Bhubaneswar: On November 30, the last tenuous thread to princely India snapped with not so much as a sound, when on a bamboo cot in a derelict hut 95-year-old Brajraj Khyatriya Birabara Champati Singh Mohapatra, passed away. A king had departed.
Living in relative obscurity, Brajraj was the last living king of British India. His “kingdom” was Tigiria, in Cuttack district, 60km from Bhubaneswar. Brajraj’s death ended the dynasty his forefathers from Rajasthan had established in 1246, in the hilly and heavily forested Tigiria.
At his deathbed, surrounded by adoring ‘subjects’, the king’s last wish was that Rs 10 be collected from the people of Purana Tigiria — his last and smallest circle of influence — to cremate him at the place of his death. To the villagers, he was more paternal than royal. “He would rather be called aaja (grandpa) than raja,” says Hemant Das, a retired bureaucrat and local resident.
Brajraj was flamboyant, but kind-hearted and generous. In fact, he continued being generous even he had little to give away. Much before his death he had become bankrupt and relied on the beneficence of the villagers.
He set up a hut on a hillock and got himself a rickshaw to take him from village to village. “Wherever he went, people received him with respect. They offered him part of their rations,” says academician and local resident Monoranjan Mohanty, “He would not take more than he required. He was a rare personality and we will build a memorial in his honour.”
Yet, he cut a noteworthy figure. An alumnus of Rajkumar College in Raipur, Brajraj wrote extensively for magazines. He received an yearly honorarium of Rs 50,000 a year from the college — he was a liftime member of its governing body. This money he dispersed among the needy.
His generosity was in keeping with the tradition of Tigiria kings. The state, spread over just nine square miles, did not even have a real jail. There was a symbolic jail, a small roof with four pillars without walls. The highest punishment was rejection by the king, who would, after conviction, not speak to the guilty.
“Tigiria, thanks to the good governance of its kings, had a high population density,” says columnist and author Subash Patnaik quoting from the book Feudatory States of Odisha by L E B Cobden-Ramsay. “The royal family is also credited with scripting the Abhinaya Darpan Prakash — the grammar of Odishi dance, and Bira Sarbaswa, a scripture on warfare.”
The family occupied a special place in history also because of its role in saving the three presiding deities at Jagannath temple, which was subject to frequent attacks by invaders. To safeguard the deities, the Gajapati king of Puri secretly transferred them to the remote and impenetrable Tigiria. The deities were kept at a riverside village for about 12 years and re-installed later at the Prasannamani temple in Tigiria.
Brajraj ascended the throne in 1943. He was all but dethroned in 1947 when he, along with 25 other heads of princely states of Odisha, signed the instrument of accession in the presence of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at Cuttack.
In his youth Brajraj was a hunter, and a motor enthusiast. “He purchased 56 vehicles,” says Mohanty. But with kingship and Privy Purse gone, Brajraj took to drink, and was eventually estranged from his family. “From the ’60s, the king and queen Rani Rasamani Devi, with her six children, lived separately,” says Mohanty.
Brajraj could have entered politics like other royals, but post-Emergency when chief minister Biju Patnaik offered him a party ticket, he declined saying a king couldn’t beg for votes. Biju then made the queen a candidate and she won. By this time Brajraj had turned into a loner. He started selling his properties: the palace, spread over four acres of land, he sold to the state government in 1960 for a paltry Rs 75,000 on condition that a girls’ high school be established there. “I know I’m being swindled, but it is the state’s property after all,” Subash Patnaik recalls the king telling him.