While India is considered a developing economy, we have long walked on a path of economic progress, which evident today, in pre-colonial times, and in colonial times. In contemporary times the Tata’s and the Ambani’s, among others, are justifiably considered India’s Maharajas based on the wealth these business tycoons have earned and accumulated. However, this article aims to emphasize the real Maharajas; in other words, Kings and Emperors of India, known for their immense wealth. Read further to know more.
- Aurangzeb- The Sixth Mughal Emperor
The son of Shah Jahan and the grandson of Jahangir, Aurangzeb was formally coronated in 1658, after a prolonged fight for succession to the throne against his three brothers. Ironically, Aurangzeb wasn’t his father’s choice as a successor. His lust for power made him a notable expansionist, motivating him to establish his rule over most of the Indian subcontinent.
The sheer size of Aurangzeb’s empire puts him at the forefront of India’s wealthiest rulers. With an empire that spread over 4 million kilometres, this emperor was bringing in annual revenues of $450 million, leaving behind Louis XIV, ruler of France in those times. Under Aurangzeb, India commanded 25% of the world’s economy and had bypassed China as the world’s leading economy.
Unfortunately, Aurangzeb didn’t preside over an egalitarian society of Hindus, Muslims, and other faiths. He enacted laws in keeping with Sharia, and a significant amount of the wealth he had accumulated can be attributed to the Islamic Jizya Tax, imposed by Aurangzeb on his non-Muslim subjects.
- Ashoka the Great
Ashoka, the third ruler of the illustrious Maurya Dynasty, was arguably an even greater expansionist than Aurangzeb. The size of a ruler’s territory often defines his wealth, which puts Ashoka the Great on our list of India’s wealthiest kings and emperors. Except for regions within modern-day Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala, Ashoka ruled the entire Indian subcontinent, including present-day Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
While exact estimates of Ashoka’s wealth do not feature in history books, the fact that this great Emperor ruled over an estimated 30 million subjects spread across the Indian subcontinent gives us a good idea of the income his empire generated in the form of levies and taxes. Legends surrounding trade and commercial activity during the Maurya Dynasty Period also bears significance while trying to gain insights into the wealth of Ashoka.
Fortunately, Ashoka is considered the greatest of Buddhist rulers due to his efforts directed at Buddhist expansion across the subcontinent, which in turn gives us an idea of the wealth he had at his disposal to carry out these efforts.
Ancient texts such as the Mahavamsa and the Ashokavadana point out to these efforts and the wealth that went into propagating the Buddhist religion. Ashoka built 84,000 stupas and Viharas across the earth to house the relics of Buddha according to these sacred texts. Many of these stupas across the Indian subcontinent survive to this very day. Ashoka is also known for sending Buddhist monks to Central Asia, and Sri Lanka, the construction of the Ashoka pillars, and various Buddhist monuments, all of which indicate the great wealth this pious Emperor had accumulated.
- Samudragupta of the Gupta Empire
The wealthiest emperors and kings of ancient and medieval India were also the greatest warriors of their time. The size of their kingdoms and empires gives us great insight into the revenues they generated, which in turn allows us to have an idea of the wealth these rulers accumulated and passed on to their successors.
One such ruler was the Emperor Samudragupta, son of Chandragupta I and father of Chandragupta II, also known as Vikramaditya, another great Gupta Dynasty ruler. Much, like Ashoka, there are no exact estimates of the wealth of Samudragupta. However, his military conquests across southern and northern India, the extent of his empire from Ravi River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east, the Himalayan foothills in the north to central India in the south-west, indicate his power, influence and wealth.
Several kingdoms in the south-eastern coastline of India were tributaries of Samudragupta, from whom he also collected significant wealth in the form of taxes. Furthermore, nothing says wealth like the ability to mint currency, and Samudragupta was the first among the Gupta emperors to mint a range of coins, including gold coins.
- Rajaraja I
A basic lesson in Indian history is sure to mention the Chola Dynasty. However, what is worth looking into is the wealth, power, and influence of Rajaraja I, 9th in succession among the Chola Kings. Once again, an exact estimate of this king’s net worth is impossible to ascertain. However, we can determine his access to great wealth with insights into his military expeditions and conquests, the extent of the territory he ruled over, and his legacy that survives to this day.
By the time Rajaraja I had ascended the throne, the Chola empire was losing glory, and this great warrior took it upon himself to ensure that the Chola Dynasty was reinstated as the supreme power in South India and the Indian Ocean. To this end, he undertook a sea voyage to conquer northern Sri Lanka (an expensive feat in those times). He waged and won military campaigns in the Maldive and Lakshadweep Islands, the Western Ganges, and against the Chalukya Dynasty, extending his rule across large parts of southern and central India.
The most magnificent display of the wealth of Rajaraja I is the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur, which survives to this day, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This 1010-year old temple is one of the largest temples in India, constructed from pure granite, with a temple tower which was the tallest in the world at the time of its construction. Furthermore, Rajaraja I minted new Chola coins that were copied by the Kings of Sri Lanka.
- Akbar the Great
Akbar is among history’s most illustrious figures, both in India and around the world. There never was a Mughal emperor favoured by his subjects, both before and after Akbar. With a reign that spanned half a century, Akbar amassed untold wealth, and while we cannot come up with exact figures, recently, MSNBC estimated his peak net worth at $21 trillion; for context, it’s worth noting that no known trillionaires exist in contemporary times.
It’s worth noting that the Mughal Empire under Akbar, encompassed most of the Indian subcontinent. However, Akbar diligently fostered peace between various religions and communities in his domain. Under the Mughal reign, India accounted for 25% of the world’s GDP, and the wealth Akbar amassed in taxes and tributes is challenging to ascertain, but tremendous, going by his estimated net worth.
It’s also worth noting that Akbar personally paid for the Hajj pilgrimages for his poorest subjects, and he did all of this without extracting Jizya Tax from non-Muslims, unlike his successors or predecessors.
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- Mir Osman Ali Khan
The last Nizam of the Princely State of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, was among the wealthiest individuals of his time and even featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1937, bearing the distinction of the wealthiest in the world. He was a reminder of the wealth and opulence of pre-colonial India, even at a time when the British invaders had figuratively bled the subcontinent dry.
After a reign of 37 years starting from the age of 25, Nizam descended his throne post the annexure and invasion of Hyderabad by the Indian Army in 1948. However, with much wealth at his disposal, the Nizam furthered Hyderabad’s interest by investing in infrastructure and education. During his reign, he built and donated to universities, financed the founding of various public institutions to serve his subjects.
Osmania University, Osmania General Hospital, State Bank of Hyderabad, Begumpet Airport, Hyderabad High Court, and the Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar reservoirs are examples of this Nizam’s rich legacy. Interestingly, and despite his enormous wealth, the Nizam knit his own socks and was known to borrow cigarettes from royal guests.
- Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV
Second, only to the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, was the second richest Indian of his times. With an accumulated fortune of $400 in US currency in 1940, the Maharaja would be a billionaire with the equivalent of $7 billion to his name in contemporary times.
Like any good king, the Maharaja knew that with great wealth and power came great responsibility. Gandhiji attributed to him the qualities of a ‘saintly king’ or ‘Rajarishi’ owing to his public service. Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV was dedicated to alleviating poverty in Mysore; he invested heavily in educational and public health institutions. Mysore was widely recognized by the British as the best administered state in India during his reign.
Facts surrounding the Maharaja’s wealth cannot be relayed without alluding to the Maharaja’s ‘Rolls Royce’ benevolence. Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV had customized a Rolls Royce with a canopy at the back, to protect his servants from the glare of the sun.
- HRH Arvind Singh Mewar
While the British looted the Indian subcontinent, not all our wealth was at their disposal, thanks to several royals that carefully preserved their fortunes to hand down to their descendants. One such descendent is His Royal Highness Arvind Singh Mewar of the Mewar Dynasty. While being just a nominal king, this descendant of Maharana Pratab has successfully made a royal transition into a democratic republic India.
He has preserved and diversified his inheritance and contributed to the Indian economy, especially in the tourism sector. A prolific businessman, he is the head of HRH Group of Hotels, with ten hotels under its ambit. HRH Arvind Singh Mewar is the 76th custodian of the esteemed and illustrious house of Mewar and is doing his ancestors proud.
He lives with his queen in the Udaipur Palace which is partially open for public exhibition; he has leased out several royal properties to the Taj Group of Hotels, and has even established and oversees a museum of antique imperial cars.
- Yaduveer Krishnadutta Chamaraj Wadiyar
Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV’s legacy hasn’t just vanished into thin air in modern times; in fact, his descendants carry on his legacy to this day. Yaduveer Krishnadutta Chamaraj Wadiyar is the current nominal Maharaja of Mysore and oversees Royal Silk of Mysore, a royal brand of fine Mysore silk, established by his predecessor Maharaja Srikantadatta Wadiyar.
Interestingly, his predecessor was childless, a fact attributed to a 400-year old curse on the royal family, and Yaduveer Krishnadutta Chamaraj Wadiyar is the nephew of the last Maharaja. Yaduveer Krishnadutta Chamaraj Wadiyar is wedded to the Princess of Dungarpur, Trishika Kumari Singh. They have a two-year-old son, and this royal family is rumoured to have an amassed fortune of an estimated 10,000 crore.
- Padmanabh Singh – Maharaja of Jaipur
Maharaja of Jaipur since 2011, Padmanabh Singh is the son of Princess Divya Kumari, and the grandson of the former Maharaja Bhavani Singh. This nominal Maharaja is a national-level hockey player and, at age 22, controls a fortune estimated at $855 million. He is the 303rd descendent of the Jaipur Royal Family, and has walked fashion ramps abroad. This King lives in the heart of Jaipur, in the City Palace, parts of which are open for public exhibition.
In conclusion, it is interesting to note that this article covers the richest royals from ancient to contemporary times. The exact fortune of any king, emperor, or nominal royal on this list is definitely up for debate. However, one thing is true; these Indian kings are among the wealthiest of the lot. In a democratic republic such as India, royalty continues to retain its shine. It’s hard to deny the brilliance of great kings of the past in shaping this country, and their untold wealth points to the rich legacy of our nation.
Contemporary nominal royals do not rule in any way but enjoy honorary titles, yet we see the glory of our past and the hope for the future. These royals are using their inheritances to take India forward.