“She, whose only peer was the Holy Roman Empire …”
Below, Wikipedia’s simplified list of the main Princely States of India and their main groupings as they stood on the eve of independence, August 15 1947. I have reordered it slightly and included links where they exist. I may even correct it periodically. The quality of the articles is uneven. Not all yet refer to princely history. Some are written by people whose first language is not English. This has been a problem with much English Wikipedia coverage of India, though the article on Tamil history, for example, has recently been overhauled. There may not be a consistent principle determining which states are listed here and which are not.
Absorbing these states was one of the early tasks of independent India. Understanding the system as it evolved over time under the British would take years. There is a rather opaque database, listing 958 states, here, and further listings here.
According to Surjit Mansingh’s Historical Dictionary of India, “At the time of India’s independence from Britain in 1947, something between 562 and 600 (depending on definition) Princely States were scattered over two-fifths of the subcontinent. They ranged in size from petty principalities of a few hundred acres to domains as large as France. Their rulers were of similarly diverse lineage, traced back to mythological times as in the case of Mewar, to medieval Afghan incursions as in the case of Bhopal to the Maratha confederacy in the case of many west and central Indian states, to the Sikh chieftains in Punjab, or to assertive vassals of the Mughal Emperor as in the case of Hyderabad. Serious scholars have turned their attention to the internal and external dynamics of these Princely States only recently, though the deeds, misdeeds, and lifestyles of Princes have been for long the material of pulp literature.” And hear this fascinating recent BBC Crossing Continents programme about the present gay Prince of Rajpipla (which is on the list).
Continuing with Mansingh: “Princely States were survivals of traditional Indian polity in which four different levels of control might operate [...]: [in ascending order] a local chieftain with a title befitting his power; a Raja who would command allegiance and revenue from several little kingdoms; a higher functionary with an appropriate title such as Maharaja or Nawab, entitled to collect revenue from a large area and connect it directly with the imperial or paramount power; and the imperial power itself, which was the Mughal Emperor in the eighteenth century. The decline of Mughal power was accompanied by assertiveness and conflict at all the other levels. The East India Company, seeking commercial gain, also engaged itself in military and political competition. It signed treaties, subsequently known as Subsidiary Alliances, with some Princes against others; it annexed many territories; it emerged as the de facto paramount power in the early nineteenth century; and it suppressed the Uprising of 1857, during which Indian Princes fought both for and against the British.
“In 1858 the British Crown assumed sovereignty over an Indian Empire and removed the Princes’ fears of expropriation. Their status was fixed by the number of guns fired in salute; eighty-three princes were entitled to eleven guns and over, twenty-four to seventeen and over, and only five – Baroda, Gwalior, Hyderabad, Jammu, Kashmir and Mysore – to twenty-one-gun salutes. The British looked on the Indian Princes as props of a conservative Empire; they interacted with them in asymmetric personal transactions resembling patronage, appointing Residents, Dewans [administrators and revenue-collectors], and English tutors for purposes of ‘modernization’ but remaining wary of active or ambitious Princes. [The most important states had British Residents. Others were overseen by Agencies.] Though railway lines and posts and telegraphs ran through the Princely States as they connected different parts of British India, and though Indian familial and cultural ties surmounted political borders, there was little or no contact between the Princes and the emerging, politically conscious, middle class of British India that founded the Indian National Congress in 1885.
“By 1900 some Princely States such as Baroda, Cochin, Mysore, and Travancore had good administrative systems; the primary education schemes financed by the rulers of Tranvancore, Cochin, and Baroda were certainly better than any in British India. But the stereotyped image of Princely States was of feudal, backward despotisms. Indian Princes provided the Viceroy with pomp and pageantry, especially at the durbar of King George V in Delhi in 1911. As military allies (in theory) of the King-Emperor, they rallied their troops for service in World War I but were disappointed with the meager recognition they received from the British. A few Princes entered the all-India political arena in the first quarter of the twentieth century, notably Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, Maharaja Scindia Madho Rao of Gwalior, and Nawab Hamidullah of Bhopal. Some represented India at the League of Nations; others were courted for their name and financial support by newly formed groups in British India.
“A Chamber of Princes was established as a deliberative assembly with limited powers of advice in 1921, at the same time as the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms were introduced in British India. Rulers of the more important states sat in their individual capacity, smaller states elected representatives from among themselves for the Chamber of Princes. There was an active membership of about forty Princes with a core of about fifteen from different parts and different communities of India. World War I accelerated the pace of change in India and the Non-Cooperation Movement demonstrated the need to readjust group relationships, but through the 1920s the Princes remained clients of the imperial power, aloof from the national movement and seeking constant reassurance for their own status and security in subsequent constitutional changes from the British. The Princes, for the most part, responded well to a suggestion made by Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru at the first Round Table Conference in 1930 [in London] for a federation between Princely India and British India. However, the federal scheme incorporated in the Government of India Act of 1935 became mired in the marshes of British ambivalence, princely intransigence, and Congress opposition even before World War II. Mutual mistrust between most Princes and Congress leaders was fueled too by the agitations led by the States Peoples Conference in the late 1930s for democratization in the Princely States.
“The Princes played no direct role in the British-Indian negotiations for the transfer of power during the 1940s. A few, such as Bhopal, Hyderabad, and Travancore, entertained fantasies of independence when Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, announced on June 3, 1947 that ‘paramountcy’ would lapse on August 15; but most recognized the imminent reality of a new paramount power in New Delhi. Through the efforts of Mountbatten himself, Vallabhai Patel, and their troubleshooter V.P. Menon, 584 princely rulers signed Instruments of Accession to India by August 15, 1947. The administrative harmonization of their domains with contiguous areas was completed by the mid-1950s. The varying cases of Hyderabad and Junagadh were resolved by 1948; the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India in October 1947 but much of his territory was occupied by Pakistani forces and remains disputed.
“At the time of accession, 284 of the Princes were qualified to receive privy purses. These were abolished after the Derecognition of Indian Princes proclamation introduced by Indira Gandhi’s government in 1971 later passed into law. Most Princes and their families actively participate in the commercial, professional, political, service, and touristic streams of contemporary Indian life.”
Gujarat States Agency and Baroda Residency
States of the North-West Frontier
States of the Punjab
States of the Rajputana Agency
Mewar, or after its capital Udaipur
States of the Central India Agency
States of the Eastern States Agency
States of the Deccan States Agency and Kolhapur Residency
States of the Madras Presidency
The provinces of British India on the eve of independence were
Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Bombay Province, or the Bombay Presidency
Central Provinces and Berar
Madras Province, or the Madras Presidency
North-West Frontier Province
United Provinces of Agra and Oudh