In this handsomely produced book about Pudukkottai, one of the smaller and more obscure of the 565 princely states of colonial India, the epic and the trivial intertwine. Joanne Punzo Waghorne invites her readers to contemplate the awesome intricacies of Hindu cosmology and the weighty Victorian ponderings of Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough. At the same time we are introduced to such matters as the dismal dress sense of Queen Victoria, and the eccentricities of Pudukkottai's "modernising" Indian prime minister who struggled in the 1880s to "reform" palace morals by equipping his newly-crowned young raja with a clean lavatory and carriage horses that were "free from vices".
This same tiny kingdom has already been the subject of a massive study by Nicholas Dirks (The Hollow Crown, 1987). Dirks's book showed that big things can happen in apparently unimportant places, and that one may derive crucial insights into the power politics of the Raj not from grand events or high diplomacy, but from studying the logic of princely gift-giving and the other minutiae of a militarily impotent Hindu "theatre state".
Waghorne too is concerned with "invented traditions" and the exercise of symbolic power in a realm where everything from state finance to the "home life" of the raja was subject to British approval, but where kings were still purportedly revered as embodiments of divinity. Again like Dirks she recovers from the details of royal piety and throne-room civilities a story of colonialism in the making, insisting that we can learn something new and valuable from yet another "deconstruction" of the encounter between the Raj and its captive rajas.
But while Dirks applied anthropological tools to the interpretation of colonial archive materials, Waghorne describes her book as a work of "ethno-theology". Her main sources are not sacred texts, but an eclectic treasure trove of visual images, most notably a series of remarkable royal portraits by Indian and European artists, and striking photographs such as the Pudukkottai court ceremonial filmed by an enterprising Victorian soldier with the unlikely name of Linnaeus Tripe.
In these images, and in the reminiscences of the old courtiers who decorated the king's elephants and adorned his sacred person, Waghorne discerns the intricate workings of Pudukkottai statecraft as it was seen by both Europeans and Indians. She says colonial Pudukkottai should be understood as an "ornamented world" where pageantry was "serious business", and where godliness was manifested in precious material objects.
The most interesting and most problematic aspect of the book is Waghorne's belief that these physical repositories of godliness had deep power and significance for the British, and for Pudukkottai's Indian population. The Raj, we are told, was sustained in a composite moral universe. Within the princely states, Indians and Britons forged a common culture which simultaneously cherished and was repelled by the spectacle of kingship.
This is why we meet Queen Victoria as a demystified frump who churlishly wears a bonnet instead of a crown to her Golden Jubilee. Waghorne maintains that without the Indian rajas, Britain's imperium would have been devoid of crucial strategic and ideological props. So even when British officialdom felt compelled to disparage the supposed decadence and vanity of "oriental" display, it was still an "open secret" in Victoria's realm that it was the "presence" of India's princes, their sacral panoply and grandeur, "that turned the dowdy and faltering British monarch into a real queen".
Waghorne's account of a flexible, flawed and assimilative Raj is convincing, indeed a great improvement on most recent portrayals of the colonial state as a monolithic force imposing invented and "essentialised" Hindu values on a passive society. But perhaps understandably given her background in religious studies, the author does not seem to have read much recent historical literature on the south Asian state. And this may be why one is left asking whether this journey into Pudukkottai's palaces really tells us about "the nature of divinity" in the minds of Indians and Victorian Britons, which is the avowed purpose of the book.
Can anyone either in Britain or in India really have believed that "the rituals the British contrived both at home and in India . . . literally clothed the empire with sanctity"? Regrettably, real life both in colonial India and in Victoria's Britain was probably more prosaic than Waghorne proposes, more a matter of rational debate and grim power struggles than a mutual if "unvoiced" cherishing of godliness. Almost certainly neither Indians nor Britons had any trouble in distinguishing warfare from ritual, or kings from deities. Ethnohistorians sometimes appear to claim otherwise: in the end Waghorne's account of statecraft as theology leaves one intrigued and stimulated, but also somewhat sceptical.
Susan Bayly is a fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge.
The Raja's Magic Clothes: Re-Visioning Kingship and Divinity in England's India
Author - Joanne Punzo Waghorne
ISBN - 0 1 01066 5
Publisher - Pennsylvania State University Press
Price - £44.50
Pages - 285