Sunday 28 January 2024

Sleepless in Churu - Maharaja Ganga Singh

Seven years ago, I spent two nights in a room where every surface was covered with brightly coloured murals. Rather than sleeping, I lay in bed staring at them for much of the night. The works of art covered the walls and ceiling of Maharaja Ganga Singh's windowless room in Malji Ka Kamra, in Churu, Rajasthan, a once neglected haveli, lovingly restored as a hotel. The haveli was built in 1920 by Malji Kothari, a Jain merchant, and used by the Maharaja whenever he visited the town. It was also the setting for many important gatherings involving royalty, prominent merchants and British officers. 

I didn't think much more about the Maharaja until recently, when doing research for another writing project, I discovered that Sir William Orpen's 1919 painting of him is exhibited in the  National Portrait Gallery in London. The gallery caption referred to his distinguished military career, but Ganga Singh was also an accomplished linguist, reformer and politician. 

Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, by Sir William Orpen, 1919.

Ganga Singh ruled the former princely state of Bikaner from 1888-1943. He became Maharaja at eight years of age, when his brother died without leaving a male heir. The young royal studied at Mayo College in Ajmer - sometimes referred to as the Eton of India - where he received a western education. He was a talented student, excelling in English, speaking the language flawlessly and always winning first prize in this subject. In later life he liked to tell jokes and anecdotes while speaking in a Cockney accent. At fourteen, he left the college to study under a tutor who helped him develop riding and shooting skills and an understanding of the British system of government. In his free time, he enjoyed sports including cricket and roller skating.


The Maharaja replaced a British appointed regent in 1898, assuming full duties at the age of eighteen. Almost immediately he was met with a crisis as famine, cholera and smallpox struck his subjects. Thousands died and many others fled to the more verdant Punjab. Ganga Singh's response was to modernise his state, borrowing money to finance nine irrigation projects, two railway lines and three roads, as well as medical relief centres and the provision of interest free loans to farmers. These projects also provided much needed employment for his subjects. In 1927 his public works programme culminated in the opening of the Ganga Canal. This involved the conversion of one thousand kilometres of desert into green fields, enabling five hundred new villages to be established on previously uninhabitable land. 

His reputation as a reformer was further enhanced by his establishing a representative assembly in 1913, a High Court system in 1922 and a series of financial benefits for his employees including life insurance. He also set up a savings bank for ordinary citizens, outlawed child marriage, introduced prison reforms and established several institutions including educational facilities for women. His commitment to education was recognised in 2003 when the University of Bikaner changed its name to Maharaja Ganga Singh University. 

The Maharaja also had a distinguished military career. He founded the Bikaner Camel Corps, a force of five hundred men, that became known as the Ganga Risala. After he offered their service to the British, the Corps saw action in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and in Somaliland in 1902-1904. They also served in the First World War, and in 1915, routed Turkish forces at Suez in Egypt. Ganga Singh was much admired by the British and became a member of the Imperial War Cabinet. In 1919 he was a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles and from 1924 he represented India at the League of Nations. During this period, the movement for Indian independence gained momentum.  The Maharaja, although on good terms with the colonial authorities, also desired greater autonomy, but feared the end of the Princely State system in an independent India ruled by the Congress Party. He preferred a federal approach, combining independence with the retention of his princely powers. He failed to gain support for this approach and  after Independence, Bikaner and the other states were absorbed into a unified India.


The Maharaja’s military status and contribution was immortalised by Sir James Guthrie in another painting held by the National Portrait Gallery - Statesmen of World War OneIn an imagined scene, Ganga Singh appears with the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa. The then British Prime Minister, Lloyd George is also present, as are others who at one time or another fulfilled that role - Arthur Balfour, Winston Churchill, Andrew Bonar Law and Herbert Asquith. Back in Churu, his image appears on the exterior walls of the Parekh haveli, built in 1925. The murals show him using various forms of transport including a Rolls Royce and a horse drawn carriage. 


The Maharajas were famed for their lavish lifestyle and for entertaining. Ganga Singh was no exception, always well turned out, he took particular care with his facial hair. One courtier is quoted as saying: "Every day after a bath, for at least ten minutes, he set his moustache with a very fine elastic netting." Furthermore, after getting dressed, he would, "...go to the room where his shoes were all in a row, and he would pick up a long pointer like you have in school. He would just touch one of the shoes with it and that pair would be polished and brushed." Despite his love of stylish clothes and liberal approach to social matters, he held conservative attitudes about family. His wives never appeared in public without wearing full purdah and no photographs of them exist.


Ganga Singh also served opulent dinners. In his controversial book, Passion India: The Story of the Spanish Princess of Kapurthala, Javer Moro claims that when asked for the recipe of a particular dish, the Maharaja said: “Prepare a whole camel, skinned and cleaned, put a goat inside it, and inside the goat a turkey and inside the turkey a chicken. Stuff the chicken with a grouse and inside that put a quail and finally inside that a sparrow. Then season it well, place the camel in a hole in the ground, and roast it.” Clearly, camels played a significant part in the Maharaja’s life, both on the battlefield and on the dining table. Moro's book is a fictionalised version of the diaries of Anita Delgado. The Maharaja of Kapurthala fell in love with her when he saw her dancing in a Madrid café. She travelled back to India with him, changed her name to Prem Kaur and became his fifth wife. 

Ganga Singh did not live to see Independence. In his role as a full General of the British Army, he offered to go to the front in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. He was rejected due to his age, but did see active service in the Middle East in 1941. Within a year, he had returned home, diagnosed with a terminal cancer to which he succumbed on the second of February, 1943. He is still remembered for his reforms and achievements, not only in Bikaner, but also in London's National Portrait Gallery.

1 comment:

  1. Being a signatory at the Treaty of Versailles and representing India at the League of Nations were significant responsibilities globally.