The Forgotten City of Darbhanga

Those familiar with Kolkata’s Dalhousie Square might have noticed at one of the corners of the square, the seated figure of a bearded Raja sitting cross-legged with his sword and shield.  The placard below states the figure is that of the Maharaja of Darbhanga, and I have been admiring him for many years. If I happen to be walking, I always stop to admire this splendid piece of art while at the back of my mind, there has always been the thought that I must get to know more about this very interesting personality.

Darbhanga the city in the state of Bihar, seems to have been totally forgotten. The Darhanga royal family were not always in the limelight, but now they seem to have totally faded away. For the past few years however, Darhanga has gained some fame because it happens to be in the area around which the beautiful Madhubani paintings are created. Darbhanga is the capital of a large area referred to as Raj Darbhanga, located in the very heart of what was earlier referred to as ‘Mithila Pradesh’ in Bihar.  The area was owned by a family of Brahmin Zamindars, who were considered among the richest people in India and were granted the title of Maharaja.

 

Mughal Emperor Akbar who ruled from 1556 to 1605, realised that the tax from Mithila could only be collected if there was a king who could ensure peace in the region. He summoned Rajpandit Chandrapati Thakur to Delhi and asked him to name one of his sons who could be made caretaker and tax collector for his lands in Mithila. Chandrapati Thakur named his middle son, Mahesh Thakur, and Akbar declared Mahesh Thakur as the caretaker of Mithila on the next auspicious day—Ram Navami in 1577 AD.

The Darbhanga royal family has often faced questions about their royal status. While supporters say Raj Darbhanga was a kingdom, others argue that it was held by the privy council and that the rulership was a hereditary one with succession. The fact is that by the end of the 18th century, the Raja of Darbhanga and family, were the largest landowners in India and the area was practically an independent kingdom until the conquest of Bengal and Bihar by the British. It was because of this that they were called Raja, and later Maharaja and Maharajadhiraja.

Their area of ownership was smaller than the area that they were originally granted and a particularly significant reduction occurred when the British Raj caused them to lose control of the territories that were in Nepal.  However, their holdings were considerable and one estimate suggests that when their rule came to an end, it was noted that, the territories comprised around 6,200 square kilometres, with around 4500 villages. Towards the end of the 19th century, 47 percent of the cropped area of the Darbhanga estate was used for the cultivation of rice. Three percent of total cultivation was for indigo at that time, making the estate one of the most important centres in the region for this crop prior to the introduction of chemical dyes. After the independence of India from British rule in 1947, the Government of India initiated several land reform actions and the Zamindari system was abolished. Needless to say, the fortunes of Darbhanga Raj dwindled.

 

The language spoken in the region was Mithili and the family has been totally committed to ensure that Mithila is learnt and spoken in the region.  In fact, one of their palaces have been reserved only for the study of Mithili. With folk art now gaining many fans, the Madhubani style of painting created more than 300 years ago, is now often invited to participate in art and craft exhibitions. along with other folk art. Till the 1960s, when the last Maharaja of Darbhanga passed away, the family was also known for their splendid collection of jewels—a collection that was better than that owned by the Nizam of Hyderabad.  Many of these were internationally famous pieces and were purchased at jewellery auctions abroad.

 

Before India’s Independence, the Rajas used to collect more than Rs 50,000 every year.  This was the period when a tola of gold (10 gms) was just a few cost just a few rupees. The word got around that the Darbhanga Raja and his family were the richest and soon after, it was heard that they had become bankers to a number of other royal families. When these loans could not settled payment was often made with a family heirloom.

Among the jewels in the jewellery collection, was the famous Naulakha Haar of Maratha Peshwa Bajirao 1. This is a long necklace of pearls, diamonds, rubies and emeralds and is considered as one of the most sought pieces of jewellery in the world. Bajirao called it ‘Naulaka’, since he had paid nine lakhs in its making. The generations that followed after him added more jewels to the necklace, raising its worth to 90 lakhs. A defeated Nanasaheb Peshwa took the necklace with him to Nepal  and sold it for a pittance to Rana Jung Bahadur.  The Rana removed all the emeralds and rubies from the necklace and reduced it in size. Some years lator, the Rana’s successor then sold it to the Raja of Darbhanga, who was the only person who could afford the necklace at the time. In 1901, when the Ranas of Nepal were short of money, they sold two famous pieces. One was a single emerald three inches long mounted on a seal and named ‘Shiromani’  and a ‘Peshwa Diamond’, of ‘purest white’

Another splendid jewel in the colletion was the ‘Great Moghul Emerald’, the largest emerald in the world. It weighed 217 carats and was about two inches long. Among the pieces from abroad, the Darbhanga colletion had in its possession Queen Marie Antoinette’s necklace presented to her by the city of Paris at the time of her wedding and treasures from the Czar’s of Russia. The biggest recorded sale of the Darhanga collection was in 1967, when the most important pieces were sold to the well-know jeweller of Mumbai, Nanubhai Jhaveri.

No one talks about the jewellery any more... but Darbhanga awaits with baited breath. There is still much to see, will tourists visit its still well-kept palaces and dream about the Darbhanga that was?

 

Columnist: 
Shona Adhikari