What Is a Raja?

Maharaja means
The Maharaja of Mysore, 1920. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A raja is a monarch in India, parts of Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. The term can designate either a prince or a full-fledged king, depending on local usage.  Varient spellings include rajah and rana, while the wife of a raja or a rana is called a rani.  The term maharaja means "great king," and was once reserved for the equivalent of an emperor or the Persian shahanshah ("king of kings"), but over time many petty monarchs bestowed this grander title upon themselves.

The Sanskrit word raja comes from the Indo-European root reg, meaning to "straighten, rule, or order." The same word is the root of European terms such as rex, reign, regina, reich, regulate, and royalty.  As such, it is a title of great antiquity.  The first known use is in the Rigveda, in which the terms rajan or rajna designate kings.  For example, the Battle of Ten Kings is called the Dasarajna.

In India, the term raja or its varients were most often used by Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh rulers.  Some Muslim kings also adopted the title, although many of them preferred to be known either as nawab or sultan.  One exception is those ethnic Rajputs (literally "sons of kings") who live in Pakistan; although they long ago converted to Islam, they continue to use the word raja as the hereditary title for rulers.

Thanks to cultural diffusion and the influence of subcontinental traders and travellers, the word raja spread beyond the borders of the Indian subcontinent to nearby lands.

 For example, the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka referred to their king as the raja.  As with Pakistan's Rajputs, the people of Indonesia continued to designate some (although not all) of their kings as rajas even after most of the islands had converted to Islam.

The conversion was more complete in what is now Malaysia.

 Today, only the state of Perlis continues to call its king a raja.  All of the other states' rulers have adopted the more Islamic title of sultan, although in the state of Perak they use a hybrid system in which kings are sultans and princes are rajas.

In Cambodia, the Khmer people continue to use the Sanskrit borrowed word reajjea as the title for royalty, although it is no longer used as the stand-alone name for a king.  It may be combined with other roots to indicate something associated with royalty, however.  Finally, in the Philippines, only the Moro people of the southernmost islands continue to use the historical titles such as raja and maharaja, along with sultan.  The Moro are primarily Muslim, but also rather independent-minded, and deploy each of these terms to designate different leaders.

During the colonial era, the British used the term Raj to designate their own reign over greater India and Burma (now called Myanmar).  Today, just as men in the English-speaking world may be named Rex, many Indian men have the syllables "Raja" in their names.  It is a living link with a very ancient Sanskrit term, as well as a gentle boast or claim of status by their parents.