Indian Royalty and the Hierarchy of the Princely States

By Shanti Mercer

Nine, eleven, or twenty-one – when cannon fire signalled how important (or not) the British thought you were.

From 1858 until 1947, the British Crown directly governed India. This period – when the Crown formally took control from the East India Company – became known as The British Raj.

Raj means rule, so one may assume that during the Raj, the British ruled over all of India. Simple, right?

Allow me to unleash my inner Geralt of Rivia and grunt, “Hmmm.”

Back then, ‘India’ wasn’t the single, united entity it is today, and furthermore, it encompassed the relatively new countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh. In short, it was vast. Before 1947, more than 40% of the Indian sub-continent was divided into over five-hundred Princely (or Native) states. Each of these states was an unconquered sovereign entity of British India not directly governed by the British, but by an Indian ruler subject to the suzerainty of the British Crown. In other words, these were vassal states in a subsidiary alliance with the British.

Sounds complicated? It was.

The British fudged the issue of legal paramountcy so much, it became possible for them to interfere in the internal affairs of Princely States and issue sweeping, compulsory edicts when they deemed it necessary or convenient. As you can imagine, no one was particularly happy about that – except, of course, the British.

Did all the Princely states enjoy equal status in the eyes of the British? Erm, no.

Not surprisingly, the geographical size, wealth and population of a Princely state determined its importance and influence as did the lineage of its ruling family. The Indian rulers of these states had a variety of titles – raja, maharaja, nizam, nawab – and they couldn’t help but know their place in the pecking order.

The most important states – Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, and Indore – had their own British political Residencies led by a British Resident appointed to liaise between the Indian ruler and the British Crown.

Prominent Princely states became known as ‘Salute States’. A Salute State was one whose ruler was entitled to a set number of gun salutes on ceremonial occasions. The salutes awarded could be hereditary, local, or personal. Who awarded these salutes and decided how many an Indian ruler deserved? You guessed it – the British Crown.

As a result, important Indian royal heads of state were frequently referred to as 9-gunners, 14-gunners, etc. according to their position in the hierarchy of Princely states. The rulers of Hyderabad and Mysore were amongst the handful granted twenty-one-gun salutes (the highest accolade). Others were granted salutes in descending order down to the lowest – a nine-gun salute. And to complicate things even further, only eleven-gunners and above were entitled to be addressed as ‘Your Highness’.

Only one stateless prince – His Highness the Aga Khan – was entitled to a personal eleven-gun salute in recognition of his importance as a religious leader.


The whole system was a veritable minefield of protocol and etiquette where everyone was expected to know their place in the Order of Precedence. And you had to pay attention because this ranking was a moveable feast where extra salutes could be earned. For example, Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior, and the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir, were both granted increased rank in gratitude for the meritorious service of their soldiers during the First World War. Conversely, if a ruler annoyed the British, salutes could be taken away and he would find himself demoted and publicly humiliated.

Finally, to ensure the native royalty and their people knew who was really in charge, the Viceroy of India (always British) was granted a thirty-one-gun salute. And naturally, sitting at the top of the hierarchical heap was the British Empress or Emperor of India who was entitled to – wait for it – a one-hundred-and-one-gun salute!

During the Delhi Durbar of 1911, attended by King George V – Emperor of India, Lord Curzon – Viceroy of India, and all the Indian rulers – there were so many gun salutes required by protocol, the cannons fired continuously all day.

In my next article: How one addressed Indian royalty (hints above). And a fascinating (and possibly apocryphal) story told to me by H.H. The Maharaja of Patiala (a seventeen-gunner in case you wondered).

Namaste all, and thank you for reading.

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