Gayatri Devi was the last—and most beautiful—of a dying breed. Born a princess and becoming a Maharani, she ruled only briefly over a changing India. Yet her reign and its aftermath had enough intrigue and tragedy to last at least three lifetimes. From her illicit love to her months spent behind bars, Gayatri Devi’s beginning and end were soaked in scandal.
Gayatri Devi was equal parts saucy and charming, and so was her birth. Her mother was the renowned beauty and socialite Indira Devi, who had notoriously broken off her previous engagement to marry Jitendra, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. This bit of romantic rebellion caused an immediate high society uproar, and by the time Gayatri came into the world in 1919, it still hadn’t calmed down.
But Gayatri would follow in her mother’s high-heeled footsteps—and then some.
As Gayatri grew up, it was clear she going to become a great beauty like her mother. And more unconventional traits were emerging, too. At the time, the royal family in Cooch Behar were liberal and indulgent with their children, but no one took to freedom quite like Gayatri. She grew into a reckless tomboy who loved horse-riding as much as hunting, even shooting her first panther when she was 12.
In many ways, it was an ideal childhood. Still, she would have to grow up far too fast.
Everything may have looked glittering on the surface of Gayatri’s life, but nothing could be further from the truth. Alcoholism ran deep in her family on her father’s side, and the Maharaja had only come to the throne upon the premature loss of his alcoholic brother. When Gayatri was just a toddler, the disease tragically killed him too.
The loss left the entire family grieving and Gayatri without a key role model. Instead, she started looking for love in shocking places.
When Gayatri was just 12 years old, she turned from tomboy to lovesick fool in 10 seconds flat. That year, her mother hosted the infamously dashing Maharaja of Jaipur at their family estate. Nicknamed “Jai,” at 21 years old he was already one of the foremost polo players in the world—and although Gayatri had already met the likes of Prince Aly Khan and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., she was particularly starstruck by the handsome and athletic ruler. Er, but the feeling wasn’t instantly mutual.
While Gayatri strutted around the Maharaja and tried her best to act like an adult, she ended up getting into a mortifying situation. While Jai had been indulgent with the children on his visit and let them win at tennis games and other activities, the overconfident Gayatri assumed she was just that good, and that’s why she won. She only realized her mistake when the Maharaja challenged her to a bicycle race and trounced her.
For the infatuated tween, nothing could be worse than her crush seeing her as a pipsqueak. But the next year, her whole world did a 180.
The next time polo season came around, Jai visited Gayatri’s family again—and what a difference a year makes. Gayatri may have still been very underage, but that didn’t stop the Maharaja from noticing her blossoming good looks this time around. Jai had been eyeing her all trip, and after he won the India Polo Association Championship, Gayatri’s mother promised him “anything you want ” as a friendly prize. Two guesses what he answered…
Presented with carte blanche from the matriarch, the ruler’s response was jaw-dropping. He turned right to Gayatri, who had been waiting on the sidelines, and said he wanted her—just her—to come to dinner with him that very night. She was so young she didn’t even have proper adult clothes to wear to the soiree, and her reluctant mother had to wrestle up a formal sari for her to go out on the town. Believe me, though, this got more bizarre.
While at dinner in one of the most sophisticated restaurants in Calcutta, poor Gayatri showed her age yet again. For their main dish, the Maharaja chose a tray of partridges…but the 13-year-old didn’t even know how to begin eating them, and had to ask her older companion to cut them up for her as if, well, she was a baby. Somehow, this didn’t put him off…and there are some disturbing reasons for this.
If Jai seemed completely unfazed by how young his prospective girlfriend was, that’s because he had his own dark history. In fact, the Maharaja already had two wives back home in Jaipur, and had married his first, Marudhar, when he was only 12 and she was 24. Meanwhile, his second wife, Jo, was the niece of his first. In other words, some twisted family dynamics weren’t going to scare him off.
Which was handy, because he was about to get a lot more where that came from.
Before long, Jai discovered that his new love interest was no obedient little girl. At one point, Gayatri and her family were visiting him in Jaipur when he decided to take her out on a solo horse ride. While trotting together, he made some small corrections to her riding, which she promptly refused to listen to. When he relayed this to Gayatri’s mother, she then admonished her daughter…who was having none of it.
Gayatri responded pertly, “I’ll do what he tells me, but not in his presence.” All the same, the pair of them were definitely falling in love—which presented some huge obstacles.
Soon after Gayatri turned 14, the Maharaja made a confession. He told her mother that he intended to marry the girl when she grew up. The answer was not what anyone was expecting. The dowager did not take it well—or rather, she didn’t really take it at all. The matriarch refused to consider it as more than even a joke, saying, “I never heard such sentimental rubbish!” And she had good reason to scoff.
Although they were both beautiful, wealthy royals, Gayatri and Jai were also more than a little star-crossed. For one, their home lives couldn’t have been more different: Jai’s other two wives both strictly practiced purdah, where women hid from view and kept themselves separate from men, while Gayatri enjoyed an independent upbringing that chafed against these very traditions.
Fearing that her daughter would be miserable in Jai’s court if he also wanted her to follow purdah, her mother wanted to protect her from the match. Little did she know, that train had already left the station.
In the end, the Maharaja waited until Gayatri was a whopping 16 years old before he proposed to her. But when he did, he did it in absolute style: When they were both in London, he took her out to Hyde Park and popped the question in the back of his Bentley. Gayatri’s head spun with the possibilities…until he kept speaking, and whispered a dark premonition.
Gayatri had finally gotten her supposedly fairy-tale ending. Only, there was a disturbing detail about that day. While the Maharaja confessed his love for her and began making plans for the future, he also warned her several times that “I play polo and ride and fly and I may have a horrible accident,” just so she knew all the risks before she jumped in. As we’ll see, this would end up coming all too true.
For a time, Gayatri thought nothing of the dangers inherent in her engagement. But then again, she had much more immediate problems to deal with—namely, concealing it from her disapproving mother. Unwilling to spill the beans about her relationship status, she would constantly sneak out to see her fiancée, and they even bought one another incognito engagement rings.
Eventually, however, the truth had to come out. And when it did, it was a doozy.
Throughout these heady days, Gayatri knew she had to write her mother and confess that she was engaged to the Maharaja. But, terrified, she kept putting it off—until the worst happened. Thinking she already knew, Jai broached the subject with the dowager, who immediately grew confused and insisted Gayatri had told her nothing. The fallout was nearly disastrous.
After this awkward exchange, the Maharaja sent an angry telegram to Gayatri demanding why she hadn’t said anything. The girl immediately worried that he thought she had changed her mind, and that’s why she’d kept her mouth shut. Beside herself, she sent off a flurry of dispatches, one apologizing to the Maharaja and the other finally confessing everything to her mother.
The cat was out of the bag, but that didn’t mean things were resolved. Far from it.
Now that everyone knew Jai and Gayatri were betrothed, it went from illicit to excruciating. See, Jai’s second wife, Jo, was in the same city at the time with the Maharaja’s children, and it was awkward for everyone involved. Both Gayatri and her mother were on edge around the official royal family, with the dowager fearing hurt feelings on all sides if her daughter went through with the marriage. And yet more complications were in store.
A few months into their official courtship, Gayatri got news that shook her to her core. Jai, ever the daredevil, had been flying around in his plane when a vulture collided with his craft. His worst nightmare ensued: The pilot lost control and crashed, dying on impact. The force of the impact threw Jai from the wreckage, leaving him clinging to life.
By the time Gayatri got wind of the accident, her fiancé was unconscious and in critical condition. It would be a fateful day.
After a sleepless night where Gayatri threatened again and again to run to her love’s side only to have her mother stop her, the family finally got another telegram. Jai was doing better, although he had pulverized both his ankles in the crash. However, the tragedy had a surprising outcome. Rather than warding Gayatri off, it made her more determined than ever to become Jai’s third wife. And she wanted it right now.
After Jai’s brush with death, the couple fast-tracked their marriage plans, ignoring the continued protestations of everyone in Gayatri’s family, now including not just her mother but her older siblings, too. And, uh, they were not kind. Her mother, apparently feeling desperate, snapped that Gayatri was the “newest addition to the Jaipur nursery,” while her sister Ila called her “spineless” whenever she was around her fiancé.
But her eldest brother Bhaiya saved the cruelest for last.
Gayatri’s brother had grown close to Jai himself over the years, and he seemed a mite jealous that his sister had captured his BFF’s heart. It produced an astonishingly brutal exchange. Half spiteful, half trying to be helpful, Bhaiya took his little sister aside and informed her that Jai was a handsome, flirtatious man who many women lusted after.
As a result, she couldn’t expect him to stay faithful to her (and from hints in Gayatri’s memoirs, he didn’t). It was a rude awakening for the naïve girl, and it was only the first of many.
Just bare weeks before her 21st birthday, Gayatri married her Prince Charming in something that was both a fairy tale wedding and a huge extravaganza. The festivities lasted days, with each dawn bringing a new ritual, a new costume, and more guests for her to entertain. When it was all over, Gayatri was a married woman and a Maharani, and the newlyweds set off on their honeymoon. It was there that Gayatri discovered what she was really in for.
At one of the waystations to their final destination, Gayatri got a chilling taste of her future. As the new Maharani of Jaipur, she learned the hard way that Jai initially did expect her to observe purdah like all his other wives. Accordingly, when they stopped in Calcutta, attendants covered the coach in canvas screens then rushed her out onto the railway, making sure no outside eyes could see her.
Gayatri and her brother Indrajit, who was accompanying her for this leg of the trip, were deeply alarmed. And more disturbing signs kept coming.
Once in Calcutta, the newlyweds elected to spend a night at Gayatri’s childhood home—only, the moment she stepped down from her transport, she knew nothing was ever going be the same. Again acting under the sway of purdah, her Jaipur attendants immediately ushered any male servants out of her sight, even though, as Gayatri remembered, “I had known most of them all my life.” Upset and apprehensive, the new Maharani broke.
The next morning, Gayatri’s brother finally left their party to let the new couple have their honeymoon in earnest. It set off a disastrous chain reaction. Even in her familiar surroundings, Gayatri could feel how different things were now, and she must have worried she made a mistake. She began sobbing in front of her husband, who coolly quipped that “he had thought I wanted to marry him.” Unfortunately, her greatest trials were ahead.
Gayatri may have been a princess since birth, but she was still woefully unprepared to be a maharani. Intimidated by her new social circle, she often became shy at the parties she began to attend or host. At one, she didn’t even see her guests to the door, irrationally feeling that it might be presumptuous to do so. Well, she wasn’t under that mistaken impression for long—her husband made sure to humiliate her.
After the party had dispersed, Jai came striding up to her, displeased and angry. His words cut her to the core. First, he exclaimed that he couldn’t believe her elegant mother hadn’t instilled impeccable manners into her daughter, spitting “What’s the matter with you?” Then he continued in stronger language, “Who the hell do you think you are to stay behind in the drawing room and not go to the door to see your guests off?”
Chastened, Gayatri swore to do better. So Jai really made her work.
Shortly after the honeymoon, Gayatri had to face a dreaded task: To meet Jai’s second wife Jo for the first time since she had married the Maharaja. Ever considerate, Jai decided to take off to play polo on the day he summoned her to the family home, leaving her alone with the elder wife to make awkward small talk until he came home.
Nonetheless, the women managed to pull it off, and soon became close friends. But as always, one enormous thing divided them.
When Gayatri settled in Jaipur, nothing could have prepared her for the culture shock. The city was formal and forbidding, and purdah truly extended to all parts of women’s lives. Although Gayatri’s new friend Jo was only three years older than her and modern by many of the culture’s standards, Jo also couldn’t even let a doctor examine her, instead needing to use her maids to act as go-betweens while the medic stood in the halls.
That was what Gayatri was dealing with. So once she was comfortable, her mind turned to rebellion.
Throughout her time following purdah, Gayatri had a secret weapon: Jai really was head over heels in love with her. Knowing he was eager to please, she started working on pushing the boundaries of her freedom and independence, and eventually extracted from him a promise that after a transition period of a year, she could drop purdah altogether.
Once she did, Gayatri didn’t stop.
Within just a few years of her time as maharani, Gayatri underwent a stunning transformation. Helped by the ravages of WWII, which loosened up so many social mores, she slowly became one of the most public figures in India. Soon, she was internationally renowned as a socialite, famous as much for her chiffon saris as for her wit and, yes, impeccable manners. Only, this society darling had scandalous tastes.
Once out of her forced purdah, Gayatri made it clear she wanted to be seen. She drove around the streets of India and Europe alike in eye-popping, expensive cars—she likely imported the first Mercedes-Benz W126 to India—played polo like a champion, and loved wearing trousers and smoking whenever she could. But just as she hit her stride, tragedy hit her family.
In 1944, Jai’s first wife Marudhar passed right smack in the middle of the royal Christmas celebrations. With Jai away and his second wife Jo tied up with funeral arrangements, Gayatri was left to look after the gaggle of children around the palace, all while trying to make their Christmas Eve as minimally morbid as possible. Little did she know, this was just the start of the onslaught.
The very next year, catastrophe ripped through Gayatri’s life again. This time, it was even closer to home: Her eldest sister Ila had come down with a serious case of food poisoning. Although it was cause for worry, no one expected it could be fatal. It was. The next telegram that came announced Ila’s extremely premature passing at 30 years old.
And then Gayatri’s problems exploded onto the world stage.
Before she turned 30, Gayatri had already lived through more turmoil than most see in a lifetime. But in 1947, that turmoil took on unprecedented dimensions. That year, the British partitioned a newly independent India—and this had a direct effect on Gayatri and the royal family. See, after independence, India also abolished the princely states…effectively stripping Jai and his wives of their realm.
Suddenly, Gayatri stepped out into a brave new world. It was not a kind one.
During the period where Gayatri was losing her realm, she got a terrifying omen of things to come. One day, she and Jai had plans to travel together, but by the time she arrived at the airport, he had met some Americans and taken a joy ride in their aircraft. At first, Gayatri was amused. But when she suddenly heard an alarm and smoke rising in the distance, the feeling instantly turned to dread.
Gayatri rushed toward the smoke and found her biggest fear: Jai had crashed the plane again. He was lying in the wreckage, his head on the lap of a helpful passerby and blood coming out of his mouth. Although he was alive, he was very much still in danger. Just seconds after Gayatri managed to haul him away on a cot, the rest of the wreckage exploded.
Gayatri spent the next days praying her husband would never be so unlucky again. But soon enough, she had other lives to worry about.
In the spring of 1949, Gayatri received some long-awaited news. After several miscarriages and nearly a decade of marriage, she was finally pregnant. In October 1949, she gave birth to a baby boy she and Jai named Jagat, complete with much rejoicing from both her family and her former subjects. Yet when one good thing happened in Gayatri’s life, it seemed horrific disaster always followed.
Still bouncing her toddler on her leg, Gayatri got word that her brother Indrajit had passed—and once more, it was no ordinary demise. The prince had perished violently in a fire at the home he was staying at in Darjeeling. Stunned, the family numbly proceeded through the mourning period. In the wake of her grief, Gayatri distracted herself in an extreme way.
In the 1960s, the beautiful Gayatri Devi decided she wanted to stop merely being a socialite and start entering the frenzied fray of politics in India. The results were gob-smacking. When she ran for parliament, she won in literally the world’s largest landslide, cementing her popularity in India and giving her a new sphere of power to play with.
The next half a decade was full of meetings with figures like Queen Elizabeth II, Jackie Kennedy, and other luminaries. But looking back, Gayatri realized these were the golden years before the great fall. And what a fall it was.
By the end of the decade and the beginning of the next, Gayatri’s glittering world had fallen to pieces. In 1968, her beloved mother passed at the age of 76, and although Gayatri was due to visit her on her deathbed, she had to delay her flight by one day—the very day that Indira Devi passed. Gayatri’s inspiration and mentor was gone…but soon, her love would be too.
As Gayatri’s husband Jai entered his late 50s, his body started slowing down and he even suffered a mild heart attack. Doctors begged him to stop over-exerting himself, from the daredevil adventures right down to his polo playing. But the Maharaja simply couldn’t accept that age was wearing on him; he scoffed that it was a bunch of “silly fuss about nothing.” Only, it wasn’t nothing.
For months, Jai kept playing polo despite worrying signs that his health was failing. It came to a horrific climax. One day in 1970, Gayatri was watching him in a polo match when she took her eyes off the field for a moment. When she looked back, Jai had suffered an accident and was on the ground. She tore toward him, only to receive the worst news of her life.
Although a Red Cross nurse had managed to attend to the former Maharaja and send him to the hospital, doctors pronounced him deceased shortly afterward. In shock, Gayatri pleaded with the medic to give her a different diagnosis, but he could only shake his head. With nothing left to do, a shattered Gayatri brought his body back to Jaipur for a traditional funeral.
The next days passed in a blur of tears and consolation for Gayatri, as sympathies poured in from everyone from Prince Philip to Jai’s old gardener. In her memoirs, Gayatri herself could barely discuss her feelings during this time, and when she watched from her window as Jai’s funeral pyre went up, she remembered that “grief seized me almost like a physical spasm.”
Gayatri thought she had hit rock bottom—but then again, she didn’t know what was to come.
After a lifetime of tragedy coming upon tragedy, fate had one more cruel twist in store for Gayatri. Starting in 1975, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi infamously trigged the “The Emergency,” canceling elections, censoring the press, and suspending many civil liberties. And as it happened, she had Gayatri Devi all picked out for punishment.
In the middle of The Emergency, government officials shockingly had Gayatri arrested, citing false accusations of illegal tax activities. And former Maharani or not, they hardly gave her special treatment: Gayatri spent five months in the notorious Tihar Jail, one of the largest prison complexes in the world. And although, unlike many, Gayatri finally secured her release, it came with a very high price.
While inside of her cell, Gayatri began to feel some disturbing symptoms. Her intestines grew troublesome, and eventually, she’d developed full-blown gastric problems. But that wasn’t the worst part. These issues continued long past when the government finally released her, developing into a chronic condition and marring the last decades of her life.
After a youth in the spotlight, the widowed Gayatri spent her final years largely in seclusion, avoiding politics entirely and attending only the most exclusive parties—and even then, only when she felt like it. In the end, although so many in her family died young, she lived until the ripe old age of 90, passing in 2009. Her final request? To die in her regnal city of Jaipur.
The world of celebrity is all about gossip, scandal, and larger-than-life personalities—and nobody knew that…