The word of the month for May must have been sengol.
Until recently, most of us, including me, would have been hard-pressed to tell a sengol from a sangai. Now thanks to the wall-to-wall coverage of the inauguration of the new Parliament building, everyone knows the Tamil word for sceptre.
Priests offered flowers to the sengol. Seers of Tamil monasteries offered the golden sceptre to the Prime Minister, who prostrated before it. Then the gold-coated sceptre was installed beside the Speaker’s chair.
The whole spectacle has led to fierce debate. Doubts have been raised about the historical facts of what happened or did not happen in 1947, when the sengol was originally handed over to Jawaharlal Nehru, after which it languished as a “golden stick” at the Allahabad Museum in Anand Bhavan, until it was rescued just in time for the inauguration of the new Parliament building. It’s almost a Raiders Of The Lost Sengol script.
Others see the sengol as a lightning rod. A well-known graphic artist did a tongue-in-cheek recreation of the cover of the Tintin adventure, King Ottokar’s Sceptre, with the sengol.
But for me the real message the sengol sent out was that come what may, royalty remains our guilty pleasure. Nobody wants to live under the yoke of a raja but we would not mind being king or queen for a day. Perhaps that’s why we love to vacation in the former palaces of minor princelings, now turned into boutique hotels. Nehru might have privately thought of the princely states as backward and feudal but the national carrier, Air India, chose a maharaja as its cheerful mascot.
In 1947, when India became independent, there were over 500 princely states. In 1950, India became a republic and the princes lost their sovereign rights. In 1971, the government formally derecognised them. To this date, most of their scions are still called maharajas and maharanis. In fact, those old titles are an asset, not a handicap, when it comes to running for office in a democracy. On the occasions Manvendra Singh Gohil of the royal family of Rajpipla in Gujarat went on to The Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about his sexuality and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, he was hailed in headlines as “India’s first openly gay prince”. Asked if it seemed anachronistic that he should be famous as a “gay prince” in 21st century India, Gohil told Harper’s Bazaar, “Many people have come out before and after me. Tell me how many go on Oprah.”
And that was long before Oprah herself brought on Harry and Meghan, proving that the fascination with royalty knows no national borders. When India lowered its flag to half mast for the funeral of British queen Elizabeth II, many were incensed. Historian P. Sainath said it was not about resenting Elizabeth herself. Many of the surviving freedom fighters he interviewed for his book, The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers Of Indian Freedom, were outraged that India was officially mourning “the symbol of 200 years of colonial oppression that brought with it 24 famines, tens of millions of deaths in war, pestilence, famine and hunger. And remember your great famines ended with their exit. And you go and lower your flag for the symbol of that oppression”.
Yet, millions watched that funeral on television. I did too. And I watched chunks of the coronation of King Charles III as well. It’s hard to reconcile this within myself but it is ingrained in us to gawk at the trappings of royalty. Once you got beyond the costumes and hats, though, Charles III’s coronation was really a long, ponderous and boring religious ceremony.
And that makes sense because royalty’s power comes from making the population believe in someone’s divine right to rule over them. That’s a lesson modern manufacturers of spectacular pageantry understand very well. So it’s no accident that the images of the sengol come with photographs of Hindu sages blessing the Prime Minister. A sengol without that is but a golden stick.
Niladri Chatterjee, a professor of English literature at West Bengal’s Kalyani University, is a die-hard royal watcher. It’s not just the usual British royals like Charles and William—he even keeps track of the more obscure European royals. He says he is fascinated precisely because the institution is so “anachronistic” and yet so many “progressive countries like Denmark and Sweden have preserved the royal family”. He thinks it stems from a human desire for stability and national unity. There is something reassuring in knowing that someone whose family tree goes back 600 years is still looking after you and yours.
In a 2022 interview with The Hindu, writer Tina Brown marvelled at the mammoth crowds that celebrated the Queen’s platinum jubilee last year. “We are not talking about crowds coming out for a dictator because they’ve been told to.” These crowds would be the envy of any politician. That’s why she cautioned against royalty getting too plebeian. “What do people come to London for? They want to see the Buckingham Palace. They want to see the changing of the guard. They want to go to Windsor Castle. Take it away and what are you? The Netherlands!”
Royalty is the fairy tale we secretly want to be part of. Even Chatterjee says his fascination started when he chanced upon colour pictures of the fairy-tale wedding of Charles and Diana. We cannot really admit to it in a democracy but our fairy tales have always been filled with princes and princesses. Democracy seems rather drab in comparison, though Chatterjee jokes that if the British actually came back, he would become a freedom fighter.
On the 75th anniversary of independence, DAG curated a March To Freedom exhibit at the Indian Museum in Kolkata last year. They used all kinds of artefacts to tell the story of the freedom struggle—paintings of battles, Mahatma Gandhi placards, old tourism posters, sculptures. But the ones that seemed to draw the most oohs and aahs came with a royal pedigree, like a beautiful set of little metal figurines showing the Delhi Durbar of 1903, made by a clockmaker from London—little figures of Lord and Lady Curzon on caparisoned elephants, uniformed soldiers on horses and oxen pulling cannons.
The fascination is not just with the intricate craftsmanship on display. Of course, that is part of it. In her book India—A Story Through 100 Objects, Vidya Dehejia tries to tell the story of India through objects, like a humble limestone hand-axe from 500,000 BCE, to mobile phones. But for the cover, the book chooses a 23.4cm falcon belonging to the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan—gold with enamel, studded with rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires and onyx, all cut to simulate the appearance of feathers on the falcon’s body. The falcon is said to bestow power on the person who holds it. In effect, it makes a king a king. Who would not love to hold it?
Our amazement is not just with the craftsmanship but also with the royal entitlement to that craftsmanship. Art historian Mrinalini Venkateswaran, who curated the DAG exhibit, points out in an accompanying essay that the British Raj cleverly followed in the footsteps of other royals to reinforce the message of a divine right to rule. She says Babur ordered repair and maintenance of his Lodhi predecessors’ tombs. His successors added “the Indic concept of darshan into their routine: appearing once each day at a designated window, to be glimpsed by their subjects, reinforcing their relationship with them by the mutual act of seeing and being seen. In their turn the British embraced the ceremony of the formal audience, the spectacle of the royal procession, and the stewardship of India’s past through its monuments and antiquities.”
She writes that independent India had the choice to adopt and adapt some of those “spectacular” rituals and displays of the Raj (themselves cobbled together from older traditions) or adapt the objects, buildings and customs of princely India. It did both.
So there are photographs showing India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad, going in a carriage of state, just like a maharaja of yore, with the heir to the Jaipur throne, the young Maharaj Kumar Bhawani Singh, as part of Prasad’s bodyguard.
It’s entirely ceremonial but in hindsight that too was a representation of the passing of a sengol.
(The sangai, by the way, is the famous dancing deer of Manipur.)
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.