The Khandavala dynasty of zamindars, were rulers of vast territories that were part of the Mithila region, now divided between India and Nepal. Their territory grew from strength to strength till they were the country's largest zamindars.
Popularly referred to as Raj Darbhanga, they ruled from 1577 till India's Independence in 1947.
Today Darbhanga is a modern city, with a large number of splendid palaces that have been donated to and converted into educational institutions. While some of the structures are slowly disintegrating, the Fort at Darbhanga with a number of palaces and the Darbhanga Palace in Patna are well worth a visit. The latter is among India's largest palaces with a well maintained ghat that runs the entire length of the Palace with steps along the river bank.
The town of Darbhanga was the core from which they ruled the Mithila. As a patron of the Maithili language the ruling Raja was the head of the Maithil Mahasabha (a writer's organisation) that played a prominent role in the revival of both language and literature. The language spoken in the region was Mithili and the family has been totally committed to ensure that Mithila is learnt and spoken in the region. In fact, one of their splendid palaces has been reserved only for the study of Mithili.
The Darbhanga royal family has often faced questions about their royal status. While supporters say Raj Darbhanga was a kingdom, others argue that it was held by the privy council and that the rulership was a hereditary one with succession. The fact is that by the end of the 18th century, the Raja of Darhanga and family, were the largest landowners in India and the area was practically an independent kingdom until the conquest of Bengal and Bihar by the British. It was because of this that they were called Raja, and later Maharaja and Maharajadhiraja.
Mughal Emperor Akbar who ruled from 1556 to 1605, realised that the tax from Mithila could only be collected if there was a king who could ensure peace in the region. He summoned Rajpandit Chandrapati Thakur to Delhi and asked him to name one of his sons who could be made caretaker and tax collector for his lands in Mithila. Chandrapati Thakur named his middle son, Mahesh Thakur, and Akbar declared Mahesh Thakur as the caretaker of Mithila on the next auspicious day - Ram Navami in 1577 AD.
The family and descendants of Mahesh Thakur gradually became more and more powerful in social, agrarian and political matters and were regarded as kings of Madhubani. From 1762, Darbhanga became the seat of power on the Raj Dharbanga family. By then they had already built a palace at Bihar's Rajnagar which lies in Madhubani District. They bought land from the locals and began to be known as a ï¿½Khandavala' family or ï¿½The Richest Landlord'.
Though their area of ownership was smaller than the area that they were originally granted, what they owned was quite substantial. However, the Khandavalas faced a significant reduction when the British Raj caused them to lose control of the territories that were in Nepal. One estimate suggests that when their rule came to an end, the territories comprised around 6,200 square kilometres (2,400 sq mi), with around 4500 villages. Towards the end of the 19th century, 47 percent of the cropped area of the Raj Darbhanga estate was being used for the cultivation of rice and three percent was used for indigo. The latter made the estate one of the most important centres in the region for this crop, till chemical dyes were introduced. After India's independence from British rule in 1947, the Government of India initiated several land reform actions and the Zamindari system, was abolished. Needless to say, the fortunes of Darbhanga Raj dwindled.
The biggest philanthropist among the Darbhanga rulers, was Maharaja Lakshmeshwar Singh Bahadur, who ruled from 1860 to 1898. As a tribute to him a statue by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, was installed at Dalhousie Square in Calcutta in 1904 - a really splendid sculpture that is worth seeing. Lakshmeshwar Singh was only two years old when his father passed away and Raj Darbhanga was placed under Ward of Court. He was the first Maharaja of Darbhanga to receive a western education from a British Tutor and took over Raj Darbhanga after his majority in 1879. Maharaja Lakshmeshwar Singh Bahadur devoted himself to public works and was recognised as one of the greatest nobles and philanthropists of India at that time. On 22 June 1897 he was made Knight Grand Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire.
Maharaja Rameshwar Singh Bahadur (1898 to 1929), was the younger brother of Lakshmeshwar Singh Bahadur. He was appointed to the Indian Civil Service. Since he died without an heir, Maharaja Kameshwar Singh Bahadur ruled from 1929 to India's Independence in 1947. He was the last ruler of Raj Darbhanga and died in 1960 without naming a successor.
Till the 1960s, when the last Maharaja of Darbhanga passed away, the family was also known for their splendid collection of jewels - a collection that was said to be better than that owned by the Nizam of Hyderabad. Many of these were internationally famous pieces and were purchased at jewellery auctions abroad. The word got around that the Darbhanga Raja and his family were the richest and soon after, it was heard that they had become bankers to a number of other royal families. When these loans could not settled payment was often made with a family heirloom.
Among the jewels in the jewellery collection, was the famous Naulakha Haar of Maratha Peshwa Bajirao 1. This is a long necklace of pearls, diamonds, rubies and emeralds and is considered as one of the most sought pieces of jewellery in the world. Bajirao called it ï¿½Naulaka', since he had paid nine lakhs in its making. The generations that followed after him added more jewels to the necklace, raising its worth to 90 lakhs.
Another splendid jewel in the collection was the ï¿½Great Moghul Emerald', the largest emerald in the world. It weighed 217 carats and was about 2 inches long. Among the pieces from abroad, the Darbhanga collection had in its possession Queen Marie Antoinette's necklace presented to her by the city of Paris at the time of her wedding and treasures from the Czar's of Russia. The biggest recorded sale of the Darbhanga collection was in 1967, when the most important pieces were sold to a jeweller of Mumbai.
(*Shona Adhikari is a travel columnist)