Two Kings, Two Eras, One Palace: The Quirky Lives of Sawai Madho Singh

The expansive paved courtyard of the City Palace in Jaipur was warming slowly under the January sun. Open-air pavilions, royal gardens, temples, and complexes stretched on into the inner dimensions of the imperial residence. Although it was still winter, the slant of the clear sunlight ensured the characteristic balminess of tourist lines in Rajasthan, where travellers were eagerly waiting to see the fabled halls and to get respite from the heat. I was one among them, dressed in layers which seemed prudent at early dawn and damning the further the day trickled towards noon.


Diwan-i Khas, City Palace, Jaipur.
Fig. 1 Diwan-i Khas, City Palace, Jaipur


The City Palace was established at the same time as Jaipur itself, and therefore shares an interlinked history that is beautifully reflected in the museum galleries within the grounds. It acts as an archive of material culture through which one can knit together the narrative fabric of royal lives. While the halls, towers, and mahals are adorned in opulent regalia, the textile and art galleries are receptacles of knowledge that speak volumes about times bygone. Apart from the manuscripts and photographs, the highlights of the palace for me were the whimsical anecdotes from the lives of Sawai Madho Singh I and II, namesakes separated from each other by seventy-six years.


Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh of Jaipur, 1760
Fig 2. Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh of Jaipur (r. 1760)


Each more interesting than the other, the first belonged to the legendary Kachhawa clan of Rajputs who claim their lineage from none other than Kush, the son of Ram himself. Sawai Madho Singh I, it is said, was a colossal force at about 7 feet tall. Weighing in at a whopping 215 kgs with a chest allegedly 4 feet broad, it is no wonder that the tour guides at City Palace have mythologised him into a Kumbhakaran-like figure. His garments are on display within the museum, and gawking marvellers gather around his portrait as the guides describe his breakfast of milk, badaam, and jalebis, which weighed 10 kgs. Given his adventurous life riddled with poisonings, assassins and many, many battles, it is understandable that Sawai Madho Singh I has become a source of awe and admiration at the palace in Jaipur.

Coming to his adopted descendant, Sawai Madho Singh II was known for his devout religiosity and the strange ways in which it manifested from time to time. His spiritual ardour is perfectly exemplified in two objects recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest single items constructed out of silver. The items in question are two ornate urns made out of 14,000 silver coins and fashioned over a period of two years. What did they carry? – you may ask. Madho Singh II gave special instructions for the construction of these urns so that he could attend the coronation of King Edward VII in London without compromising his caste and religion. Water overseas was considered unsuitable for drinking by devout Hindus and so, the silver vessels carried 8,000 litres of gangajal.


Sawai Madho Singh II: King of Jaipur
Fig. 3 Sawai Madho Singh II (In Voyage Autour du Monde by Charles A. Wilson


Madho Singh II successfully attended the coronation without drinking English waters. Madho Singh I famously patronised the best sportsmen of his kingdom, encouraging them to take part in competitions. Many such stories now find audiences who wander from Diwaan-e-Aam to Diwaan-e-Khas, admiring artefacts which are worlds removed from the lives of common people.

The museumification of royal residences has resulted in a peculiar culture of voyeurism which is ultimately educational, but contains within it something that is equal parts nostalgic and hegemonic. Either way, it feeds the innate curiosity of human beings – the primitive need for stories that bind communities through cultural entertainment is still well and alive today. The pavilions of City Palace are simply historically charged locations which allow for the fostering of this storytelling spirit. The tour guides are the chroniclers, the fabulists, and the pedlars all at once. Their goal is to fascinate – the truth may lose itself somewhere between the minute and hour hands of the Clock Tower within the palace.  




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