The Mahrani of Kuch Behar

1 AMONG the many illustrious visitors who came to England during the summer of 1887, to pay their respects to our gracious Queen on the occasion of her Jubilee, there were few who were received with more marked attention by Her Majesty, or who attracted more general interest and sympathy, than the Maharajah and Maharani of Kuch Behar.

2That these attentions were paid to them on personal rather than on political grounds cannot be doubted, for among the native Princes of India the Maharajah of Kuch Behar holds but a very subordinate position.

3 The fact that for the first time a ruling Indian Prince had brought his wife to England and introduced her into general society, was sufficient to arouse genuine sympathy among those who under stood how great were the difficulties that lay in the way of such a step, and what an important influence it might possibly exert on the future of Indian women.

4 An additional interest was felt in the Maharani as being the daughter of Keshub Chunder Sen, who had visited England some years previously, and who had been known and respected by a large circle of cultivated Englishmen.

5The story of the Maharani's life is so closely connected with the most remarkable social and religious movement that has taken place in India in modern times, that it will be necessary to glance briefly at the history of that movement.

6 Ever since the days when the first great tide of Aryan invasion swept down from the highlands of Central Asia, and drove the aboriginal inhabitants to the hill fastnesses or the forest depths, the plains of India have from time to time been the battle-ground of opposing civilizations, though in almost every case the ultimate victory has rested with the Brahmans. If, on the one hand, the influence of Greek thought may be faintly traced in Buddhism, there can, on the other, be no doubt that the Greek philosophers owed not a little to India; and though the Mahometans established their empire in the very heart of Hindoostan, their attempts at proselytism were hardly successful, and the Mussalmans of India have borrowed far more from the Hindus than these latter have from their monotheistic conquerors

7Once again a great contest is being waged between two civilizations, between two schools of thought, two philosophies of life and conduct. Here once more have met two branches of the great Aryan race, one still in the vigour of manhood, full of life and abounding energy, furnished with all the newest discoveries of Science and philosophy; the other showing signs of the decadence of age, and strong with the strength of immutability rather than of life; and it Seems hardly possible that in such a contest the victory should again rest with the Brahmans.

8The religion of the Hindus can boast an antiquity little less, perhaps, than that of ancient Egypt, and it can lay claim to a conservatism unequalled in any other part of the world. The unchanging custom of centuries has crystallized into social forms, which may be destroyed, but can scarcely be modified, and So closely bound up are the religious and social systems, that an attempt to alter the one must inevitably involve an attack upon the other.

9 The young Hindu who has studied under European teachers, and imbibed something of Western ideas, finds his belief in the religion of his fathers assailed from every point. Physical science pronounces many portions of the old-world system to be both grotesque and impossible. History lets in a flood of light, which reveals the hollowness and poverty of much that had previously appeared noble and worthy of reverence. The purer morality of the West makes the student blush with shame at much that claims divine sanction : a more robust philosophy sets him free from the trammels of old-world ideas. He finds himself drifting into a general attitude of doubt, if not of scepticism : his faith in the religion of the Brahmans is destroyed before he is prepared to accept in its place the religion of Christ.

10 But the Indian mind is naturally a religious one, to which free-thought or atheism in its hopeless selfishness is repugnant, and it clings to the hope that, when stripped of the superstitious and degrading accretions which have gathered round it in the course of centuries, the religion of Brahma may yet be found to contain something capable of satisfying the heart without offending the intellect.

11 Such a via mediamany deem they have found in the system of the Brahmo-Somaj. The word Somaj means a Society or association, so that it corresponds very nearly to our word "Church," and its members frequently speak of it as the Theistic Church of India. This society or sect owes its origin to Rajah Rammohun Roy, who founded it about the year 1828, with the object of reviving the primitive Hindu religion. According to Professor Monier Williams, "it ushered in the dawn of the greatest change that has ever passed over the Hindu mind. A new phase of the Hindu religion then took definite shape, which differed essentially from every other that had preceded it. No other reformation has resulted in the same way from the influence of European education and Christian ideas."

12 The following account of the movement was given by Babu Keshub Chunder Sen, in one of his lectures in England. "At first this Brahmo-Somaj, to which I belong, was simply a Church for the worship of the One True God, according to the doctrines and ritual inculcated in the earliest Hindu Scriptures. The members of the Brahmo-Somaj in its infancy were simply revivalists, if I may so say. Their object was to restore Hinduism to its primitive state of purity, to do away with idolatry and superstition, and caste if possible, and to declare once more throughout the length and breadth of India the pure mono theistic worship prescribed in the Vedas, as opposed to the idolatrous teaching of the later Hindu Scriptures. The founder of the Brahmo-Somaj had for his sole object the restoration of the primitive form of Hindu Monotheism. By numerous quotations from the Hindu Scriptures he succeeded in convincing a large number of his misguided countrymen that true Hinduism was not to be found in the later Puranas, which taught idolatry and superstition, but in the earlier books, which taught the worship of the One True God."

13By degrees, "after careful, honest, and dispassionate inquiries,"it was discovered that even the Vedas themselves could not be regarded as containing nothing but pure truth, as they inculcated some of the worst forms of nature-worship and Some absurd doctrines and ritual; so that the members of the Brahmo-Somaj were forced to abandon the position of a return to primitive doctrine, and to take up that of pure Theists, acknowledging no in fallible teacher, no revealed standard of life or doctrine. Naturally, divisions soon made themselves apparent in a Society thus constituted, and the Brahmo-Somaj is now broken up into three sects, of which, however, the most important is that which, under the title of the "New Dispensation," maintains the principles and teaching of its founder, Babu Keshub Chunder Sen, who is, without doubt, the most remarkable figure in the history of modern Hinduism.

14He belonged to a very good high-caste Brahman family in Bengal, the members of which had been for several generations men of high character and intellectual culture. His grandfather, Ram Comal Sen, was the intimate friend of the well-known Orientalist and Sanskrit scholar, Horace Hay man Wilson, and was respected and esteemed by a large number of English gentlemen. Keshub Chun der Sen himself was born in 1838, and, being early left an orphan, was sent by his uncle to an English school, and afterwards completed his education at the Albert College in Calcutta. Early in his career he had learnt to reject the worship of idols, and had by degrees come to believe in one God; he then joined the Brahmo-Somaj, and before long became the head of a reforming party in that society. It seemed to him that even the Vedas contained teaching which it was impossible to accept as of divine authority, and he finally decided to reject them and to maintain the theory that no special revelation was needed to teach men about God, and that as a consequence no such revelation had ever been made. He adopted the doctrine of a divine guidance of the faithful believing soul, and held that prayer, meditation and spiritual worship were necessary to the maintenance of the spiritual life; while gentleness, Self-denial and purity were requisite in order to bring men into union with the Divine Spirit.

15Like other theistic teachers, he was ready to acknowledge the beauty of the life and example of Christ, and the moral value of His teaching, but he regarded Him as a mere man. Speaking of the Bible, Keshub Chunder Sen said, "However proud we may be of our own religious books, however great the value which we may attach to those ancient books inculcating the principles of pure theism bequeathed by our fathers as a precious legacy, it is a fact which must be admitted by all candid men, that India cannot do without the Bible. India must read the Bible, for there are certain things in the Gospel of Christ which are of great importance to my country in the present transition stage through which it is passing."

16 But the reformer did not stop here. He realised that what was needed for the regeneration of India was not merely a return to a purer and a more elevating faith, but likewise a deliverance from the degrading social customs which kept the whole, or at any rate a large portion of the community bound hand and foot. The discouragement of polygamy, the education and enfranchisement of women, the overthrow of caste, and the abolition of child-marriage, were some of the reforms which seemed to him the most imperative, and to these he devoted all his energies with remarkable success. In 1870 Keshub Chunder visited England, where he was received with much kindness. He made a tour through the country, speaking and lecturing on various religious and social subjects, and awakening a great deal of interest and sympathy among a large class of people, and the Queen granted him a private interview.

17In 1872 an Act was passed by the Government of India legalizing marriages between persons who did not belong to any of the recognized religions of the country, and who did not wish to be married either by Christian, Mahometan, or Hindu rites. This measure was passed mainly in the interests of the Brahmoists, and of others who, like them, had rejected idolatry without accepting Christianity. Persons availing themselves of its provisions were required to have attained years of discretion, the age being fixed at eighteen for men and sixteen for women; and they were forbidden to indulge in polygamy. The law thus dealt a serious blow at two of the worst social evils, and was hailed by all the enlightened members of the Hindu community as a great step in advance, for which they were mainly indebted to the unwearied efforts of Keshub Chunder Sen.

18Some years later, however, a great shock was given to the feelings of the members of the Brahmo Somaj, by the announcement that their leader's eldest daughter was about to be married to the young Rajah of Kuch Behar. This prince was the head of one of the most ancient royal families in Bengal, which, however, had the disadvantage of belonging to a low caste, the Sankoche Kettry caste. He had succeeded his father as Rajah when only ten months old, and during his minority his State had been governed by the British Government, who had also superintended his education. His early training was conducted under an English tutor at Patna, and he subsequently attended lectures on Law at the Presidency College in Calcutta; but no attempt was made to interfere with his religious belief, and at sixteen years of age he was supposed to be still attached to the faith of his fathers, that is, to Hinduism in its modern corrupted form.

19The Indian Government were desirous that, before taking the management of his territories into his own hands, he should visit England. But it was considered necessary by all his relations that before starting on such a long and perilous journey he should provide himself with a wife; and it appeared to his guardians that it would be advisable, both in his own interests and in those of his subjects, to bring about a marriage between him and the daughter of Keshub Chunder Sen. The young lady in question was not quite fourteen years of age, but she had been carefully educated, and it might reasonably be hoped that her influence and that of her father would be most valuable in determining the future development of the young prince and his people. That the Brahmo leader was only a private gentleman, while his proposed son-in-law was a sovereign prince, was no obstacle in the way, for the former was a man of very high caste, and it would be an act of condescension on his part, to allow his daughter to marry the Rajah, to which his well known opinions on the subject of caste would be likely to dispose him favourably.

20But although to disinterested spectators the proposed match seemed to offer advantages on both sides, it raised a storm of opposition among the adherents of the Brahmo-Somaj. The principles they professed with regard to caste prevented any objections being raised on that ground, but they vehemently opposed the project, both on the score of the youth of the contracting parties and also on that of the religion of the bridegroom.

21With regard to the latter objection, Keshub Chunder Sen and his friends maintained that the Maharajah was in heart already a Brahmoist, and that his youth, and the influence of his mother and his grandmother, had alone prevented him from joining the Theists, and that by this marriage he would be firmly attached to the purer faith professed by his wife.

22 The question of age was a more serious one, as it could not be denied that the marriage would involve a virtual surrender of the principle for which Keshub Chunder had so strenuously contended, and would be a serious bar to further progress in this direction. It was, moreover, pointed out that, in consequence of the bride and bridegroom not having attained the legal age, the marriage could not be celebrated according to Brahmo rites, as authorized by the Act of 1872; that it would, in fact, be a purely Hindu marriage, celebrated with all the idolatrous and superstitious ceremonies commonly in use ; and, further, that the bride would be deprived of the protection which would have been afforded to her had she been married under the new law. Polygamy was an immemorial custom in the Kuch Behar family, and it was argued, with Some show of reason, that there would be no guarantee that the Maharajah might not at some future time choose to follow the fashion of his race.

23 It would be neither useful nor interesting to follow into further detail the controversy on this subject, or the mutual recriminations of the two factions. Suffice it to say that the match was finally decided upon, and in March 1878 Babu Keshub Chunder Sen, accompanied by his brother and other members of his family, escorted his daughter to Kuch Behar, where the marriage was celebrated according to Hindu rites. A protest had indeed been entered by the bride's friends against the introduction of idolatrous practices, but in spite of it some of the figures and other objects usually worshipped on such occasions were placed in the courtyard where the ceremony took place, and the "Homa," or fire sacrifice, was performed in the presence of the bridegroom after the bride had withdrawn to her own apartments.

24 This latter ceremony, which forms an important feature at orthodox Hindu weddings, is as follows. The bride and bridegroom sit side by side before an altar on which a fire is kindled, and "ghee," or clarified butter, is burnt as an offering to the gods. Keshub Chunder Sen was greatly annoyed at the dis regard which had been paid to his wishes in this matter, and he was further mortified at not being allowed to perform the portion of the ceremony commonly allotted to the bride's father, on the ground that he had lost caste by his visit to Europe. So far, indeed, there seemed some reason to fear that the prognostications of those who had opposed the marriage were likely to be realised, and that instead of redounding to the honour and glory of the Brahmo Somaj, the alliance would bring both its principles and its leader into disrepute. Happily, however, the young pair were not allowed to remain subject to the retrograde influence of the palace. Very shortly after the marriage the Maharajah set out on his journey to England, and his wife returned to her father's house in Calcutta, where her education was continued with the object of preparing her in every way for the important position she was to fill.

25 The dissensions in the Brahmo-Somaj still continued; the party which had opposed the marriage deposed Keshub Chunder Sen from his office as minister, and when they found that public opinion was too strong for them, they seceded and set up a new sect for themselves, calling themselves the Pro-Progressive Brahmoists.

26Keshub Chunder himself never quite recovered his former popularity among his countrymen, but he continued to enjoy the confidence and esteem of his English friends; and when, after his death, some few years later, a public meeting was called for the purpose of getting up a memorial to him, it was attended by such a large number of influential per Sons of all classes as testified to the sincere and widespread respect in which he was held.

27 In the meanwhile, the Maharajah had returned from Europe and claimed his wife, and having attained his majority in 1883, he took the administration of his affairs into his own hands.

28The State of Kuch Behar is situated in the north eastern corner of Bengal. It is surrounded on all sides by British territory, and occupies an area of about thirteen hundred Square miles; that is, about the size of Kent, or Hampshire. It is a well-watered plain, and the soil is fertile and well cultivated, the general green of the fields being diversified here and there by graceful clumps of bamboo or by the orchards which surround the homestead of Some substantial farmer. The country is thickly populated, but there is only one town, and hardly any villages, the dwellings of the inhabitants being scattered over the fields or grouped round the residence of some well to-do family. In former times a different state of things must have prevailed, for the ruins are still to be seen of two extensive walled cities; but they are of very ancient date, and must have belonged to a period long anterior to that of the present dynasty.

29 Agriculture forms the occupation of almost the entire population, rice, grain, and pulse of various kinds being grown for food, and tobacco and jute for exportation. The whole of the land belongs to the Maharajah, the larger farmers being his tenants and sub-letting the land to smaller cultivators, and there are strict laws to prevent their exacting exhorbitant rents. The Maharajah is virtually independent within his own dominions, but he has an English official adviser; and were any very grievous abuses to arise in his administration, the Indian Government would doubtless interfere to put a stop to them, as it has done in so many other cases. Under the rule of the present Prince, however, there is no reason to fear such a complication, for the good effect of his English education is shown in the numerous improvements and reforms which he has introduced in the administration of justice, the development of public works, and the encouragement of education.

30 The Maharajah himself is an excellent specimen of an educated Hindu gentleman, and exemplifies the ease with which a Bengali assimilates English customs and ideas. On State occasions, when he wears his native dress, adorned with pearls and diamonds of priceless value, he looks the very picture of an Eastern potentate, but otherwise he dresses like any ordinary English gentleman, and there is nothing in his speech or manner to betray that he is not one by birth as by education. He has, moreover, imbibed the true English love for sport and games of all kinds, and he is not only a first-rate shot and polo player, but also an excellent dancer and an accomplished billiard-player.

31 Such, then, was the country, and such the Prince to whom Keshub Chunder Sen gave his daughter.

32The Maharani Sunity Devi was born in 1864, being not quite fourteen at the time of her marriage, and still almost a child in years when she entered upon the duties of an exceptionally difficult position.

33"The fierce light which beats upon a throne" often proves a great obstacle in the way of change and reform. What is done and said by people in high positions is known and commented on by everyone, and there are none more trammelled by custom, tradition and etiquette than Sovereigns and princes. It would have been comparatively easy for the daughter of Keshub Chunder Sen, as a private lady, to set at naught the traditional prejudices which condemn Hindu women to lives of seclusion and idleness, but it was a very different thing for the Maharani of Kuch Behar to attempt the same task. Although her husband had adopted many English ways and ideas, the traditions of his family were very strict, and public opinion in his dominions was by no means prepared to welcome such an entire revolution in the whole theory of social life, as was implied in the enfranchisement of women; while there were plenty of critics ready to find fault with each fresh step in the path of reform.

34 The Maharani herself was naturally of a somewhat shy and yielding nature, and but little inclined to set herself in opposition to the views of those by whom she was surrounded. For some years, therefore, it seemed quite uncertain whether she would make an effort to break through the barriers of custom and go into English Society, or whether she would succumb to the influences constantly brought to bear upon her and withdraw more and more into seclusion.

35 When it was proposed that the Maharajah should pay a second visit to England during the Jubilee year, a question naturally arose as to whether the Maharani should or should not accompany him. The conservative party, which included many of her own relatives, exerted their utmost influence to deter the Maharani from going; the reforming party, together with her English friends, did their best to persuade her to go, and in the end they were successful: and this decision may be considered as a turning-point in her history as well as that of Bengali ladies in general.

36The Maharajah and Maharani left India in April 1887, accompanied by their children and by the Maharani's brother Mr. Sen, and they remained away Some months. During the summer they stayed in London and paid some visits in the country, and the Maharani was presented to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. She was also received by the Queen at Windsor, and treated most kindly by her Majesty, who showed in every way possible her kindly feelings towards the daughter of Keshub Chunder Sen, as well as her appreciation of the courage and good sense shown by the Maharani in making up her mind to come to England. The fact of her under taking this journey implied a determination to break decisively with the old traditional prejudices, and the manner in which she was treated by our own gracious Sovereign could not fail to have a great effect in securing her position in society, both as regards English people in India and her own countrymen. There could be no further ground for fearing that a lady who had taken such a decided step, should ever withdraw into the seclusion of the Zenana, or succumb in any serious degree to the influence of the reactionary party.

37The Maharani returned to India in December 1887 with her children, the Prince following a couple of months later. During the cold season, or at least a part of it, they live in Calcutta, occupying a fine house in the suburb of Alipore. Here they entertain a great deal; and their handsome reception-rooms are furnished in every respect like those of an English house. Those, however, occupied by themselves and the members of their family are much more simply furnished, and in the privacy of these apartments the Maharani retains most of the ordinary social habits of her country. While retaining a not unnatural preference for the customs in which she has been brought up, she shows a wonderful aptitude for conforming to foreign ways when more advisable, and as a hostess she is both popular and successful. Her parties and receptions are crowded by English people, but though a few members of the Brahmo Somaj may also be seen at them, native gentlemen are as a rule conspicuous by their absence.

38 The explanation is not difficult to find. There are still very few Indian gentlemen of good position who have adopted in any degree the Western idea of allowing free social intercourse between men and women. Some of them have learnt that, it being the accepted principle in European Society, English ladies who appear in public are only following the custom of their race, and are therefore entitled to be treated with respect, but they have not advanced sufficiently....ladies. Still bound by prejudice and tradition, they look upon the mixing of the two sexes in Social intercourse as a scandal, and regard the example Set by the Maharani as one to be avoided, not followed.

39 On more than one occasion the Maharani has had reason to complain of incivility from her own countrymen whom she has met at some official gathering, and therefore it is not to be wondered at if she does not invite them to her own house.

40 The above facts will no doubt surprise many, and will perhaps make English people understand rather better the sort of difficulties which beset the path of Social reformers in India, and which ought to enlist Our Sympathy and respect for those who are brave enough to face them.

41 The Maharajah and Maharani always spend some months of the year at Kuch Behar, the capital of their little territory, where they have a fine estate ; but during the hot weather they usually follow the example set them by English people, and go to the hills, either to Darjiling or Simla, where they mix a good deal in Society. They keep up the native custom of having many members of their family to live with them, and their "house-party" is always a large one. They have several children, of whom the youngest, born soon after their return from England, is named Victor in honour of Her Majesty. These children have English nurses and an English governess, and will, no doubt, become still more completely anglicized than their parents. The Maharani speaks and writes English perfectly, and shows a good deal of the facility for acquiring foreign ways so characteristic of the people of Bengal. She has not, indeed, shown any very striking talent nor remarkable intellectual ability, like some other Indian ladies, but if she is not destined to help her countrywomen in that particular way, her life may be as useful to them in others. Her quickness, her gracious manner, her ready tact, and her readiness to please and to be pleased, have gained her many warm friends among the English residents in India; and the fact that there is at least one Indian lady of high rank in whose house English men and women are cordially welcomed, cannot fail to be of great value in forwarding the development of that freer social intercourse between the two races, to which many people look as the surest and happiest way of solving the difficult problems that must be dealt with ere long in India.