Cooch Behar seeking a royal revival

It seems the perfect time to write about the efforts being made to revive the grandeur of the royal state of Cooch Behar.

It was on July 29, 2009 that ­­ (90) breathed her last. Born in London on May 23, 1919, to Maharaja Jitendra Narayan Bahadur of Cooch Behar and Maharani Indira Raje (earlier Princess of Baroda); little did they know how famous their daughter would become in her lifetime.

Cooch Behar, a beautiful princely state located south of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan was ruled by the Rajbanshi Clan. During the British Raj, it was probably the most important and affluent state of the Bengal Presidency.

The Cooch Behar royal family were known to be highly sophisticated and modern; and after marrying Man Singh II, Maharaja of Jaipur in 1940 as his third consort, life could not have been easy for Gayatri Devi. Considered the most beautiful Maharani of her time, her sophisticated French chiffon sarees and pearls set the style for all royal ladies. A fashion icon both in India and abroad, she defied convention and lived life on her own terms. Despite being one of the world’s most stylish royal women, she always said that she was ordinary!

But she most certainly was not! In fact she was so different that she won a seat in the Lok Sabha with the world's largest majority of votes, winning 192,909 votes out of 246,516 that were cast, as recorded by the Guinness Book of Records. She held this seat from 1967-1971 as a member of the Swatantra Party, founded by C Rajagopalachari, running against the Indian National Congress Party.

She had many hobbies and was rather adventurous. Gayatri Devi was an ‘avid equestrienne’ and was particularly fond of horses. It has been said that she was such a great rider that she and her horse moved in perfect rhythm. She was also a keen polo player and has floored many reputed other polo riders in many ways. In her era, it was unheard of a female playing polo!  

She loved cars and whenever a new one was created, her garage invariable managed to get one of the first that was imported to India. It has been said that the first Mercedes Benz W 126 to India, which was later shipped to Malaysia. Her collection also had many cars—including a number of Rolls Royce in different colours. People with interests like Gayatri Devi, are usually competitors in various fields. Had she not been royalty, she would probably have won many awards. It must have been exceedingly frustrating for this beautiful Maharani, not to be able to compete.

The Koch Behar State was formed when the Kamata Kingdom under the Koch dynasty was split in 1586. Koch Behar became a separate unit that came under direct challenge from the Mughal Empire. After the Mughal threat, new foes appeared—Tibet and Bhutan.  The Koch Behar court decided to invite British intervention and help came with military assistance. However, the British East India Company limited Koch Behar’s plans by making a number of treaties with them.

Cooch Behar despite being rather small, due to its being close to Calcutta, gained prominence and the Royal family were frequent visitors to British households and slowly adopted western culture. It was this friendship that ensured that despite the its small area, the colonial government decided to grant the state a 13-gun salute and included it with other bigger Salute States. The Cooch Behar royal family was invited and welcomed in British circles, as well as in London and European society.  When British rule was finally terminated, Koch Behar immediately acceded to and merged with India in 1949 and has since been known as Cooch Behar District.

The splendid Cooch Behar Palace is reknowned for its elegance and grandeur, but as is the case with most old structures is sadly beginning to look unkempt. However, there is now talk of a sound and light show at the Palace and hopefully this will be achieved under the supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India. Constructed by the ‘Koch’ Maharaja Nripendra Narayan in 1887 AD, this enormous structure was built with bricks in classical western style. A double-storied structure (395ft long and 296ft wide), it rests on a concrete plinth and slabs 4 feet 9 inches above the ground covering an area of 51309 square feet.

The Palace front has a series of arcaded verandahs in the ground and first floors with their piers arranged in alternate single and double rows. The Palace is slightly projected at the south and northern ends and in the centre is a porch with an entrance to the Durbar Hall. The elegantly shaped metal dome of the Durbar Hall is topped by a cylindrical ventilator recalling the style of the Italian Renaissance. The dome is carved in stepped patterns while Corinthian columns support the base of the cupola. The palace has a number of halls and many suites.

There are Drawing Rooms, a Dining Hall, a Billiard hall, Library, a special Ladies Gallery and many others. The good part of this palace is that till very recently, various members of the family would visit and hence the rooms would be aired frequently. We can now only hope that Cooch Behar will become a place that will draw visitors to see its magnificence, which rivals any palace in Europe.  

Shona Adhikari