Photo Essay: British India

Photo Essay: British India

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01of 14

The Prince of Wales Hunts from Elephant-back, 1875-6

The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, during a hunt in British India, 1875-76. Samuel Bourne / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

In 1857, Indian soldiers known as sepoys took up arms against the British East India Company's rule, in what is called the Indian Revolt of 1857. As a result of the unrest, the British East India Company was dissolved, and the British crown took direct control over what became the British Raj in India.

In this photo, Edward, Prince of Wales, is shown hunting in India from the back of an elephant. Prince Edward made an eight-month-long trip around India in 1875-76, which was widely hailed as a great success. The Prince of Wales's tour inspired the British Parliament to name his mother, Queen Victoria, "Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress of India."

Edward had traveled from Britain on the royal yacht HMSS Serapis, leaving London on October 11, 1875 and arriving in Bombay (Mumbai) on November 8th. He would travel widely across the country, meeting with rajas of the semi-autonomous princely states, visiting with British officials, and, of course, hunting tigers, wild boar, and other types of iconic Indian wildlife.

The Prince of Wales is shown here seated in the howdah atop this elephant; the tusks have been blunted to provide a small measure of safety for its human handlers. Edward's mahout sits on the animal's neck to guide it. Gunbearers and the prince's attendant stand beside the elephant.

02of 14

The Prince of Wales with a Tiger, 1875-76

HRH Prince of Wales after a tiger hunt, British India, 1875-76. Bourne Shepherd / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Gentlemen in the Victorian era were required to hunt, and the Prince of Wales had many opportunites to stalk prey more exotic than foxes while he was in India. This particular tiger may be the female that the prince killed near Jaipur on February 5, 1876. According to the diary of His Royal Highness's private secretary, the tigress was 8 1/2 feet (2.6 meters) long, and survived being shot at least three times before she finally went down.

The Prince of Wales was very popular in India with Europeans and Indians alike. Despite his royal pedigree, the future Edward VII was friendly with people of all castes and races. He decried the condescension and abuse that British officers often heaped on the people of India. This attitude was echoed by other members of his party:

"The tall erect figures, square shoulders, broad chests, narrow flanks, and straight limbs of the men struck one almost as much as the graceful carriage and elegant forms of the women. It would be difficult to find a finer race in any part of the world." - William Howard Russell, Private Secretary to HRH, The Prince of Wales

Thanks to his very long-lived mother, the prince would rule as Emperor of India for just nine years, from 1901-1910, after serving a record 59 years as the Prince of Wales. Edward's granddaughter, Elizabeth II, is forcing her son Charles to wait with equal patience for his turn on the throne. One major difference between these two successions, of course, is that India has long been an independent nation.

03of 14

Blowing from Guns | British Punish Sepoy "Mutineers"

"Blowing from Guns" in British India. Vasili Vereshchagin / Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

This disturbing painting by Vasili Vasilyevich Vereshchagin shows British soldiers executing participants in the Indian Revolt of 1857. Alleged rebels were tied to the muzzles of cannon, which would then be fired. This brutal method of execution made it nearly impossible for the sepoys' families to perform the proper Hindu or Muslim funeral rites.

Vereshchagin painted this scene in 1890, and the soldiers' uniforms reflect the style from his own era, rather than from the 1850s. Despite the anachronism, however, this image provides an evocative look at the harsh methods Britain employed to suppress the so-called "Sepoy Rebellion."

In the wake of the uprising, Britain's home government decided to disband the British East India Company and take direct control of India. Thus, the Indian Revolt of 1857 paved the way for Queen Victoria to become Empress of India.

04of 14

George Curzon, Viceroy of India

George Curzon, Baron of Kedleston and Viceroy of India. This photo dates to after his time in India, c. 1910-1915. Bain News / Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

George Curzon, Baron of Kedleston, served as the British Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905. Curzon was a polarizing figure - people either loved or hated him. He traveled extensively throughout Asia, and was an expert on the Great Game, Britain's competition with Russia for influence in Central Asia.

Curzon's arrival in India coincided with the Indian Famine of 1899-1900, in which at least 6 million people died. The total death toll may have been as high as 9 million. As viceroy, Curzon was concerned that the people of India might become dependent on charity if he allowed them too much aid, so he was not over-generous in helping the starving.

Lord Curzon also oversaw the Partition of Bengal in 1905, which proved wildly unpopular. For administrative purposes, the viceroy separated the primarily-Hindu western section of Bengal from the mainly-Muslim east. Indians protested vociferously against this "divide and rule" tactic, and the partition was repealed in 1911.

In a much more successful move, Curzon also funded the restoration of the Taj Mahal, which was finished in 1908. The Taj, constructed for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, had fallen into disrepair under British rule.

05of 14

Lady Mary Curzon | Vicereine of India

Lady Mary Curzon, Vicereine of India, in 1901. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Lady Mary Curzon, the stately Vicereine of India from 1898 to 1905, was born in Chicago. She was the heiress of one partner in the Marshall Fields department store, and met her British husband, George Curzon, in Washington DC.

During her time in India, Lady Curzon was much more popular than her husband the viceroy. She set trends for Indian-made dresses and accessories among fashionable western women, which helped local artisans to preserve their crafts. Lady Curzon also pioneered conservationism in India, encouraging her husband to set aside the Kaziranga Forest Reserve (now Kaziranga National Park) as a refuge for the endangered Indian rhinoceros.

Tragically, Mary Curzon fell ill late in her husband's tenure as viceroy. She died on July 18, 1906 in London, at the age of 36. In her final delirium, she asked for a tomb like the Taj Mahal, but she is buried in a Gothic-style chapel instead.

06of 14

Snake Charmers in Colonial India, 1903

Indian snake charmers in 1903. Underwood and Underwood / Library of Congress

In this 1903 photograph from the outskirts of Delhi, Indian snake charmers practice their trade on hooded cobras. Although this appears very dangerous, the cobras were usually either milked of their venom or completely defanged, rendering them harmless to their handlers.

British colonial officials and tourists found these types of scenes endlessly fascinating and exotic. Their attitudes reinforced a view of Asia that is called "Orientalism," which fed a craze for all things Middle Eastern or South Asian in Europe. For example, English architects created filigreed building facades in the "Hindoo style" from the late 1700s onward, while fashion designers in Venice and France adopted Ottoman Turkish turbans and billowing pants. The Oriental craze extended to Chinese styles, as well, as when the Delft ceramics makers of the Netherlands began to turn out blue and white Ming Dynasty-inspired dishes.

In India, snake charmers generally lived as wandering performers and herbalists. They sold folk medicines, some of which included snake venom, to their customers. The number of snake charmers has dwindled dramatically since Indian independence in 1947; in fact, the practice was outlawed entirely in 1972 under the Wildlife Protection Act. Some charmers still ply their trade, however, and they have recently begun to push back against the ban.

07of 14

A Pet Hunting-Cheetah in Colonial India

A hooded hunting cheetah in India, 1906. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In this photo, well-to-do Europeans pose with a pet hunting-cheetah in colonial India in 1906. The animal is hooded like a hawk would be, and has some sort of strap hanging from its back. For some reason, the photo also includes a Brahma cow on the right with its minders.

Hunting game such as antelope by sending trained cheetahs after it was an ancient royal tradition in India, and Europeans in the British Raj adopted the practice. Of course, British hunters also enjoyed shooting wild cheetahs.

Many of the Britons who moved to India during the colonial period were adventurous members of the middle class, or younger sons of the nobility with no hope of an inheritance. In the colonies, they could live a lifestyle associated with the most elite members of society in Britain - a lifestyle that necessarily included hunting.

The status boost for British colonial officials and tourists in India came at a heavy price for the cheetahs, however. Between hunting pressure on both the cats and their game, and the capture of cubs to raised as tame hunters, Asiatic cheetah populations in India plummeted. By the 1940s, the animals became extinct in the wild across the subcontinent. Today, an estimated 70 - 100 Asiatic cheetahs survive in small pockets in Iran. They have been wiped out everywhere else in South Asia and the Middle East, making them one of the most critically endangered of the big cats.

08of 14

Dancing Girls in British India, 1907

Professional dancers and street musicians, Old Delhi, 1907. H.C. White / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Dancing girls and street musicians pose for a photograph in Old Delhi, India, in 1907. Conservative Victorian and Edwardian British observers were both horrified and titillated by the dancers they encountered in India. The British called them nautch, a variant of the Hindi word nach meaning "to dance."

To Christian missionaries, the most horrific aspect of the dancing was the fact that many female dancers were associated with Hindu temples. The girls were married to a god, but then were able to find a sponsor who would support them and the temple in return for sexual favors. This open and frank sexuality completely shocked British observers; in fact, many considered this arrangement a type of pagan prostitution rather than a legitimate religious practice.

Temple dancers were not the only Hindu tradition to come under the reforming gaze of the British. Although the colonial government was happy to collaborate with Brahmin local rulers, they considered the caste system inherently unfair. Many Britons advocated for equal rights for the dalits or untouchables. They also strenuously opposed the practice of sati, or "widow-burning" as well.

09of 14

The Maharaja of Mysore, 1920

The Maharaja of Mysore, 1920. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

This is a photograph of Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, who ruled as the Maharaja of Mysore from 1902 to 1940. He was a scion of the Wodeyar or Wadiyar family, which regained power in Mysore, southwestern India, following the British defeat of Tipu Sultan (the Tiger of Mysore) in 1799.

Krishna Raja IV was renowned as a philosopher-prince. Mohandas Gandhi, also known as the Mahatma, even referred to the maharaja as a "saintly king" or rajarshi.

10of 14

Making Opium in Colonial India

Indian laborers prepare blocks of opium, made from the sap of poppy buds. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Workers in colonial India prepare blocks of opium, made from the sap of opium poppy buds. The British used their imperial control over the Indian subcontinent to become a major opium producer. They then forced the government of Qing China to accept shipments of the addictive drug in trade following the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), causing wide-spread opium addiction in China.

11of 14

Brahmin Children in Bombay, 1922

Children from the Brahmin or highest caste in colonial Bombay, India. Keystone View Company / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

These three children, presumably siblings, are members of the Brahmin or priestly caste, the highest class in Hindu Indian society. They were photographed in Bombay (now Mumbai) India in 1922.

The kids are richly dressed and adorned, and the eldest brother is posed with a book to demonstrate that he is receiving an education. They don't look particularly happy, but photographic techniques at the time required the subjects to sit still for several minutes, so they may simply be uncomfortable or bored.

During British control of colonial India, many missionaries and humanitarians from Britain and other western countries decried the Hindu caste system as unfair. At the same time, the British government in India often was perfectly happy to align itself with the Brahmins in order to preserve stability and introduce at least a facade of local control in the colonial regime.

12of 14

Royal Elephant in India, 1922

A richly-caprisoned royal elephant in colonial India, 1922. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A richly-caprisoned royal elephant carries high officials in colonial India. Princes and maharajas used the animals as ceremonial carriages and as vehicles of war for centuries before the British Raj era (1857-1947).

Unlike their larger African cousins, Asian elephants can be tamed and trained. They are still a formidably huge animal with personalities and ideas of their own, however, so they can be quite dangerous for handlers and riders alike.

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Gurkha Pipers in the British Indian Army, 1930

Pipers from the British colonial army's Gurkha Division. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A Nepalese Gurkha division of pipers from the British Indian Army marches to the sound of the bagpipes in 1930. Because they remained loyal to the British during the Indian Revolt of 1857, and were known as completely fearless fighters, the Gurkhas became favorites of the British in colonial India.

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The Maharaja of Nabha, 1934

The Maharaja of Nabha, ruler of an area of Punjab in northwestern India. Fox Photos via Getty Images

The Maharaja-Tika Pratap Singh, who reigned from 1923 to 1947. He ruled the Nabha region of Punjab, a Sikh princely state in the northwest of India.


  1. Masree

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  2. Echion

    I am sorry, that I interrupt you, but you could not give more information.

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