Stoke row RISHAD SAAM MEHTA recounts the tale of an unlikely friendship between a Britisher and an Indian royal, and how a community across the seas benefited

Stoke Row in Oxfordshire is so small that if someone gave you a big map of Great Britain and a magnifying glass, finding it could become something to do between breakfast and lunch.

But, passing through this village with just 650 inhabitants two weeks ago, I came across a circular dome-shaped structure, the cupola of a well, painted Indian brick red and other bright colours. Loud and imposing, it strayed from the rustic scheme of the village. But, what caught my eye were the words on the periphery of the dome — “His Highness the Maharaja of Benares”.

What follows then is the story of how this well, known as the Maharaja's Well, came into existence, and improved the lot of the community.

The Well is a legacy of the friendship that two men from very different worlds shared — the son of an English country Squire, Edward Anderdon Reade, and His Highness The Maharaja Ishree Pershad Narayan Singh Bahadur, Maharaja of Benares.

The story starts before the Indian War of Independence in 1857. Reade worked in India for 34 years, and was Lieutenant Governor, North Western Provinces. One of his deeds was to sink a well in 1831 to aid the local community in Azimurgh. It was during his tenure in India that he became close friends with the Maharaja of Benares.

Somewhere around 1850, he happened to mention his childhood in Stoke Row; a narrative about a child being beaten for stealing water sparked an idea in the Maharaja's head. That, was the seed of the well.

In 1863, the Maharaja decided to bestow Stoke Row with a free, public well. Reade, now back in England, went about giving form to the Maharaja's generosity. On His Highness's request, work was started on March 10, 1863, the day that the then Prince of Wales got married, and was officially opened on May 24, 1864, Queen Victoria's 45th birthday.

The well was dug by hand to a depth of 368 feet, which is deeper than St. Paul's Cathedral is tall.

The superstructure on top is 23 feet tall, and is topped by a brilliant gilded dome that incorporates several glass lenses to allow the light through and show the waterline below. The cost of constructing the well was GBP 353!

This benefaction was the first-known charity in Great Britain by an Indian, and it started quite a trend. A year later, another well was sunk barely three miles away, near Ispden Church, funded by yet another Indian. The Maharaja of Vizianagaram funded the drinking water fountain in Hyde Park, near Marble Arch in London.

The cherry orchard

Coming back to the well in Stoke Row, the Maharaja didn't stop his philanthropy once the well was built. It was now providing 700 gallons a day to the local community, and he wanted to ensure this for posterity. To this end, the Indian practice of maintenance of a well financed by the profits of a local fruit harvest was adopted. The Maharaja again generously loosened his purse strings and donated for the purchase of a four-acre cherry orchard adjacent to the well, and for the erection of a cottage for the well warden.

The warden lived rent-free in the cottage, and was given an annual income of one pound. This was to be raised to two pounds if the income from the cherry orchard exceeded 10 pounds. Incidentally, the village's solitary and very cosy pub is called ‘The Cherry Tree'.

The Maharaja's philanthropy continued even after this. He celebrated royal events in England with some additions to his adopted village.

For instance, on March 21, 1871, when the Marquis of Lorne married Princess Louise, a footpath was completed that made access from the lower road (today called Cox's Lane) to the well easier.

According to the Berks and Oxon Advertiser of the day, the footpath was opened “with suitable demonstrations of loyalty and rejoicings which the school children will never forget”.

Ten years later in 1882, another royal event — the survival of Queen Victoria following an assassination attempt — again sparked of celebrations in Stoke Row, funded by the Maharaja.

When Reade died in 1886, all contact between the locality and Benares was lost. But, the well continued to quench everyone's thirst for at least 50 years after that, thanks to the funds from the cherry orchard. When piped water arrived in the early part of the 20th Century, the well fell to disuse.

In 1958, a chance visitor from Oxford to Benares was asked by the then Maharaja about the well that his grandfather had built in Stoke Row. Luckily, the visitor did know that it still existed.

And, with a sense of timing like his grandfather, the present Maharaja chose the visit of HRH Queen Elizabeth to Benares in 1961 to point out that the centenary of the well wasn't too far away. He invited the Duke of Edinburgh to grace the occasion at Stoke Row on April 8, 1964, and 1,500 people had a lovely spring day out.

This timing of ‘well events' with royal events continued. In fact, the first step of restoring the well was taken on July 29, 1981, when Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, married Diana Spencer.

Such is the rich and colourful history of the magnificent well that stands in the little village of Stoke Row. The locals here might never have tasted chicken tikka masala, but mention Maharaja Ishree of Benares, and respect shines in their eyes.

To know more about the village, visit www.stokerow.net