A Princely State (also called Native State or Indian State) was a nominally sovereign entity of British rule in India that was not directly administered by the British, but rather by an Indian ruler under a form of indirect rule such as suzerainty or paramountcy. There were as many as 568 and according to some other sources, 572 salute and non salute princely states in India before independence. But only 5 princely states received the highest honour of 21-gun salute.
The Chamber of Princes was established in 1920 by royal proclamation to provide a forum for the rulers of the Indian princely states to voice their needs and aspirations to the government of British India, it survived til the end of the British Raj in 1947.
India under the British Raj or the British Indian Empire consisted of two divisions: British India and the Native States or Princely states. In its Interpretation Act of 1889, the British Parliament adopted the following definitions:
The expression British India shall mean all territories and places within Her Majesty's dominions which are for the time being governed by Her Majesty through the Governor-General of India, or through any Governor or other officer subordinate to the Governor-General of India. The expression India shall mean British India together with any territories of a Native Prince or Chief under the suzerainty of Her Majesty, exercised through the Governor-General of India, or through any Governor or other officer subordinate to the Governor-General of India..(52 & 53 Vict. cap. 63, sec. 18)
(In general the term "British India" had been used (and is still used) to also refer to the regions under the rule of the British East India Company in India from 1600 to 1858. The term has also been used to refer to the "British in India.")
Suzerainty over 175 Princely States, some of the largest and most important, was exercised (in the name of the British Crown) by central government of British India under the Viceroy; the remaining, approximately 500, states were dependents of the provincial governments of British India under a Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, or Chief Commissioner (as the case might have been). A clear distinction between "dominion" and "suzerainty" was supplied by the jurisdiction of the courts of law: the law of British India rested upon the laws passed by the British Parliament and the legislative powers those laws vested in the various governments of British India, both central and local; in contrast, the courts of the Princely States existed under the authority of the respective rulers of those states.
The Indian rulers bore various titles—including Maharaja ("great king"), Badshah ("emperor"), Raja ("king"), Nawab ("governor"), Nizam, Wāli, and many others. Whatever the literal meaning and traditional prestige of the ruler's actual title, the British government translated them all as "prince," in order to avoid the implication that the native rulers could be "kings" with status equal to that of the British monarch.
More prestigious Hindu rulers (mostly existing before the Mughal Empire, or having split from such old states) often used the title "Raja," or a variant such as "Rana," "Rao," "Rawat" or Rawal. Also in this 'class' were several Thakur sahibs and a few particular titles, such as Sar Desai.
The most prestigious Hindu rulers usually had the prefix "maha" ("great", compare for example Grand duke) in their titles, as in Maharaja, Maharana, Maharao, etc. The states of Travancore and Cochin had queens regnant styled Maharani, generally the female forms applied only to sisters, spouses and widows, who could however act as regents.
There were also compound titles, such as (Maha)rajadhiraj, Raj-i-rajgan, often relics from an elaborate system of hierarchical titles under the Mughal emperors. For example, the addition of the adjective Bahadur raised the status of the titleholder one level.
Furthermore most dynasties used a variety of additional titles, such as Varma in South India. This should not be confused with various titles and suffixes not specific to princes but used by entire (sub)castes.
Muslim rulers almost all used the title "Nawab" (the Arabic honorific of naib, "deputy," used of the Mughal governors, who became de facto autonomous with the decline of the Mughal Empire), with the prominent exceptions of the Nizam of Hyderabad & Berar, the Wāli/Khan of Kalat and the Wāli of Swat. Other less usual titles included Darbar Sahib, Dewan, Jam, Mehtar (unique to Chitral) and Mir (from Emir).
However, the actual importance of a princely state cannot be read from the title of its ruler, which was usually granted (or at least recognised) as a favour, often in recognition for loyalty and services rendered to the Mughal Empire, or later to the British rulers succeeding it as paramount power (first the East India Company, de facto; later the British crown, and ultimately assuming the style Emperor of India as successor to the emperor of the abolished Mughal realm). Although some titles were raised once or even repeatedly, there was no automatic updating when a state gained or lost real power. In fact, princely titles were even awarded to holders of domains (mainly jagirs) and even zamindars (tax collectors), which were not states at all. Various sources give significantly different numbers of states and domains of the various types. Even in general, the definition of titles and domains are clearly not well-established. There is also no strict relation between the levels of the titles and the classes of gun salutes, the real measure of precedence, but merely a growing percentage of higher titles in classes with more guns.
The gun salute system was used to set unambiguously the precedence of the major rulers in the area in which the British East India Company was active, or generally of the states and their dynasties. Princely rulers were entitled to be saluted by the firing of an odd number of guns between three and 21, with a greater number of guns indicating greater prestige. (There were many minor rulers who were not entitled to any gun salutes, and as a rule the majority of gun-salute princes had at least nine, with numbers below that usually the prerogative of Arab coastal Sheikhs also under British protection.) Generally, the number of guns remained the same for all successive rulers of a particular state, but individual princes were sometimes granted additional guns on a personal basis. Furthermore, rulers were sometimes granted additional gun salutes within their own territories only, constituting a semi-promotion.
While the states of all these rulers (about 120) were known as salute states, there were far more so-called non-salute states of lower prestige, and even more princes (in the broadest sense of the term) not even acknowledged as such. On the other hand, the dynasties of certain defunct states were allowed to keep their princely status—they were known as Political Pensioners. Though none of these princes were awarded gun salutes, princely titles in this category were recognised as among certain vassals of salute states, and were not even in direct relation with the paramount power.
After independence, the Maharana of Udaipur displaced the Nizam of Hyderabad as the most senior prince in India, and the style Highness was extended to all rulers entitled to 9-gun salutes. When these dynasties had been integrated into the Indian Union they were promised continued privileges and an income, known as the Privy Purse, for their upkeep. Subsequently, when the Indian government abolished the Privy Purse in 1971, the whole princely order ceased to exist under Indian law, although many families continue to retain their social prestige informally; some descendants are still prominent in regional or national politics, diplomacy, business and high society.
At the time of Indian independence, only five rulers—the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Maharaja of Mysore, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir state, the Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda and the Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior—were entitled to a 21-gun salute. Five more rulers—the Nawab of Bhopal, the Maharaja Holkar of Indore, the Maharana of Udaipur, the Maharaja of Kolhapur and the Maharaja of Travancore—were entitled to 19-gun salutes. The most senior princely ruler was the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was entitled to the unique style Exalted Highness. Other princely rulers entitled to salutes of 11 guns (soon 9 guns too) or more were entitled to the style Highness. No special style was used by rulers entitled to lesser gun salutes.
As paramount ruler, and successor to the Mughals, the British King-Emperor of India, for whom the style of Majesty was reserved, was entitled to an 'imperial' 101-gun salute—in the European tradition also the number of guns fired to announce the birth of a (male) heir to the throne.
All princely rulers were eligible to be appointed to certain British orders of chivalry associated with India, The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India and The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire. Even women could be appointed as "Knights" (instead of Dames) of these orders. Rulers entitled to 21-gun and 19-gun salutes were normally appointed to the highest rank possible (Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India).
Many Indian princes served in the British army (as others in local guard or police forces), often rising to the high official ranks; some even served while on the throne. Many of these were appointed as ADC etc., either to the ruling prince of their own house (in the case of relatives of such rulers) or indeed to the British King-Emperor. Many also saw action, both on the subcontinent and on other fronts, during both World Wars.
It was also not unusual for members of princely houses to be appointed to various colonial offices, often far from their native state, or to enter the diplomatic corps.