Raja Shahu Sambhaji II Bhonsle (1698-1760), had died childless, but his seventh wife, Kusa Bai, was pregnant. The succession was left in abeyance, to see whether her child would be a son or daughter, but in the event she gave birth to a daughter. This left the throne vacant, and Mankajirao was then adopted by another of Sambhaji II's widows, his fourth wife, Maharani Jiji Bai Sahib Maharaj (1716-1773), who herself was the adopted daughter of the Chief of Torgal and the birth daughter of his brother). He was only six years old at the time of his accession and his adoptive mother and her co-widows were his regents until 1779.
Shrimant Raja Shivaji IV Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj Shahaji Dam Altaphoo (1830-1866) had three sons, but they all died before him, so three days before he died he adopted his nephew, Meherban Shrimant Nagojirao Patankar, born in 1850, to succeed him. He took the name Shrimant Raja Rajaram I Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj Bahadur, and reigned from 1866 to 1870. He died childless (his only child, a daughter, had lived only three months), and a year after he died his senior widow adopted …
At this point Rajaram II's widow, Tara Bai Sahib, adopted the reigning (and adult) puar of Dewas, Vikramsinhrao (1910-1983) as the new raja of Kolhapur. He abdicated the throne of Dewas in favor of his son and ascended the throne of Kolhapur as Shrimant Maharajah Sir Shahaji II Bhonsle Chhatrapati Maharaj Bahadur in 1947. He almost immediately joined Kolhapur with the newly independent country of India, and in 1949 he merged Kolhapur with Mumbai. Shahaji II's only son was now the puar of Dewas and could not succeed him to the throne of Kolhapur, so he adopted his daughter's son …
The princely state of Nawanagar (now known as Jamnagar) in Gujarat, the homeland of Mahatma Ghandi, has a ruling dynasty which includes several maharajahs, or jam sahibs, adopted under Hindu customary law from the 16th century to the 20th century.
Jam Shri Rawaliji, Sahib Jam Sahib of Nawanagar from 1540 to 1562, had four sons, but instead of declaring one of them to be his heir, he adopted one of his own grandsons, Lakhaji Jiyaji Sahib (son of his eldest son) and appointed him heir. Nevertheless, one of Lakhaji Jiyaji's uncles, Vibhaji Rawaliji Sahib, seized the throne in 1562.
Jam Sahib Tamachi II Raisinhji Sahib, who reigned 1711-1743, died without a son to succeed him. His widow then adopted Jam Shri Lakhaji Tamachi Jadeja Sahib (who was the son of an earlier jam sahib), who reigned from 1743 to 1767.
Maharajahdhiraj Jam Shri Ranmalsinhji Sataji (Ranmalji II) Jadeja Sahib (?-1852) Jam Sahib of Nawanagar from 1820 to 1852, was adopted by Rani Achuba Sahiba, the widow of Jam Saheb Jasoji, who had died childless. He was a popular reforming maharajah, who built roads and drought relief works. He was succeeded by his son, Jam Shri Sir Vibhaji. Vihabji had 22 wives but no sons, other than one who was excluded from the succession for plotting his father's overthrow. To secure an heir, he adopted twice, each time a distant cousin, but after that he had another birth son. The first adopted son, Raisinhji Vibhaji was poisoned by one of Vibhaji's wives. The second adoption was annulled when his son was born and the young birth son succeeded him in 1895, aged 13. But this son died childless in 1906 and was succeeded by the displaced adoptee ...
- Lieutenant-General Maharajah Jam Shri Sir Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja Bahadur (1895-1966), Maharajah Jam Sahib of Nawanagar from 1933 to 1966.
Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji also adopted a niece, Shree Vrajkuvar (1917-1992), who married the maharajah of Idar.
The princely state of Mewar, part of Rajasthan, also practiced traditional heir-adoption. Ari Singh II (ruled 1761-1773) adopted Hamir Singh II (ruled 1773-1778). The rulers were then afflicted by the Curse of Mewar, imposed under maharajah Jawan Singh (ruled 1828-1838). To avoid having to fulfil a promise to a female acrobat that he would give her half his kingdom if she could walk a tightrope across Pichola Lake, he had the rope cut and she drowned. But just before she died, she cursed his family: no maharana would ever again produce a born-to heir. The curse was effective for generations:
Maharaj Duleep Singh (1838?-1893) was the son of Ranjit Singh, the maharajah of Punjab. When he was five his father died, leaving him ruler of the Sikh kingdom of Punjab and fabulously wealthy. But in 1848 the invading British defeated the Punjabis, forcibly converted Duleep to Christianity and separated him from his mother, whom he did not see again until 1860. He was sent to England as a ward of Queen Victoria. Dr. John Login, a Scott, was appointed governor of the province and he took Duleep to Scotland, where he embraced British culture and became known as the Black Prince of Perthshire. Although the British confiscated most of the wealth of his kingdom, including the Koh-i-noor diamond, they left him enough money to maintain a lavish lifestyle for most of his life and he became highly poplar in British society. In 1860 he returned briefly to Punjab to be reunited with his mother, but the years of enforced separation had taken their toll and the reunification was not happy, although she did follow him back to Scotland where they lived apart.
In addition to the doctrine of lapse, the British simply deposed some rulers they didn't like or thought were incompetent. Among these were Peshwa Baji Rao II, Raja of Bithur, an incompetent ruler, already deposed before he died, and his adopted son, Nana Saheb (also known as Nana Dhondo Pant Peshwa), 1820?-1859(?). Contrary to custom, Nana Saheb evidently did not lose contact with his birth family because in later years he fought alongside his two brothers, Rao Saheb and Bala Saheb. Raja Baji Rao II was weak and pleasure-loving, and while he was raja the British annexed the Maratha princely states, including Bithur, with Baji Rao retiring on a large pension. When Baji Rao died his pension and the residual authority of the Raja should have passed to Nana Saheb, but Lord Dalhousie, governor general of India, 1848-56, had instituted his Doctrine of Lapse. This insult to Hindu law made Nana Saheb's cause a major cause of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58, which was a direct outgrowth of increasing anger and dissatisfaction with 100 years of despotic and culturally insensitive British rule under the East India Company, and the beginning of the organized independence struggle (see also section 10 below). Nana Saheb became one of the intellectual and military leaders of the rebellion, but in December 1857 his forces were defeated at Kanpur and he fled to Nepal, where he may have died.
Another state whose treatment under the Doctrine of Lapse helped precipitate the Sepoy Rebellion was Jhansi. A member of Baji Rao II of Bithur's council of ministers was Moropanth. Moropanth's only daughter, Manubai (1834 or 35-1858), grew up a close companion of Nana and Rao Saheb (see section 9 above). She was married in 1842 to the aged maharajah of the small kingdom of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao. They had a son in 1851, but he died in infancy, and they decided to adopt a successor, a boy named Anand Rao (ca. 1847-1898 or after), who was renamed Damodar Rao (one source states that the adoption did not take place until after maharajah Gangadhar Rao's death). When the maharajah died in 1853, the British viceroy, Lord Dalhousie, refused to recognize the under-age adopted boy's right of succession (he was still only five or six years old), using the Doctrine of Lapse to annex the kingdom in 1854. Moropanth, now known as rani Lakshmi Bai, joined forces with others, including Nana Saheb, enraged at this and other actions of the Raj, and became another of the main leaders of the Sepoy Rebellion.
Two maharajahs of Bijawar in the 20th century were adoptees. Since the Doctrine of Lapse had been abandoned in 1859 there was no argument about the succession.
Maharajah Bhon Pratap Singh adopted the second son of the maharajah of Orchha, who reigned as Bharat Dharmendar Sawai Sir Sawant Singh (born 1877, ruled 1900-1940). He in turn adopted ...
The seventh raja of the small princely state of Sailana in Madhya Pradesh was Sir Jashwant Singh Bahadur. He was born in 1864, the son of maharaj Bhawani Singhji, the jagirdar of Semila. He was adopted by the heir-less raja Duleh Singh and ruled Sailana from 1895 to his death in 1919.
The small princely state of Jigni in the state of Madhya Pradesh was ruled by an unbroken line of four adopted rajas, from 1870:
Rao Lakshman Singh II was the adopted son of Rao Bhopal Singh, and ruled from 1870 to 1892. He adopted ...
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