Late Rawat Nahar Singhji IIand his wife Chunda renounces the throne
At the beginning of the 15th century, Chundaji- a Sisodia ruler was the heir apparent to the Mewar throne – his family, the oldest and pre-eminent dynasty of all of Hindu India. The rising stars, however, were the Rathors of Marwar. They had yet to found Jodhpur but they had already conquered important territory, including the forts of Ajmer & Nagaur, and made themselves the unchallenged rulers of the ancient capital of Mandore. A new-found prestige, which nothing would endorse better than a Sisodia marriage.
So Ranmal, the heir apparent to the throne of Marwar set off for Chittor (still the Sisodia capital in those early days before the founding of Udaipur) bearing a coconut, the traditional symbol of a marriage proposal. He was offering the hand of the Rathor Princess Hansabai, as a bride for Prince Chunda. But Chunda was inconveniently out when he arrived, so his elderly father, Rana Lakha, was forced to entertain the emissary in his absence.
“Surely,” he said, “this beautiful young bride can’t be for an old greybeard like me.”
Momentarily forgetting his visitor’s notoriously fiery temper, he had ventured a joke that, for all its feebleness, would shortly change the course of his family history. Not that the coconut-carrying Rathor seemed to mind. Ranmal chuckled politely enough. It was Chunda who showed the spectacular sense-of-humour-failure on his return. He pompously declined to marry a princess that his father had “spurned”. Whereupon Rana Lakha did remember Ranmal’s temper. And simply to keep the peace, he found himself marrying Hansabai after all.
But there was one condition. Chunda had to renounce his claim to the throne in favour of any son born of this marriage. Which he duly did. So it was Hansabai’s young son, Mokal, who succeeded to the throne of Mewar when Rana Lakha died in 1421. But unfortunately for the peace of Mewar, his reign lasted only twelve years. He was murdered in 1433. And this was the cue for the appalling Ranmal’s reappearance.
Ranmal’s top priority was avenging the murder (something he carried off with particular aplomb – chopping off the murderer’s head and then forcing a grief-stricken daughter to sit on her father’s decapitated body and marry him!). But he soon persuaded himself to stay on as regent to Mokal’s infant son, Kumbha – the future builder of Kumbhalgarh – and gradually the Sisodias saw Ranmal and his cronies assume every important office in the state. The last straw was a tactless promise to make his lover Bharmali, one of the palace maids, Queen of Mewar. At which point, the cries went out for Chunda to come to their aid.
Chunda to the rescue
Ever obliging, Chunda returned to Chittor to take advantage of Ranmal’s two main enthusiasms in life – women and alcohol. As he lay in one of his characteristic drunken stupors, the treacherous Bharmali (never trust a palace maid!) tied him to his bed with his turban and ushered in the Sisodia death squad.
Ranmal’s young son, Jodha, quickly took the hint and fled but Chunda pursued him as far as Mandore where he captured the Rathor capital and left it under the control of two of his sons. Twelve years later, in 1453, Jodha returned to win it back and, this time, he chased the Sisodias all the way back to Chittor, killing both of Chunda’s sons in the process. At which point enough was agreed to be enough and the spot just north of Ghanerao where the younger son fell became the dividing line between Marwar and Mewar for the next three centuries.
Chunda founds a separate dynasty
It was all very well making peace with Marwar but Chunda was still effectively homeless. So while Jodha famously went off to found a new capital in Jodhpur, Chunda and his descendants set about conquering their own semi-independent territories to the west of Chittor. Of course, the notoriously fierce Mer tribespeople who already lived there had other ideas and at least four of the Deogarh family’s ancestors, including Rawat Isardas as late as 1641, paid for their land with their lives.
Chunda himself settled in Salumbar – which is still the seat of the senior “Chundawat” clan – but by 1521 his great grandson, Sanga could be identified with a separate “Sangawat” sub-clan, to which the owners of the Deogarh Mahal belong.
The founding of Deogarh itself had to wait until 1670 – a time when many of the region’s chieftains started putting down more substantial roots. The enjoyment of their revenue-producing lands had traditionally been more temporary – open, at least in theory, to variation every few years. But recent Maharanas had not been strong enough to enforce these ancient procedures and an expectation of more permanent, hereditary justifys had gradually taken hold. And the prospect of continuity encouraged a proliferation of new towns and palaces, which, because of that weakness in the capital, were invariably highly fortified – partly in simple defiance of the declining central authority and partly as a matter of self-defence in the increasingly unsettled environment, which resulted from that decline.
The Rawats of Deogarh at a glance
Gokuldas I (1641-1669)
Sangram Singh I (1706-1737)
Jaswant Singh (1737-1776)
Gokuldas II (1786-1821)
Nahar Singh I (1821-1847)
Ranjit Singh (1847-1867)
Kishan Singh (1867-1900)
Bijay Singh (1900-1943)
Sangram Singh II (1943-1965)
Nahar Singh II (1965-2013 )
Veerbhadra Singh ( 2013- )
But perhaps a detailed exploration of the palace itself has now been deferred for long enough.
The building has a colourful story to tell but we can best uncover the rest of Deogarh’s history as we go, letting individual parts of the palace reveal their particular associations with its various chapters…
Mayo College ( Click for school website )
Mayo College, in the city of Ajmer, has often been described as the “Eton of the East”. It was founded in 1875 by Lord Mayo, the British Viceroy and modelled closely on England’s public schools. Its role was to prepare the young Princes for their royal duties, in a mould that would fit them comfortably into the British Empire.
Given the futures for which the pupils were destined, subjects like shooting and riding inevitably loomed larger in the curriculum than more conventional academic priorities. But the emphasis began to change after Independence when many members of the aristocracy were forced to consider the necessity of gainful employment. Indeed, the intake began to change as well – with a willingness to admit pupils from the Brahmin and business classes alongside the Rajput core – as long as their parents could afford the fees.
In the college’s heyday, however, many of the princely pupils lived in the most exclusive of lives. Their families built them lavishly appointed mini palaces and staffed them with huge retinues of servants. The first pupil, the Maharaja of Alwar arrived with an entourage of horses, camels and elephants and a fanfare of trumpets and drums. A very far cry from the austerity of the English dormitory!
One of the most striking features of the Mayo College photographs is the “maturity” of the students. Indeed, when Nahar Singh started teaching there in 1956, at the age of 24, he reprimanded one of the boys, who coolly replied, “I don’t think you should do that – I’m older than you”!
For all his devotion to washing and prayer, Bijay Singh was in many ways quite westernised. He showed little more inclination to co-operate with the British than his opposite numbers in Udaipur but he was nonetheless the first of the family to travel to Europe, where he learned the love of trains that is so eccentrically reflected in the décor of the bathroom of the Maharana suite.
Much as he loved trains, he loved the Deogarh lake rather more and he did not want to see the projected new Udaipur to Jodhpur railway line (1925-1930) going straight across the dam at the end of it. Fortunately the aptly named Mr Iron who was all set to build it there, happened to be enormously keen to shoot a panther. By facilitating the fulfilment of this ambition, Bijay Singh was able to secure a satisfactory kink in the line – which is why Deogarh’s sleepy little station lies a few kilometres from the town today.
The Marathas were not so much imperialists as guerrilla bandits. They were much more interested in capturing booty than territory, specialising in lightning raids of frequently devastating violence, followed by a prompt withdrawal as soon as sufficient plunder was in the bag. Many Rajput princes were thus able to secure their territories by paying large annual sums as “protection money”.
The Maratha forces were theoretically commanded by their Peshwa (a kind of hereditary Prime Minister). Increasingly, however, in the eighteenth century, they came to be dominated by three more or less independent generals – the Holkar of Indore, the Gaekwad of Baroda and the Scindia of Gwalior. The last of these was perhaps the principal threat in Rajasthan conducting a sustained campaign of looting, ravaging and demanding tribute from 1756 to 1816.
Maharana Bhopal Singh of Udaipur (1930-1955)
Bhopal Singh’s disabilities sprang from tuberculosis – contracted in 1900 at the age of 16 – compounded by a deformity known as “Pott’s curvature of the spine. The resulting paralysis below the waist not only confined him to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life but also left him unable to produce an heir. Yet, amazingly, he was still determined to go hunting for game in the royal forests, as long as they strapped him firmly to the back of his horse.
All his portraits and photographs seem to show the same sad, world-weary eyes – a reflection perhaps not merely of frustration over his physical afflictions but also of disappointments suffered in the difficult political times through which he had to steer his state. For it was Bhopal Singh who had to face the decision to bring 1500 years of dynastic independence to an end with Udaipur’s adherence to the new Indian Union in 1947.
In many ways, the reign of Gokuldas marks Deogarh’s heyday. Unlike Maharana Bhim Singh and many other members of the Mewar nobility who seem to have been reduced to beggary by the Maratha raids, Gokuldas seems to have successfully resisted the Marathas and led Deogarh through a period of considerable prosperity. The five defensive forts that he built around the town must have done the trick!
His reign was also the period when many of the finest parts of the palace were built, along with the small summer palace on the lake side, known as Gokul Vilas where the present Rawat has resided, since moving out of the palace in 1968. Although the summer house was substantially extended during the British period, the palace itself – with the exception of the large reception hall (Room 223) – saw very little fashion-conscious modification under British influence. The integrity of its original style has thus survived significantly more than in many other palaces in Rajasthan.
Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (1884-1930)
Fateh Singh’s personal life was comparatively austere but he was always exceptionally quick to insist on his special dignity as the head of the oldest and most prestigious royal family of Rajputana. Reversing the trend of his two immediate predecessors towards co-operation with the British, he refused to regard George V as anything more than (possibly) an equal and was consistently absent from royal and viceregal photocalls. Yet, for all his snubs, the British administration continued to treat him with extraordinary respect.
As did much of the Indian population. For them, he was not merely the head of all the Rajputs but the leader of all the Hindus as well. When he died in 1930, the public reaction suggested the passing of a divinity. And yet he had become intransigently out of touch with his people, obdurately blind to the growing tide of social unrest among the poor. So much so that, in 1921, he was formally deposed by the British. He retained his titular justify to the throne but effective power devolved to his son, Bhopal Singh.
Maharana Bhim Singh of Udaipur (1778-1828)
When Bhim Singh ascended the Udaipur throne, relations between recent Maharanas and the Rawats of Deogarh had seriously deteriorated and Bhim Singh made a personal visit to meet Raghodas and secure a rapprochement. These cordial relations continued under the reign of his grandson, Gokuldas II and there are numerous miniatures, as well as wall paintings (see also Room 210) depicting Bhim Singh and Gokuldas together in Deogarh.
While Deogarh reached an undoubted highpoint under Gokuldas II, Udaipur hit a definite lowpoint under Bhim Singh. He was described by Colonel Tod (who knew him personally) as “inefficient and averse to business. Vain shows, frivolous amusements and an irregular liberty alone occupied him.” But it does seem that he was not entirely idle, since debate still rages over whether the total count of his male offspring alone numbered 95 or 100!
Udaipur during this period was effectively under the control of the rapacious Maratha general, Ambaji, whose crippling demands for tribute money left Bhim Singh so hard up that he had to borrow money to finance his own wedding. When Tod first came to Mewar in 1817, the state had reverted to the political and administrative conditions of the 12th century – a weak ruler surrounded by disaffected nobles. When he returned in 1818 with a treaty promising British protection, Bhim Singh welcomed him with undisguised relief.