The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 27, 2002

The silver jars in which Ganges water
was taken to London
K. R. N. Swamy

The silver jars carried holy water with which the Maharaja of Jaipur washed himself after shaking hands with King Edward VII
The silver jars carried holy water with which the Maharaja of Jaipur washed himself after shaking hands with King Edward VII

NOW-a-days, whenever any VVIP visits a foreign land, he invariably carries his own drinking water and other beverages as a security measure and nobody takes umbrage at that. Hundred years ago, in 1902, the Maharaja of Jaipur carried two large silver urns (largest silver artifacts in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records) full of Ganges water to London, so that he, as one of the pillars of Hinduism, could avoid the penalties imposed by Hindu priests, for his crossing the ocean (Kalapani, as it is called). An atmosphere of old world theology surrounds this incident.

It happened thus. Few months after the demise of Queen Victoria in January, 1901, a select group of Indian maharajas received invitation from her successor, Edward VII, King-Emperor of India, to come to London and attend his coronation. While the chosen few were happy to be so invited, one of the most important of the invitees. His Highness, Maharaja Madho Singh of Jaipur, was in a dilemma. It was one of those periods, when the traditional Hindu community had not taken kindly to co-religionists cross the kalapani, as the oceans were called. The authoritative religious heads had decided, that the Hindu scriptures had banned its adherents travelling across seas and the Maharaja was not given any exemption. (It is important to note here that, even Mahatma Gandhi had faced a similar ban, after his return from London in the 1890s.

But flouting the invitation of his suzerain would have meant insolence and Madho Singh did not want to risk it. The worried ruler called a conclave of religious heads and after much discussion they decided that he could go to London for the coronation provided he travelled in a ship in which no beef had been cooked or served. They decided that he would go to London with idols of his family deity, everyday spread earth from Jaipur’s hallowed soil below the deities thrones and his bed to symbolise that they were on Indian soil. That he would take as his daily food, only the prasad I (religious food) that was offered to his family deity during the prayer sessions and would not drink any water other than Gangajal (Ganges water) during the two months he was to be away.

Greatly relieved the Maharaja of Jaipur ordered his court officials, to ensure that all these conditions would be observed during his travel to and sojourn in Great Britain.

The silversmiths of Jaipur were asked to make three huge silver jars, that could hold each 9000 litres of water. Meanwhile, the Maharaja’s travel agents were asked to charter a ship, in which no beef had been ever served. Knowing the western world’s taste for beef, this was a tall order. Happily for the Maharaja, the agents were lucky to get the passenger ship Olympia, which had just been completed and had not yet done a voyage. The to and fro chartering of the ship (including a wait in the UK for a month) cost the Jaipur ruler, a princely sum of Rs 1.5 million Rs 450 million in today’s money value) an he was to be the sole passenger in the ship.

Six luxurious suites were prepared in the ship. The first and the most lavish one was for the family deity of the Jaipur royal family, Gopalji, whose idols were to accompany the Maharaja. The second was for the ruler himself, the third one for the royal priest, the fourth suite was for one of the Maharaja’s close relative known as "Tazmi" Sardar and the other two suites for the different members of the group.

In the palace, the three silver jars, each weighing 357 kg were completed, by silversmiths Govind Narai and Mahadev. They measure 1.6 metres in height (nearly five feet and three inches) and have a circumference of 4.5 metres or 14 feet and 10 inches. Today, in 2002, the mere silver required for the urns would cost Rs 9 million. The ganges water, piously stored in the jars was for the exclusive use of the ruler, and for preparing prasad for the family deity. As each jar could hold 9000 litres of water, the 27000 litres were supposed to be sufficient for the two months the Maharaja would be away from India.

Two days before the departure from Bombay, a group of 25 Hindu priests were sent on board the ship and conducted religious ceremonies, in order to keep Varuna, the presiding deity of the ocean in Hindu religion, propitiated and symbolic gifts of pearls, diamonds and gold coins were ceremoniously dropped into the sea. Soon the three huge silver jars full of holy water and seventyfive tonnes of the Maharaja’s personal baggage were loaded in the steamer and the whole party started on their voyage to Britain. But at the Red Sea, days after the ship left Bombay, it encountered heavy storms and the agitated Brahmin priests advised the Maharaja that he should permit one of the huge silver jars to be dumped into the sea, to calm down Varuna, who, obviously was not happy to see such an important Hindu as the Maharaja crossing the oceans, in violation of Hindu scriptures. It was done and the seas calmed down. According to Sahai, the present Director of the Sawai Man Singh Museum in Jaipur, the coordinates of the place where the treasure was dumped to propitiate the ocean, have been recorded.

Anyhow the voyage ended without any further mishap and the British public, Jaipur chronicler claim, was puzzled at the Maharaja carrying these two huge jars and Edward VII even made a personal visit to see these treasures. Obviously the King-Emperor did not know that after shaking hands with him, the Maharaja felt "impure" and washed his hands with the holy water kept in the historic silver jars! Today, these two huge silver jars are on display in the Sawai Man Singh City Palace Museum, Jaipur, and are its star exhibits. MF