Manna from Heaven

One used his to go tiger hunting; another fitted wash basins in the boot. The most eccentric Indian prince of all converted six of his into rubbish trucks, after feeling slighted by the British manufacturer.

Nicola Smith, writing in the Sunday Times last week, told the story of the extraordinary love affair between Indians and their Rolls-Royces, seen as the ultimate status symbol in 1900 Colonial India. This has been revealed in two new volumes by John Fasal, a British pensioner.

His accounts of the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys of princely India, to be published next year, are the culmination of almost fifty years of meticulous research during which he ploughed through company records and spoke to eighty-six out of six hundred Indian royal families.

Fasal’s investigations show how the Rolls-Royce became the perfect accessory to the maharajahs’ flamboyant and luxurious lifestyles, lived in a blur of hunting, garden parties and summer trips to London.

The Maharajah of Gwalior, Central India, began the craze when he bought a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, known as the ‘Pearl of the East’, in 1908. Price was no barrier. The cost of a Rolls-Royce in the Edwardian era was about £1,300 – the equivalent of £250,000 today.

Mere ownership of the car was not enough for the Rajah of Monghyr in the state of Bihar. He ordered a jeweller in Calcutta to decorate his Roller with traditional Indian carvings in ornate silver. ‘It looked like a Christmas tree,’ said Fasal, seventy, who lives in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire and who has archive photographs of the car among two thousand original images that he collected from India.

In one, the Queen of Nandgaon, in the State of Uttar Pradesh, is seen waving from an upside down Rolls after a crash. Among Fasal’s sources for the two volumes was Gayatri Devi, who was descended from the Cooch Behar dynasty in West Bengal, but became the last Queen of Jaipur in Rajasthan, a desert state in Northern India. Born in 1910, Devi was voted one of the most beautiful women in the world by Vogue and was the darling of society columnists after she fell in love with Man Singh, the heir to the throne of Jaipur.

Gayatri Devi was once voted one of the world's most beautiful women

Gayatri Devi was once voted one of the world’s most beautiful women

The most extravagant of the princes, Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, in the northern state of Punjab, had twenty-five Silver Ghosts among his forty-four Rolls-Royces – enough to transport his fifty-two children. ‘I got to know several of his children. Because there were fifty-two of them. They called themselves the Pack of Cards,’ said Fasal. ‘Their childhood was a fairy tale, with viceroys coming, garden parties, the champagne flowing.’

One of Singh’s Silver Ghosts has returned home to Britain and now sits fully restored in a converted barn next to Fasal’s house. The car was badly damaged in an accident in 1932 that killed one of the Maharajah’s daughters. Singh gave it to a businessman on the condition that it would never again be driven in Patiala.

Fasal said one of his ‘greatest disappointments’ was that his work on the Maharajahs had taken him so long. ‘When I went to India at first I was dealing with the grandfathers of the present maharajahs and now I’m a grandfather myself,’ he said. ‘I would like to think it’s a Rolls-Royce job. You don’t want to do a Mini-Minor job on a Rolls-Royce book.’

manwhobuiltWell, the death of Brian Sewell recently prompted the release of his book about Rolls-Royce entitled The Man Who Built the Best Car in the World, which was scheduled to be published in early November. Brian, who was a compulsive car lover, wanted his book, beautifully illustrated by Stefan Marjoram, to be available sooner in the event of his death.

Rolls-Royce lovers, who share the same love as Brian, I’m sure would be pleased. And for his legacy, it is the equivalent of manna from heaven.

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