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A clan of warriors

Unlike the royals in Rajasthan, the Gaekwads, one of the wealthiest in the country, are not into tourism as yet. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM talks to the scion.

V. GANESAN

A view of the Laxmi Vilas ... the home of the Gaekwads

THE Laxmi Vilas, set in more than 600 acres, is an exclusive property — a palace that is entirely a home and not a hotel. Few people even in Baroda have been inside the sprawling park-like grounds dotted with sculptures, statues of beasts and enormous marble vases.

It is quite a long drive from the huge wrought iron gates, mounted with the royal emblem, to the portico. You can only gasp in astonishment as you step inside for the colourful frescoes in Italian style on the walls of the palace do not prepare you for the splendour within. Beautiful statuary, marble fountains, Moorish arcades and stained glass windows adorn the structure.

One of the largest and, perhaps the finest, specimen of Indo-Saracenic architecture in the country, the Laxmi Vilas is home to Ranjit Singh Pratap Singh Gaekwad, heir to one of the wealthiest princely houses in India.

(The palace is so vast that the late Fateh Singh Rao, the elder brother of Ranjit Singh is reported to have joked to an American writer that he used a scooter to visit the dining room, as it was a good two miles away!)

Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III (1875-1939) is a legend in the State and you hear his name mentioned frequently in this lovely city of banyan trees through which the Vishwamitra flows. The adopted son of Queen Jamnabai, he took Baroda to a wonderful era aided by the astute statesmanship of his chief minister, Diwan Madhav Rao.

Sayaji Rao began constructing the Laxmi Vilas Palace in 1878 naming it after his first wife, a princess of Tanjore. The dancers, whom the princess brought with her as part of the dowry, are said to be responsible for making Bharatanatyam popular in the North.

The Tanjore connection continues and a niece of Ranjit Singh is now married to the Prince of Tanjore. Her father and uncle guide this writer though the palace obviously happy to belong to such a distinguished lineage.

Though the Gaekwads fostered the arts with such care, "the saddle is the throne" is the motto of this warrior clan. In the 18th Century, when Maratha power was at its height, Khanderao Gaekwad — a general in Chatrapathi Sivaji's army — came to Gujarat to plunder Surat and the surrounding areas. His lieutenant Damaji Gaekwad aided him. The Mughals who had held sway here for more than 400 years found their power slowly crumbling. (The Mughals had vanquished the Hindu rulers who had flourished since the time of the Yadavas.)

Twenty years later, Damaji's nephew Pilaji became the founder of the house of Gaekwad, a dynasty that rose from strength to strength. The constant bickering for succession did not stem their steady rise in wealth and power.

Though an English Resident was appointed at the Court of Baroda in 1802, the rulers had a good equation with the British. The wealth of the family is legendary and stories abound of their priceless jewellery and works of art.

Heritage maintenance does not, however, seem to be a priority in Baroda. Compared to the royals of Rajasthan, the Baroda family is trailing way behind.

Family disputes over property seem to have taken a toll. Literature on the royal family and the architecture of the palaces is almost impossible to obtain.

At the Museum under Government control, dusty Egyptian artefacts, Greek sculptures and 18th Century Paithani textiles seem, in maintenance, to be quagmired in time. Not even the museum officials are aware of that wonderful contraption, the Delhi Bungalow, located on the premises.

A solid looking structure, it used to be dismantled and taken by the rulers to the Delhi durbars.

At the Kirti Mandir, precious paintings by Nandalal Bose and memorial busts are woken from their slumber by the eager old caretaker happy to show his treasures to the rare visitor.

The Lakshmi Vilas grounds are parched and barren, perhaps because of the perennial water problem in the city. The unique step well in the premises is overgrown with weeds. As you descend the steps of the unique Navlakhi Vav (the step well), searching vainly for a plaque that will tell you when it was built, you cannot help feeling that it would be good if a dynasty with such a rich history puts more heart into maintaining its heritage.

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