Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bhurtpore and the legacy of its magnificent maharajahs

Bhurtpore fort in the 1860s
Last week, I read some interesting news about Bharatpur. Vishvendra Singh, scion of the erstwhile royal family of Bharatpur and a BJP leader resigned from the parliament as well as the party. Reportedly, he is joining the Congress party. Singh, a Jat royal, was political adviser to the Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje and the revolt apparently was provoked by the BJP’s decision to field Industries minister Digamber Singh from Dieg-Kumbher, one of the royal family’s strongholds. His wife, Ms. Divya Singh belongs to the Gujjar community, which had gone on violent agitations in the region during the year. Recently, the Chief Minister had appointed Divya Singh Chairperson of the Rajasthan Subordinate Services Board obviously to appease her husband as he has considerable clout in the area.
Also, to counter the ill effects, BJP has roped in Jagat Singh, the controversial son of Natwar Singh, the former union minister and erstwhile Bharatpur Member of Parliament, who himself is no less controversial. Natwar Singh, a former foreign secretary and a man of letters had been alleged to have received kickbacks from Iraq for the “food for oil” programme of the UN. He is also the brother-in-law of Amrinder Singh, former Chief Minister of Punjab and the scion of the royal family of Patiala. He had been expelled from the Congress party and then he joined the BSP. Again he is shown the door by BSP alleging that he is an opportunist. There have also been differing stories about the mysterious deaths of his daughter-in-law and his own daughter which all happened in the recent past. His son Jagat Singh has many controversies surrounding him.
All the above may be just some more pages from the power-hungry politics we observe practiced in India. But, the history of Bharatpur has more such interesting and shocking episodes.
Bharatpur or Bhurtpore, as the English called it, was once a native state under Rajputana agency which is the present day Rajasthan. Bharatpur, in Rajasthan is situated 50 km west of Agra.

Maharaja Surajmal ( 1707-63 )
The royal family of Bharatpur used to be given a 19-gun salute by the Viceroy of India and it traces the ancestry to an 11th-century warring Jat clan. It achieved prominence under Raja Suraj Mal (1707–1763) who took on the armies of Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughals, and carved out its fiefdom between Delhi and Agra. He built the forts of Deeg and Kumbher in 1730. He joined the great Mahratta army with 30,000 troops, but later abandoned the confederacy, to escape the murderous defeat of the Mahrattas at Panipat. Incidentally, Natwar Singh, a Jat, has written a widely acclaimed book titled Maharajah Suraj Mal.
The Bhurtpore fort built by Suraj Mal was intended as a point of resistance against the British. The English under Lord Lake captured the fort of Dieg and besieged Bharatpur, but were compelled to raise the siege after four attempts at storming the fort. A treaty was concluded in April 1805 which guaranteed the raja's territory; but he was to pay two lakhs of British pounds as indemnity to the East India Company. A dispute as to the right of the succession again led to a war in 1825, and Lord Combermere captured Bharatpur with a besieging force of 20,000 men in January 1826. The fortifications were dismantled and the Rajah was deported to Benares. There were heavy causalities on both the sides. An infant son of the raja was then installed under a treaty which was much in favour of the company.
The army of India medal issued by the honourable East India Company for the siege of Bhurtpore (1825-6) bears the clasp Bhurtpore and is a collector’s item which brings back the memories of a great chapter in Indian history.

Maharajah Jaswant Singh 1853-93

Maharajah Ram Singh 1873-1929
Another shocking episode about Bhurtpore happened in 1900, when, in a unique action, the Indian Government , deposed Ram Singh the then Maharajah of Bhurtpore for shocking intemperance and reckless behaviour. Ram Singh who ascended the throne in 1893 succeeded his father Sir Jaswant Singh, GCSI. Jaswant Singh in 1893 had asked Lord Lansdowne, the Viceroy of India (1888-94) from his death bed to debar his son Ram Singh from succeeding him owing to his vicious and intemperate habits. The government however, hoping for the best, and being reluctant to interfere with the established order of succession, acceded to the claims of Ram Singh. Ram Singh, who ascended the throne, was later deprived of power of government in 1895 on the ground of intemperate conduct, reckless behaviour and extravagant ways and in 1900 he was finally deposed for the murder of one of his personal attendants. Every attempt had been made earlier to reclaim and reform him which all proved futile. In June 1900, without cause or excuse for violence, he shot his personal barber dead in his room thus leading to his deposition. Only his rank as Maharajah saved him from further trial before a tribunal.

Maharajah Kishan Singh 1899-1929

Ram Singh was succeeded by his infant son Kishan Singh whose eccentricities and extravagance were legion. He reigned under his regency of his mother till invested with full ruling powers in 1918. He was a spendthrift who literally plundered the bourses of his state by spending 8 million rupees, more than twice revenue of Bharatpur of the 1920s. He amassed over 30 Rolls Royces as Maharajah, all custom-made. He had over dozens of custom-built Purdy rifles and a stable for many thoroughbred Arabian ponies. He also reportedly had a private jazz band always in attendance. He was fond of hunting and bought many lions, elephants, leopards and others at astronomical prices and released these into the Bharatpur jungles. All these actions, coupled with allegations of his gross misrule led to his deposition in the 1920s and he died in exile in 1929.

Maharajah Brijendra Singh 1939-1995

Brajendra Singh, who was the eldest son of Kishan Singh, was a minor, studying in England, when his father was deposed. Till 1939, Bharatpur was administered by Cyril Hancock, the British Resident, and then Brajendra Singh aged 21 took over. He was indeed one of the most colourful maharajahs of the 20th century. He was a good hunter, and hosted duck shoots for the Viceroys and other dignitaries at the famous Keolado Ghana marsh in Bharatpur. He converted this into one of the world's richest bird sanctuaries. Reportedly, the number of birds, mostly ducks, killed during the shoots he hosted exceeded 100000 at times and never went below 20000.
Brajendra Singh who was by reputation quietly eccentric and temperamental became an MP for Bharatpur (1967-71) after independence. Later, he was also elected to Rajasthan's state assembly (1972-73) but resigned a year later, retiring to his stately mansion before his death in 1995. He helped develop the Ghana sanctuary which is now a world heritage sanctuary spread over 29 square kilometers. Today, more than hundred species of birds including the seasonal Siberian cranes could be seen here despite its earlier notoriety as the killing fields of birds.
Vishvendra Singh, about whom we read in the first part of this post, is the son of Brajendra Singh and is technically the present Maharajah. Some fine legacies indeed!

Dubai, 20th November 2008.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Wilfred Owen and the 90th anniversary of the ending of WW I

Lt.Wifred Owen (1893-1918)
Thirty seven years have passed since I read Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Strange Meeting’ for the first time. While studying for my pre-degree days at a college in the remote village of Pallipuram in the Alleppey district of Kerala, this poem had been taught through the baritone voice of Mr.P.S.Nair, our English lecturer. The landscape of the village where the college was located, with its pristine white sand hues and white hillocks bore no resemblance to the smoke filled killing fields of Europe of the 1 WW years. But, the poem indeed caught my attention and years later, though the teenager has entered the twilight years of his career, many stanzas from the poem still reverberate in my mind and some of the lines do haunt me whenever I read about wars and battles.

November is the month in which the First World War ended in 1918. The world, now flush with more threats and challenges is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Let’s pray for a war free world, especially since we have to face many wars from within.

The best poem that came out of the First World War indeed was the Strange Meeting. Lt.Wilfred Owen, the poet died at the young age of 25 fighting the Germans in the killing fields of France, on the 4th of November 1918, just a few days before the war was to end. He was awarded the Military Cross following his actions of October 1918 at Joncourt on the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line. Confirmation of the award came for the finest poet of that generation after his death.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend/I knew you in this dark, for so you frowned/Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed / I parried but my hands were loathe and cold /Let us sleep now---“, wrote Owen perhaps aware that it was time for him too to go to sleep from which he was never to wake up.

Reading about any war or battle I get reminded of Owen who wrote about “the pity of war, the pity war distilled”.

I found that there was an Indian connection to Owen. Following extracts from an article titled “Tagore and his India” by the 1998 Nobel laureate Amartya Sen were enlightening.

Susan Owen, the mother of Wilfred Owen, wrote to Rabindranath in 1920, describing her last conversations with her son before he left for the war which would take his life. Wilfred said goodbye with "those wonderful words of yours—beginning at 'When I go from hence, let this be my parting word.’ “When Wilfred's pocket notebook was returned to his mother, she found "these words written in his dear writing—with your name beneath." Ref:

Susan Owen, Wilfred's mother is in the centre

Owen had written more than 500 letters to his mother, Susan, and she had kept nearly every word written by her first born. All these letters were found out much later in 1956.

I drop my tears in the memory of Owen and the First World War.

Dubai, 16th November 2008.

PS: Those of my readers with an inclination for poetry could hear a fine rendering of the poem “Strange Meeting” by going to the following link, which also provides a text of the poem. .

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