Maharaja is a Sanskrit word that means “great king.” It refers to a Hindu monarch or prince in India who ranked above a raja (king). Prior to British rule in India, only the rajas of the most powerful states were given the title of maharaja.
Despite the translation of the title, the maharaja was not an imperial ruler. The rulers of ancient Hindu dynasties were called samraja or samraat (emperor), while Muslim dynastic rulers were called padshah. It was the padshah who was ruling India when the British deposed him in 1858, beginning a period of British rule known as the Raj.
It was during British rule that the title of maharaja became more popular. Rajas and others loosely called rulers were given the title of maharaja along with various powers to ensure their support for the British. The title no longer applied only to rulers of large states. After India’s independence in 1947, the rajas and maharajas lost their ruling powers but retained their stipend, called a “privy purse,” until 1971 when they lost it along with their special privileges.
The title of maharaja was used throughout the centuries in other countries, particularly if there was a Hindu influence. Nepal, some Indonesian states, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines all had kingdoms that were ruled by a maharaja.