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VOL. XXII No. 1, APRIL 16-30, 2012
The Baroda connection
by Simeon Mascarenhas

Doveton House

Apart from the branches of the Bank of Baroda and the presence of several Gujarati merchants in Madras, there is little to suggest a further connection with the erstwhile State of Baroda, one of the only five princely States entitled to a 21-gun salute. Yet connection there is, albeit a rather sinister one. A ruler of Baroda, Malhar Rao Gaekwad, was a guest of the Madras Presidency Government in the late 19th Century. Perhaps it is due to the circumstances of his residence here that reference to this interesting episode has been quietly dropped.

In 1870, Khande Rao, Gaekwad of Baroda, died without leaving a male child, and the gaddi (Indian rulers were forbidden to use the term 'throne' or use arched crowns on their letterheads) passed to his brother, Malhar Rao, who was at that time in prison for trying to dethrone Kande Rao. Malhar Rao was released and proclaimed Maharaja.

He was smarting from his imprisonment and determined to wreak vengeance upon the supporters of his predecessors. He was a tyrant and an extravagant spendthrift. He commissioned cannon in solid gold and silver, and had woven a huge carpet of pearls and semi-precious stones. He imposed exorbitant taxes on his hapless subjects and his sensual appetites were unfettered.

Annuities to members of the Gaekwad family were not paid. The Queen-Dowager, Jamna Bai, went to Poona to protest against the behaviour of the Gaekwad. The British Resident in Baroda, Colonel Phayre, asked for formal complaints so that an inquiry might be instituted. A Commission under the Presidency of Colonel Meade made certain recommendations to the Gaekwad, urging him to restore order in the State and desist from ill-treatment of his subjects. They were ignored.

As a result of the strained relationship between the Gaekwad and Col. Phayre, the latter was replaced by Col. Sir Lewis Pelly, who was appointed Special Agent and Agent to the Governor-General. On the eve of Col. Phayre's departure, an attempt was made to poison him with arsenic. It was alleged that the Maharaja was the instigator. A Commission, headed by Sir Richard Couch, Chief Justice of Bengal, began an inquiry into the matter. In the meantime, the Maharaja was relieved of his duties and placed under arrest. A State record gives the following account of the inquiry:

"The three English Members of the Commission came to the conclusion that an attempt to poison Colonel Phayre had been instigated by Malhar Rao, while the three Indian Members did not consider him guilty. It was finally decided, as stated in a Proclamation issued in 1875, that the Maharaja must be deposed, not because the British Government has assumed that the result of the inquiry has been to prove the truth of the imputation against His Highness, but because, having regard to all the circumstances relating to the affairs of Baroda from the accession of His Highness Malhar Rao, his notorious misconduct, his gross misgovernment of the State, and his evident incapacity to carry into effect necessary reforms, the step was imperatively called for."

The three Indian members were the Maharajas of Gwalior and Jaipur, and one Dinkar Rao. Sgt. Ballantine, who was paid a lakh of rupees, defended his client, the Maharaja, successfully. This was a sensitive case, and the Government of India had to act very carefully. It must be said that, by all accounts, Malhar Rao was an inept ruler whose actions were not in the best interests of the State of Baroda.

In accordance with this resolution, Malhar Rao was at once exiled to Madras in 1875, where he lived under the surveillance of a British officer until his death in 1882. He was under house arrest in Doveton House*, now the main building of Women's Christian College on College Road, Nungambakkam. Malhar Rao had a room built for himself on the Madras terraced roof of Doveton House, where he spent much of his time enjoying the breezes. The room still survives.

The British Government then authorised Her Highness Jamna Bai, the widow of H.H. Khande Rao, to adopt a successor to inherit the power and wealth of her late husband. Other sources claim that Jamna Bai took the initiative when she moved the British Government to depose the tyrant Malhar Rao. She summoned clan leaders to Baroda, and hopeful candidates were asked to explain their suitability for the position. The choice fell upon thirteen-year-old Gopal Rao, son of Kashi Rao, the third son of Pilaji Rao Gaekwad, the founder of the State of Baroda in 1721. On May 27, 1875, Jamna Bai adopted him according to Hindu shastras. On ascending the throne, his name was changed to Sayyaji Rao. He was given an impeccable education in State affairs and management, and invested with ruling powers by His Excellency Sir James Ferguson, Governor of Bombay.

Sayyaji Rao proved to be a most able ruler, far-sighted and benevolent. Most of Baroda's public institutions were inaugurated by him. He wasted no time in selling off Malhar Rao's gold and silver cannon, together with part of the enormous carpet of pearls (only the large central medallion survives), to fund educational institutions. During the ceremony in Delhi on January 1, 1877, when Queen Victoria assumed the title of 'Empress of India', Sayyaji Rao was invested with the title of 'Farzandi-i-Khas-i-Daulat-i-Inglishia', or 'Favoured son of the British Empire'. In 1880, Sayyaji Rao married a princess of the House of Tanjore. That is not as surprising as it may seem: the Houses of Baroda and Tanjore were of Maratha origin.


*Lt Gen John Doveton, who first arrived in Madras in 1783 and died in 1847, was the soldier who looked after Tippu Sultan's two sons when they were held hostage by Cornwallis in Madras. Doveton, who got on well with Indians, is said to have surrounded himself with a colony of Brahmins when he lived here. Doveton House, the second European house midst the paddy fields of Nungambakkam, was built before 1798, probably by a Benjamin Roebuck; it still has the city's tallest porch! Doveton, who died in it, acquired the house around 1837 from a Linghi Chetty. He left it to one of his Brahmin families who took the name Doveton as part of their name. In 1875, the then Gaekwad of Baroda was interned in this house for his role in the attempt on the life of the British Resident in his State; he built himself an airy room on the top, which still survives, and a bandstand and monkey house which don't. The house reverted to Government occupancy after this episode and, in 1893, it became the home of Sir Ralph Benson, a judge of the High Court. He left Madras in 1913. In 1914, the Indian National Congress sessions were held in the compound. And then it was a hostel for a while. Women's Christian College, with 41 students and seven lecturers, moved into Doveton House in May 1916, the building and 11-acre campus having been bought for Rs. 63,000 with a Rockefeller contribution.

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In this issue

Can't Mylapore Festival be more people friendly?
George Town needs a master plan
Why don't the women answer?
Tambrahms - A portrait of the median
Perambur Railway Hospital - With a focus on cardiac care
The great debate of the 1930s
The Baroda connection

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Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
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