An India battle royale follows the death of a legend

She was a tomboy princess who grew up with 400 servants and bagged her first leopard at age 13. As she grew to be a woman, Gayatri Devi's dark eyes and striking cheekbones became the stuff of legend.

She caught the eye of the dashing Man Singh, the maharaja of Jaipur, and in 1940 she became his third wife, the "third her highness" of one of India's wealthiest royal families.

Family members cautioned her before the wedding that the Jaipur ruler, an avid polo player, loved the ladies and might even take a fourth wife. Her response: He wouldn't need any more after he had her.

She was right.

When she died in late July at age 90, the woman once described as one of the most beautiful in the world had outlived her husband by nearly 40 years, and outlasted his other wives too. But as some are saying these days, any family with four sons by three wives is asking for trouble.

A battle royal is brewing over Devi's estate, estimated at $470 million, which includes palaces, antiques, jewels and stuffed tiger heads from royal hunts.

"This is basically what every Indian family does -- fight over property -- only it's on a massive scale," said Tikam Chand, 42, a photographer-for-hire who's worked a patch of sidewalk outside Jaipur's City Palace, one of the properties in dispute, for a quarter of a century. "Rather than help their parents while they're alive, they wait till they die and squabble."

A mapping of the players, intrigues and alliances involved in the royal soap opera would tax the abilities of Rand McNally. The CliffsNotes version: There are essentially two main rivals for the fortune.

In one camp is Devi's grandson Devraj Singh, the offspring of her beloved son who drank himself to death after marrying a Thai princess. Singh had a falling-out with Devi and was disowned before there may -- or may not -- have been a rapprochement.

In the other camp are brothers Jai and Prithviraj Singh, sons of the maharaja's second wife who may -- or may not -- have done a little "editing" of her will, according to rumors circulating around Jaipur. Members of the royal family or their representatives could not be reached for comment.

Outside Devi's own family intrigue, the glamorous socialite's death has shone a light on the increasingly sharp-elbowed descendants of an astonishing 565 once-independent monarchies, a privileged class bred for thousands of years to rule but now struggling to find a role in society.

During her life, Devi was beloved for her philanthropy and common touch and for her work as an elected politician defending the poor and the environment. But younger generations have exhibited little of that social responsibility, their behavior driven more by greed and abuse of privilege, royal watchers say.

That reputation wasn't helped when Vijit Singh, grandson of the "second her highness," was charged with killing a college student and injuring four others last year while driving drunk. He was quietly cleared of all charges.

"The younger generations are absolutely useless," said a Jaipur resident familiar with local aristocrats. "These fights and antics will ultimately finish the royals as an institution."

India's normally aggressive news media tend to give royals a wide berth. There's no paparazzi treatment, and coverage of most scandals is limited to the protagonists' own statements.

"Partly this is out of respect," said P.N. Vasanti, director of New Delhi's Center for Media Studies, but news organizations are "also afraid of offending the royals, since many are still well connected politically."

Older Indians have relatively strong respect for the once-royals, and for Gayatri Devi in particular.

"I never saw her, but I feel she was a good woman," said Ramesh Kumar, 55, a rickshaw driver outside the City Palace, part of which is now a museum. "She helped the poor and didn't seem to have an ego problem."

Among younger Indians, the interest tends to be more voyeuristic.

"I wish I had a palace too," said Arsha Chandresh, 32, a homemaker from Gujarat state visiting Jaipur. "Who wouldn't want to live in splendor?"

Although some people, such as Tikan Das, 62, a rickshaw driver who earns $3 a day, said the fortune should be distributed among India's legions of poor, others expressed little resentment of the family's wealth.

This may be explained in part by many Indians' strong belief in reincarnation and the idea that whatever happens was meant to be, said Sharada Dwivedi, an author of five books on Indian princes.

"Obviously this family must have done something good in their last life to have such wealth," said Ramrit Pal Singh, 55, a businessman. "They have good karma."

Farmer Jagdish Gujjar, 60, sitting under a tree in Tonk, 50 miles south of Jaipur, said his grandfather had suffered badly under their local ruler, the nawab of Tonk.

"He was an absolute tyrant," Gujjar said, dressed in a white turban and worn curly-toed shoes. "He took half of everything we grew, nearly killing us with his demands. People were delighted when his rule ended."

Gujjar said he grew up hearing tales about another local ruler generations before who had instituted a rule giving him the right to sleep with any bride in his kingdom on her wedding night.

"It's never nice when people fight," he said. "But these guys used to suck our blood and are now getting what they deserve."

The nawab of Tonk, the Jaipur maharaja and the hundreds of other rulers -- long puppets of the British, royal historians say -- saw their nominal rule end with Indian independence in 1947 and their subsidies eliminated in 1971. Today, many royal offspring have been reduced to poverty, and property fights have become common, some dragging on for decades.

Gayatri Devi lived a charmed life. Born wealthy, she married into a family whose earlier generations used solid gold tongue scrapers, kept parrots trained to ride little silver bicycles and had a live turtle encrusted with diamonds and rubies as a good-luck charm.

At the time of Devi's marriage, royal wives were expected to remain closeted. But she broke numerous social rules, wearing slacks in public, driving cars, appearing with bobbed hair, riding horses and playing squash and tennis.

She also became friends with global celebrities, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

In 1962, she won a parliamentary seat with about 80% of the vote, prompting President Kennedy to quip to some senators when they met at the White House, "This lady has won by a bigger majority than we'll ever get."

She was reelected in 1967 and 1971, running against then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Congress Party. Just before the 1971 election, her husband died of a heart attack on the polo field.

Gandhi's dislike of Devi reportedly played a part in her decision to abolish the "privy purses" -- essentially subsidies -- and all other royal privileges, thereby breaking a 1947 treaty and destroying many royal lifestyles. Some families, including Devi's, adapted by leasing out parts of their palaces as luxury hotels.

Gandhi's government also threw Devi in jail for five months for holding foreign currency -- all of about $15 -- in violation of tax policy. While in jail, however, friends continued to send her Beluga caviar and copies of the Tatler, the British high society magazine. Some said Gandhi was resentful that there was a more intelligent, better-looking woman than herself in politics.

Devi's family recently has clammed up, apparently wary of the unseemly publicity surrounding the brawl for the royal booty. But that hasn't damped public interest or speculation.

"They have land, palaces, you name it," said Shiv Narayan, 65, a parking lot attendant at the City Palace. "With everything God gave them, they really shouldn't fight like this."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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