The Bourbons of India: How French Royalty Survives in Bhopal

Prince Adrian, Princess Elisha, Prince Balthazar IV and Princess Michelle-(Image: Thubten Namdrol/ Creative Commons)
Does an Indian hold claim to be the King of France?

It all started with a duel, around 1560 A.D. On one side was Jean-Philippe de Bourbon de Navarre, Count of Clermont and believed to be the nephew of the then King of France, Henry IV. On the other side, was a Gascon aristocrat.

Jean-Phillipe won the duel, but lost his place in France, for killing the aristocrat. He was forced to flee, so he dashed into a boat from the Mediterranean. What followed was a long and fascinating journey, that intertwined France’s royal Bourbon family with that of the Begums of Bhopal. Many centuries have passed, and houses rose and fell. But the story and its details are relevant if the claim of the Bhopal-based lawyer is taken up.

France has no king today, but if it did, an Indian could be among its top contenders. The same could apply for the position in Spain, as well. But to reach this point, Jean-Philippe’s journey must be told.

Hoping to make his way to Portugal, he was captured by Turkish pirates. They took him prisoner and sold him at Egypt to the Ottoman ruler, Sultan Soliman the Magnificent. Soliman liked Jean-Philippe, seeing nobility in him, and gave him a high position. But empires fall, and so did the Ottoman rule in Egypt. Jean-Philippe was imprisoned by Soliman’s successor and shared his cell with Abyssinian (Ethiopian) Christians.

With his cellmates, Jean-Philippe made a daring escape and fled to Abynissia. Here, with much of his past behind him, he set sail for India in the company of Abyssinian-Indians. He landed near Calcutta and made his way up the river Ganges and Jamuna. His destination was the premier royalty of the lands at the time – the court of Emperor Akbar, ruler of the Mughal Dynasty.

In “The Begums of Bhopal“, Shahryar M. Khan spells out a fascinating account of Jean-Philippe’s legacy in India. At Akbar’s court, he married a Portuguese woman named Juliana Mascarenhas and was treated like a lord – charged with reorganizing Akbar’s artillery. (One narrative is that Akbar himself married Juliana’s sister, Mary, but this is contested).

Jean-Philippe was made a Nawab – and his family had Muslim titles in the Mughal court!

When Jean-Philippe passed away, his son, Alexandre became the favourite of Akbar’s son, Jahangir. The Bourbons had cemented their place in India’s nobility. But history repeated itself when the empire of their patronage fell again. In 1740, Nadir Shah ransacked Delhi – and the Bourbons were once again forced into exile.

This time, they made their way to Gwalior, where their own family member, Salvador de Bourbon, was in charge of the Gwalior fort. The British recapture of the fort in 1780 cemented the Bourbons place in their new home. They turned out to be instrumental in the region, supporting the Begum Queen, Qudsia, in her bid for the regency.

The Bourbons thus left a trace all over India, from Delhi to Agra to Bhopal. But it would be centuries before European royalty took notice.

Rediscovering royal roots

Prince Adrian, Princess Elisha, Prince Balthazar IV and Princess Michell (Image: Thubten Namdrol/ Creative Commons)

Balthazar Napoleon de Bourbon grew up an ordinary man, though he knew he had royal descent. A practising lawyer and part-time farmer, he did not speak French (as of 2006). Since the abolishing of royal titles in 1971, the Bourbons have joined the ranks of India’s erstwhile royal families. Balthazar’s shop was burned down in communal riots in the 1990s.

But as of 2007, media attention began to grow. It started with a visit by Prince Michael of Greece, who had been exploring the Bourbons ties in India. Michael published a book, ‘Le Rajah de Bourbon’ which brought the story of Jean-Philippe back into prominence. Soon, Balthazar was invited to France.

Michael believes Balthazar to be the eldest member of his line – giving him a serious claim to the throne of France. There’s one big problem though, monarchy was abolished in France in 1792 and the country has had a tricky relationship with its kings ever since. The Facebook page of the Bhopal Bourbon’s reflects a sadness for the treatment of monarchs today (though one post is glad that France’s current President, Emmanuel Macron, wanted the country to get its King back).

After the initial media ruckus had died down, in 2008, GQ did a profile of the would-be King of France. They paint him as a man who was given a glimpse of a shot at nobility before being made to return to an ordinary life.

But as of today, the Bourbons can enjoy the fact that history has not forgotten them. Two books are on the charts, and in 2017, Balthazar was honoured as Knight of the Imperial Order of St. Constantine by Prince Vladimir Gorshkov-Cantacuzène.

Modern India is filled with the remnants of kings, queens and royalties of ages past. Reconciling the past with a claim of nobility in modern day will require barriers greater than those of passports and lineage, to fall in unison.

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