When we hear of an Indian Prince of 19th-20th century, the first image, which comes to our mind, is that of limitless luxury and self-indulgence. Could you imagine an Indian ruler in late 19th century, who studied medicine abroad, became a Fellow of Royal Society, made women’s education free and compulsory in 1880s and abolished taxes in his territory?
During our recent trip to Gujarat, our friend, who was making all the arrangements, casually asked us “would you like to stop for a while at a place near Rajkot? They have a nice collection of vintage cars”. That was the first time I heard the name of a place called Gondal. Even as we were entering the town past a non-descript railway crossing, we were still skeptical. Mostly it looked like a typical Indian district town except for an old but beautifully designed school building on our way to the vintage car collection.
I am not a vintage car enthusiast so I did not actually know that the Gondal Collection is world famous. Royal Garages of Gondal is located at the Huzoor Palace, which is also known as the Orchard Palace as it is surrounded by huge gardens and fruit orchards. This palace is the current residence of the royal family even though a wing of the Palace has been converted into a heritage hotel. I could see a vintage car-cum-coach from 1903, which could be attached to any type of engine, then there were spectacular collection of old Daimlers, Cadillac and Studebakers…..they were real hot wheels. And you could see that they used to start really young as there were miniature models of some of these cars! Not only vintage cars, Gondal family still takes active interest in new models of cars and car racing.
After the Royal Garage, we were given a tour of the Heritage Hotel inside the same property, including a railway coach from the Royal Gondal Railway Service. The Coach has also been transformed into a cute hotel suite! We were already quite impressed, so when we were told by the attendant that we could go and see the Private Museum housed in another royal palace nearby, we were game for it. There are three royal palaces in Gondal at present. Like Huzoor Palace, Riverside Palace built in the late 19th Century has been converted into a heritage hotel. Naulakha Palace is the oldest of the three and was originally built sometime in the 17th century. Housed in different rooms of this palace is a very interesting private museum maintained by the royal family. It was here that I first heard the name of Gondal’s greatest ruler Bhagvat Sinh. Different rooms of the Palace brought out different facades of this extraordinary man and ruler. I have heard plenty of stories about opulence and philandering ways (among many other qualities) of Indian princes during the colonial period but I have never come across a renaissance character like Bhagvat Sinhji of tiny Gondal.
(Naulakha Palace, Gondal)
Gondal came into being as a result of a minor split in the ruling Jadeja family of Rajkot in 1634 and continued as a minor principality till 1947. When his father Sangram Sinh died, Bhagvat Sinh became the ruler (then called Thakore, indicating a status lower than Maharaja) of Gondal at the age of 4 in 1869. He was educated at Rajkumar College in Rajkor even as his state was administered by a British regent. In 1884, he took over the charge himself and soon reformed almost every aspect of its economy and administration. He completely overhauled his administration; introduced town planning, electricity, telegraph, telephone, railway, modern sewage system and plumbing; built dams and irrigation canals. He also improved quality of livestock in Gondal through modern methods. Now as a result of all these, direct income of the state had increased so much that Bhagvat Sinh abolished all taxation in his state!
But more important than that was perhaps his contribution to education – he built schools and colleges in Gondal (the old school building we saw on our way to the Palace was built under his supervision according to the design sent by a British architect) and most amazingly, made education, including women’s education FREE and COMPULSORY in 1880s!
Throughout his life he remained an ardent champion of women’s rights – unthinkable for a man of his age almost anywhere in the world. His daughters used to drive open vehicles in cities and he not only abolished purdah system, but also decided that in new palaces in Goldal, there would not be a separate zenana. There was another aspect of his education policy, which really struck me – he organized training facilities for carpenters, plumbers, painters and such professionals, who are still outside our education system nearly 130 years later.
Interiors of Orchard Palace (Heritage Hotel Wing)
Maharaja Bhagvat Sinhji was equally amazing in terms of his personal achievements. He studied medicine at Edinburg, from where he did his MBBS and MS and later on received FRCP. He was the only Indian ruler till 1947 to become a medical doctor. He also became the only Indian ruler ever to be elected a full Fellow of Royal Society of London (1894). Alongside his administrative responsibilities, he used to treat his patients five days a week working till late night. Always keen to teach people value of hygiene, Maharaja used to inspect cleanliness of Gondal city every night himself. He also participated in International Congress of Hygiene and in such organisations. His LLM degree was honorary but his library was stacked with law books alongside Victorian literature. There were also marble busts of great thinkers in his study. In different rooms, you can watch his magnificent collection of exotica from around the world – models of ships, thousands of miniature cars, shells and other marine products, watches, Murano glass and China porcelain and such stuff. Perhaps he was a bit eccentric but it is astonishing that in one life time one could do so much.
My subsequent search revealed that he wrote a very interesting book on Ayurveda, which was widely quoted in those days in international press (Gondal has at least two ayurvedic medicine factories even today). He also published the first ever dictionary of Gujarati and an encyclopedia Bhagavatgomandal in Gujarati!
And then I discovered it was not only Bhagavat Sinh, there was a very well-known son of Gondal also (only Gondal connection is not known) – Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s family also belonged to one Paneli village in Gondal (his father shifted from Gondal to Karachi for business purposes). There is no end of wonders in this ancient land!!
(By Anindya Sengupta)