IN SCHOOL

Bikaner royals, the untold story

LEGACY LINGERSRajyashree Kumari Bikaner.— PHOTO: V. SUDERSHAN

LEGACY LINGERSRajyashree Kumari Bikaner.— PHOTO: V. SUDERSHAN  

Rajyashree Kumari Bikaner shares the story of the erstwhile royalty of Bikaner documented in her book

“No, there were no revelations for me because we know the entire family history. We know the names of all our ancestors. Maharaja Ganga Singh insisted that everybody speak Marwari and we all speak good Marwari. We have been brought up like that,” Rajyashree Kumari replies, when asked about the discoveries she made while researching the regal past of her forefathers, the former royals of Bikaner for her book, “The Maharajas of Bikaner” (Amaryllis) launched recently in New Delhi.

But what are bare facts for Rajyashree make for an engaging and insightful account to an outsider with only sketchy knowledge of those times.

In her plush office-cum-residence on Prithviraj Road, Rajyashree holds forth on former rulers of Bikaner with a poise and elegance reminiscent of the past. Rare archival photographs of her ancestors add to the story. “I wanted to update the history. There are many books on the subject. For instance, my father's book itself ‘The Relations of the House of Bikaner with the Central Powers' was till 1947, the time of the merger, and dealt with a particular slant which was Bikaner's relations with the Mughals and the British.

“Then there are works like ‘The Regal Patriot', a biography of Maharaja Ganga Singh. So, I wanted to bridge the gap between various books and also offer an insider's view,” explains the author, who is a shooting champion and got the Arjuna Award in 1969.

Having authored “The Lallgarh Palace: Home of the Maharajas of Bikaner” earlier, her latest work appears to be a natural follow-up. Her deep association with the city and its history began with her father, Maharaja Karni Singh — the last Maharaja of Bikaner before it was merged with the Union of India like many other princely states in 1947 — involving her in its affairs from a very young age. The trusts floated by her, to promote various issues in the region, have resulted from that relationship.

Contrary to the popular perception of not just Bikaner but the entire region of Rajasthan being regressive, the writer presents facts suggesting otherwise. In different chapters tracing Bikaner's journey under various rulers, Rajyashree writes how these rulers, particularly Maharaja Surat Singh and Maharaja Sardar Singh, 17th and 19th maharajas of Bikaner, were opposed to the widow-burning practice of Sati. While Maharaja Sardar Singh outlawed it in 1854, the last Sati case took place during the reign of Maharaja Surat Singh.

She also writes how Bikaner became one of the first States to have a cancer ward, with state-of-the-art cobalt equipment , and the introduction of electricity in 1886 by Maharaja Dungar Singh, who hired a European engineer, Robinson, for that . “A lot of Bikaner maharajas don't get importance but they were great reformers. I also wanted to highlight their work through this book,” she says, adding how art and culture in the erstwhile Bikaner state got a boost from Maharaja Anup Singh's efforts. “He was a scholar and rescued hundreds of valuable Sanskrit manuscripts and renovated the forts and various frescoes.”

The author also attempts to justify the support Bikaner's rulers gave the Mughals. “I think they were practical and diplomatic but that didn't mean they were subservient to them. One of them even defied Aurangzeb when it came to principles… Between Raja Rai Singh and Raja Anup Singh, they were just busy fighting battles and consolidating. I think it was a question of survival…”

Rajyashree shares information like an insider but she has avoided personal views on several issues concerning adoption and merger. In the chapter “To Adopt or Not to Adopt? That Was The Question” she says she has simply presented the facts as they occurred during 2003-4 after the demise of her brother Maharaja Narendra Singh, who had three daughters. “I haven't tried to colour anything with my emotions and views and tried to present the facts as they were but yes, we didn't adopt. Whether it was the right thing to do or not, I think the readers should decide.”

Maharaja Ganga Singh's reign (1887-1943) ushered in a turning point in the history of Bikaner. To underline his work and vision, she got his biographer Professor L.S. Rathore to pen the chapter “Had Maharaja Ganga Singh Been Alive…”. Seeking answers to this hypothetical question, Rathore and Rajyashree deal with the thorny issue of the merger of the princely states and how he would have dealt with it.

“I feel a lot more could have been done and in a different way. The princes were rushed headlong into it because there was a deadline. It wasn't just these 500 princes; there were their families, the people who worked for them, so it wasn't just an individual but an entire institution. My feeling is that if a forceful personality like Maharaja Ganga Singh was around, it would have been different.”

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