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Durbar of Pudukkottai Maharaja with British officials.

Mahārāja (Sanskrit: महाराज, also spelled maharajah) is a Sanskrit title for a "great ruler", "great king" or "high king".[1] Rana or Maharana has been practically equivalent title to Maharaja. The female equivalent title Maharani (or Maharanee, Mahārājñī) denotes either the wife of a Maharaja or Maharana, and also in states where that was customary, a woman ruling in her own right the equivalent title was Maharani. The widow of a Maharaja is known as a Rajmata (Queen mother).[2] The term Maharaj denotes separate noble and religious offices, although the fact that in Hindi the suffix 'a' in Maharaja is silent makes the two titles near homophones.


  • Etymology 1
  • Indian subcontinent 2
    • Maharaja as a ruler's title 2.1
    • Compound and dynastic ruler titles 2.2
    • Nobiliary and honorary use 2.3
    • Derived style for princes of the blood 2.4
  • Nepal 3
  • Malay Archipelago 4
    • Indonesia 4.1
    • Malaysia 4.2
    • Brunei 4.3
    • Philippines 4.4
  • Compound titles 5
    • Indonesia 5.1
      • Aceh 5.1.1
  • See also 6
  • Sources and references 7


The word Maharaja originates in the Sanskrit language and is a compound karmadharaya term (from mahānt "great" and rājan "ruler", "king"). It has the Latin cognates (accusative case) magnum ("great") and rex ("king").[3][4] Due to Sanskrit's major influence on the vocabulary of most languages in India and Asia, the term 'maharaja' is common to many modern Indian languages, such as Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Rajasthani, Malvi, Telugu, Odia, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, etc. The Sanskrit title maharaja was originally used only for rulers who ruled a considerably large region with minor tributary rulers under them. Since the mediaeval times the title was used even by rulers of smaller states since they claimed to be the descendants of the ancient maharajas.

Indian subcontinent

Maharaja as a ruler's title

Maharaja Jaswant Singh II of Marwar, c. 1880. Attributed to Narsingh. The Brooklyn Museum.

On the eve of independence in 1947, India (including present day Pakistan & Bangladesh) contained more than 600 princely states, each with its own ruler, often styled Raja or Rana or Thakur (if the ruler were Hindu) or Nawab (if he were Muslim), with a host of less current titles as well.

The British directly ruled two thirds of India; the rest was under indirect rule by the above-mentioned princes under the considerable influence of British representatives, such as Residents, at their courts.

The word Maharaja may be understood simply to mean "ruler" or "king", in spite of its literal translation as "great king". This was because only a handful of the states were truly powerful and wealthy enough for their rulers to be considered 'great' monarchs; the remaining were minor princely states, sometimes little more than towns or groups of villages. The word, however, can also mean emperor in contemporary Indian usage.

The title of Maharaja was not as common before the gradual British colonization of India, upon and after which many Rajas and otherwise styled Hindu rulers were elevated to Maharajas, regardless of the fact that scores of these new Maharajas ruled small states, sometimes for some reason unrelated to the eminence of the state, for example support in World War I or World War II. Two Rajas who became Maharajas in the twentieth century were the Maharaja of Cochin and the legendary Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala.

  • Variations of this title include the following, each combining Maha- "great" with an alternative form of Raja 'king', so all meaning 'Great King': Maharana (as in Udaipur), Maharawal (as in Dungarpur/Jaisalmer), Maharawat (Pratapgarh), Maharao (as in Kotah, Bundi) and Maharaol (as in Baria).
  • Maharajah has taken on new spellings due to time change and migration. It has even been shortened to Mahraj and Maraj but the most common is Maharajah and Maharaj.
  • Despite its literal meaning, unlike many other titles meaning Great King, neither Maharaja nor Rajadhiraja ('King of Kings'), nor even its equivalent amongst Maharajas, 'Maharajadhiraja', ever reached the standing required for imperial rank, as each was soon the object of title inflation. Instead, the only Hindu title which is commonly rendered as Emperor is Samraat or Samraj(a), a personal distinction achieved by a few rulers of ancient dynasties such as the Mauryas and Guptas; the Muslim equivalent of emperor would be Padshah, applied to the Mughal dynasty.

Compound and dynastic ruler titles

  • Dharma-maharaja was the devout title (compare Rajadharma) of the rulers of the Ganga dynasty.

In the Mughal Empire it was quite common to award to various princes (hereditary or not) a series of lofty titles as a matter of protocolary rank. Many of these (see also above) elaborate explicitly on the title Maharaja, in the following descending order:

  • Maharajadhiraja Bahadur (or Maharajadhiraj Bahadur): Great Prince over Princes, a title of honour, one degree higher than Maharajadhiraja.
  • Maharajadhiraja (or Maharajadhiraj): Great Prince over Princes, a title of honour, one degree higher than Sawai Maharaja Bahadur.
  • Sawai Maharaja Bahadur: a title of honour, one degree higher than Sawai Maharaja. (the term bahadur, originally 'brave' in Mongolian, was often used for 'one degree' higher', and 'sawai' is 'one and a quarter higher', i.e. just a step above bahadur)
  • Sawai Maharaja: a title of honour one degree higher than Maharaja Bahadur.
  • Maharaja Bahadur: a title of honour, one degree higher than Maharaja.
Kshatriya Kulavatans Sinhasanadheeshwar Maharajadhiraj Chhatrapati Shivaji Raje Bhosale. The Maratha king preferred the title of Chhatrapati as against Maharaja and was the founder and sovereign of the Maratha Empire of India
Maharaja Bijay Singh in his harem, c. 1770
His Highness Maharajadhiraj Mirza Maharao Shri Sir Khengarji III Sawai Bahadur, Rao of Kutch, GCIE, KIH

Furthermore, there were various compound titles simply including other princely styles, such as :

  • For details concerning various titles containing sahib, see there

Certain Hindu dynasties even came to use a unique style, including a term which as such is not of princely rank, e.g. Maharaja Gaikwar of Baroda, Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior, Maharaja Holkar of Indore, three of the very highest ranking ruling Maratha houses.

Nobiliary and honorary use

Like Raja and various other titles, Maharaja was repeatedly awarded to notables without a princely state, such as zamindars.

  • One Raja of Lambagraon, a Jagir (in Himachal Pradesh) who served in the colonial army was granted personally the non-hereditary title of Maharaja of Kangra-Lambagraon and a personal 11-guns salute, so neither honor passed on to his son and heir.
  • In the major, Muslim realm of Hyderabad & Berar, there was a system of ennobling titles for the Nizam's courtiers, conferring a specific rank without any (e)state of their own, not unlike peerage titles without an actual fief in the UK, the highest titles for Hindu nobles being Maharaja Bahadur and Maharaja, above Vant, Raja Rai-i-Rayan Bahadur, Raja Rai Bahadur, Raja Bahadur, Raja and (the lowest) Rai; for their Muslim counterparts there were alternative titles, the highest being Jah and Umara; e.g. the Diwan (Prime Minister) Maharaja Sir Kishen Pershad, held such a Maharaja-title.

Derived style for princes of the blood

Maharaj Kumar (or Maharajkumar) means son of a Maharaja or Heir-Apparent; the female equivalent is Maharaj Kumari (Maharajkumari): daughter of a Maharaja.


The King of Nepal use the tytle of Maharajadhiraja (or Maharajadhiraj) which was Great Kings over Kings, a title of honour, a degree higher than Maharaja. Rana Primeministers of Nepal used the title of Maharaja.

Sri Panch Maharaja Dhiraj Prithvi Narayan Shah Dev of Nepal.

Malay Archipelago


As many Indonesian states started out when the archipelago was still predominantly Hindu (Bali still is) or Buddhist, some have been ruled by a maharaja, such as Srivijaya, Majapahit and Kutai Karta Negara (until that kingdom converted to Islam in 1565, when the Muslim title of sultan was adopted). Traditional titles remain in use for the other members of this dynasty, such as Pangeran Ratu for the heir.

The Englishman Capt. James Brooke was declared as Raja Brooke by the Brunei Sultan. The word Raja derived from the word Maharaja. Raja Brooke, who was married to a Sarawak woman, pacified the Sarawak Revolt against the Brunei Sultan. Thus declared by the latter as Raja during the Raffles' stint.


In peninsular Malaysia:

  • Maharaja was the title of the monarch of the peninsular Malay state of Johor(e) from 1873 to 1885. The Arabic, Muslim title sultan, often considered of higher rank, was re-adopted later and remains in current usage.
  • The title Bendahara Seri Maharaja was used by the ruler of Pahang (1623– 1853 in personal union with Johor, eventually becoming a fief of the Bendahara family), till on 6 August 1882 Tuanku Ahmad al-Muadzam Shah ibni al-Marhum Tun Ali adopted the title sultan.

In northern Borneo, the title Maharajah of Sabah and Rajah of Gaya and Sandakan was used from 29 December 1877 to 26 August 1881 by Alfred Dent (compare White Rajah).

In contemporary Malay usage, the title Maharaja refers to an emperor, e.g. "Maharaja Jepun" ("Japanese Emperor/Emperor of Japan").


In Seri Malayas of the Srivijaya, under the Srivijaya satellite empire of the Majapahit Empire dominated over the whole Malayas far reaching the present Philippine Archipelago, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia under the Srivijaya Empire of the Majapahit King Maharaja Pamarwasa. The latter's daughter Es-kander was married to an Arab (Zein Ul-abidin) who was a Srivijaya ruler in Seri who were a Srivijaya Monarchy. In the 12th century with the fall of the empire, the Seri King being a Muslim established the Sultanate of Brunei in 1363 with the reigning title as Sultan Mohamad Shah. In 1426–1450, he also established the Sultanate of Sulu while his brother Makdum Karim (Kabungsuwan Aliwya), a Srivijaya Johore ruler established the Sultanate of Maguindanao-Ranao or Mindanao. His progeny in 1704, Sayyid Nakhoda Perkasa Angging (Maharaja Anddin) was given, by the Brunei Sultan, the title Maharaja of Brunei in the Sulu Sultanate. Thus, his successor Prince and Sultan to append the title Maharaja Adinda to the beginning of the name; Maharaja Adinda Taup the 1859 Maharaja of Jolo-Sulu and Prince Heir-apparent of Sultan Moh. Fad'l (Sultan Pulalun) at the time.


In the Philippines, more specifically in Sulu, maharaja (also spelled "Maharajah") was a title given to various sub-divisional princes after the fall of the Srivijaya of the Majapahit Empire. Parts of the Philippines may have later been ruled by community leaders as maharajah from once being under the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires.

In the establishment of the Sultanate of Sulu from approximately 1425 to 1450, the title of maharaja was even used by a Sulu sultan, such as the 1520–1548 Sulu Sultan Maharaja Upo (Sultan Shar ul-uddin Digmin, also known as Mu'izz Ul-mutawad'in).

In Sulu Sultanate Protocol System called (Tartib of Sulu Sultanate), the Sulu throne should "Rotate" among the "First Heir-apparents" (Descendent of Sultan Azimuddin/Alimuddin-I @ Don Fernando de Alimuddin ibni Sultan Badaruddin-I, nowadays are the present Royal Families, Shakiraullah, Harun Al-Rashid, Jamalul Azam, Taup & Pulalun Families). While the "Second Heir-apparent" (Descendant of Sultan Bantilan Muizuddin-I ibni Sultan Badaruddin-I, nowadays are the Maharaja Adinda families and Sultan Muhammad Aranan/Adanan Puyo Families. The existences of these "2 Heirs" was symbolized on the Sulu Sultanate flag's, as KERIS =For the Sulu Sultanate First heir-apparent and SPEAR = For the Sulu Sultanate Second heir-apparent. The Sulu Sultanate Royal blood "Direct-line" cames from the Brunei Sultanate Royal blood, from Sultan Muhammad Hassan (the 9th Sultan of Brunei), whom sent his "Youngest-son" Raja Bongsu-I @ Pangiran Shahbandar Maharjalela for the continuance of Brunei's Royal blood lineage in the Sulu Sultanate, eventually with the coming forth of the 1825 Sultan Jamalul Kiram-I (Mawalil-Wasit) succeeded his uncle's Sultan Betarashah Tengah @ Panguilan Tindig while Sultan Pangiran Buddiman Ul-Halim (died without heir).

To prove that Raja Bongsu-I @ Pangiran Shahbandar Maharajalela was indeed the "Son" of Sultan Muhammad Hassan of Brunei. On his coming to Sulu, he brought along the "Royal symbol from Brunei" called Pulau Janggi @ Sepong Janggi (coco de mer seed). And since a very long time, these "Royal symbol" was "MANDATED" to kept by the Sulu Sultanate Second heir-apparent (The Maharaja Adinda Families) as a proof & Evidence that the Sulu Sultanate Second heir-apparent have rights over the Sulu Sultanate kingdom as well the Sulu Sultanate First heir-apparent. Its meant that the Sulu Sultanate kingdom belongs to "Two Heirs" (as shown on the Sulu Sultanate flag).

If the Sulu Sultanate were "LOST" by the First heir-apparent, it STILL be claim by the Second heir-apparent families. Tacitly admired dearly in possession of either "Royal Symbol from Brunei", the PUlAU JANGGI or the SPEAR..

Compound titles

The word can also be part of titles used by Malay nobility:

  • Maharaja Lela was the title of the ruler of the State of Naning (founded 1641), until it was annexed by the UK to Malacca in 1832.

Most famous was Bendahara Seri Maharaja Tun Mutahir of Malacca (executed 1509) and Datuk Maharaja Lela Pandak Lam of Perak (executed 1876).

The palace marshal of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (head of state) of modern Malaysia is called Datuk Maharaja Lela Penghulu Istana Negara.

In the Sulu Sultanate in the Philippines, the Raja Muda (Crown Prince) is the heir to the throne, the Maharaja Adinda is the second heir apparent and the Maharaja Lailah acts as chief of the palace.[5] Eventually, Maharajah Adinda was also used to refer to a particular lineage within the royal families.



Maharaja was also part of the titles of the nobility in the Sumatran sultanate of Aceh. In the past the title of Maharaja is given to leader of the unreigning noble family and the Prime Minister Maharaja Mangkubumi. The last Prime Minister of Aceh who was installed to be the Maharaja Mangkubumi, Habib Abdurrahman el Zahir, also acted as the foreign affairs minister of Aceh but was deposed and exiled to Jeddah by the colonial Dutch East Indies authorities in October 1878.

See also

Sources and references

  1. ^
  2. ^ Hansdev Patel (1998) Royal Families and Palaces of Gujarat. Scorpion Cavendish. ISBN 1-900269-20-1.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Entry of the Sultanate of Sulu in the Almanach de Bruxelles."
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