It is a city steeped in history, but that is unlikely to come through if you run a search for Darbhanga on the internet. Road accidents, crime reports and a stray story or two of someone attempting to create awareness about its fast fading old palaces, is all you will find. But Darbhanga, at the heart of the old Mithila Pradesh in Bihar hides many stories. Probably the land of Sita’s father King Janak in the Indian epic Ramayana, Darbhanga crops us in history circles for another reason. It was home to one of the most spectacular collections of jewels till as recently as the 1960s.
The Khandavala dynasty of Darbhanga that owned this spectacular collection of jewels were the biggest land owners of the region. They were also among the richest people in India. In fact through the 1950s and 1960s, the third richest man in India was not some Parsi industrialist or Marwari businessman. It was Kameshwar Singh, the last Maharaja of Darbhanga, a Bihari landlord.
The family which was granted the title of Maharajas, owned more than 2400 sq miles of land and many factories. Their annual income in 1947 was a whopping Rs 55 lakhs at a time when a tola of gold (10 grams) could be purchased for a few rupees.
With such vast wealth, the Rajas of Darbhanga soon came to be known as bankers to many other local rulers. Less rich princes like those from Dumraon, Tekari, Cooch Behar would all borrow money from Raj Darbhanga, even selling some of the family heirlooms, when out of cash. This was the starting point of the Darbhanga collection of jewels, considered to be even finer than the Nizam of Hyderabad’s collection.
The Darbhanga collection included some spectacular and historic pieces from across the world. Here are some of the great pieces.
The Naulakha Haar of Peshwa Bajirao
The most famous of the Darbhanga jewels was the Naulakha Haar of the Maratha Peshwas. A long necklace of pearls, diamonds and emeralds, it was considered to be one of the most fabulous necklaces in the world. It originally belonged to Peshwa Bajirao I who had got it made for 9 lakhs (hence the name Naulakha). After him, every generation of Peshwas added more jewels to it, making it worth Rs 90 lakhs in the 1900s.
After the revolt of 1857, a broken and defeated Nanasaheb Peshwa took it with him to Nepal where it was sold to Rana Jung Bahadur , the prime minister and virtual ruler of Nepal for a pittance. The Rana extracted all the main emeralds and rubies from it and reduced it in size. The Rana’s successor in turn sold it to the only person who could afford it at that time – The Raja of Darbhanga.
From the Ranas of Nepal, who were also short of money in 1901, the Darbhanga family also acquired two famous pieces – the single emerald , three inches in length which Nana Saheb had mounted as a seal called the ‘Shiromani’ and the ‘Peshwa diamond’ which is described as a large diamond of ‘purest white’.
The Darbhanga collection also boasted of having in its possession, the necklace that was given as a wedding present to Queen Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France by the city of Paris, during her marriage in 1770 CE. It then passed into the possession of Habsburgs of Austria. This extraordinary and symbolic necklace was up for auction by an Austrian princess in the 1930s and Maharaja Kameshwar Singh, who was known for collecting historic jewels successfully bid and paid a few lakhs for it. The Darbhanga family also purchased many treasures from the Czars of Russia.
The Mughal Emerald
Another great jewel in the Darbhanga collection was the ‘Great Moghul Emerald’, the largest carved emerald in the world. It weighed 217 carats and was roughly 2 inches long, 1.75 inches broad and half an inch in thickness.
Originally believed to have belonged to the Mughal emperors, it had verses from the Quran carved on it.
The Darbhanga family acquired the emerald after the Maharaja of Cooch Behar kept it as a collateral against a loan, which he failed to pay off.
Sir CV Raman and the Peshwa Diamond
There is an interesting story related to Sir CV Raman, the noted Physicist and the Darbhanga jewels. Sir CV Raman had a fascination with gemstones and studied the properties of opals, moon stones, agates, rubies and diamonds in his laboratory. He loved to study the properties of diamonds. For his study and research, he needed a large diamond and Maharaja of Darbhanga generously lent him a 140 carat diamond for two days! We presume this must have been the ‘Peshwa diamond’, a diamond originally owned by Peshwa Bajirao and which Maharaja of Darbhanga wore as a ring on his finger.
There were a number of other spectacular pieces in the collection including a goblet carved out of a single emerald belonging to Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh; a crown of pearls originally belonging to Rana of Dholpur; jewels acquired from Nawabs of Murshidabad; and even the famous 140 carat Peshwa diamond that the Maharajas of Darbhanga wore as a ring.
The Zamindari of Darbhanga was abolished and in 1950 along with all other Zamindaris and titles in Bihar. Heavy taxes were imposed and after the death of Maharaja Kameshwar Singh the family was forced to sell many of these jewels to pay off taxes.
The biggest recorded sale of the Darbhanga collection happened in 1967, when the most important pieces like the Marie Antoinette necklace, the Peshwa’s diamond, and the Naulakha necklace, were sold to Nanubhai Jhaveri, the noted jeweler of Bombay. This is where all traces of the Darbhanga collection ends.
Today, the great Darbhanga pieces are dispersed around the globe and you can sometimes spot some of these jewels in auctions. And when you do, hardly ever is a mention made of a little town in Bihar, Darbhanga, where these fine pieces were once housed!
Cover Image: European Guest House in the Darbhanga Palace Complex courtesy Tejakar Jha
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books