People generally associate Maharajas and Nawabs with extravagant lifestyles and fabulous wealth - at least in the India of the 19th century CE - the Nizam’s jewels were famous as were the 36 Rolls Royce cars of the Maharaja of Patiala… but amidst this hedonistic opulence, there were some rulers of note who followed a different path. Few would have heard of the Maharaja of Gondal, Bhagvatsingh, in Gujarat who was a trained doctor. The work he did for the needy in his small kingdom in present day Gujarat is truly noteworthy.
In the 18th and 19th century CE, Saurashtra region of Gujarat was divided into 217 tiny kingdoms, of which Gondal was one. Bhagvatsingh was born on 24 October 1865 CE at Dhoraji in the present day district of Rajkot, Gujarat. He was the third son of Thakore Sangramsingh II, the Thakore of Gondal, a small princely state established by the Jadeja dynasty, which also ruled over other kingdoms like Jamnagar and Kutch. Gondal was situated in the heart of Saurashtra and extended over 1000 sq miles. In those days, this was a very backward region with petty fights between different kingdoms and very basic infrastructure.
Bhagvatsingh became the ruler of Gondal at the age of four
Bhagvatsingh grew up in this milieu and could have ended up like most of his princely peers, spending his time and money on self-indulgence. But destiny had something else in store for him. In 1869 CE, his father Thakore Sangramsingh died suddenly at the age of 45 and as the only surviving son, Bhagvatsingh became the ruler of Gondal at the age of four. As Bhagvatsingh was a minor, the administration was carried out by a British officer named Captain Lloyd. In 1875 CE, at the age of ten, Bhagvatsingh was moved to Rajkot to receive his primary education at the Rajkumar College, a school created by the British for Indian princes. This fired his imagination and the need to do more, even after he finished his schooling and came back to Gondal to take charge in 1884 CE.
He received his primary education at the Rajkumar College at Rajkot, a school created by the British for Indian princes
It was around this time that Bhagvatsingh also decided to travel to England to ‘see the world’. While this was vehemently opposed by his mother and the court as the orthodox Hindus believed that crossing the seas made them ‘impure’, he insisted on it. During his visit to Europe, he also visited the medical facility attached to the University of Edinburgh.
Few weeks later, he visited St. George's Hospital in London and wrote in his diary that he really wanted to be a doctor:
"I have a taste that way and should much like to become a medical student myself. (So that I) might have the personal satisfaction of relieving poor people from the diseases which flesh is heir to."
In his diary entry dated 1885 CE Bhagvatsingh also noted
“It is a most charitable profession if the doctor cares more for his patients than for his purse”
The Maharaja had set his mind on being a doctor. In 1892 CE, leaving the responsibility of Gondal in the hands of his Parsi Chief Minister, Bezanji Merwanji, he proceeded to the University of Edinburgh, where he had secured admission for a medical degree.
After his travels through Europe, the Maharaja set his mind on being a doctor
Bhagvatsingh was a diligent student and performed well in his course. He also worked hard on his thesis A Short History of Aryan Medical Science, which was a paper on Ayurvedic medicine. Finally, in 1895 CE, the University Faculty appreciated his diligent research and his scientific acumen and bestowed the degree of M.D to him. A few months later, he was appointed the President of the Organising Committee of the 8th International Congress of Hygiene and Demography at Budapest and soon admitted as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, the only Indian ruler to do so!
Bhagvatsingh would go on to become the vice-president of the Indian Medical Association.
His most vital contribution was however to women’s liberation. He followed the footsteps of his mother who supported women empowerment. It was within six years of their marriage (1882 CE) that Nandkunvarba, Bhagvatsingh’s Chief Queen stopped observing purdah and attended public events. In 1892 CE, she took a world tour with her husband and visited Europe, America, Japan, Sri Lanka, China and Australia. This was unheard of amongst Rajput women as most lived in elaborate seclusion.
He went a step ahead and also ended the culture of Zananas, the separation of women’s wings in his palaces. As he paid most attention to education, by 1918, Gondal had compulsory education for girls even at the village level!
His most vital contribution was to women’s liberation as he ended the culture of purdah and Zananas in Gondal
Like a modern father, Bhagvatsingh wanted a different path of life even for his children, one based on solid education. His eldest son, Bhojrajsingh, who was the Yuvraj or Crown Prince studied engineering from Oxford. His second son Bhupatsingh, became a doctor like his father, and studied at the University of London to become a Doctor of Tropical Medicine. He returned to Gondal and became Chief Medical Officer of the state. The youngest two sons, Kiritsingh and Natwarsingh, were both educated at the University of Edinburgh, and worked in the state railways.
Bhagvatsingh died on 9th March 1944, at the age of 78 years. His name is mentioned in the record books of World history as the ‘seventh longest reigning monarch in the World’ having held the throne for 74 years and 87 days.
But it wasn't just the years he spent on the throne that make this King an outlier - it was what he did out there. In a country where power and wealth so often corrupts, here is a ruler who went against the tide. A ruler worth remembering!
Cover Image: Portrait of Sir Bhagavat Simhaji (1865–1944), c. 1895 by Frank Brooks (British 1854–1937) courtesy Bodleian Libraries via www.artuk.org
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