Ganga Singh may have ruled just a small princedom in Rajasthan, but his wisdom, bravery and political nous won him admirers around the world. Alec Marsh traces his footsteps.
There is an unexpected figure at the centre of Sir William Orpen’s masterpiece, The Signing of the Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June, 1919. The turbaned, voluminously moustached man standing by the pillar is Sir Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner, and then a small desert princedom in what we now call Rajasthan.
Bikaner was then one of around 565 so-called Native States covering 40 per cent of the subcontinent which endured semi-autonomously under the British Raj.
Yet of all those it was Bikaner – scarcely three times bigger than Wales – that played an outsized role in the destiny of India, which next year marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of its republic. That was thanks, principally, to the maharaja in the picture. Though largely forgotten here today, Ganga Singh ruled his small desert princedom from 1887 to 1943 and emerged as one of the standout figures of the first half of the 20th century, counting among his friends and admirers King George V, Gandhi, Churchill, Lloyd George, numerous viceroys of India and the French president Clemenceau.
I first chanced upon Ganga Singh about ten years ago, and he’s the reason I’ve travelled to India – to learn more about this extraordinary individual who lived in extraordinary times.
The temperature rises by 20°C as I step from the air-conditioned interior of Indira Gandhi International Airport into the morning Delhi heat. I’m greeted by a representative of my tour operator, who introduces me to my driver for the next seven days: Amrit. The slim Indian before me smiles and salaams, bowing politely.
Moments later we are snaking into the Delhi traffic – tuktuks, motorbikes, cars and lorries fight for advantage. White lane lines are an irrelevance. People drive in the wrong direction. A black bull strolls at the side of the road. Before long the five-lane highway balloons to 20 lanes – it’s Mad Max without the camp costumes and casual sadism. Then we peel off and head away from the city on the Jaipur road, a gleaming new motorway.
My destination is the city of Bikaner, 300 miles west of Delhi, in the middle of the Great Indian Desert that stretches across 77,000 square miles of Rajasthan and Pakistan. Out here the temperature gets north of 50°C in high summer; there are towering dunes, camels. It’s where India tested its nuclear bomb in the Seventies.
From my seat I watch Rajasthan speed by: we pass brick factories with tapered brick towers bellowing black smoke; we overtake tuk-tuks laden with a dozen people or more. The landscape goes on and on – fields of yellow wheat dotted with people harvesting; gleaming ‘Hindustan Petroleum’ stations; builders’ yards, car dealerships – all giving a hint of the enormity that is modern India, a place seemingly without wing mirrors.
I overnight in the town of Mandawa, staying in the Mughal-influenced castle dating from 1756. It’s immeasurably pretty, with courtyards and sprawling bougainvillea and elegantly turbaned staff ferrying around trays of gin and tonics. A row of pillars traverses my bedroom, which has enough marble for a 100 Knightsbridge bathrooms.
In the morning, before setting off, I tour the town, which is known for its finely painted historic havelis, or mansions. ‘Haveli means house of wind,’ explains my guide, Narish Choudary. Some 85 were built here by merchants who made their money from the silk route, between 1840 and 1940, when the very last – boasting Art Deco flourishes you would see on an Odeon cinema of similar vintage – came into being. Most are now unoccupied. We examine one, now a hotel: the Hindu god Ganesh is above the door, flanked by elephants signifying prosperity and welcome. Ganesh is for good luck, Narish tells me. Inside another haveli, he shows me the three courtyards (set aside for business, then family and finally for ‘animals and servants’). Various contrivances such as water tanks and fountains, as well as screens, were created to promote cool airflow while maintaining privacy.
It’s a four-hour drive west to Bikaner: en route the farms become less distinct, dunes break out every now and then, as the brown soil gives in to sand. Women and men work in the fields. The landscape is dotted with trees, some shorn of branches – these are harvested for goats, Amrit explains.
Fields of green are being showered by sprinklers. Amrit points out several submerged water tanks. Chief among Singh’s achievements was his project to irrigate nearly 1,000 square miles of Bikaner, ending the menace of famine. In what was a massive feat of engineering, he tapped the Sutlej river in the Punjab, bringing its waters to Bikaner along a purpose-built 89-mile canal. The Viceroy of the day, Lord Irwin, performed the honours at the opening.
By mid-afternoon we reach Bikaner. It’s hot. My hotel, the Narendra Bhawan, is built around and on the site of the private home of the last head of the ruling family, Singh’s great-grandson Narendra, who died in 2003. This hotel is but two years old and has exquisite Art Deco furniture and fittings that make you feel like you’re in a Poirot double bill. The stuffed leopard in the billiard room and the 1970s issues of Playboy in particular hint towards the place’s playful side.
‘We do not describe it as a hotel,’ the general manager tells me. ‘The concept is of a house, where we welcome every guest.’ There is no bar, for instance. ‘People can drink wherever they want.’ Taking him on his word, I head to the infinity pool on the roof in time for sunset and a gin and tonic.
Next morning, my guide Vijay Singh begins my introduction at Bikaner’s mighty Junagarh Fort, a socking great castle built in the 1500s from local red sandstone. ‘This is the most beautiful fort in Rajasthan,’ explains Vijay, ‘and it’s the best-maintained fort in all India because it’s still in the hands of the ruling family.’ Trust ownership ensures revenues go back into the restoration of the property and local charities, he adds, as we stroll up a narrow incline that was formerly the maharaja’s private entrance. The spikes on the huge doors are to ward off charging elephants, Vijay explains, and a series of gates zigzag to stop the same animals building up a head of steam.
I am led through a series of adjoined palaces, rooms and courtyards – set aside for coronations, Hindu festivals and durbars. The ‘new’ part of the palace, built in the mid-1930s to celebrate Singh’s golden jubilee, is work of supreme Indo-Saracenic craftsmanship, with high walls in intricately carved sandstone. It’s magnificent.
We arrive at the great man’s office: everywhere are pictures and trophies of a great life lived well: we pause by a print of Orpen’s Versailles painting and Vijay reminds me that Singh was a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles. ‘Ganga Singh is the founder of modern Bikaner,’ declares Vijay with pride. Today the maharaja’s great-granddaughter is a long-standing member of Rajasthan’s legislative assembly. ‘The people of Bikaner respect the royal family,’ insists Vijay. ‘They have done a lot for Bikaner.’ And not just Bikaner. Singh’s immediate successor, Sir Sadul Singh, blazed a trail as one of the first of the princely rulers to sign over his territory to Delhi following independence from Britain in 1947. As a result the sovereign life of Bikaner, founded in 1465 by Roa Bika, son of the ruler of Jodhpur, came to an end in 1950. ‘More than half of the princely states followed Bikaner,’ notes Vijay.
Yet of all of the rulers of Bikaner, it was the 22nd maharaja, Ganga Singh, who put this place on the map: he took his camel corps to fight for the empire in China in 1901, helping to put down the Boxer Rebellion. Then he led them again during the First World War, where he fought the Turks in Egypt, served in Flanders and was mentioned in dispatches. Later he was then the only Indian in the Imperial War Cabinet, representing the Indian states. And, after Versailles, he was the Indian representative at the League of Nations in 1924. In 1921, The Times profiled 16 of India’s greatest princes (‘Leaping Indian princes’) and included him, declaring he was ‘a great outstanding figure on the landscape of Rajputana’.
On the domestic front, he also brought electricity to Bikaner, built the railway to Jodhpur, built hospitals and schools. He also set up representative government in 1913. In his personal life he was cut from a different cloth from the cliché of the indulged Rolls-Royce-driving maharaja: he rose early, disliked ‘any overt display of wealth and extravagance’ and believed in hard work. He always carried a notebook. ‘Don’t trust your brain,’ he would say, ‘write it down.’
Among his admirers was the Liberal prime minister and war leader David Lloyd George. The Welshman knew him affectionately as ‘Bikaner’ and described him as ‘a magnificent specimen of manhood’. ‘We soon found out that he was one of “the wise men that come from the East”,’ declared Lloyd George. ‘More and more did we come to rely on his advice, especially on all questions that affected India.’
Having inspected various accoutrements, uniforms and even a specially adapted spoon (which enabled him to eat without upsetting his moustache), we enter another chamber, dominated by a de Havilland DH9 biplane. This was a gift of Britain to Singh in recognition of his state’s efforts during the Great War. It’s a physical reminder of one of the maharaja’s own mottos: ‘Trust begets trust.’
We take a tuk-tuk into the old city to see a spectacular Jain temple, and talk about merchants and the silk road. There are a thousand havelis here, Vijay tells me, and we stroll among them. ‘This is the King Edward Memorial Road, the only bazaar in Bikaner in the olden times.’ When was that, I ask? ‘Until the beginning of the 21st century,’ he replies. ‘Twenty years ago Bikaner was a big village…’
Next we head to the nearby Lallgarh Palace, built by Ganga Singh as a modern royal residence in 1912. Designed by the British architect Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, it’s a sprawling blend of Mughal and Hindu architecture in russet sandstone, surrounded by balmy lawns. These days it is part royal home, part hotel and part museum. The walls are coated in black and white photographs of processions and official visits and shooting parties from the 1900s to 1930s.
In the bar, relics of Singh’s game book adorn the walls: the lions have lost some of their lustre, and the head of one crocodile has shrunk like an over-roasted parsnip. They remind me of one of Singh’s claims to fame: he bagged three tigers in five minutes on one shoot – not something that you could boast about now, mind.
The maharaja was fêted when he came to London for the Imperial War conference in 1917: he was garlanded with the freedom of the City of London, and Manchester, and received a doctorate of laws from Oxford University. In London he was guest of honour at a banquet at the Guildhall, where he insisted that the bonds between Britain and India had been ‘cemented and consecrated with the blood of your sons, and brothers, and ours, in this titanic struggle’. ‘British rule in India rests on much firmer foundations than force,’ he declared. ‘It is based on the principles of justice and equity, humanity and fair play. The most wondrous jewel in the British crown is held through the loyalty and devotion of the people of my country.’
That pro-British rhetoric certainly raises eyebrows now, and it probably did at the time, too. Yet Ganga Singh was nonetheless clear-sighted about the need for reform of colonial rule. In an interview with the The Times in May 1917, he called on the government of India to act quickly in offering greater political freedom to India. ‘The old saying that he who gives quickly gives twice applies,’ he warned.
In a letter to the Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, the maharaja urged him ‘to do something on a really liberal, sympathetic and generous scale’. What emerged was the Montagu proclamation of August 1917, which promised the gradual development of self-governing institutions in India. Singh’s biographer, KM Panikkar, noted that ‘the historic declaration was found to follow closely the lines which the Maharaja had urged’.
Between the wars, Singh became a leading light in the Chamber of Princes, a body representing the rulers of Indian states. Singh’s plan – and mission – was to see this body and the Indian leaders gain an official role in the running of a federal India, a plan he supported and drove forward. The programme never saw the light of day, as the Second World War intervened – but it laid the foundations for what was to come after independence. Prof Barbara Ramusack, author of the authoritative Cambridge history The Indian Princes and Their States, says: ‘Ganga Singh was a pioneer among the Indian princes in realising the benefits of participating in European and Indian politics as the balance of power gradually moved from British colonial authorities to accelerating challenges from their Indian subjects.’
It’s evening now at the Lallgarh Palace and shadows stretch across the lawns that around it. There’s just time to visit the museum, where artefacts include a full-size royal train carriage – in white with the saffron and scarlet stripes of Bikaner’s flag along the sides. Vijay and I part here, and Amrit drives through town, past an equestrian statue of Ganga Singh, erected in 1937 in honour of his golden jubilee.
Ganga Singh did not see his next jubilee: he died of throat cancer in Bombay in 1943, aged 62. In its obituary The Times of India praised his ‘fine record of heroic and permanent achievement… exemplary single-mindedness to the service of his people, his country and the British Commonwealth.
In so doing he placed Bikaner on the map and himself became a figure of world distinction.’ One fellow prince declared that ‘India had lost its guiding star’.
Writing about him 1950, The Times of London remarked that Singh had ‘played a conspicuous and influential part’ in ‘an epoch of Indian history’. ‘Neither in size nor population (1,250,000) was Bikaner one of the greatest of Indian kingdoms, but by force of an attractive and vigorous personality Sir Ganga Singh – soldier, statesman, sportsman – was probably more widely known and had a larger number of attached friends than any contemporary ruler.’
On the centenary of his birth in 1980, the vice-president of India, Mohammad Hidayatullah, paid his own tribute. He declared: ‘Maharaja Ganga Singh’s services to the cause of Indian nationalism are such as to entitle him to an honoured place among the ranks of the great Indian patriots.’ And he is still remembered: in 2008 the Bikaner university was renamed in his honour.
I leave Bikaner early the next morning, and feel all the more intrigued by Ganga Singh. All around is the bustle of this city: tuk-tuks brim with commuters; motorbikes, cars and buses charge about. Neatly uniformed children are walking to school. It’s a busy weekday morning in modern life. I can’t help but feel that Ganga Singh would be rather pleased.
Alec Marsh travelled as a guest of Wild Frontiers (wildfrontierstravel.com – 020 8741 7390), which specialises in small group tours and private tailor-made holidays to India. A 12-day tour similar to Alec’s, with five-star heritage accommodation in Delhi, Mandawa, Bikaner, Nagaur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, with private driver, local guides and sightseeing on a B&B basis, costs from £4,250 per person, based on two people travelling. (International flights not included.) Alec Marsh’s novel Enemy of the Raj will be published by Accent Press next week.