“I am a barber’s wife. My mother-in-law told me that when Maharaja Hari Singh was being coronated, he rode the perimeter of Mubarak Mandi astride an elephant. Nawabs, Sultans and Maharajas from states abound had thronged the event. O’ dear Maharaja Hari Singh, how can I see you now. We can’t come to Bombay!” This is what Suggi Nayeen, reminiscing the grand coronation of her dear Maharaja, had told to her friend Soma in Padma Sachdev’s novel titled ‘Jammu Jo Kabhi Shehr Tha’, reflecting her deep commitment to this man who served as the wellspring of pride for every Dogra whilst being the last ruler of the Dogra dynasty. His accession to the throne was a majestic regal event which was broadcast across the globe. The New York Times of Feb 24, 1926 reported that “Magnificent celebrations, rivalling in splendour those of the Arabian Nights have been proceeding ….in connection with the accession of the young prince, Sir Hari Singh, to the throne of Kashmir”
Another British daily reported “MR. A.” enthroned in the City of Temples”. This event was touted to mirror the oriental royal splendour as the man acceding the throne had to brave many throes in the meanwhile regarding his succession. Post the death of Maharaja Pratap Singh in September 1925, a tussle had ensued between Raja Jagat Dev Singh (spiritual heir of the deceased Maharaja) and Raja Hari Singh, which got tempered with the October 14th declaration in which the latter received the formal recognition as the new Maharaja of J&K. The Resident, Sir John Wood’s fortnightly report from October 1925 under letter number 272-C dated 15th October, 1925, says “The Durbar held to Convey the formal recognition of the new Maharaja was held on the 14th October in the morning and was a quiet affair….His Excellency’s Kharita was delivered by me to His Highness”.
Thereafter, the date of the ceremonial functions for the anointment of the new Maharaja was affixed for February 1926. And Jammu bedecked itself to host the greatest event celebrating Hari Singh’s ascension of the throne of the largest princely state in the country at that time. Thousands of the subjects of the Maharajah trekked in from as far as the distant Himalayas to take part in the coronation ceremonies. S H Riza reported that “A fortnight is set apart for the celebrations. The first week is devoted to religious ceremonies, from which the public-excluded”. The programme was divided into two segregated events- the first week (22 Feb-28 Feb) for the religious ceremonies and official coronation and the second week was set aside for hosting the Europeans.
On the first few days leading from February 22, leading princes of the Indian states viz Dholpur, Patiala, Alwar, Kapurthala etc, who had arrived with their elaborate retinues, were received and feted. Other Ruling Princes too were received with the same brilliant ceremonies. The Viceroy Lord Reading though, had recused himself from attending this function and sent his apologies saying that he was on a packing spree to go home at the end of his tenure. The new Maharajah entertained 150 of his princely guests at a state banquet where they were served on gold plates, and the scene in the banqueting hall was one of great splendour. As per Christopher Thomas “The ragged people of Jammu, the Dogra Hindu heartland, had their good-looking ruler enter the city in an ornate open coach pulled by four magnificent horses. Guests poured in from across India displaying their wealth before the dazzled eyes of half-starved commoners.”
Various religious ceremonies followed thereafter which included the ones in which ruler except with the loin cloth had to perform certain rituals with heads covered in 30 yards of Muslin. Apart from this Pundits, some of whom had come from Banaras, had asked the Maharaja, during the course of the ceremony, to rule in the favour of the public. In this period, the ruler wasn’t wearing any metal-gold, silver or copper, ate from a Pattal and drank from an earthen pot. Another peculiar ceremony during this period was the one of feeding milk to a defanged cobra in a silver bowl where the latter’s partaking of the milk was considered as a good omen.
The magnificent procession (Feb 26) of Maharaja Hari Singh, which was the highlight of the entire ceremony, was filled with all the colours of the rainbow. At the head of the procession, there were two giant elephants, the one carrying the standard of the state, the other the ceremonial drums, followed by a regiment of cavalry and pieces of artillery. This was being followed by 25 horsemen. On this sun blessed coronation day, the Maharaja, reveals Christopher Thomas in his book ‘Faultline Kashmir’, sat bedecked in a gold trimmed finery upon which jewels, medals and pearls glinted in a golden Howdah on the lavishly caparisoned royal elephant, Jamna Das.. His head was girdled with a turban of yellow silk studded with diamonds while he was dressed in a golden cloak adorning the lavish jewels of his inventory valued at 20 million dollars, robed as he was by the Pundits while reciting the Mahabharata amidst the din of cymbals and drums, exhorting the new ruler to exhibit conduct like the heroes of that epic. The procession meandered through the spruced-up streets, where the Maharaja was welcomed with shrill cries and cheers from frenzied onlookers. The Maharaja also reciprocated with his ‘salaam’ to the cheering public. The State elephants belonging to the various princes too marched in the gorgeous processions, caparisoned in robes of gold and silver, their tusks glittering with gilt and their faces and ears painted in flamboyant designs. Ultimately, the Maharaja got anointed as the ruler of the state of Jammu & Kashmir at Purani Mandi- the original seat of power of Dogra rulers for the last 500 years, by an old Hindu priest.
At the Inner Palace the Maharaja presented gifts, to the women of his family and then came forth, accompanied by an attendant, who held a large golden umbrella over his head. No sooner had he ascended the golden throne mounted atop the Marble platform (the old Diwan e Aam), covered with a rich gold and crimson carpet and having a canopy of the same material supported by the golden posts, than the volley of guns thundered from the fort. When he was seated, the nobles advanced and paid obeisance, each with an offering of gold coins on a silk handkerchief. He had received gifts worth 20 lakh pounds from the visiting dignitaries.
In his first public speech as the Maharaja, he stated “If I’m considered worth governing the state, then I will say for me all communities, religions and races are equal. As a ruler I’ve no religion. All religions are mine and my religion is justice. It’s possible that while dispensing justice may commit mistakes. To err is human. One who says that he doesn’t commit mistakes is not speaking the truth. Only God is free from error. My duty is to look at everyone with equality. I shall, as far as possible, work with justice”. Mallika Pukhraj, who also performed in the Durbar states in her autobiography ‘Song Sung True’ that Jammu was enfete during these days and tells us that the population of Jammu had quadrupled as people had come from far across the Punjab as well to be a witness to this event. She was also the only singer that Maharaja had chosen to perform at the Durbar during the ceremony.
Resident via his letter no 82-C dated 1st March, 1926 reveals in his fortnightly report that he went over to Jammu on the last day on the ‘Indian Guests week’ and attended a Gymkhana at which a fair number of Princes were present including Patiala, Alwar, Dholpur, Kapurthala including Pt Madan Mohan Malviya. He writes that “European Guests Week’ begins on the 5th March and lasts till the morning of 10th. The programme is a dull one and will lack the glamour of the Indian show.”
The coronation celebrations lasted for seven indulgent days, and cost a fortune. Accounts suggest that the expenditure for the government only ranged between $200000-$750000. However, I see this event as a testimony to the fact of Jammu being the power centre of this state, though nominally, which served as a constant reminder that the ruling dynasty owes its fealty to this land and anything beyond it, is their prized possession, accrued by virtue of their martial expeditions and treaty obligations. Even though a majority of Maharaja’s subjects were living in abject poverty, the event was justified on the premise of it being a money multiplier adding to Jammu’s economy. Be that as it may, this was the grandest event that Jammu ever hosted and it left a lasting impression on the onlookers to an extent that Suggi couldn’t help but mention it years after the Maharaja was exiled.
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