Published: Friday, May 3, 2013

Heritage

A Prince Who Rose from the Dead

The Bhawal Palace.

The Bhawal Palace.

In the evening of his life, my grandfather the Rt. Hon’ble Sir C.Madhavan Nair, a former Chief Justice of the Madras High Court and erstwhile Member of the Privy Council (London) of undivided British India, was often prone to reminisce about cases that in his time had greatly exercised his mind. One such case was the fascinating story of Ramendranarayan Roy the second son of the Raja of Bhawal who along with his two brothers were heirs to almost half of what was then East Bengal.

Thirty-five kms away to the north of Dhaka city lies the Bhawal Estate. In 1704  the then Diwan of Bengal attempted to augment his revenue collection by turning non-paying assets into lucrative tax earning ones. He dispossessed many Mohammaden owners (Muslim Zamindars did not pay tax) of their properties and installed Hindus in their place. One such newly created Zamindar of Bhawal was Sri Krishna of Bajrayogini, his loyal assistant. Sri Krishna’s descendants  not only held uninterrupted sway for the next few centuries- till 1951 to be exact when the Zamindari system was finally abolished- but also added many more square lakh miles to their already extensive holdings. So much so, in spite of the Nawab of Dhaka who was headquartered in Dhaka, even the city of Dhaka and much of its surroundings at one time belonged to the Bhawal Raj. In 1901 the last great Zamindar of Bhawal, Raja Rajendranarayan Roy died leaving behind among others, three young sons. The sons quite unlike their father or their able ancestors apparently grew up wayward and morally corrupt.

And this is where our tale starts to unfold.

In 1909 when he was about 25 years old Ramendranarayan Roy, the Raja’s second son fell ill, reportedly with Syphilis. And along he went to Darjeeling with his wife Bibhabati Devi, her brother and a doctor for some quiet healing. But sadly almost immediately, he took ill and died. He was cremated there right away and his entourage came home.

And the matter should have ended there.

But one morning in 1920, eleven years to the day he had been cremated a man suddenly appeared. A man who much to everyone’s disbelief resembled Ramendranarayan in physique and appearance. He was first spotted in the once fashionable marina of Buckland Bund on the Buriganga in Dhaka. Covered in ash and locks matted he seemed to be a Sanyasi sitting in quiet meditation. Rumours began flying thick and fast. Whoever saw him was convinced it was the Prince of Bhawal-miraculously returned from the dead. But he only spoke rustic Hindi and knew little Bengali. He also seemed reluctant to confirm who he was. While Bibhabati Devi had in the meanwhile moved in with her brother, Ramendranarayan’s two brothers unable to sustain a life of continued and unabated moral turpitude had themselves died within a few years of each other. And since they were childless too, the Court of Wards had stepped in to administer the Estate on behalf of the widows. Life for the remaining Bhawal family had continued unhindered.

Soon at the instance of those who believed he was indeed Ramendranarayan, he turned up at Jaidebpur Rajbari the seat of the Bhawal Estate. Bibhabati Devi refused to meet him. She who could ideally have recognized him, immediately proclaimed him an imposter out to claim her dead husband’s inheritance. And the question was, if it indeed was him, then how could he who had been seen to have been cremated, rise from the dead?

While his body was being cremated he explained, a violent thunderstorm-later confirmed by witnesses- forced the pall bearers to run for cover, leaving him behind. He had then been found  by a sect of Naga sadhus-unconscious. He charged his wife and her brother(who had his eye on the Bhawal inheritance) along with the doctor with whom she was romantically involved, of having poisoned him. The sadhus managed to heal him, he stated, but in the process he lost his memory. He had not known who he was or where he belonged. And so for the past decade he had lived and travelled with the Sadhus. It was only now whilst travelling from Chittagong to Dhaka that he had decided to break off and settle himself in a corner of the Bund. Perhaps it was from a sense of familiarity.

Ramendranarayan Roy – the prince who came back from the dead.

Ramendranarayan Roy – the prince who came back from the dead.

Certain birthmarks and his memory when tested, though patchy, were actual enough to persuade many of the family including a sister, that it was indeed her dead brother. To his credit he even appeared to remember the name of his wet nurse and recognize some of the family’s retainers and tenants who were more than willing to confirm him as the second son. While many were convinced, his detractors among whom was the Court of Wards, were not. They continued to question his bonafides. They countered his claims by producing witnesses who  re-confirmed his cremation. And declaring him an imposter in a conspiracy propped up to claim the Bhawal inheritance, they refused to- legally- accept him.

So thus forced, he filed for reinstatement-against Bibhabati Devi and the Court of Wards- in the Judge’s Court Dhaka. The trial lasted three years, from 1933- 36.There were claims and counter claims. Witnesses were produced by both sides to corroborate and negate. Forged documents and false declarations were filed and dismissed. The rumour mill too had a field day. And all kinds of stories abounded. But physical attributes and birthmarks won the day and forensic data swung the verdict to find for the claimant.

But the Court of Wards appealed against the verdict and it went to the Calcutta High Court. There a three member bench of Sir Lodge, Biswas and Costello heard the case again and in 1940 once again found for him – this time- as the defendant. But it was a decision that went two to one. Two (Biswas and Costello) for and one (Lodge) against the reinstatement, creating more doubt than certainty. And Bibhabati Devi with the Court of Wards was not prepared to give up. They went up in appeal again – to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council London. A three member bench consisting of Lord Thankerton, Lord H.du Parcq and Sir Chettur Madhavan Nair heard the depositions. And finally dismissed the appeal and upheld the claims of the so called imposter- in 1946- 25 years from the day he had first appeared.

The mystery of the Sanyasi Prince continues to fire the imagination of the people. Even apparently those of the various Judges who had heard the case. The Uttam Kumar starrer “Sanyasi Raja’ ran to packed houses while Partha Chatterji‘s -very recent- extensively researched book on the ‘Princely Imposter’ also stokes its embers and fans its mystery.

And did the ‘Imposter Prince’ live happily ever after?

The same evening that he had won his verdict he went along to the Kali temple for ‘Thanksgiving’. On the way back he strangely suffered a massive stroke. Two days later he was dead.

Divine retribution?

Bibhabati Devi certainly thought so. She also apparently refused her -massive-inheritance from the Estate.

But it was also rumoured that he as a Sanyasi had mastered a special tantric art which enabled yogis to enter or leave their bodies whenever they chose to. The first time –through this practice-he was returned to life by the sadhus. But now having found retribution he himself had chosen to leave.

And truth being stranger than fiction, the mystery endures.

Today the Bhawal Estate is with the Board of Land Reforms, Government of Bangladesh.