HRH Shri Sir Nripendra Narayan, Maharaja of Cooch Behar (1862-1911), succeeded to the throne of the West Bengali state as a ten-month old baby. His father Narendra had been an archetypal drunken playboy with a harem of wives and concubines who vied with each other to serve as regent for the infant Maharaja. But the British intervened and appointed Sir John Kneller as the Maharaja’s guardian and tutor; instilling in him a lifelong devotion to English manners, culture and clothing.
When Sir John decided that the Maharaja should be removed from the influence of the Cooch Behar Ranis including his scheming grandmother and stepmother, he was sent to England to study. Before he left Cooch Behar, the Maharaja was married to Sunity Devi, eldest daughter of the Bengali religious reformer Keshub Chunder Sen. Immediately after the wedding, the Maharaja commenced a two-year tour of Europe without his bride. The marriage would not prove to be a happy one. Princess Daisy of Pless, for whom the Maharaja had an unrequited passion, called the Maharani ‘the most disconcerted woman I have ever met. She watches him like a cat, is madly jealous and tells everyone nasty things about him’.
The Maharani described her husband as ‘the proudest of men (but) his simplicity was such that be believed his joie de vivre would pass unnoticed and that he might be allowed to live as a man and not a Maharaja’. The Anglophile Maharaja was popular with the Raj administration and was celebrated at the Court of St. James’s as the beau ideal of an Indian Prince. The Maharani bore her husband four sons all of whom were sent to study at Eton.
The Maharaja was equally popular with the people of Cooch Behar who admired the young man’s commitment to modernising the State. He funded colleges, built a railway network, laid down roads and created a modern capital city complete with schools, hospitals, a courthouse and a prison. He built an Italianate palace modelled on St Peter’s in Rome with a swimming pool, tennis courts, polo ground and a nine-hole golf course. The Maharaja was a generous host, a crack shot, a skilled polo player and famed big game hunter.
When the Maharaja and Maharani visited England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 they were received at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and dined with the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Maharani and Princess Alexandra formed a firm friendship perhaps as a consequence of their woefully unfaithful husbands. The Maharaja wasn’t without his critics. Viceroy Lord Curzon called him ‘the spoilt child of the British Royal Family’ and criticised the decision to send his sons to Eton saying ‘the Cooch Behar boys were too English’. The heir Rajey developed a taste for champagne that would eventually kill him.
The Maharaja was evidently a charmer as Princess Daisy of Pless’s memoirs recount when she describes a visit to the Royal Palace in Cooch Behar. The Princess writes ‘the Maharaja calls me Lady Eve as Eve was the first woman who tempted man…He told me “I love you better than anything or anyone in the whole world. I am leading a double life which I hate and which makes me sometimes feel mad”’. The Maharaja was thirty-three at the time. By 1909 the Maharaja and Maharani were living separate lives.
The Maharaja died in England at Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex in 1911 from complications due to pneumonia. King George V gave him a royal funeral with full military honours. He was surrounded by his family including the Maharani. His heir Rajey dedicated a fountain to the Maharaja’s memory in Bexhill in 1913 (the year when Rajey would also die) applauding his efforts to ‘bring the East and West together and bring the little known state of Cooch Behar into such prominence’.