As Delhi prepares to mark 100 years as India’s capital, a previously lost diary written by an Anglo-Irish aristocrat has provided a fascinating insight into an extraordinary but largely forgotten act of dissent against colonial rule by an Indian maharajah.
Lilah Wingfield witnessed the moment 100 years ago when, in front of 100,000 spectators, the Gaekwar of Baroda, otherwise known as Maharajah Sayyaji Rao III, bowed improperly when presenting himself before the British monarch, then turned his back disrespectfully and walked away.
It was an audacious act of defiance at an event that contemporary observers have described as a thousand times grander than royal weddings over the past 60 years in London.
The 1911 Delhi durbar, or mass assembly – when George V was proclaimed Emperor of India – was the only such assembly to be attended by a British monarch in person.
The durbar was a display of unparalleled grandeur attended by nearly all of the great and the good in British India, who stayed in a tented city near Delhi that accommodated 250,000 visitors, guests and their servants.
Each Indian ruler or “native prince” was expected to perform proper obeisance to the King-Emperor by bowing three times before him, then backing away without turning.
The maharajah not only ignored royal etiquette by turning his back on the king and queen after formally introducing himself but compounded his perceived insolence by reportedly “laughing disrespectfully” as he departed from their presence.
Lilah Wingfield’s observations are recorded in a book by her granddaughter, Jessica Douglas-Home, about her travels in India at a time when it is now realised that British colonial rule had reached its zenith. Within 40 years, India would be independent.
Although Mrs Douglas-Home inherited her grandmother’s photos of the durbar, the diary detailing Miss Wingfield’s views of the event was lost for many years before being discovered in an English secondhand bookshop and sent on to her.
“They reveal that the Gaekwar of Baroda – second in importance only to the Nizam of Hyderabad – broke every rule in [Viceroy of India] Lord Hardinge’s book,” Mrs Douglas-Home writes in A Glimpse of Empire.
“He arrived at the amphitheatre in full dress and covered in the historic Baroda jewels, but removed them all just before the moment came for him to approach the king.
“On reaching the shamiana (dais) he made a cursory bow from the waist, stepped backwards and then, wheeling around, turned his back on the royal couple and walked from their presence nonchalantly twirling a gold-topped walking stick.”
Mrs Douglas-Home said the maharajah’s gesture caused shock among British officials attending the event.
From then until his death in 1939 he was for the most part ostracised by the British authorities even though he wrote a letter of apology soon afterwards which said that if he had not seemed to conform to the ritual, it was due to “nervousness and confusion in the presence of Their Majesties”.
The maharajah was partly rehabilitated in 1919 when he was made a Knight Grand Commander by the British.
The actions of the maharajah are today seen by Indian and British historians as coinciding with the beginning of the end of British rule in India.
“It was a brave and symbolic act of resistance carried out at an enormous event in front of anybody who was anyone in British India,” says Anna Jackson, head of the Asian department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
“No-one could have predicted that barely three decades later the entire British edifice would collapse.
“The event was supposed to be a show of strength in which Indian royal families paid homage to their king.”
Indian historian Amar Farooqi says that while the maharajah’s actions showed “commendable bravery” it was not at the time – or in later years – given as much attention as it merited.
“It was one of the strongest gestures of dissent by a princely ruler,” he said, “and took place against a backdrop of growing support for India’s independence movement.”
Prof Farooqi says that while the British played down the maharajah’s dissent, few Indians – apart from well-connected nationalist leaders – would even have known that it had happened.
“It is not recognised much now because nationalists campaigning for Indian independence at the time and in later years did not want to be associated with princely rulers,” Prof Farooqi said. “Their perceived decadence was a source of some embarrassment.
“They wanted that part of the independence struggle to be be deleted from history because maharajahs were seen as too closely associated with the worst excesses of the Raj.
“That is why today in India so few schoolchildren know about the rulers of princely states. Princely India simply does not exist in the textbooks”.
Prof Farooqi says, however, that the maharajah has received recognition for the pioneering reforms he introduced – many ahead of their time – in Baroda.
He was the first Indian ruler to introduce compulsory and free primary education in his state in 1906, placing it far in advance of the rest of British India.
In addition he played a key role in the development of Baroda’s textile and banking industries, expanded women’s rights, improved access to education, banned child marriages and legislated against discrimination between different castes.
But he is probably most widely remembered in India today for his decision in 1913 to finance three years of postgraduate studies for BR Ambedkar, revered as the principal author of the Indian constitution, at Columbia University.
The maharajah’s legacy is one which his grandson, Ranjitsinh Gaekwad, says is a “constant source of pride”.
“At that time it boosted the morale of all those working towards achieving independence for India,” he said.
“He wanted to instil in his countrymen a sense of pride and self esteem, which he achieved by this and many other actions. Baroda state was the one of the best administered states of British India.”