I was at Vadodara recently on an audit assignment and took time out to visit the Gaekwad palace built by Sayajirao Gaekwad III. It is called the Lakshmi Vilas Palace, construction of which took 12 years and completed in 1892. Moving through the palace precincts was an enchanting experience and it made a statement about the man who built it. Apparently a lot of personal and state wealth would have gone into its construction but one gets the feel that the man behind it always had his people in mind. The palace was built by Europeans architects and designers but the structure is a combination of Asian and Western motifs representing the major religions in India; Islam, Hindu and Christianity. Going through the Porch, Entrance, Reception Room, Weapons Room, Coronation Room, Durbar Hall, etc., I somehow became very curious about the personality of the Maharaja and searched about him on the net. Information that was thrown up told a fascinating story and which I shall try to keep short and simple.
The Gaekwads were primarily Marathas from the Maharashtra region and the name meant people who herd cows for a living. Following the death of Sir Khanderao Gaekwad the popular Maharaja of Baroda, in 1870, his brother Malharrao who was a gross tyrant and cruel character and had been imprisoned earlier for conspiring to assassinate Khanderao was prevented from succeeding him. Khanderao's widow, Maharani Jamnabai was already pregnant with a posthumous child; the succession was delayed until the gender of the child could be proven. The child proved to be a daughter, and so Malharrao ascended the throne. However very soon Malharrao for his misdeeds was deposed by the Secretary of State for British India and exiled to Madras, where he died in obscurity. With the throne of Baroda now vacant, Maharani Jamnabai called on the heads of the extended branches of the Gaekwad dynasty to come to Baroda and present themselves and their sons in order to decide upon a successor.
Shri Sayajirao Gaekwad was born at Kavlana as Shrimant Gopalrao Gaekwad on the 10 March 1863. His branch of the Gaekwad dynasty was a cadet branch descended from a morganatic marriage of the first Raja of Baroda and so was not expected to succeed to the throne. His father Kashirao and his three sons presented themselves to Jamnabai where Gopalrao unhesitatingly stated "I have come here to rule". He was selected by the British Government as successor and was accordingly adopted by Maharani Jamnabai. He was also given a new name, Sayajirao. He was the Maharaja of Baroda State from 1875 to 1939. Young Sayaji was hardly 12 years old at that time and was groomed in administrative skills by Sir T. Madhava Rao and an English gentleman F. A. H. Elliot under whose able guidance he became a great statesman, educator, and ruler with foresight and with a will to provide welfare to his people and is notably remembered for reforming much of his state during his rule.
The list of his exceptional economic and social contribution is very long and a few can only be highlighted here. Sayajirao was the first Indian ruler to introduce, in 1906, compulsory and free primary education in his state, placing his territory far in advance of contemporary British India. His economic development initiatives included playing a key role in the development of Baroda's textile industry, founding of the Bank of Baroda which still exists and is one of India's leading banks. During his reign a large narrow gauge railway network was set up in Baroda State with Dabhoi at its focal point. Sayajirao envisioned a water supply scheme for Baroda in 1892 at Ajwa that would use gravity to supply drinking water to the people of Baroda and is still in use to this day. The large public park originally called Kamati Baug and now called Sayaji Baug was his gift to the City of Baroda. On the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of his accession to the throne, he set apart large funds out of his personal as well as of the state funds for setting up a University in Baroda for the benefit of students from the rural areas of his state. He recognised talent from among his people and supported education and training of persons who in his opinion would shine in life. Those persons whom he patronised included Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Dadabhai Naoroji, and Sri Aurobindo. The Maharaja was a noted patron of the arts. During his reign, Baroda became a hub for artists and scholars. The celebrated painter, Raja Ravi Varma, was among those who spent substantial periods of time at his court. Sayajirao was also a patron of Indian classical music. Ustad Moula Bux founded the Academy of Indian Music under his patronage. This Academy is now the Faculty of Performing Arts of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara. Apart from Ustad Moula Bux, Sayajirao’s court boasted great artistes like Ustad Inayat Khan and Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. In 1914, the first All India Music Conference was held in Baroda. He built a rich public library, banned child marriage, worked on removal of untouchability and introduced legislation on divorce. He identified himself with the people and shaped their cosmopolitan attitude and progressive, reformist zeal.
Sayajirao was a man of wisdom and foresight coupled with wealth and power. He was an exceptional soul who understood the meaning of his own life and worked tirelessly for the betterment of his subjects. Knowing that he got his status through the benevolence of the British he refrained from entering the freedom struggle inspite of the fact that he was urged to do so by many. On a personal front Sayajirao initially married Chimnabai of Tanjore (Chimnabai I) on 6 January 1880, his first wife who died young from tuberculosis, and he remarried on 28 December 1885 another Maratha lady from Dewas, Shrimant Lakshmibai Mohite, who became Chimnabai II. Children from both his wives have maintained the dignity of the man and his legacy. After a long and eventful reign of 63 years, Sayajirao Gaekwad III died on 6 February 1939, one month shy of 76.