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When Gayatri Devi sent Alphonso mangoes for Prince Philip!

Former Rajmata of Jaipur, the charismatic Gayatri Devi and her husband were great friends with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip and every year, she would send a box of Alphonso mangoes from India for the Duke of Edinburgh's birthday.

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New Delhi Published on: September 27, 2020 15:58 IST
When Gayatri Devi sent Alphonso mangoes for Prince Philip!
Image Source : WIKIPEDIA

When Gayatri Devi sent Alphonso mangoes for Prince Philip!

Former Rajmata of Jaipur, the charismatic Gayatri Devi and her husband were great friends with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip and every year, she would send a box of Alphonso mangoes from India for the Duke of Edinburgh's birthday, says a new book. In "The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India's Most Glamorous Royal Family", Australian author John Zubrzycki describes the history of the royal house, with stories of glamour, jewels, scandals and opulence.

Gayatri Devi and husband Man Singh II, the last ruling Maharaja of the erstwhile Jaipur State - Ayesha and Jai as they were known to their friends - are central to the story of Jaipur over the past century, he says.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, Jai and Ayesha were India's golden couple, its answer to John and Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. They were the only Indians invited to Truman Capote's Black & White Ball in 1966 at New York's Plaza Hotel," he writes in the book, published by Juggernaut.

"Ayesha was the only woman who was allowed to break the dress code, arriving in a gold sari and a necklace of emeralds. Frank Sinatra, Rose Kennedy and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were there too. All were friends of the Jaipurs," he says about that masquerade ball.

Like the historical series "Downton Abbey" and "The Crown", this book shows what life is really like inside the royal palace. It also reveals the poignant drama of how India's princely families came to terms with democracy and change.

In the book, Zubrzycki mentions about Ayub Khan, a close confidant of Gayatri Devi.

"Khan used to earn a few rupees a day as Gayatri Devi's ballboy on Lily Pool's now abandoned tennis courts. After he completed his college degree, she offered him a job as a typist and bought him a trusty Godrej manual typewriter," he writes.

For three decades, Khan typed all her correspondence - responses to constituents seeking help for their daughters' dowries, invitations to heads of state to visit her in the Indian winter and complaints to politicians who were neglecting Jaipur's heritage.

"'Every year she would send Prince Philip a box of Alphonso mangoes for his birthday," Zubrzycki quotes Khan as telling him.

Khan regularly met the British royal at polo matches in England.

Zubrzycki describes Jai as the quintessential modern-day maharaja, with a portfolio of gleaming palaces bursting with taxidermied tigers and sporting trophies, garages full of collectible cars and stables full of polo ponies and caparisoned elephants.

Ayesha was unique among Indian maharanis, breaking the stereotype of Indian princesses demurely hidden behind their veils, he says.

"Born into a small eastern princedom, she grew to be a woman who was an international social celebrity, in a class apart from the maharanis of bigger, 21-gun-salute princely states such as Gwalior or Kashmir. She combined the exotic allure of the East with the sophistication of Western aristocracy," Zubrzycki writes.

Jai predeceased Gayatri Devi in 1970.

According to Zubrzycki, if signatures could speak, Jai and Ayesha's guestbooks would tell a thousand stories.

"The first signatures, dated 22 January 1961 when the Jaipurs lived at Rajmahal Palace, are those of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. A little over a year later, Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill memorialised their visit, as did Jackie's children, John and Caroline, in 1982," he writes.

"Mexico's Octavio Paz was followed by the Italian photographer Pietro Francesco Mele, best remembered for his work in Afghanistan and Tibet. 'Reggie', 'Baby', 'Boopy' and 'Bunny' had a 'wonderful stay' in 1964," he adds.

Zubrzycki says it's a little over a decade since Gayatri Devi died, but such was her stature it could have been a few weeks ago.

"Her memory is revered, her portrait found in many Jaipur homes - though strangely enough not in the City Palace Museum. She was the woman who took on Indira Gandhi, winning three straight elections despite neither speaking nor understanding the language of her constituents, then paid for her success with a lengthy incarceration in Delhi's notorious Tihar Jail," he writes. 

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