The late Maharani Gayatri Devi, the grand queen-mother of Jaipur was the most famous mascot of Cooch Behar, a small princely state in North Bengal where she came from. Today, known more for its grinding poverty, there was a time when this little kingdom was renowned for its splendour and the great beauty of its princesses!
Located on the sliver of alluvial flood lands, sandwiched between the Himalayas in the north and the mighty Brahmaputra, one of India’s fiercest rivers in the south, Cooch Behar is around 142 kms from Siliguri, in an area known as the Dooars.
Today the only reminder of the grand pomp and splendour of the Cooch Behar kingdom is the magnificent, Italian renaissance inspired palace built in 1887.
Literally translated into the Land of the Koch’s after the Koch Rajbongshi people who made this area their home. The kingdom of Cooch Behar traces its origins to King Vishwa Singha of the Koch tribe, who defeated different tribes and laid the foundation for the Kamata kingdom in 1515 CE. Vishwa Singha’s descendants ruled over this region for several centuries.
The most comprehensive account of the tumultuous history of this region is in the book ‘Kochbiharer Itihas’ by Shri. Hemanta Kumar Rai Barma. This book gives a gripping account of the conflicts that led to the British eventually ruling this land.
It all started with trouble from the North. It’s hard to imagine but around 300 years ago Bhutan, now amongst the most peace loving countries of the world, was known for its military might. Crippled by the continuous aggression from the Mughals, in 1730 CE, the King of Cooch Behar turned to Bhutan for help. This turned out to be even more damaging as Bhutan took control of Cooch Behar and made it a dependency. In 1772 CE, taking advantage of a succession dispute, a large Bhutanese army invaded Cooch Behar and took control of the capital. Desperate to ward off this attack, the Royal family of Cooch Behar reached out to the British East India Company offering them one lakh rupees for driving out the Bhutanese forces.
For Cooch Behar, this decision too turned out to be fatal, as the British drove the Bhutanese out but took charge of the kingdom, themselves.
Around the year 1863 CE, the Cooch Behar ruler Maharaja Narendra Narayan died without an heir. At that time, a ten month old baby Nirpendra Narayan was put on the throne while the administration was carried out by the British. It was the heyday of Victorian rule, and the British were very keen to have a model ruler on the throne. Nirpendra was educated by English tutors and married to Suniti Devi, the daughter of noted social reformer and founder of Brahmo Samaj, Keshub Chandra Sen.
Nirpendra and Sunitidevi bought enlightenment and progressive values to Cooch Behar, which was then a predominantly backward kingdom. They built schools for girls, hospitals, ashrams and law courts.
The royal family had originally lived in an old palace, built in traditional Bengali style. A new palace, inspired by the European style, was built for the family, as a symbol of the ‘progressive modernity’ in Cooch Behar.
Built in 1887 CE, in Italian renaissance style, the massive palace stood on 1400 acres of land. It had a huge Durbar Hall, Ballroom, Billiards room, a great library and around 18 bedrooms. Maharaja Nirpendra Narayan’s son Jitendra Narayan married Princess Indira, daughter of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda. Indira Devi was a great collector of fine art and furniture and the Cooch Behar palace became a symbol of fine taste across princely India. In 1947 CE, the last Maharaja, Jaggdipendra Narayan, son of Indira Devi, merged the kingdom of Cooch Behar into India, and it became a district in West Bengal.
Over time, the palace of Cooch Behar fell into disuse and disrepair. The library, furniture and even the marble in the palace was pilfered and sold off. It was in 1982 CE, that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took over the palace and repaired it. Today, few rooms of the palace serve as a museum on local Cooch Behar history, while most of the palace remains locked.
At a time when there is a growing movement for statehood and identity in parts of North Bengal, the Koch Rajbongshis are also demanding a separate identity from West Bengal. The Kamtapur People’s Party and Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association have been agitating for a separate statehood as they feel ignored and marginalized by successive governments in West Bengal.
Ironically, the palace a symbol of feudal opulence, appears on pamphlets, banners, posters, and all the literature on statehood demands. At one time it was also feared that the protesters would break into the palace and occupy it in a mark of protest. After all, one of the key demands of the protesters is the preservation of the Cooch Behar palace and the town’s crumbling heritage.
Despite the underlying tensions, the palace attracts many visitors from across India and is the most magnificent monument to the heritage of Koch Rajbongshi people.
Cover Image by: Amartyabag/ Wikimedia Commons/ CC 3.0