WHEN OPRAH FIRST GOT IN TOUCH
with Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil in 2007 to grace her couch, he dismissed her email, unsure of who she was. Who doesn’t know Oprah? Gohil admits he’s not much of a pop culture enthusiast and wasn’t technologically savvy back then. It was only upon receiving a call on his landline—from the woman the Internet hopes will be America’s next president—that he agreed to appear on her show; a groundbreaking moment and milestone for him, he confesses. Today, she’s a great connection to have.
When we meet for this interview, I see Gohil stepping out of an Uber and into the Starbucks I’m waiting at in suburban Mumbai. He’s wearing an airy kurta and pyjama, collapsible Nike sneakers and a backpack slung across one shoulder. No big deal. It’s an especially muggy March afternoon and he could easily pass off as one of the many freelancers or regular folk populating the coffee shop. What stands out is the rich vermilion applied with perfect precision on his forehead and the eye-catching magenta topi akin to something Childish Gambino would don on stage. Unlike us commoners present here, Gohil is a prince from the Kingdom of Rajpipla in Gujarat, not far from where India’s current prime minister Narendra Modi was born.
Gohil tells me that the vermilion mark—the tilak— is a tradition passed down from his ancestors who would sacrifice an animal before the Hindu goddess Devi and apply its blood on their forehead as a symbol of good luck before going to war. Luckily, prior to the interview, no animals were harmed, but the tilak still embodies its original meaning—as a third eye—in a battle Gohil’s been fighting for the past 12 years: as India’s first and only openly gay prince and poster man for LGBTQ rights in a country where homosexuality is illegal.
Being a prince in modern-day India is a cool job title to have, but the value is often compromised in the public eye ever since in 1948 the law did away with monarchical rule in favour of democracy. That explains why Gohil can use public transport and nonchalantly wander into a crowded space without getting mobbed. “Now when you think of royalty, it’s nothing like the olden days. But even though we don’t have the privileges and titles, we still have ceremonial powers,” Gohil reminds me. That and they retained their enormous palace grounds worthy of a mention every time Buzzfeed does a listicle of places to visit before you die. “In our geographical areas, we still have to follow certain cultural traditions and religious rituals which can only be performed by the royal family. Even when the prime minister came and he wanted to visit a temple in Rajpipla, he had to take permission from us in order to enter it. It’s a tradition that’s been carried down for 600 years,” he says. “That’s what separates us from commoners.”