Maharaja Kameshwar singh of Darbhanga (1907-1962) wearing a fabulous diamond and emerald crown as well as several pearl and emerald necklaces
This is the story of Raj Darbhanga and its fabled jewels. The Maharajas of Darbhanga were the biggest zamindars in India owning more than 1400 sq miles of land as well as one of its biggest industrialists. Their annual income was a whopping 55 lakhs when tola of gold could be purchased for a few rupees. With such vast wealth brought by the zamindari, the Raj Darbhanga soon came to be known as “banker to the maharajas”. Less rich princes like Dumraon, Tekari , Cooch behar etc.... would all borrow money from Raj Darbhanga, some times even selling their great jewels. The Darbhanga family combed the whole world and assembled finest collection of Diamonds, Rubies, Sapphires etc.... as well as great historical pieces. Sadly, while very little is known about the entire collection, there are a few pieces which are quiet famous.
The most famous of the Darbhanga jewels was the “Naulakha Haar” of the Maratha Peshwas, a long necklace of pearls, diamonds and emeralds, considered to be one of the most fabulous necklaces in the world. It originally belonged to Peshwa Bajirao who acquired it for 9 lakhs. After him every generation of Peshwas added more jewels to it, making it worth 90 lakhs! After the revolt of 1857, Nanasaheb Peshwa took it with him to Nepal where it was sold to Rana Jung Bahadur for a pittance by Nana Saheb desperate for money. Another piece from the Peshwas was a remarkable single emerald three inches in length which Nana Saheb had mounted as a seal called “Shiromani”. The story of how these treasures fell in hands of the Darbhanga family is quiet interesting. After Jung Bahadur Rana, these jewels came in possession of Dhir Shamsher Rana. In 1901, Dhir Shamsher was forced to resign as Prime Minister and flee Nepal after a coup. Low on funds, he was forced to sell his jewels. His only condition was the jewels were to be sold within 24 hours and it had to be paid in cash. The only man rich enough to buy these jewels in cash was the Maharaja Rameshwar Singh of Darbhanga, and to Darbhanga these jewels came.
It would be very difficult to describe each historic piece in the Darbhanga collection and the interesting story behind it. So we shall restrict ourselves to the two most historic items , the Marie Antoinette necklace and the “Great Moghul” emerald. Marie Antoinette was the last Queen of France. On her wedding to the last king of France, she was presented a diamond and emerald necklace as a gift by the city of Paris. This extraordinary necklace was up for auction in 1930s. Maharaja Kameshwar Singh was known for collecting fabulous jewels known for their historic associations. Darbhanga family had purchased many treasures of the Czars of Russia when they were being auctioned at Leipzig as well. Kameshwar Singh acquired this necklace for a few lakhs and bought it to India where it remained till 1960s.
Maharaja Kameshwar Singh wearing the “Great Moghul Emerald” (next to the handle of the sword)
Another great jewel in the Darbhanga collection was the “Great Moghul” emerald. It is the largest carved emerald in the world. It weighed 217 carats and was roughly 2 inches long , 1.75 inches broad and half an inch in thickness. Originally thought to belong to Mughal emperors, it had verses from the koran carved on it. The story behind its acquisition goes as follows. In early 1900s, it belonged to the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. The Maharaja had taken a big loan from Darbhanga keeping the emerald as collateral. When the Maharaja of Cooch Behar’s secretary went to pay of the loan and take the emerald back, he was told by the Maharaja of Darbhanga “Any jewel that comes to Darbhanga is not allowed to leave it” and thus the emerald remained in Darbhanga.
Thus, was built up one of the greatest jewel collections in the world rivalling that of the Nizam of Hyderabad or the Shahs of Iran. This collection remained intact for around 100 years till the death of last Maharaja of Darbhanga, Kameshwar Singh in 1960s. The story of how these jewels left Darbhanga is as interesting as the story of their arrival. After the death of the last maharaja, there was property dispute between the maharani and maharaja’s nephews. A large part of the Darbhanga jewellery was sold in 1967 to Nanubhai Jewellers in Bombay. When famous New York Jeweller Van Cleef and Arpels heard of this sale, he sent a cable to Darbhanga Raj begging them to sell the treasures to him even offering double the money for what he called “Dholpur crown, Marie Antoinette Necklace, Nepal necklaces and other fabulous diamond and emerald pieces”. Arpels knew what he was talking about as Maharaja Kameshwar Singh had invited him in 1954 to make the inventory of his jewellery.
As the property dispute got worse, Patna High Court wanted to see the list of jewels kept in the Darbhanga Jawaharkhana. There was a register which listed each jewellery item in detail as well as what was there and what was taken out. The Maharanis would take out jewellery and return it back after use. It was found that the register of jewellery was “missing” as were the jewels of the family. On orders of the High court, the list of the Darbhanga Jewellery made by Van Cleef and Arpels in 1954 had to be invoked to see what was missing. However, no one knows what happened to the jewellery. Even today, many pieces from Darbhanga collection come up for auction in London or Paris. In September 2001, the “Great Mogul” Emerald was sold at Christie’s in London for 11 Crore. These fabulous reminders of the glory of a great bihari family scattered around the world. A part of Bihar’s heritage lost for ever.......
By Akshay Chavan