Indira Raje of Baroda (19 February 1892 – 6 September 1968), later the Maharani of Cooch Behar, and later Her Highness the Maharani Sahiba after her son's succession, was the consort of Maharaja Jitendra Narayan, Maharaja of Cooch Behar and a princess of Baroda in her own right. She also served as regent of Cooch Behar during the minority of her son.
The Baroda Years
Indira was born the only daughter of Maratha Maharaja 'Sayajirao Gaekwad III' of Baroda and his second wife Maharani Chimnabai (1872–1958). She grew up with her several brothers at the opulent Lakshmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, and was betrothed at a young age to Madho Rao Scindia, the then Maharaja of Gwalior. During the period of engagement, Indira attended the Delhi durbar of 1911, where she met the dashing Jitendra, younger brother of the then Maharaja of Cooch Behar. Within days, they were in love and had decided to marry.
"What does the princess mean....?"
Indira knew that her parents would be aghast; many issues were involved: the diplomatic repercussions of breaking a standing engagement with the Scindia ruler of Gwalior, one of the premier 21-gun-salute princes of India; the scandal and universal opprobium that would certainly ensue; also the fact the Jitendra was the younger son (and thus unlikely ever to become king) of a family that ruled a remote and insignificant state in the eastern hills.
Indira circumvented her parents by taking the initiative in breaking her engagement herself, a daring act for an 18-year-old Indian maiden of that era. She wrote to her fiance saying that she did not wish to marry him. In Baroda, Indira's father received a single-sentence telegram from the Maharaja of Gwalior: "What does the princess mean by her letter?" This was the first inkling her stunned parents had of Indira's intentions. The Maharaja of Gwalior behaved in exemplary fashion, writing an understanding letter to Indira's father which he signed off as "your son"; however, the disgrace was great and was felt keenly by Indira's parents.
The breaking of the engagement was accomplished, but this defiance of her parents did not serve to reconcile them to her marrying Jitendra. Indira parents apparently regarded Jitendra as a playboy from a feckless family; they even ventured to summon him and give him a personal warning to stay away. Nothing worked; Indira and Jitendra were equally adamant. Eventually, perhaps also in recognition of the fact that respectable alliances for Indira were now unlikely, her parents made a half-way compromise. They allowed Indira to leave their roof, proceed to London and wed Jitendra.
Indira and Jitendra were wed at a hotel in London with no member of Indira's family present. They were wed by the rites of the Brahmo Samaj, the sect to which Jitendra's mother, a daughter of Keshub Chunder Sen, adhered.
It happened that at the time of the wedding, Jitendra's elder brother, the maharaja of Cooch Behar, was grievously ill. Within days of the wedding, he died of ailments arising from alcohol abuse, and Jitendra became maharaja of Cooch Behar. The couple lived a relatively happy life and rapidly became the parents of five children. However, alcoholism was endemic in Jitendra's family, and he died at a young age, within a decade of the wedding.
Indira was now not only a young widow and the mother of five, but also regent of Cooch Behar during the minority of her elder son. She faced her situation not merely with courage but indeed with verve. Her administrative skills were deemed by observers very middling indeed, but Indira quickly gained a reputation for her highly-active social life, and spent prolonged periods of time in Europe and away from Cooch Behar. There have also been suggestions of her having been free with her favours.
Jitendra Narayan's mother Maharani Sunity Devi (1864–1933) was the rajmata of Cooch Behar. She was the wife of Maharaja Nripendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur and the daughter of Keshab Chunder Sen, an illustrious Brahmo leader and social reformer of Bengal. She was a highly educated and an erudite women of her time. She established schools, institutions and did a lot of pioneering work for women of her princely state and all around Bengal. She wrote her autobiography in English, which was published in London in 1920. This was the first autobiography written in English by any Indian woman.
Indira was the mother of three daughters and two sons.
- Her elder son, Jagaddipendra Narayan, succeeded his father as Maharaja of Cooch Behar, and was the last ruling prince of his dynasty; Cooch Behar was merged with the dominion of India (later the union of India) during his reign. He had no legitimate children, and was succeeded by his nephew Virajendra.
- The second son, Indrajitendra, married a daughter of the Maharaja of Pithapuram estate in present-day Andhra Pradesh. They were the parents of Virajendra and also of Uttara Devi, Maharani of Kotah in Rajasthan.
- Indira's eldest daughter, Ila, married the Maharaja of Tripura. Her son took for wife the actress Moon Moon Sen; they are the parents of Bollywood starlets Raima and Riya.
- Indira's second daughter, Gayatri, became the third wife of the Maharaja of Jaipur, and was a noted celebrity in her own right.
- Indira's youngest daughter Menaka married the Maharaja of Dewas Jr in central India.
Prince Jitendra's elder brother Raj Rajendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur ascended the 'gaddi' (throne) of the Cooch Behar state after his father Maharaja Nripendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur's death in 1911. Raj Rajendra Narayan attended Mayo College, Ajmer; Eton and Oxford and was very westernised. He was in London for many years and puportedly had an affair with an American actress Edna May. But the Cooch Behar royal authority did not grant him permission to marry her lest he would be dethroned. He developed massive alcohol consumption and fell seriously ill. He died few months after his younger brother Prince Jitendra Narayan's marriage with Princess Indira Devi Gaekwad of Baroda in 1913. He was only 32.
Indira's elder son assumed full powers as ruler of Cooch Behar in 1936. Indira thereafter spent a major portion of her time in Europe. She died in 1968. Indira Devi faced many tragedies in her lifetime. Indira Devi lost two of her children: Princess Ila Devi who died at a very young age and Prince Indrajit Narayan Bhup, who died in a fire accident leaving behind his wife Princess Kamala of Pithapuram. Maharani Indira Devi spent the last years of her life in Bombay and died there on September 1968.