The Jungle Prince and the Western Gaze

How Western media built and unraveled a myth.

Devanshi Patel

March 10, 2020

The Jungle Prince and the Western Gaze
Original caption: NEW DELHI, INDIA MARCH 20, 1975: Descendant of Begum of Avadh named Begum Wilayat Mahal (45) with her daughter Sakeena (19) and son Ali Raza (17) were occupying the second-class waiting room at the New Delhi Railway Station for the past three months. (Photo by N Thyagarajan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Deep in a tangled, overgrown jungle in the heart of bustling Delhi, an aging prince lives in a crumbling palace. He sees no one. He eschews all contact with the outside world. Any who brave the jungle and push past the labyrinthine thicket of thorns and bramble are met with barbed wire and threats that they will be “gun down” if they enter his palace. He is the last of a long-deposed royal line, outliving his sister and his mother,  a queen who had taken her own life by drinking a cocktail of poison and crushed diamonds. In the evenings, as the sun sets on India’s capital city, this devoted son silently sets a place for his lost queen mother at the table where he eats alone.   

If this sounds like the stuff of legend, that’s because it was. For decades, journalists and Delhiites whispered the legend of a lost royal family, and in November 2019, The New York Times published “The Jungle Prince of Delhi,” an in-depth investigation by former South Asia bureau chief Ellen Barry. The article exposed this “royal” family’s story as a complete fabrication. While the Times article was the most wide-reaching coverage of the family's story, it wasn’t the first time the story had caught the imagination of foreign correspondents. In hindsight, it was foreign journalists who amplified this fabrication from the start. Endemic to historic coverage of “the royal family of Oudh” is the Western gaze, the mythologized prism through which this story was initially built and then unraveled. 

The purportedly last descendants of the royal family of Oudh, a former princely state in North India, had reigned in the public imagination since the 1970s. For years, this family had deceived the Indian government, public, and generations of journalists.