Rai (Sanskrit: राय; Urdu: رائے, rāi) Rai is a historical title of royalty and nobility in the Indian subcontinent used by rulers and chieftains of many princely states and zamindari estates . It is derived from Raja (king, prince or chief). The Marathi/Telugu variant is Rao. One of the oldest reference one can find in ancient historical scriptures of Jainism and Hinduism is that of King Nabhi who is also referred to as Nabhi Rai. Nabhi Rai was the father of Rishabhanatha, the first Tirthankara. Rai was used as a substitute to King.
When Babur conquered Hindustan, he found many principalities which had been subordinated by the Emperor of Hindustan and innumerable others which never have been effectively subdued. When Akbar ascended to the throne, Hindustan had numerous autonomous and semiautonomous rulers. These hereditary rulers were known by various names such as Rais, Rajas, Ranas, and Rawals.
During Mughal rule, while conferring a title on a Hindu or Sikh Chief the word Raja or Rai was added to the name of person. The Mughals seems to have inherited the practice of bestowing titles from the Sultans of Delhi.The appellation "Rai" is primarily applied to men, while for women the appellation "Rani" is used.
During British Rule, Rai Sahib and Rai Bahadur were titles of honour given for service of visionary leadership to the nation. They were given immense power too and were equivalent to autonomous native rulers within their feudal estates. Other equivalent titles were Roy and Rao.
The descendants of these earlier rulers, chieftains and leaders still use these titles as patronymics, but these titles although having social acceptance as per local customs, holds no recognition and privilege in the eye of law after the abolition of titles in 1971 from the Indian Constitution.
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