I am writing this column with a heavy heart. I am saying this because the next few lines might just read like an obit to Shimla’s infamous Scandal Point. The lines tearing through the myth of the Maharaja of Patiala galloping away with a white damsel — the Viceroy’s daughter — on Shimla’s Ridge in 1893.
Though I’d love to cling on to this legend as much as anyone who has got pictures clicked at the Scandal point, the demi-official letters and notes which I came across at the British Library London might prove to be killjoys to a tale which has been passed from generation to generation with delight and pride.
There is no denying that the Maharaja of Patiala married an Irish woman during the same period as attributed to the Scandal Point episode. However, the entire scandal apparently took place in Patiala, thus rendering the Shimla tale to a mere fiction. The only connection being that the notes referring to the Maharaja’s marriage had been dispatched from the hill town. The first letter dates back to April 13,1893. It is written by one DE McCracken, Esq., assistant general superintendent, Thagi and Dakaiti department, and addressed to WJ Cuningham, Esq, deputy foreign secretary. The contents other than detailing the Maharaja’s wedding, point out the stir the matrimony had caused in the British government. “Strange news reaches us from Patiala. His highness the Maharaja of Patiala privately married Miss Florry Bryan, sister of Mr C Bryan, in his highness’s service, on the night of the 8th instant. The lady was first baptised according to the Sikh religion. Bhai Amolak Singh, a man of saintly character in Patiala performed the ceremony. The marriage was by the Hindu and Sikh ceremonies united, pandit and bhai both presiding. The bride’s name was changed to Harnam Kaur, and his highness the Maharaja left for Dholpur the same night,” reads the letter.
If the first letter reveals the details of the marriage, which had no galloping occurrence, a second dispatch is equally compelling as it divulges the “mem” fetish of the Maharaja. Written eight days later, on April 21, 1893, by surgeon lieutenant – Colonel AE Leithbridge, general superintendent of the same Thagi and Dakaiti department to Cuningham, the note is rather elaborate on what the Maharaja was up to.
The letter reads: “We now hear that the Maharaja seduced the elder sister first and when she was in the family way, he got her married to Mr Wallace (formerly private secretary to the Maharaja of Dholpur) by paying `20,000 as dowry. The younger sister was also in the family way by the Maharaja but had a miscarriage, after which he arranged to marry her.”
That the Maharaja, after all, was not a compulsive debauch and genuinely in love with the Irish lady and that the marriage was to change the Maharaja forever is revealed in the third dispatch by McCracken to Cuningham. Written on May 6, 1893, the note reads, “Yesterday I met my cousin, Moyle Field, who is in-charge of the Patiala canals and I asked him about the Patiala marriage. He said Miss F Bryan, whom the Maharaja just married, is a quiet, modest girl, “the only god one out of a bad lot, “as he expressed it. He says the Maharaja has been much attached to this girl for two years and that this is a marriage of affection.
She has great influence over the Maharaja and it is exercised altogether for his good, for he has given up drinking and a beginning has been made of getting rid of the rabble of parasites and blackguards who have hitherto surrounded the Maharaja. Fields thinks that if the Maharaja sticks to her and she is shown some countenance by the authorities, she will continue to exercise good influence on his highness. She will, of course, have many enemies, chief of whom will probably be the Rana of Dholpur, who has long preyed on his cousin. They are living in European fashion, and the Maharaja is on his best behaviour. The Owens and the Fields were present at the wedding and visited the bride as they thought it right to countenance her, more especially as she was using her influence with the Maharaja for good.”
These dispatches sorrowfully not only shift the entire drama and “masala” from Shimla to Patiala, but alter the outlook of how one will view Shimla’s Ridge from here on. Not so scandalous after all.
And, by the way, the Maharaja referred here is not the larger than life Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, but his father Maharaja Rajindra Singh.