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Maharaja (also spelled maharajah) comes from the Hindi words maha meaning "great" and raja meaning "king".

On the eve of independence in 1947, India (including present day Pakistan) consisted of more than 600 princely kingdoms each with its own raja (if the king was Hindu) or nawab/sultan (if he was Muslim).

The British directly ruled 1/3rd of India, the rest was ruled by the above mentioned princes.

The word maharaja may be construed to be "prince" or in some cases "king" (as in Jammu and Kashmir), in spite of its literal translation as "great king". This was because only a handful of the kingdoms were truly powerful and wealthy enough for their rulers to be entitled kings; the remaining were minor principalties, towns or groups of villages.