The League of Extraordinary Indians

A Prince who was way ahead of his time

Abhiroop Sengupta Tuesday 04th January 2022 05:43 EST

Around the time when Queen Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India, a young prince in India was in the middle of a storm. This issue which involved his prospective marriage was causing serious friction among some senior members of the educated society in Bengal Presidency and nearby areas. It will not be wrong to comment that this entire issue left an everlasting impact on the history of Cooch Behar and the Brahmo movement. This young prince was then known as Raja Nripendra Narayan Bhup of Koch Behar, whom we later know as Colonel His Highness Maharaja Sir Nripendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur of Cooch Behar, GCIE, CB, ADC. In his average spanned life for his time, he earned both his share of accolades as well as setbacks but above all, he left behind an everlasting legacy in his native beloved principality of Cooch Behar. 

The mentioned storm was a short-lived one but was one with serious consequences. This started with his prospective marriage to the beautiful Suniti Devi, the daughter of the respected Brahmo leader Baboo Keshub Chunder Sen. In those days’ followers of Brahmoism preached against the marriage of a girl below fourteen years of age, but the very initiative of Baboo Keshub Chunder Sen to consent to such a union, when Suniti Devi was yet to reach the required age, was seen as blasphemy to many of his Brahmo contemporaries. While there were many attempts to delay the marriage, but if the words of Suniti Devi's memoir, "Autobiography of an Indian Princess" are taken into account then it was none but the young Raja, who took the final call and persisted on an immediate marriage.  

The greatest privileges 

Cooch Behar, which was known as Koch Behar prior to April 1896 was a comparatively small princely state located at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas with an area of about 1,307 square miles (3,385 square km). What the principality lacked in size was compensated to a great deal by the stature of its illustrious ruler, Colonel Maharaja Sir Nripendra Narayan whose educated background and anglicised manners made him a darling of the English society in the late Victorian years where he was a member of quite a few institutions and clubs including the Hurlingham Club and the Marylebone Cricket Club. Born on the 4th of October 1862, he succeeded while being just about ten months old after the sudden demise of his father, the educated and progressive Maharaja Narendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur. The state then being administered by a British commissioner who closely supervised his education, the young Raja went on to grow into a very anglicised, confident and ambitious young man. Having spent time as a student in England under the able tutelage of Sir Benjamin Simpson and Mr Kneller in the late 1870s and then having graduated from the prestigious Presidency College in Bengal, he started his rise among princes since his early years. This started with the small principality being granted a permanent salute of thirteen guns in 1867 and then the Raja being granted the personal title of Maharaja Bahadur like his father before him, the title being made hereditary as Maharaja Bhup Bahadur soon after. This followed with him getting an honorary commission in the British Indian army, first as a Major and then being promoted to the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel in 1887. It did not end there as he received an appointment as an ADC to the Prince of Wales in 1887 along with the Knight Grand Commander of the order of the Indian Empire in 1888. One of the greatest privileges too came his way around the same time with the birth of his third son Victor Nitendra Narayan during his visit to England with his wife to attend Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations, and for whom Queen-Empress Victoria herself stood sponsor. Thus with the Queen-Empress as the God Mother to his third son and the close admiration and friendship of the future King Edward VII, he was almost an indirect extension of the British Royal family and quite an achiever among princes by the time he was just twenty-five years old.  

Role in the infrastructural development 

Maharaja Sir Nripendra Narayan played a major role in the infrastructural development of his state with the founding of schools, colleges like the Victoria college, libraries, roads, administrative buildings, and other infrastructural developments which last to the present times and still serve the people of Cooch Behar. He also modernised the Cooch Behar State Services, the courts, police and army with the help of among others his advisors including his Dewan Rai Calica Dass Dutt Bahadur, CIE with whom he often had his share of differences. Some of the Maharaja's cousins too served him well including Kumar Gajendra Narayan Snr, who was among the earliest from a royal family to qualify as a barrister and who was married to Maharani Suniti Devi's younger sister Sabitri Devi. Another such cousin was Kumar Gajendra Narayan Jnr, who was an alumnus of the Royal Agriculture College in Gloucestershire and who among other roles served as the Superintendent of Police of Cooch Behar. Above all the Maharaja's 'Lincoln' moment came with the Maharaja ensuring the abolition of the last existence of slavery in his small principality. He went on to serve in several military campaigns of which the Tirah Campaign of 1897-1898 is a noteworthy mention for which he received the prestigious Companion of the Order of the Bath and was mentioned in dispatches. Though his desire to serve in the Second Boer War was turned down he was eventually promoted to the rank of a Colonel in 1902.  A noted athlete he was a keen Cricketer, Patron of Polo and a respected player of racket-based sports. In the memoirs of his wife Maharani Suniti Devi, CI we also find mention of him being a good wrestler and a great shot, whose big game hunting capabilities made him write a book titled "37 years of Big Game Shooting" which the author Maharaja Nripendra Narayan dedicated to his old friend King-Emperor Edward VII. 

Modern education

Education was always a priority for the Maharaja as his family had received modern education since the time of his great grandfather Maharaj Harendra Narayan and thus, he ensured that his children received the best of it. All four of his sons attended Eton, post which his elder son and heir Maharaja Raj Rajendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur attended the University of Oxford, where he also earned a place in the Polo team and later received an appointment as a Lieutenant in the British army with the Westminster Dragoons. His second son Maharaja Sir Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, KCSI who succeeded his elder brother as Maharaja attended the University of Edinburgh and played a single first-class cricket match. The third son, Prince Victor Nitendra Narayan, played first-class cricket as well and went on to study Agriculture at Cornell University in New York and further trained in Cuba. Prince Victor was a gifted individual and a traveller who had served as a Bodyguard of the King-Emperor and in the course of his life, he even edited quite a few books. The youngest son, Prince Hitendra Narayan attended the University of Cambridge and later served in the Great War where he was injured on the Western Front. As a cricketer, he had a brief stint with Somerset, where he failed to live up to expectation for his First-Class performance, but for the amateur Somerset Stragglers team he scored a century in both innings of a drawn match and reached the nineties in both the innings in another match. Other than the famous 'Cooch Behar Boys', Maharaja Sir Nripendra Narayan was also father to Princess Sukriti Devi, Princess Prativa Devi and Princess Sudhira Devi.  

Maharaja Sir Nripendra's was also a very experienced and respected Freemason who held the ranks of the Deputy District Grand Master of the District Grand Lodge of Bengal and the rank of Past Senior Grand Warden of the United Grand Lodge of England, being probably the first Indian or even first Asian to hold such senior Masonic ranks.  There were some negative sides to his personality as well which often hurt his finances and that of his state.

A penchant for flamboyance, horse races, frequent foreign travels, extravagant expenditure and motor car purchases did leave him in debt for a time but on the brighter side, it was to the limit that it could be eventually managed and repaid, unlike some other princes whose expenses bankrupted their states to a great extent.  The beloved monarch breathed his last in Bexhill-on-Sea on the 18th of September, 1911 after a phase of illness.

He was honoured with a military funeral in England where his procession was led by his four beloved sons in their respective uniforms of Westminster Dragoons and Imperial Cadet Corps. A perfect send off to a man in a country which he probably loved most after his native land and thus ended the adventurous life of a prince who was way ahead of his time. 

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