walk a-musing

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Maharaja's Well


Last week, while sorting out new donations at the charity book shop, I came across a small 12 page booklet titled "The Maharaja's well". There was a photograph on the front page of a mantap presumably with a well in the middle and the address below said 'Stoke Row, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire'. Most curious! I couldnt help read through a few pages before I continued with my work.

Here is the story I gathered from the booklet and later, some quick web search. In 1850, the son of an English country squire while chatting with the Maharaja of Benaras told him the story of a small boy in the village of Stoke Row who was beaten by his mother for drinking up the last of the water in the house during a time of draught. The Maharaja was so moved that he commissioned the digging of a huge well in the village. Water from the well was to be free for the villagers like it is in Indian villages. Also, the well would have to be maintained from the money raised by fruits grown in the village (which I believe used to be the practice in India. I was not aware of that) . To this end he donated enough money to buy a few acres of land and grow cherries, and also maintain a well keeper, for whom a cottage was also built.
It was a huge feat of engineering because the well is 368ft deep (a little more than the height of St. Paul’s Cathedral). The main superstructure is about 23ft high and is topped by a gilded dome. There are many glass lenses fitted into the dome to allow light through to show the water line. Underneath is the winding machinery and a decorative elephant added some time later. A fw years later, a couple of other Rajas who did not want to be outdone commissioned more wells one of which is the drinking fountain in Hyde Park near the Marble Arch. There are more tidbits in the booklet about how the Maharaja insisted that the well be inaugurated, an approach road built to it, etc, to mark various celebrations in The British royal family. There are also details of the expenditure - around 350 pounds for the well and about 75pounds for the cottage. Though the village is no longer dependent on the well for its water supply, the well is being maintained and has a few visitors. Money for its maintenance is raised by the sale of booklets one of which had reached me in the shop.
A multitude of thoughts came up in my mind when I read all this. An Indian Maharaja financing the digging of wells in an English village during British rule? And insisting that the British royal family be honoured on the occasion! How well were the people of Benares looked after by their king during this time? Was the Maharaja just a puppet trying to please his puppeteers? Or should we just look at it as a gesture of goodwill by a rich Maharaja and leave it at that?
Stoke Row is not too far from where I live. Perhaps I will visit it one day.

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