ALL RIGHT, Indiaphiles, this is the book you have been waiting for! If you bought The Far Pavilions in hardback, if you saw A Passage to India four times, if you stayed home every Sunday night, with the kids roped and gagged, to watch The Jewel in the Crown, if you stood in line for two hours to see this summer's exhibition at the Smithsonian, then this is the book for you. There are magnificent color photographs of Mughal, Punjabi, and Rajput paintings, many of them from private collections and seldom if ever reproduced before. There are superb original color illustrations of the objects and iconography of Indian courtly life by Ved Pal Sharma, known as Bannu, among the most renowned living Indian miniature painters. A descendant of courtly artists, Bannu uses many of the same pigments, ground from semi-precious stones, as his illustrious forebears. There are also unusual and interesting early photographs of courtesans, maharajas, maharanis, and court officials including a number by the remarkable pioneer Indian photographer Raja Lala Deen Dayal. All in all a truly splendid presentation.

Precisely what the book is about is a little harder to figure out. The subtitle says "Indian courtly life," the dust jacket flap implies that it is something about kingship in India, the introduction by Stuart Cary Welch suggests that it is intended to be "an introductory book, illustrating the dazzling clothes of India's Hindu and Muslim courts and providing background material to a field little known even by 'experts.'" The dazzling clothes are all here, but the "background material" may prove a bit confusing. Welch provides an introduction and commentary on the plates in his usual graceful and illuminating style. The remainder of the book consists of a series of short essays, in no particular order, on every aspect of court life from the symbolism of precious stones in Indian astrology to Rajput hunting practices, to life in the zenana or harem.

The opening date in the subtitle, 1590, falls somewhat past the middle of the reign of Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors. Why the rest of Akbar's reign gets left out, or why the date 1590 is chosen at all is never explained. Actually the author (or his editors) seems to have had a little trouble with dates. On page 31 we are told that the Mughal empire "was ruled brilliantly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by a succession of outstanding emperors." Since the last strong emperor, Aurangzeb, died in 1707, and his successors allowed Mughal power to decline to the point where Delhi itself was sacked in 1739 by Persian raiders (who carried off the famous Peacock throne made for the Emperor Shah Jahan), it would be interesting to learn what brilliant rulers the author has in mind.

Well, don't worry about all that. Just look at the splendid pictures. The maharajas, nawabs, begums, et al. depicted here lived in a manner to which we would all like to become accustomed. "A string of pearls was used to measure a princess's foot for her slipper and the excess pearls were thrown as largesse to her maids." "The Maharaja of Alwar had a Lancaster (automobile) built to his personal specifications. The body was shaped like a coronation coach and the chauffeur steered with an ivory steering wheel . . . "

And what happened to these bejeweled potentates in the end? According to Patnaik, after India attained independence, "rulers voluntarily signed away their ancestral homes and sovereign rights to spare their people the anguish of civil war. With that last grand gesture of royal magnanimity they ended the fabled era of India's courts and kingdoms."

THAT'S ONE WAY of looking at it. A less charitable writer might point out that during their final years of rule in India, the British often used their obligations to, and treaty arrangements with, the princes to obstruct and complicate negotiations for self-rule; that the princes were offered a very handsome settlement by Nehru's deputy, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in 1947, which allowed them to retain their titles and many privileges and exempted them from income taxes on their pensions. In fact, not all did sign. Hyderabad and Kashmir, the two largest states, held out. Hyderabad was forcibly incorporated into India in September 1948 when Indian troops invaded the state, while Kashmir became a continuing source of conflict and tension between India and Pakistan.

By 1947, of course, the princes had probably long outlived their usefulness. As Patnaik points out, during the last period of British rule, most of them had become increasingly remote from their people and increasingly preoccupied with becoming British country squires, soldiers, international sportsmen or socialites. In the Mutiny of 1857, which many Indians now prefer to call the War of Independence, the traditional Indian rulers played a leading role. Bahadur Shah II, last Mughal emperor (whose melancholy portrait appears toward the end of the book) was briefly "restored" by the rebels, and other rulers, like the redoubtable Rani of Jhansi, became popular folk heroes. In the later "War of Independence" begun by Tilak, Gokhale and the Bengali nationalists around the turn of the century and which Gandhi made into a mass movement in the '20s, the princes played little part. Once the guardians and patrons of Indian culture and tradition, they had, by 1947, become expensive fossils.