In a centuries-old hunting lodge hidden on the fringes of India's capital, in a room where pigeons fly among hand-carved pillars and Persian carpets rot in the gloom, a princess dreams of a long-gone kingdom.

And lights. That would also be nice.

"We have been left in darkness," said Princess Sakina Mahal, whose family, as rulers of the Kingdom of Oudh, once reigned over a large swath of central India. These days, royal rule doesn't extend beyond the crumbling 700-year-old stone building she calls home. "We are hemmed in by affliction."

The hulking lodge, built by a long-dead sultan and concealed deep in an overgrown park, has no doors and no electricity. Pools of black mold grow on the ceiling; weeds sprout on the roof.

But Sakina is still a princess, raised to believe her position in the world has nothing to do with the poverty that has engulfed her family.

"The decline is there, but our vanity shall never fail," she said, her clothing elegant but frayed, her voice rising to an unsettling urgency. In the shadows, her brother, Prince Riaz, nodded. "It shall never fail, though the regal ruination is before you!"

The past few generations have been devastating to the House of Oudh, reducing it to this pair of middle-aged royals whose grasp on reality can seem as fragile as the rusting sign out front warning, "Intruders Shall be Gundown."

But they are far from alone. Decline is familiar to all of India's 565 royal families, a fact of aristocratic life that accelerated dramatically after independence from Britain in 1947.

The various royals have seen their powers stripped away, their land seized. Their "privy purses," the payments from British colonial rulers and then the Indian government, have been cut off.

Struggling to stay afloat, they've sold off piles of jewelry, fleets of Rolls-Royces and armories of heirloom hunting rifles.

Some have found their way. A handful have become powerful politicians and a few are business leaders. Quite a number have turned family palaces into hotels that sell hazy memories of the British Raj.

Still others are professional celebrities, lending their names to polo tournaments sponsored by Chivas Regal or Hyundai and frequenting newspaper gossip pages.

Princess Gayatri Devi of the desert kingdom of Jaipur, a still-glamorous octogenarian once said to be one of the most beautiful woman in the world, is now the pitchwoman for a line of diamond jewelry that promises the "Aura of Royalty" to India's newly rich. But most of the old aristocrats have disappeared into obscurity. They may carry weight where their families once ruled, but in the wider world most are simply well-named nobodies struggling to keep up appearances.

"I always feel so sorry for these poor deposed Indian princes," Queen Victoria wrote more than a century ago, when royal power was already being chipped away by colonial rule.

It's only gotten worse since.

Today, India is a nation where a multibillion-dollar software industry and a burgeoning middle class exist alongside more than 250 million people living in desperate poverty -- and where ancient traditions can be trumped by something as tawdry as money.

Many royals are simply unable to cope.

"There's this nostalgia for the past," said Abhilasha Kumari, a professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications and a member of a north Indian royal family. "You hope that by clinging to certain traditions you can keep it alive."

She has seen a number of relatives return to the family's former kingdom, giving up careers for the life of a semi-royal, still greeted on the streets with shouts of "Huzzoor! Huzzoor!" (Your highness! Your highness!)

"It's too much of a privilege, too much of an advantage, to let go," she said.

That's not surprising, given what these families once had.

Just 60 years ago, royalty controlled nearly a third of India. Rulers could levy taxes, settle disputes and raise armies.

But while technically independent, nearly every Indian king was shadowed by British colonial officers, and each knew he remained enthroned at the price of fealty to Britain.

It was a situation that bred excess. Bored royals became famous for their palaces, their playthings and their mistresses. Their spending habits became folklore, from the maharajah, or prince or king, of Patiala with his silver bathtub to the maharajah of Bharatpur with his 22 Rolls-Royce garbage trucks.

By the time they were stripped of power in 1947, most Indians took little interest: Aristocrats just weren't what they used to be.

But decades later, most royals insist it's not so simple. Today, some still mediate local disputes and act as one-family charities. Perhaps most important, they say, they are symbols of a simpler past.

"You wouldn't understand it," said Princess Gayatri Devi, sitting in her Jaipur mansion amid fading photographs and a painting of her late husband on a polo pony.

Then she tries to explain.

A few years ago, she said, she returned to her ancestral home in the tiny kingdom of Cooch Behar, which she had left decades earlier to marry. "I went to a remote place in the country and about 10,000 people had gathered. They'd come to see their princess," she said.

"Our family has been there since the 13th century. . . . So there's a connection."

But it's a long way from Gayatri Devi's deco mansion to Princess Sakina and Prince Riaz in their crumbling New Delhi home. Stumbling between aristocratic arrogance and sheer desperation, they are royals without a kingdom, palace-dwellers in poverty.

Their family was dethroned by the British well over a century ago, and the people of the former kingdom, about 100 miles south, have little idea they exist.

As India has changed around them, they haven't even tried to keep pace. They don't follow politics or watch television. They seldom leave home. Descended from rulers who invaded India centuries ago from Persia, they distrust other Indians -- whom they refer to derisively as "subcontinent persons," and speak to them only when they must.

"Time means nothing to us here," said the prince.

Compared to his vociferous, insistent sister, Prince Riaz is a quiet, almost ghostly figure. While she declaims on the family's history, he listens silently. But he's the more worldly sibling. He's traveled abroad, and is the person who comes down the path to meet the siblings' infrequent visitors. It's Riaz who goes into town when they need to sell another rusting heirloom to raise money.

He spends a lot of time on the roof, with its vistas of the skyscrapers of modern New Delhi.

"If I have this view, why would I need commoners as friends?" he asked.

"Ordinary people settle for ordinary things," Sakina said. Then, as it often does, her voice slips into a speech-like cadence, and she's almost shouting: "Ordinariness is not just a crime, but it is a sin. Yes! It is a sin!"

The siblings, both in their mid-40s, have created their own royal island. Inside, it's just the two of them, a half-dozen snarling, slate-blue mastiffs they smother with love, and an ever-decreasing collection of heirlooms.

While they're clearly struggling financially, they won't even consider finding work.

"We dislike even to mingle with commoners," Riaz said.

Instead, their lives revolve around their late mother, Princess Wilayat Mahal. Dead for more than a decade, she remains the most powerful presence in the lodge.

Princess Wilayat had claimed she was a great-granddaughter of the last ruler of Oudh, a concubine-loving king the British deposed in 1856. Over the next century, his descendants frittered away his fortune and disappeared from view.

But in 1975, Princess Wilayat forced her way onto the Indian consciousness, moving into a New Delhi railway station with her children, five servants and 12 dogs.

They stayed for nine years, first on a platform and then in a VIP portico, as the princess tried to embarrass the Indian government into giving her a home fit for royalty.

Officials eventually succumbed and gave her the hunting lodge.

But there's no happily-ever-after to the princess's story. The move to the ancient building, built by a sultan unrelated to the House of Oudh, seems to have presaged a slip well beyond eccentricity. Feeling she had never achieved sufficient grandeur, the elder princess eventually committed suicide.

"Her highness halted the count of time: 2:40 p.m., 10th of September 1993, by taking her own life!" Sakina said. "Her highness endured the death with great stateliness."

Their mother remains an overbearing presence. Her dusty satin dancing shoes sit like an altar-offering on a table beneath her portrait, and the siblings have had a book on her life privately published.

It's easy to pity them, this pair of royals trapped by their own sense of superiority.

But they'll have none of that.

"We are not going to ask anyone for anything," said Sakina. "The government should have the sense to know how we are living over here. They are blind? They do not know we are in darkness?"

A pigeon perches on the crumbling wall next to an image of Princess Wilayat Mahal, the mother of Princess Sakina Mahal and Prince Riaz Mahal, who killed herself in 1993.Princess Sakina Mahal, whose family once reigned over a kingdom in central India, now lives in a crumbling hunting lodge outside New Delhi. "We are hemmed in by affliction," she said.