Sunday, February 10, 2008

Gwalior: revival

The Scindia family went through a decline after the Third Battle of Panipat and their fortunes were revived under Mahadji Scindia. Despite the fact of his successor Daulat Rao being the dominant player in the Maratha confederacy, and despite Daulat Rao's outwardly stabilizing treaty with the British, the moral decline within the Gwalior royals continued to affect their political fortunes till the mid-19th century.

This interal decay had set in very early on, in fact even before the Maratha civil war. Mahadji had long prayed for one of his queens to bear him a son, and when that failed, had adopted his grand-nephew to succeed him. The immature 13-year old gaining so much power at a young age, soon became a slave of sensual pleasures, and came under the influence of Sharza Rao, the chieftain of Kagal, who married his daughter Baiza Bai to him.

Under Sharza Rao's influence the ignorant young prince precipitated a war between the Pagnis and Chitnis families of Brahmans who had dominated the military and civil administration (respectively) of Mahadji Scindia. Unable to provide for the financial sustenance of Mahadji Scindia's widows, Daulat Rao came to battle with them as well, which brought for the widows the support of the Pagnis branch. And in trying to bring the rival Holkar family under his control, sparked a war with them too, which ultimately degenerated into the Maratha civil war.

On Daulat Rao's death in 1827, Baiza Bai acted as Regent of Gwalior State——her maladministration resulted in the British removing her in 1833. But the internal decay and quarrels within the army and administration of the Scindias continued to plague the peace of their state.

Jayaji Rao Scindia

The momentous events of 1857 occured in the reign of the young ruler Jayaji Rao. The internal decay described above led to part of the Gwalior army attempting to once again play the role of king-makers in Gwalior——many of these soldiers were not native Marathas but Purbias and they felt a kinship with the Purbias of the East India Company who had led the revolt. But Jayaji Rao held firm and was given a great reception at Calcutta (September 1857) by Lord Canning for not giving in to his rebellious sepoys. By this time the revolt had been taken over by Islamists crying out for the revival of Muslim rule in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

The attack on Gwalior by Tantya Tope and Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi the next year, and the desertion of his troops to them, forced Jayaji Rao to flee to Agra——the recovery of Gwalior by the British (June 1858) began the revival of the Gwalior Royal Family after so many years of internal decay and instability.

Gwalior Modernization

Gwalior state funded the construction of railway lines passing through its territory. Maharaja Jayaji Rao owned his own engine and carriages, along with a miniature model in silver, which was used to serve delicacies to guests at his dinner table:

Gwalior silver trainthe train moves around the table and comes to a halt whenever a guest reaches out for a particular delicacy or digestive

In the Imperial Durbar held at Delhi in 1877, Jayaji Rao received recognition and titles from the grateful British, including the rank of General and a salute of 21 guns. To receive the Prince of Wales in his State, Jayaji Rao commissioned Michael Filose to construct the Laxmi Vilas Palace At Gwalior in 1875-76. Filose was instructed to study the royal residences in Europe and buy whatever he needed for the construction.

The dome of the Durbar Hall within this palace was modeled on that of St Peter's Cathedral in Rome. The carpet for this vast expanse was woven within the room. Huge chandeliers by F&C Osler, bearing 248 lights each, were hung from the ceiling——but only after its strength had been tested by hoisting and keeping elephants on the roof for three days!

Gwalior Laxmi Vilas chandeliers

The closeness between the British and Gwalior royals continued to the next generation. King George V and Queen Mary became godparents to Madho Rao's children, Jivaji (hence nicknamed George after his godparent) and Kamlaraje (Mary). During the First World War, Gwalior State funded the Hospital Ship SS Loyalty, which anchored off the coast of Ethiopia and tended to the wounded soldiers. This ship was later purchased by an Indian businessman, Walchand Hirachand Doshi, for his Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd. Madho Rao was also a keen hunter and wildlife conservationist——tigers and leopards were housed in the vast Nalka Garden at the Laxmi Vilas Palace.

Laxmi Vilas

George Jivaji Rao Scindia ruled the state until its merger into independent India in 1947. He received modern education but was also devoted to Hindu traditions. At a young age he reportedly told his tutor Austin Robinson, "Sahib it is not my job to make you a Hindu; and it is not your job to make me a Christian."


Gwalior was the leading princely state in Central India. Jiyaji Rao was chosen as Rajpramukh (ceremonial head) of the newly formed state of Madhya Bharat (Central India), which later merged with the neighboring regions to form modern Madhya Pradesh. After he passed away in 1961, his widow Vijayraje Scindia entered politics, first as a member of the ruling Indian National Congress.

But disillusioned by the course that party took under the dictatorial Indira Gandhi, Vijayraje joined the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and was elected several times to Parliament. She was jailed by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency (1975-77) but on her release the Jana Sangh went on to win the elections of 1977. Her son Madhav Rao was estranged from his mother and joined the Congress Party of Indira——the estrangement lasted till the widow's passing in 2001.

Her daughters Vasundhara and Yashodhara continued with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the former becoming the Chief Minister of neighboring Rajasthan state. Madhav Rao was a leading member of the Congress Party till his death in 2001. He was succeeded by his son Jyotiraditya Scindia, both in the political and family heritage.

Shivpuri Palacethe Madhav Vilas Palace at Shivpuri served as the summer retreat for the Scindia family and the center of a game reserve, which is now the Madhav Shivpuri National Park for tigers.