Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Interview with the Chiefs of Jhānsī—Disputed Succession
On the 14th we came on fourteen miles to Jhānsī. About five miles from our last ground we crossed the Baitantī river over a bed of syenite. At this river we mounted our elephant to cross, as the water was waist-deep at the ford. My wife returned to her palankeen as soon as we had crossed, but our little boy came on with me on the elephant, to meet the grand procession which I knew was approaching to greet us from the city.
The Rājā of Jhānsī, Rām Chandar Rāo, died a few months ago, leaving a young widow and a mother, but no child.
He was a young man of about twenty-eight years of age, timid, but of good capacity, and most amiable disposition. My duties brought us much into communication; and, though we never met, we had conceived a mutual esteem for each other.
He had been long suffering from an affection of the liver, and had latterly persuaded himself that his mother was practising upon his life, with a view to secure the government to the eldest son of her daughter, which would, she thought, ensure the real power to her for life.
That she wished him dead with this view, I had no doubt; for she had ruled the state for several years up to 1831, during what she was pleased to consider his minority; and she surrendered the power into his hands with great reluctance, since it enabled her to employ her paramour as minister, and enjoy his society as much as she pleased, under the pretence of holding privy councils upon affairs of great public interest.
He used to communicate his fears to me; and I was not without apprehension that his mother might some day attempt to hasten his death by poison. About a month before his death he wrote to me to say that spears had been found stuck in the ground, under the water where he was accustomed to swim, with their sharp points upwards; and, had he not, contrary to his usual practice, walked into the water, and struck his foot against one of them, he must have been killed.
This was, no doubt, a thing got up by some designing person who wanted to ingratiate himself with the young man; for the mother was too shrewd a woman ever to attempt her son's life by such awkward means. About four months before I reached the capital, this amiable young prince died, leaving two paternal uncles, a mother, a widow, and one sister, the wife of one of our Sāgar pensioners, Morīsar Rāo.
The mother claimed the inheritance for her grandson by this daughter, a very handsome young lad, then at Jhānsī, on the pretence that her son had adopted him on his death-bed. She had his head shaved, and made him go through all the other ceremonies of mourning, as for the death of his real father.
The eldest of his uncles, Raghunāth Rāo, claimed the inheritance as the next heir; and all his party turned the young lad out of caste as a Brahman, for daring to go into mourning for a father who was yet alive; one of the greatest of crimes, according to Hindoo law, for they would not admit that he had been adopted by the deceased prince.
The question of inheritance had been referred for decision to the Supreme Government through the prescribed channel when I arrived, and the decision was every day expected. The mother, with her daughter and grandson, and the widow, occupied the castle, situated on a high hill overlooking the city; while the two uncles of the deceased occupied their private dwellings in the city below.
Raghunāth Rāo, the eldest, headed the procession that came out to meet me about three miles, mounted upon a fine female elephant, with his younger brother by his side. The minister, Nārū Gopāl, followed, mounted upon another, on the part of the mother and widow.
Some of the Rājā's relations were upon two of the finest male elephants I have ever seen; and some of their friends, with the 'Bakshī', or paymaster (always an important personage), upon two others. Raghunāth Rāo's elephant drew up on the right of mine, and that of the minister on the left; and, after the usual compliments had passed between us, all the others fell back, and formed a line in our rear. They had about fifty troopers mounted upon very fine horses in excellent condition, which curvetted before and on both sides of us; together with a good many men on camels, and some four or five hundred foot attendants, all well dressed, but in various costumes.
The elephants were so close to each other that the conversation, which we managed to keep up tolerably well, was general almost all the way to our tents; every man taking a part as he found the opportunity of a pause to introduce his little compliment to the Honourable Company or to myself, which I did my best to answer or divert. I was glad to see the affectionate respect with which the old man was everywhere received, for I had in my own mind no doubt whatever that the decision of the Supreme Government would be in his favour.
The whole cortège escorted me through the town to my tent, which was pitched on the other side; and then they took their leave, still seated on their elephants, while I sat on mine, with my boy on my knee, till all had made their bow and departed. The elephants, camels, and horses were all magnificently caparisoned, and the housings of the whole were extremely rich. A good many of the troopers were dressed in chain-armour, which, worn outside their light-coloured quilted vests, looked very like black gauze scarfs.
My little friend the Sarīmant's own elephant had lately died; and, being unable to go to the cost of another with all its appendages, he had come thus far on horseback. A native gentleman can never condescend to ride an elephant without a train of at least a dozen attendants on horseback—he would almost as soon ride a horse without a tail.
Having been considered at one time as the equal of all these Rājās, I knew that he would feel a little mortified at finding himself buried in the crowd and dust; and invited him, as we approached the city, to take a seat by my side. This gained him consideration, and evidently gave him great pleasure. It was late before we reached our tents, as we were obliged to move slowly through the streets of the city, as well for our own convenience as for the safety of the crowd on foot before and around us. My wife, who had gone on before to avoid the crowd and dust, reached the tents half an hour before us.
In the afternoon, when my second large tent had been pitched, the minister came to pay me a visit with a large train of followers, but with little display; and I found him a very sensible, mild, and gentlemanly man, just as I expected from the high character he bears with both parties, and with the people of the country generally.
Any unreserved conversation here in such a crowd was, of course, out of the question, and I told the minister that it was my intention early next morning to visit the tomb of his late master; where I should be very glad to meet him, if he could make it convenient to come without any ceremony.
He seemed much pleased with the proposal, and next morning we met a little before sunrise within the railing that encloses the tomb or cenotaph; and there had a good deal of quiet and, I believe, unreserved talk about the affairs of the Jhānsī state, and the family of the late prince.
He told me that, a few hours before the Rājā's death, his mother had placed in his arms for adoption the son of his sister, a very handsome lad of ten years of age—but whether the Rājā was or was not sensible at the time he could not say, for he never after heard him speak; that the mother of the deceased considered the adoption as complete, and made her grandson go through the funeral ceremonies as at the death of his father, which for nine days were performed unmolested; but, when it came to the tenth and last—which, had it passed quietly, would have been considered as completing the title of adoption—Raghunāth Rāo and his friends interposed, and prevented further proceedings, declaring that, while there were so many male heirs, no son could be adopted for the deceased prince according to the usages of the family.
The widow of the Rājā, a timid, amiable young woman, of twenty-five years of age, was by no means anxious for this adoption, having shared the suspicions of her husband regarding the practices of his mother; and found his sister, who now resided with them in the castle, a most violent and overbearing woman, who would be likely to exclude her from all share in the administration, and make her life very miserable, were her son to be declared the Rājā. Her wish was to be allowed to adopt, in the name of her deceased husband, a young cousin of his, Sadāsheo, the son of Nānā Bhāo.
Gangādhar, the younger brother of Raghunāth Rāo, was exceedingly anxious to have his elder brother declared Rājā, because he had no sons, and from the debilitated state of his frame, must soon die, and leave the principality to him. Every one of the three parties had sent agents to the Governor-General's representative in Bundēlkhand to urge their claim; and, till the final decision, the widow of the late chief was to be considered the sovereign.
The minister told me that there was one unanswerable argument against Raghunāth Rāo's succeeding, which, out of regard to his feelings, he had not yet urged, and about which he wished to consult me as a friend of the late prince and his widow; this was, that he was a leper, and that the signs of the disease were becoming every day more and more manifest.
I told him that I had observed them in his face, but was not aware that any one else had noticed them. I urged him, however, not to advance this as a ground of exclusion, since they all knew him to be a very worthy man, while his younger brother was said to be the reverse; and more especially I thought it would be very cruel and unwise to distress and exasperate him by so doing, as I had no doubt that, before this ground could be brought to their notice, Government would declare in his favour, right being so clearly on his side.
After an agreeable conversation with this sensible and excellent man, I returned to my tents to prepare for the reception of Raghunāth Rāo and his party. They came about nine o'clock with a much greater display of elephants and followers than the minister had brought with him. He and his friends kept me in close conversation till eleven o'clock, in spite of my wife's many considerate messages to say breakfast was waiting.
He told me that the mother of the late Rājā, his nephew, was a very violent woman, who had involved the state in much trouble during the period of her regency, which she managed to prolong till her son was twenty-five years of age, and resigned with infinite reluctance only three years ago; that her minister during her regency, Gangadhar Mūlī, was at the same time her paramour, and would be surely restored to power and to her embraces, were her grandson's claim to the succession recognized; that it was with great difficulty he had been able to keep this atrocious character under surveillance pending the consideration of their claims by the Supreme Government; that, by having the head of her grandson shaved, and making him go through all the other funeral ceremonies with the other members of the family, she had involved him and his young innocent wife (who had unhappily continued to drink out of the same cup with her husband) in the dreadful crime of mourning for a father whom they knew to be yet alive, a crime that must be expiated by the 'prāyaschit,' which-would be exacted from the young couple on their return to Sāgar before they could be restored to caste, from which they were now considered as excommunicated.
As for the young widow, she was everything they could wish; but she was so timid that she would be governed by the old lady, if she should have any ostensible part assigned her in the administration.
I told the old gentleman that I believed it would be my duty to pay the first visit to the widow and mother of the late prince, as one of pure condolence, and that I hoped my doing so would not be considered any mark of disrespect towards him, who must now be looked up to as the head of the family. He remonstrated against this most earnestly; and, at last, tears came into his eyes as he told me that, if I paid the first visit to the castle, he should never again be able to show his face outside his door, so great would be the indignity he would be considered to have suffered; but, rather than I should do this, he would come to my tents, and escort me himself to the castle.
Much was to be said on both sides of the weighty question; but, at last, I thought that the arguments were in his favour—that, if I went to the castle first, he might possibly resent it upon the poor woman and the prime minister when he came into power, as I had no doubt he soon would—and that I might be consulting their interest as much as his feelings by going to his house first.
In the evening I received a message from the old lady, urging the necessity of my paying the first visit of condolence for the death of my young friend to the widow and mother. 'The rights of mothers', said she, 'are respected in all countries; and, in India, the first visit of condolence for the death of a man is always due to the mother, if alive.'
I told the messenger that my resolution was unaltered, and would, I trusted, be found the best for all parties under present circumstances. I told him that I dreaded the resentment towards them of Raghunāth Rāo, if he came into power.
'Never mind that,' said he: 'my mistress is of too proud a spirit to dread resentment from any one—pay her the compliment of the first visit, and let her enemies do their worst.'
I told him that I could leave Jhānsī without visiting either of them, but could not go first to the castle; and he said that my departing thus would please the old lady better than the second visit. The minister would not have said this—the old lady would not have ventured to send such a message by him—the man was an understrapper; and I left him to mount my elephant and pay my two visits.
With the best cortège I could muster, I went to Raghunāth Rāo's, where I was received with a salute from some large guns in his courtyard, and entertained with a party of dancing girls and musicians in the usual manner. Attar of r