Tue, Jan 10, 2006 - Page 16 News List

France's king without a crown in India

Descended from the French royal family, Balthazar-Napoleon Bourbon has got used to living the life of an ordinary person in Bhopal

AFP , BHOPAL, INDIA

Indian lawyer Balthazar-Napoleon Bourbon poses outside the entrance to his residence in Bhopal, India.

PHOTO: AFP

In this gritty Indian city, a crumbling palace and a few church graves whisper the curious history of Muslim queens who allied with scions of a French royal family.

It is a tale that Balthazar-Napoleon Bourbon, a portly lawyer and part-time farmer whose family traces its lineage back to the Bourbons who began ruling France in the 16th century, knows well.

"As soon as I could have consciousness -- when I was six or seven years of age -- it [my royal heritage] was instilled in me," says Bourbon at his house next to a church founded by his great-grandmother, Isabella.

The doorway to the house is emblazoned with a brass sign -- "House of Bourbon" -- and the fleur-de-lis, the heraldic crest bearing a lily that has been associated with the French monarchy for centuries. In the church, stones engraved with the Bourbon name mark the graves of Isabella and her children.

The Bourbon dynasty ruled France from 1589 until the bloody 1789 French Revolution.

"We regularly had guests coming from Europe, so time and again the [family] history used to be repeated," Bourbon says.

And what a history it is -- even if some details are murky.

According to family accounts, a man named Jean-Philippe de Bourbon Navarre arrived in 1560 at the court of Emperor Akbar, the third king of the Mughal dynasty, which ruled from the early 16th century until the mid 19th century.

"The young adventurer was tall, his bearing gallant," said the writer C.A. Kincaid, in a 1946 issue of The Illustrated Weekly of India.

The 16th-century was a time in India's history when "there were plenty of Europeans of all nationalities roaming about ... trying to make their fortunes in one way or another," notes English history lecturer Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, who has written about the Bourbons.

The family accounts say Jean-Philippe, the hot-blooded son of a duke who was a cousin of King Henry IV, had fled France after killing another French nobleman in a duel.

He ended up in Goa on India's southwestern coast after being kidnapped by pirates and escaping their clutches. From there, he made his way to the royal court where he ingratiated himself swiftly.

In the 18th century, descendants of the family moved to the princely realm of Bhopal, now capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Louis Rousselet, in India and its Native Princes, first published in French in 1875, describes a visit to the poisoned Balthazar's wife Elizabeth.

"I was at once struck by her type, which is evidently European," wrote Rousselet who was "received by a number of armed domestics, who, after having assisted us to dismount from our elephant, conducted us to a large salon."

With the abolition of royal titles and privileges in 1971 in India, the Bourbons lost their royal patrons -- but retain their memories of grander times.

"The jagirs [lands] which the Bourbons had were confiscated. Then the Bourbons took up jobs. Prior to my father nobody did," says Bourbon, who bears no resentment over their change in circumstances and often jokes that he and his family are "Bourbons on the rocks."

The descendants of the Begums, meanwhile, have become royalty in other walks of life in modern India and Pakistan.

The family counts former captain of the Indian cricket team, the Nawab of Pataudi Mansur Ali Khan, and his son, Bollywood superstar Saif Ali Khan, along with former Pakistani foreign secretary Shaharyar Khan among its luminaries.

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