Visit any city or town in India and you are likely to stumble upon a fountain or two going back to the colonial period. Usually constructed in a typical colonial architectural style, they often have an inscription on the generosity of the British officer or Indian philanthropist who donated it. But few are aware that Indians reciprocated and donated public water installations to the British.
Commissioning or donating a public water fountain was an important act of goodwill for the wealthy in India. These installations were important utilities in times before modern water systems made access to running water easier and cheaper. These installations not only helped the public with their water needs but also generated goodwill for the donor. This accounts for the many fountains in colonial cities in India, like Bombay, Calcutta or Madras.
Surprisingly, one sees many of these water fountains being commissioned in England by wealthy Indians of the elite class, in the post-1857 Revolt period. These installations would not only have been an act of charity and public works but also a way to assert their loyalty to the British Crown. They were installed in places as diverse as the heart of the capital, London and obscure villages in Oxfordshire. Let us visit some of them and the fascinating tales behind them.
Readymoney Drinking Water Fountain, London
The Readymoney Drinking Water Fountain was erected in Regent’s Park, London, in 1869 by Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney, a notable Indian businessman and philanthropist from Bombay. The fountain is also known as the ‘Parsee Fountain’ after the Parsi community Readymoney belonged to.
At the time of its construction, the fountain cost 1,400 pounds and was dedicated by Readymoney to the English people as a token of gratitude for the protection he and his fellow Parsis received under the British rule in India. The Parsis were enterprising businessmen who flourished due to the global trade opportunities the British Empire provided them and become one of the wealthiest communities in India. Readymoney probably felt that a gesture to appreciate this was appropriate.
The fountain is of Gothic design and was designed by British architect Robert Kierle. It is a four-sided structure and rests on three octagonal steps. It was built with 10 tonnes of white marble from Sicily in Italy and 4 tonnes of pink and grey granite from Aberdeen in Great Britain. Sitting in the manicured lawns of Regent’s Park, it is quite a splendid sight.
From a distance, it looks like a fine specimen of Neo-Gothic British architecture but closer inspection reveals many subtle decorative elements which hint at its Indian origin. Two panels depict a lion with a palm tree and a horned Indian bull with a palm tree. There is also a sculptural panel of Sir Cowasji Jehangir’s face, a dedication and a coat of arms.
The fountain was inaugurated by Princess Mary, Duchess of Teck, in 1869. In 1970, it was listed as a Grade II structure by Historic England, which is tasked with preserving the historic environment in England. In 1999-2000, the fountain was restored by England’s Heritage Lottery Fund and a new plaque placed there. More restoration was carried out in 2016-17. It is no longer a functional fountain but is extremely well-maintained, leaving the mark of an enterprising Indian in a tony part of London for posterity.
Maharajah’s Well, Stoke Row, Oxfordshire
Stoke Row is a tiny village in South Oxfordshire, England, with a present-day population of less than a thousand people. With its thatched roof homes, red-brick facades and 17th-century pubs, it is the quintessential English village. But it has a hidden Indian connection with a rather Dickensian twist.
Edward Anderdon Reade, son of a local landowner in Stoke Row and a civil servant, was the Lieutenant-Governor of the North Western Provinces in India when he made friends with the Maharaja of Benares (now Varanasi), Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh. Once, during dinner, Reade narrated a rather sombre tale to the Maharaja, of how a child from his native village back in England was beaten by his mother for drinking the last of the household water during a, particularly severe drought. The tale moved the Maharaja and he decided to support the sinking of a well in the village.
The well was dug by hand and reached a depth of 368 feet and a width of 4 feet. It took two workers a year to complete. The Maharaja not only funded the digging of the well but also an elaborate mechanism to pull up the water, topped by a golden elephant. It also has a 23-foot superstructure, which looks like a gazebo and is topped by a bright dome.
The well was inaugurated on Queen Victoria’s birthday, on 24th May 1864. The Maharaja also financed a caretaker’s cottage as well as a 4-acre cherry orchard to pay for the upkeep of the well, much in the way Indian temples were endowed with farmlands to pay for their upkeep.
Interestingly, Ishwari Prasad never saw the village or the well he was so deeply connected to. Reade had moved back to the village after his retirement and helped in the construction and maintenance of the well. After Reade’s death in 1886, the well fell into disrepair, and once piped water reached the village in 1927, it was utterly neglected.
However, in 1961, when Queen Elizabeth II of England visited Benares, the then Maharaja, Vibhuti Narayan Singh, mentioned the centenary of the well to the monarch. This not only led to a renewed interest in and maintenance of the well but also a grand celebration in 1964. The event to mark the centenary of the well was attended by the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
Many of the events associated with the well are aligned with significant events in the British royal family, like the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana on July 29, 1981, on which date restoration of the well was begun. Thus, the legacy of a 19th century King of Benares lives on in a blink-and-miss village in Oxfordshire.
While the Readymoney fountain and the Maharajah’s well have survived and are in exceptional condition, not all such public works were so successful. Many of them have been lost or have disappeared and only old photographs, records or plaques marking their existence remain. Two of them are the Maharajah’s Fountain and Maharaja of Cooch Behar’s Memorial Drinking Fountain
Maharajah's Fountain, Hyde Park, London
The Maharaja of Vijianagram also known as Vizianagram, a small princely state in present-day Andhra Pradesh, commissioned a drinking water fountain in Hyde Park, London, in 1867. The fountain, removed in 1964 for unknown reasons, is believed to have been of Gothic design. Very little is known of the fountain and the only mark of its existence is a plague at its former location.
The plaque states: “A fountain given by His Highness the Hon Maharajah Meerza Vijiaram Gajapati Raj Manea Sooltan Bahadoor of Vijianagram. K. C. S. I. stood on this site from 1867 until 1964.” Interestingly, it is believed that the fountain was designed by Robert Kierle, the architect who also designed the Readymoney Fountain at Regent’s Park.
Maharaja of Cooch Behar Memorial Drinking Fountain, Bexhill, East Sussex
Maharaja Nripendra Narayan of the Princely state of Cooch Behar in Bengal was visiting the English coastal resort of Bexhill, East Sussex in 1911, to recover from the untimely passing of one of his daughters, when he passed away on 21st September 1911. His second son, Jitendra Narayan, who ascended the throne after his elder brother died in 1913, decided to commission a memorial fountain in the town.
The fountain was located near the Coastguard Cottages on the coast and was unveiled for the public on 18th September 1913. It was moved to Egerton Park in 1934, when the precinct in which it stood was redesigned. From 1934 to 1963, the fountain stood in the Park, near the Bexhill Museum, when it was removed for restoration. However, it was lost and its whereabouts are unknown to date.
The idea of connecting the holy city of Benares to a tiny village in the middle of England, or a city in rural Bengal to a resort town in coastal England may seem absurd but these fountains and wells are proof of this strange and wonderful connection. The colonial empire of the British has left a strong and contentious legacy in the subcontinent but the English landscape didn’t remain untouched by Indians, and these fountains are proof of that.