Representatives of royalty from around Europe and India were invited to London for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887 to celebrate 50 years of the monarch’s accession to the throne. Also invited were two Indian attendants to serve the queen. One of them, Abdul Karim, went on to become the queen’s Urdu teacher and, to the horror of the royal household, her confidant. Shrabani Basu’s account of the unusual relationship, Victoria and Abdul, has been adapted for the screen. Stephen Frears’s movie of the same name stars Judi Dench as the queen and Ali Fazal as Karim. Victoria and Abdul will be released in India on October 13.
The business of rounding up the Princes was no easy matter. Many Hindu Maharajahs were forbidden from travelling the seas – crossing the proverbial kala pani (dark waters) – by their religion. Others were eager to come, but were completely unsuitable. Telegrams flew between the Secretary of State at the India Office in Whitehall, the Viceroy’s office in Calcutta and the offices of the political agents in the princely states. The Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, sent detailed profiles of the Princes to Lord Cross, the Secretary of State, carefully weeding through the suitable candidates, cherry-picking those who would look handsome and elegant in their native clothes, could speak English fluently and would be reasonably at home in a Western environment. Balancing the three had proven quite a challenge.
Lord Cross issued instructions from London: ‘The Queen wishes them [the Princes] all to appear in Native costume. European costume would be distasteful.’
‘The elephant was given a pint of sherry’
The first of the Royal guests to arrive for the Jubilee were the highly recommended Maharajah and Maharani of Cooch Behar, one of the most westernised of Indian princely families. Cooch Behar was a tiny principality set in the north-eastern hills of Bengal, an idyllic paradise of tea plantations and game-rich forests full of rhinoceroses and tigers. The Maharajah, Nripendra Narayan, a dashing twenty-five-year-old, was a keen huntsman who had been educated in the elite Presidency College in Calcutta and tutored by English teachers. His wife, the beautiful twenty-two-year-old Sunity Devi, was the first Indian Maharani to visit the English Court. They travelled with their three children, Sunity’s two brothers, an English secretary and an entourage of servants, and received a rousing welcome.
Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, the Maharajah of Baroda, arrived a few months later – with his wife Chimnabai. Baroda in western India, in modern-day Gujarat, was a wealthy state and the Gaekwads were a fierce and proud Maratha clan.
The Gaekwads were as traditional as the Cooch Behars were westernised. Though Sayaji Rao was well versed in English and spoke four languages, including Urdu, Marathi and Gujarati, he preferred to retain his traditional Indian clothes and customs. He wore heavily brocaded tunics, angarakhas, stitched in the western Indian cities of Ahmedabad or Surat, both famed for their textile centres. He was rarely without his trademark three-string pearls. On his head was the small cap-like turban favoured by the Maratha rulers. The enigmatic Chimnabai, an accomplished veena player, was as comfortable in the kitchen as she was hunting tigers and was an active campaigner for women’s emancipation. The family treasures included the exquisite Pearl Carpet, a silk and deer-skin carpet embellished with over 2 million pearls and studded with diamonds, emeralds and rubies with four solid gold weights in the corners. Sayaji Rao’s elephant famously had a howdah cast in solid, jewel-encrusted gold. It needed twenty-four men to lift the howdah onto the elephant’s back. At the end of the day, the elephant was given a pint of sherry.
All the Maharajahs arrived in style with their retinue of secretaries, servants and cooks. Some brought their cows with them, others their horses. The British found them sensational.
‘An Indian bazaar’
This Indian summer was well under way when Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh arrived at Windsor Castle, three days before the start of the Jubilee celebrations. On 18 June Dr Tyler had received a telegram saying that the Queen wished Karim and Buksh to be present at Windsor. As their carriage turned into Castle Hill they felt a sense of apprehension and excitement, looking up at the towering ramparts of their new home, so different from the familiar red sandstone forts of Agra, Delhi and Rajasthan. The Queen’s standard was fluttering in the light breeze from the Round Tower. In the quadrangle of the castle, usually guarded by the Queen’s troops in their livery of red coats and furry bearskin hats, was a group of Indian soldiers with long, wild beards and fiercely curled moustaches, impressive turbans and gilt-edged swords, their bronzed faces reflecting the rugged climes in which they had served. Their presence made Windsor Castle look more like an Indian bazaar than a slice of Berkshire.
The twelve Indian soldiers were the Queen’s newly arrived Escort for the Jubilee celebrations. The Queen had requested an Indian Escort earlier that year to demonstrate to the attendant ranks of European Royalty her position as Empress of India. She treasured this much-coveted title, given to her in 1876, more than any other, feeling it gave her and her family a rank now equal to the Emperors of Russia and Prussia. The Jubilee was the perfect occasion to put her Empire on display and the Indian guard made an impressive sight standing behind the Queen at all significant state functions, her black mourning clothes set against their splash of colour. But their effect was more than decorative. By choosing them as her Escort – the Queen’s closest source of protection – she had placed enormous trust in her Indian subjects and elevated them before the world’s eyes.
Karim and Buksh stood with Dr Tyler near Karim and Buksh stood with Dr Tyler near the dining room to await the Queen’s arrival. Soon they were to catch their first glimpse of Queen Victoria. They saw her – a commanding little figure in her mourning clothes and white veil – accompanied by the Duke of Connaught and Princess Beatrice. The Indian Escort stood to attention as she drifted past, inspecting them with a keen eye that noticed every miniscule detail of dress and comportment. As an officer bellowed a command, they extended their ornate swords for her inspection. She then moved over to talk briefly to some Indian Princes who were visiting the castle before walking towards the dining room.
As she walked up, Tyler knelt before her and Karim hastily did a salaam in oriental style. He then presented a nazar, or gift of a gold mohur, to the Queen on the palm of his hand. The Queen touched and remitted it, and moved over to talk to Tyler. The first brief meeting was over. ‘So ended my first interview with the Empress of India,’ wrote Karim.
When Karim kissed the Queen’s feet
For her grand Jubilee dinner, the Queen wore a dress with the rose, thistle and shamrock embroidered in silver with large diamonds. The King of Denmark led her in and proposed the toast to her health. The Queen invited most of the Indian Princes to a reception after dinner and spent some time chatting with them, accepting their congratulations and enquiring that they were comfortable and well. The Queen had always admired the jewellery the Maharajahs wore with such ease and style. She herself always wore her biggest diamonds and pearls when she was meeting Eastern Royalty so as not to be outdone. She had once met the Shah of Persia wearing her Koh-i-Noor after hearing that he always wore exquisite jewellery.
Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh – the Queen’s Jubilee presents from India – had arrived early to wait at table. The breakfast room at Frogmore, a somber place at most times, seemed to come alive with the new arrivals. Buksh’s practised elegance matched Karim’s naturally regal presence. Their clothes made them look almost princely. The Queen was delighted. Dressed in striking scarlet tunics with white turbans, they approached her reverentially. The Queen noted Mohammed Buksh’s appearance, ‘very dark with a very smiling expression’. She described the much younger Abdul Karim as ‘much lighter, tall and with a fine serious countenance’. Both servants approached her slowly, their eyes lowered to gaze at the ground as they had been instructed to do. Then, with a deep bow, Karim and Buksh bent down to kiss the Queen’s feet. As he rose, young Karim’s dark eyes fleetingly met the Queen’s gaze. Suddenly Victoria no longer felt as tired.
Excerpted with permission from Victoria and Abdul The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, Shrabani Basu, Bloomsbury.