Prince of a secular dynasty
Unlike some in the North, this royal house in the South is battling to keep its property from falling to rack and ruin, and is an ideal study in contrasts, says KAUSALYA SANTHANAM.
FROM the royal homes of Rajasthan to those of Thanjavur is not just a journey in miles. It is a contrast in terms of wealth and lifestyles. Between the scions who have successfully turned their considerable properties into assets, and heirs battling to keep their rather meagre ones from falling to rack and ruin. It is to mark the difference in attitudes between a government that is quite sensitive to its heritage and one that indifferently allows it to go to seed.
Babaji Rajah Bhonsle Chattrapathy, 34-year-old heir to the Maratha house, and a man acutely proud of his heritage, is battling to save it from literally falling apart. Unlike the North, Tamil Nadu has very few palaces. The Thanjavur Palace, one among the few royal dwellings in the State, is an impressive structure set in 120 acres. First built in the 15th Century, it was added on by successive generations of rulers. Since Thanjavur became a British residency in 1885 and the rulers were not granted a privy purse, the palace has nothing of the sweep and dimensions of the other grander princely houses in the country. But it is a lovely structure which is now owned by the Public Works Department (PWD) and the State Archaeology Department. To one's amazement certain rooms in it are used by the Government as godowns to store paddy!
The prince is a man in step with the times with a degree in engineering but has chosen to be prince "full time" in order to play his role properly. "I'm hereditary trustee of 88 temples," he tells you. Thanjavur, besides being the cradle of art and culture is also a most vibrant spiritual centre. The magnificently built temples in this region call the devotee and aesthete again and again, the crowning glory being the Brihadeeswara temple (the Big Temple). Built by Raja Raja Chola (985-1012 A.D.), the structure that soars to a height of 64.8 metres, is a mind blowing spectacle even for a regular visitor. The prince and his family members worship here every day. The secular tradition handed down by his ancestors ensures that Babaji supports churches and mosques in the region.
When the income does not match the obligations, life can be tough especially if you have a fierce pride in your traditions and lineage. The prince does his best. "Frankly it is quite difficult," he admits. The family is granted a pension of Rs. 2,500 by the Government. "I don't want to refuse it as it means we are recognised as the former ruling family." He loves the privileges royalty brings. "The late President Shankar Dayal Sharma came here in 1991. He later gave me the opportunity of attending the World Marathi Conference," he tells you proudly.
Thanjavur, the capital of many distinguished dynasties, was the seat of the mighty Cholas and then the equally powerful Pandyas. The immediate predecessors of the Marathas were the Nayaks.
"Our jewels and rich clothes were seized by the British. After a long legal battle, we got judgment in our favour in 1939," says Bhonsle, "but we were never very wealthy." That did not stop these rulers from pursuing philanthropic activities. The Chatrams (rest houses) for travellers built by the Maratha kings are now in government control and continue to house the weary and the sick.
The prince is enthusiastic about heritage conservation, "We will be happy if the Government makes use of our expertise. Thanjavur gets 5,000 visitors a month. But hardly 500 visit the Palace. Since many tourists, especially foreigners are fascinated by royalty, I have been organising an event called `An evening with the Prince'," says the modest Bhonsle with a tinge of pride. A bullock cart ride, nagaswaram music, traditional dance and the reading of palm leaf documents make the day for the tourist. "It would be good for tourism if artists and craftsmen are given space within the palace premises to sell their products."
The prince has also had a role to play in initiating the annual classical dance festival at the Big Temple along with the Collector Shanmugarajeswaran, in 1994. It was under the suggestion of Collector Palaniappan in 1951 that the Art Gallery with its fabulous bronze collection was set up in the palace precincts.
The fragrance of dance and music envelops the green Thanjavur delta. The arts were nurtured by a line of Maratha kings, especially Serfoji II. In his court was the Thanjavur Quartet, the four brothers who shaped the modern Bharatanatyam repertoire.
The art of the Marathas can be glimpsed in the colourful frescoes in the grand Durbar Hall of the palace, once the venue for glittering assemblies and now wearing a forlorn look. Signs of neglect are pervasive in the premises. Shrubs grow out of stately towers and peeling paint and flaking plaster tell their own tale. "Many of the portions I played in as a child have long since disappeared," says the prince. The portion where he resides with his wife, two small daughters and widowed mother wears a brave look, especially the room formerly used for sumptuous feasts. The sitting room is a large hall, dark and cool, with some low slung furniture and huge paintings on its walls. "This Thanjavur painting of Radha and Krishna belongs to the 17th Century and yes, that is a genuine Ravi Varma," he tells you. There is nothing to distinguish this living quarters from those of a genteel aristocratic family that has known better times. "We have always lived a simple life," he says.
But that this is royalty, even without its trappings, is made clear by the marriage alliances. The Prince was married six years ago to Gayatri Raje, niece of the former ruler of Baroda. Alliances are usually arranged with the house of Satara and Baroda though "in the past we would choose our bride from within Thanjavur". The Maratha rulers of Thanjavur integrated perfectly in the Tamil country, enriching it with folk arts such as Poikkal Kudirai (dummy horse dance) from Maharashtra. They introduced the Thanjavur style of painting with the cherubic Krishnas and other gods; these paintings are now seen lighting up living rooms everywhere.
We are joined by Babaji's wife, his sister and brother-in-law who are visiting from Bahrain. Babaji takes his duties as head of the family seriously." My younger brother works in a private firm and a younger sister, who is married, lives in Mumbai."
Babaji is referred to as the Senior Prince, "My grandfather married twice." The descendant of the second wife, the Junior Prince, who works in a clerical capacity in a bank, occupies another portion of the palace. Relations between the two are most cordial and Babaji takes you to the other wing to meet him and his family. The hall there has been converted into a museum putting together bits of family memorabilia, royal artifacts and newspaper clippings quite an assortment displayed in a touching, homespun way. Babaji also has a museum being put in place but with a rather more sophisticated look. "I underwent training in preservation methods at the Madras Museum for three months," he tells you as he shows you around. And the entrance fee for the museums? "Re. One and Rs. Two." Surely it should be priced higher, you ask with incredulity. The brothers just smile.
"The Kanchi Peetam is our Guru Peetam," says Babaji as he leads you to the private shrine of the royals situated at the entrance to the palace. Bas reliefs, made out of the gold from the ashes of his ancestors, are kept in the shrine. "The Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Peetam came to Thanjavur when the Mughals invaded the South and lived here for many years. The Paramacharya has said I must look after the temples well."
In the shrine of Lord Chandramouleeswarar, the tutelary deity of the Marathas, the priests intone the mantras as the lingam is bathed in milk, sandalwood paste and water. At that moment, the outside world recedes into a blur and it is easy to believe the prince is a privileged member of a House that still enjoys wealth and power. And that Time has not bypassed a once well known dynasty...
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