Rajas and maharajas from all over the British Indian Empire congregated in Delhi to attend the great Delhi Durbar of 1911. A new capital city was born-New Delhi. Soon after, the princely states came up with elaborate palaces in the “new” Imperial capital- Hyderabad House, Baroda House, Jaipur House, Bikaner House, Patiala House, to name a few.
Why did the British government allot prime land to the princely states and how? How did the construction come up and under whose architectural design? Who occupied these places and what were the events held? What happened to these palatial buildings after the integration of the states with the Indian Republic?
This book delineates the story behind the story, documenting history through archival research, interviews with royalty and unpublished photographs from royal private collections.
These princely palaces form an integral part of New Delhi urban topography. Built about a century ago for purposes that may not be of relevance anymore, these palaces are the relics of the past passed on to posterity, speaking of a time that was part of the continual process of knitting an unstitched destiny.
A colourful procession in fill regalia, uniformed men guarding the palaces, fluttering flags of myriad hues, saxophones regaling the guests, the tinkling of wine glasses.... slip into a time-warp till you encounter the modern New Delhi.
Sumanta K Bhowmick spent his early life in Bhagalpur before moving to Delhi to work in the Parliament, in 1996. He studied science and literature, and has written his doctoral thesis on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore and Emily Dickinson. He has published books of translation, and has written research articles, short stories and essays for various journals.
Driving down to his office regularly through Central Vista triggered his imagination, taking him to the days when kings rode the roads of New Delhi, then the Imperial capital, and led him to the story of the princely palaces in Princes’ Park. His passion for the history of Delhi grew with friends in the group Knowing and Loving Delhi Better (KLoDB), walking together every Sunday. He has contributed to the plaques put up at Mandi House metro station and Cochin House. He has also delivered a lecture at University of Oxford on the princely palaces in New Delhi. The spirit of Delhi past and present, fascinates him endlessly.
Sumanta loves the small of books, food and tea. He lives in Delhi with his family.
The History house in India still has many locked rooms for researchers to explore. Put another way, the narrative of Indian history has many streams that we abandon suddenly, and realise only later that we do not know where they went. India’s geography keeps getting renamed, respelt, and reconfigured because of political exigencies. For the sixteenth century we read of Mewar and Marwar, for the nineteenth century of the ‘princely states’ of Udaipur and Jodhpur, in the twenty-first century of the state of Rajasthan.
Schoolchildren in Delhi looking out of bus-windows will read rosd-signs and wonder where Bahawalpur is, or Travancore? In the post-1947 anxiety to see all of us as Indians, we forget that in 1947 the subcontinent had 565 princely states of varying sizes, from vast Hyderabad to little Jamnagar. Their rulers became visible in their serried ranks in the course of the three Durbars held in Delhi (1877, 1903 and 1911), their relative importance measured in gun-salutes.
The Durbar morphed into the new capital. The princes, who had acknowledged the sovereignty of the British King in 1911, were offered plots of land in the new capital. From the 1920s to 1940s they enjoyed a continuous visibility. A Chamber of Princes was set up as part of the new legislature. They also acquired a geography in the new winter-capital where the estates of those who wished to have town houses broke the monotony of official housing.
This did not last long. Many of the palaces were requisitioned by the government during the second War, the symmetry of their design destroyed by building hutments for soldiers. In 1947, the British Government left the princes free to choose between joining Pakistan or India, or becoming independent. Many were probably not sure whether they wanted to lose themselves in the ‘India’ that had been an idea, and had suddenly become a political reality.
In 1956 they were merged into new states delineated on the basis of language, as had been done in eastern Europe in 1919. Implying their irrelevance in modern India, Parliament in 1971 voted to end the pension (‘Privy purses’) that the princes had been promised at the time of their joining India.
The lack of clarity returned. People in Delhi are not sure why Jodhpur Mess is thus called, why an empty piece of land is called Kapurthala Plot, why the National Gallery of Modern Art is in a building called Jaipur House, why Doordarshan’s office is called Mandi House....
At last we have the answers. This book is the result of meticulous investigation, a truly admirable venture for which the inhabitants of Delhi should be grateful. Too many of us travel through sections of the city with ‘no time to stand and stare’. Lutyens’ Delhi to most of us means only the Central vista crowned by the President’s House and the Secretariat blocks. The fascination with the architecture of Lutyens has led to a number of books about these buildings, frozen in time, still following hierarchy and ceremonial, still dauntingly inaccessible. By contrast, the palaces of the princes did not remain frozen in time-neither in from nor function. But no one thought to explore their histories. The three decades from 1921 to 1947 blurred into a world that has gone with the wind. Till now.
Sumanta Bhowmick has carefully put together a book rich in architectural detail, which bring to life the rulers who commissioned the houses, and gives us anecdotes of the social life of the rich and famous. What a bewildering variety in the perceived sense of majesty-contrast Baroda, Hyderabad and Cochin! All this with little unexpected touches of humour and sometimes irony, and always a sense of empathy. Another locked room opened.
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