Book launch function of “The Maharajas of Bikaner” by Princess Rajyashree Kumari was held at the Claridges, New Delhi on Wednesday, 28th March 2012. The book was launched by Dr. Shashi Tharoor, M.P and Maharani Gita Devi of Kapurthala read from the book. Dr. Tharoor in his address praised the rich history of the Maharajas of Bikaner with special mention of the achievements of Maharaja Ganga Singhji and rated Maharaja Ganga Singhji as one of the greatest Maharajas of his time. He also highlighted the political and sports achievements of Maharaja Dr. Karni Singhji of Bikaner. Dr. Tharoor spoke about the shooting achievements of Princess Rajyashree Kumariji and said the book is very well researched and written.
This is Princess Rajyashree Kumari’s second book. The book deals with the deeds and achievements of twenty-five generations of the royal house of Bikaner. The book also delves into their contribution to art, music, literature and culture, peculiar to Bikaner. Her first book was ‘The Lallgarh Palace home of the Maharajas of Bikaner’.
Mr. Sunil Sethi, the anchor for ‘JUST BOOKS’, a weekly TV show on NDTV – Profit, interviewed Princess Rajyashree Kumari of Bikaner on Monday, 19th March 2012 at New Delhi in connection with Princess’s second book “ Maharajas of Bikaner”. The link for the interview is as below. The interview was aired on Saturday, 24th March 2012. The book was released on the 28th March 2012.
Though this book is about the male members of my family the Rajas and Maharajas of Bikaner they nevertheless all had mothers, wives and daughters and so I would like to speak briefly if I may on the life of a Rajput woman both past and present, whether they came from aristocratic backgrounds or more ordinary ones, they basically faced the same challenges in some form or the other.
The medieval history of Rajasthan is one of political ups and downs and ironically it was the Rajput woman who had to suffer the ill effects of these new changes. Social evils such as female infanticide, child marriages, the rigid dowry system, purdah and Sati insidiously crept into Rajput society.
Birth was the first biggest hurdle, whether the female child survived or not largely depended on her father, his financial and social status and general mind set. Female infanticide was rife in medieval times and to some extent still continues in many parts of North West Rajasthan. Besides the element of ignorance and illiteracy there was an underlying reason for this barbaric act. Much was expected from the parents of the girl at the time of marriage. The curse of ‘Tyag’ or the dowry system was the main reason for this, and it was more often than not that for all practical purposes a girl child born in a financially secure family stood a better chance of facing this first challenge than those born in poorer families.
The Rajput community had to spend a lot of money on the marriages of their daughters, they had to offer expensive gifts, jewellery, clothes and if financially possible to include animals such as horses and in the case of princely families elephants as dowry to the groom’s family. To do all this they had to borrow money which they could not repay throughout their lives. Interestingly a person I met recently told me that in the villages even today many Rajputs are born in debt and die in debt, though this is strictly speaking not entirely because of their daughters or their marriages.
Eventually, it was Maharaja Ratan Singh 18th Maharaja of Bikaner who put an end to the practise of lavish dowries in Bikaner. In 1844, the British Government sent the Maharaja a ‘Kharita’ or proclamation asking him to stop the practice of excessive expenditure at the time of marriages. Following that, the Maharaja passed a law according to which the nobles were supposed to spend according to their financial position and not beyond that. Later the Maharaja together with several hundred followers set off on a pilgrimage to Gaya and it was there that he made the Nobles of his court take a solemn vow never to kill their infant daughters and warned them that should they do so, they would face confiscation of their Estates and Jagirs. It was a very progressive and radical reform judging the times he lived in, and it seems that Maharaja Ratan Singh was the first Indian ruler to introduce and take effective measures to suppress both excessive dowries and female infanticide.
To give an example of some royal dowries, On the wedding of my aunt Princess Sushil Kanwar in 1940 with Maharaj Kumar Bagwat Singhji of Udaipur, my great grandfather Maharaja Ganga Singh gave his granddaughter a lavish dowry. Records show that besides much jewellery she was given a ‘bajot’ or a low chair weighing 200 tolas or almost 2Kg of gold, a ‘thal’ or large tray made of a further 2kg gold, gold gulabdanis or rosewater sprinklers and four ornate bed legs made of 4 thols of gold or 47gms each amongst many other things made of silver and precious metals to include a chopar set made of solid silver. I wonder what the value of this would amount to toady with the price of precious metals soaring.
Fortunately, for us my father was a very enlightened man and one of the few Rajput princes who actually wanted a daughter and was delighted at my birth. He gave my sister and I exactly the same opportunities, education and exposure as he did to our brother. We are indeed the fortunate few.
Historically, matrimonial alliances had great political and diplomatic importance in Rajasthan. To stabilize, defend and to strengthen their regimes, shrewd rulers used matrimonial relations with their contemporaries to buy peace, gain influence or allies during times of battle. The Rajput woman unfortunately became a mere pawn in most of these alliances their personal feelings were rarely taken into consideration. In some cases they were married off often to men much older than themselves. Once married they were ushered into the Zenana Mahals and their prime duty was to fit into their husbands families as best they could and produce as many male children as possible.
The wings of the forts and palaces of Rajasthan were the royal ladies lived are know by various synonyms such as Zenana Mahal, Raniwas and Rawala. The rulers had several wives who lived in various palaces specially built for their accommodation. Women of various statuses lived in Zenana Palace such as the Ranis, Rajmatas, Rajkumaris and their large retinues of staff. Certain cash grants known as ‘Jagir’ was earmarked for such purpose as to finance the security, expenditure and general administration of the Zenana Palaces. Each of the royal ladies had a special official called ‘Kamdar’ or accountant at their disposal. He was in-charge of their financial affairs. The royal ladies communicated with their respective Kamdars through their maidservants. In fact, looking after the Zenana meant providing employment for many hundreds of people. In Bikaner there are records of the various female ancestors using their cash grants towards, religious and philanthropic purposes, they built temples and contributed towards the digging of wells.
The purda system became prevalent in north India with the coming of the invaders. This was strictly observed in most Rajput households for many centuries. It prevailed in Bikaner till the time of my grandmother Rajmata Sudershana Kumari she was a Princess of Rewa State in Madhya Pradesh. Though she was traditional in many ways she had a very modern outlook on life, she drove her own car in Bikaner, her only concession to Purdah was to insure that the windows of the car were tinted. As soon as she was ready to come down stairs the sliding doors were closed around the porch to protect her privacy and to permit her to get into car unobserved. On the few occasion that she travelled by train a screen was put up at the station to allow her to board the train in privacy. Though not formally educated she was very well read and deeply interested in politics. A contemporary of Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur she played a key role in all my father’s election campaigns and I know that he valued her judgement enormously.
The Zenana was however not free of its own set of intrigues and power play went on actively behind the discreet purdas where these ladies lived. Whenever the question of succession to the royal gaddi arose the ladies of the Zenana swung into action to nominate their own favourite as the future heir. The most desired title was that of ‘Patrani’ or chief queen since she was in a position to exercise real power not confined to the Zenana alone but also to influence the maharaja. The Mother of Maharaja Sardar Singh 19th Maharaja of Bikaner had both a strong and calming influence on her son, the maharaja had a formidable temper and was quick to hand out punishments, the Rajmata was the last port of call for the family members seeking clemency and it seems that she would threaten her son with a hunger strike if the person concerned was not pardoned immediately and bowing to his mother’s request he would always agree.
The mother of Maharaja Ganga Singhji, Chandrawat ji became a widow when her son was just seven years old. She was a strong woman and exercised an influence over her son till the time she died. Since Maharaja Ganga Singhji was a minor a Regency Council was appointed. It was his mother who insisted that Maharaja Ganga Singhji be sent to Mayo College in Ajmer so that he could have a proper education. From the records it appears that the Regency Council demanded funds from Chandrawatji to cover various expenses concerning her minor son. She argued that these were her personal funds left to her by her husband Maharaj Lall Singhji and that since her son was a Maharaja the expenses should be met by the State. It appears that when he came of age Maharaja Ganga Singhji gave back his mother all the funds she had spent on his behalf together with interest.
The word Sati literally means immortal or truthful. In ancient time the practice of sati was not so common but it became prevalent in medieval Rajasthani culture. On entering the Junagarh fort one passes the imprints of the hands of the Satis, my female ancestors, the Ranis and maharanis of Bikaner who preferred to immolate themselves on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands rather the live on as widows. In modern time the concept of Sati is impossible to fathom. Therefore, it is important to view this in perspective of the times that these women lived in.
It seems that Maharaja Zorawar Singh 13th Maharaja of Bikaner, who died in 1746, had the largest number of women committing Sati on his funeral pyre. In Col. Powlet’s gazetteer of the Bikaner State, it is recorded that upon his death his two queens and at least nineteen other ladies comprising his mistress and ladies of similar description, many of their maidservants and even some slave girls, all became Sati on his funeral pyre. The strange incident recorded here seems to of have been of one Brahmin cook who was employed in the establishment of one of the mistresses and he also committed Sato.
The last incident of Sati in the family concerned the Maharaja Surat Singh’s daughter-in law, a Sisodia Rajput Princess named Deep Kanwar from Udaipur, who was married to his second son Maharaj Kumar Moti Singh. He died very young at the age of 23 and despite much dissuading by the Maharaja her father-in-law and the other members of the family she committed Sati in 1825. At Devi Kund Sagar, the cremation grounds of the Maharajas of Bikaner and their families’, Maharaja Surat Singhji build a large cenotaph for Princess Deep Kanwarji. She has come to be known as ‘Sati Mata’. Lord William Bentick played a vital role in outlawing sati and it was Maharaja Sardar Singhji who outlawed Sati in 1864 in Bikaner state.
Realizing the importance of educating Rajput women my great grandfather Maharaja Ganga Singhji as far back as 1930’s established the Lady Elgin Girls School and the Maharani Girls School in Bikaner. They were the first girls schools established in Bikaner. My grandfather Maharaja Sadul Singhji was equally concerned to promote girls education and founded the Maharani Sudershana College in 1944 which provided higher education for girls. My great grandmother Maharani Bhatayaniji played a key role in urging the local nobility and thukars to permit their daughters to go to school. It was a revolutionary idea for families that had till now kept their wives and daughters in strict purdah. A bus with curtains at the windows was provided so that the girls could travel to school in privacy. It started with a trickle but then realizing that this was a good idea more and more joined in till these schools became flourishing centres of education for Rajput women in Bikaner.
And what of the Rajput woman today? I think she has come a long way. Most Rajput women whom I meet are well educated, smart and capable, many of them work and all of them multitask and raise families at the same time as running schools, hotels and thriving businesses. No matter from what background they come from they are to be greatly admired, the emancipation of the Rajput woman from medieval Rajasthan to the 21st century has been a long and arduous journey, however, being no less hardy and resolute then the Rajput man they have survived and in my opinion very successfully, they all have my unreserved admiration.
I would like to conclude by expressing my thanks to Dr. Sashi Throor for kindly taking time from his busy schedule to come and launch this book today. To Maharani Gita Devi for gracing this occasion and reading from the book most charmingly, she is always very encouraging of my work for which I am extremely grateful. To my kind hosts Suresh Nanda for allowing us to enjoy this function here today and to the staff of the Claridges Hotel for this most perfect evening. To my editor and publisher at Amyryllis for having confidence in my work making this book possible.