Rising out of the undergrowth in a town in North Bihar are the exquisite and haunting remains of a forgotten royal capital. But these are no ordinary ruins. The regal complex, which includes a grand palace, a secretariat, other administrative buildings and many temples, boasts fluted pillars, tall pilasters, ornate cupolas, intricately carved porches and scalloped arches designed in distinctly European style but blended with Indian elements.
We are in Rajnagar, once the seat of the Maharaja of Raj Darbhanga, in present-day Madhubani district in Bihar. Located 50 km from Darbhanga town and 190 km from Patna, this royal capital was clearly built with much love and attention to detail.
Constructed in the early 20th century by a Maharaja who surrounded himself with opulence, Rajnagar is now only a shadow of its self, many of its structures reduced to stunning but shallow facades that continue to tower over the landscape. Enter the royal complex through one of the four arched gateways and the allure of Rajnagar is unmistakeable.
But what is this ‘Italian Lutyens’ doing in a corner of Bihar, near India’s border with Nepal and so far off the tourist trail?
Raj Darbhanga or Darbhanga Raj used to be one of the biggest and richest zamindaris, or land holdings, in India, spanning 6,200 sq km in North Bihar. This area, also known as Mithilanchal or Tirhut, is today famous for its Madhubani art. The first Zamindar of Darbhanga, a Brahmin, Pandit Mahesh Thakur, laid the foundation of the Khandawala Dynasty in Mithila when he obtained Darbhanga Raj as a grant through a farmaan or edict issued by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1577.
When Akbar took over after the fall of the Tughlaq dynasty, Darbhanga was in a state of lawlessness and the Emperor needed a caretaker to collect taxes and maintain peace on his behalf. Since the Brahmins were dominant in the region, Akbar appointed Pandit Mahesh Thakur as the local zamindar, which by default made him the local ruler.
Cut to three centuries later and the idea of creating a grand centre for the zamindari – almost like a capital in a kingdom – was an act of brotherly love. Since it was common practice to assign land grants to the younger brother while the elder brother sat on the throne, Maharaja Laxmeshwar Singh (1860 - 1898) gave his brother Rameshwar Singh (1898 - 1929) Rajnagar as a land grant. But he went one step further. The Maharaja also drew up plans for Rajnagar as a ‘royal abode’ for Rameshwar Singh. As fate would have it, Rameshwar Singh also went on to become the king of Raj Darbhanga as his elder brother died childless in 1898.
Taking his brother’s plans forward, Rameshwar Singh began to develop Rajnagar as a royal township in 1904.
This lavish capital was built from the ground up and its centrepiece was the Navlakha Mahal.
This was to be a gigantic Secretariat and was built in a classical style by renowned Italian Architect M A Corone. Several magnificent temples devoted to various gods and goddesses were also built within the royal complex of Rajnagar.
Maharaja Rameshwar Singh himself was an accomplished tantrik and, as a result, the palace complex was graced by a beautiful Kaali Temple constructed entirely from white marble. The deity, Dakshineshwari Kali, was the presiding goddess of Raj Darbhanga. The complex also housed temples dedicated to Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva.
Madhubani or Mithila paintings, which make this region famous even today, adorned these buildings . Not many know that the oldest Mithila painting in the world (it is only 100 years old!) can still be seen on the walls of Gasauni Ghar, the room where the family deity is kept, in the Rajnagar Palace. The painting was made when the daughter of Maharaja Rameshwar Singh got married in 1919 but it is, sadly, in a sorry state today.
Interestingly, the Rajnagar palace complex represents many firsts. For instance, this was a time when architects and engineers were only just beginning to use cement to construct buildings in India. It is said that when Corone, the architect-in-chief, was extolling the virtues of cement before the Maharaja, he had said that a "pillar made of cement would be so strong that even an elephant would not be able to break it".
Expressing amusement at the claim, the Maharaja asked Corone to create an elephant made from cement. The architect obliged and the Maharaja was so pleased with his work that he asked Corone to incorporate cement elephants into the design of his Secretariat.
The elephant-styled pillars that Corone erected to support the driveway stop at the entrance of the Rajnagar Secretariat stand strong even today, as a testament to his claim. They even survived the havoc wrought by the massive earthquake of 1934, which razed much of the royal city.
The development of the grand capital built by Corone at the behest of Maharaja Rameshwar Singh coincides closely with the development of Lutyens’ Delhi. This prompted historians like Prof Ayodhyanath Jha (HOD, Department of History, Mithila University, Darbhanga) to remark that "due to the grandeur and glory of Rajnagar along with the coincidental close proximity of the development of Rajnagar and Lutyens' Delhi, one can call Rajanagar the ‘Italian Lutyens’ of Raj Darbhanga".
Rajnagar continued to prosper till the death of Maharaja Rameshwar Singh in 1929, when he was succeeded to the throne by his son Sir Kameshwar Singh, who was also the last ruler of Darbhanga. With the accession of Sir Kameshwar Singh, the capital and the centre of administration shifted from Rajnagar back to the traditional seat of the family in Darbhanga.
Then, on 15th January 1934, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever in the region, dubbed the Nepal-Bihar Earthquake, flattened North Bihar. With a magnitude of 8.4, it sent shock waves all across North India and delivered a death blow to Corone's Italian Lutyens of Rajnagar. The Navlakha Palace was badly damaged and the beautiful Shiva Temple was rendered unfit for use by the earthquake. Parts the other temples in the palace complex and portions of the Secretariat and the revenue office building were the only things left standing – handsome ruins that remind us of the fury of that fateful day.
If Sir Rameshwar Singh's death robbed Rajnagar of its glory as the capital of Darbhanga Raj, the earthquake of 1934 condemned his beautiful erstwhile capital city to a lifetime of neglect, encroachment and most painful of all – a slow and continuous death.
No attempt has been made by the royal family of Darbhanga to reconstruct the Rajnagar Palace Complex because the earthquake rendered the ground unstable. Rather, the royal family has been selling land in the palace complex, in bits and parts, which has resulted in private houses being built in the vicinity of the royal capital. This poses a new threat to its existence, apart from rank neglect.
If steps are not taken at the earliest by the government or the Archaeological Survey of India, to conserve the Rajnagar Palace Complex, we will lose an architectural marvel and a slice of Bihar’s glorious history for good.
Akash is an aspiring legal mind whose heart still beats for anything with a historical association.