x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The pull of a stately pleasure dome

A Victorian carriage built in 1825 to serve an Indian maharaja is the star lot at an auction of classic vehicles in England tomorrow.

Indian State Carriage from the Maharaja of Mysore. Picture courtesy of Historics at Brooklands
Indian State Carriage from the Maharaja of Mysore. Picture courtesy of Historics at Brooklands

A Victorian carriage built in 1825 to serve an Indian maharaja is the star lot at an auction of classic vehicles in England tomorrow. Steeped in the history of the Mysore state rulers and their opulent world, there is little doubt about its pulling power.

It would be fair to say that Lot 227 stands out, even among the eclectic collection of 100 rare vehicles going under the hammer tomorrow at Brooklands Museum in England.

For one thing, it pre-dates by more than a century the oldest of the cars being offered for sale by Historics at Brooklands, the specialist classic and sports car auctioneers, at the former Surrey racetrack: Lot 256 is a 1926 Model T Ford.

For another, the carriage, built in 1825 for the 22nd Wodiyar ruler of the ancient Indian kingdom of Mysore, is the only vehicle on sale for which the term horsepower has a literal meaning - although there is evidence that at times during its royal ownership it derived its propulsion not from horses, but from elephants.

But, most importantly, the carriage opens a window into the lost, opulent world of India's princely rulers and the twilight years of the royal clan that ruled Mysore from the 14th century until Indian independence in 1947, and speaks volumes about the conjoined histories of Great Britain and India, linked inextricably since the 17th century.

At Brooklands, where it will go under the hammer at 1pm GMT on Saturday, the carriage is in good company.

Collectors are expected to travel from far and wide for an auction that features such treasures as a 1965 Aston Martin DB5, a 1933 Bugatti Type 35 Grand Prix, a 1960 Mercedes-Benz 190SL and even a 1978 Land Rover commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence to be used by Queen Elizabeth in royal reviews and, as a result, with only 3,044 kilometres on the clock from new.

But for rarity and historical value, nothing compares with the state carriage of the maharaja of Mysore, which can add mystery to its list of attributes - quite how it found its way from India to Brooklands is not clear.

"The carriage was purchased some two years ago from the east of England," said the man who is now selling it, and who wishes to remain anonymous. "I stumbled across it by chance, and immediately knew it was very important. I was overwhelmed at the sheer size. It was very grand and imposing."

The "extraordinary carriage", he says, "is a reminder of the opulent world of the great maharajas". The dome, its most prominent feature, "owes its roots to Islamic architecture".

The provenance of the carriage is attested to by an unusual source: it features in a wall painting at Mysore Palace, which depicts it harnessed to an elephant. Dated to around 1825, it was a trinket of the court of Krishnaraja Wodiyar III, who ruled Mysore from 1799 to 1868.

It is known that the carriage was sold at auction in Australia in 1974, when it was acquired for a now-forgotten museum. Later, it was bought to the UK by a British dealer who saw it while on holiday in Australia, and it was exhibited at the Fine Arts Fair in London in 1991. After that, said the seller, "it changed hands and was forgotten about until I stumbled across it".

It is uncertain how and where the carriage came to be made for the maharaja, though it appears to have originated in England; fittingly, given Mysore's history of allegiance to the British crown. The maharaja and his descendants owed a great deal to the British, and they to them.

The rule of the Wodiyar clan in southwest India extended back to the 14th century, but not without interruption. For more than half the 18th century, its authority was usurped by Hyder Ali Khan, a hired soldier who served the royal family as commander-in-chief of their armies but then seized power for himself.

Hyder, aggressive and expansionist, naturally crossed swords with the equally acquisitive British, as did his son and successor, Tipu Sultan.

It wasn't until 1799, at the end of the fourth Anglo-Mysore war, that the British army finally overthrew the Hyder dynasty, killing Tipu at the siege of his capital, Srirangapatna, and returning the Wodiyar royal family to power.

It was a moment when the future hung in the balance for both Britain and India. Among the British officers wounded in the fight was Col Arthur Wellesley who, 16 years later as the newly created 1st Duke of Wellington, would go on to defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

Britain's military efforts in India at the time were, of course, in the interests of the British East India Company and Britain's exchequer. The "glorious and decisive victory" at Srirangapatna, in the words of the British government's Mysore Gazetteer, published in 1930, "placed the whole kingdom of Mysore, with all its resources, at the disposal of the British".

The British did not forget the martial abilities of Hyder Ali and his son, or the fact that a failure in overthrowing them may have affected the very course of British history in India.

Almost 60 years later, in The Story of Cawnpore - an 1859 memoir by one of only two survivors of a massacre of 1,000 British men, women and children of the Cawnpore garrison during the Indian mutiny in 1857 - Capt Mobray Thomson noted that the rebels were "split up into factions, under a diversity of incompetent chiefs". Had "a Hyder, or a Tipoo [sic] ... made his appearance among the sepoys, the possession of India as an appendage to the British Crown would, in all probability, have required a reconquest rather than the treading out the scattered embers of mutiny".

In 1799, in order to go about its profitable business in Mysore after the toppling of Tipu Sultan, the East India Company needed order, a state which long experience had taught it was best achieved with the support of a respected local authority.

On June 4, 1799, the marquis of Wellesley - governor-general of India and elder brother of the future duke of Wellington - wrote: "The restoration of a representative of the ancient family of the rajahs of Mysore ... [was] the most admirable basis on which any new settlement of the country can be rested."

For Wellesley, however, there were moral as well as pragmatic reasons for restoring the Wodiyars.

"If I were to look to moral considerations alone," he wrote," I should certainly on every principle of justice and humanity, as well as of attention to the welfare of the people, have been led to restore the heir of the ancient rajah of Mysore to that rank and dignity which were wrested from his ancestors by the usurpation of Hyder Ali."

He was keenly aware of the "long and cruel imprisonment which several branches of [the maharaja's] family have suffered, the persecution and murder of many of their adherents ... and the state of degradation and misery in which it has been the policy of these usurpers to retain the surviving descendants of their lawful sovereign".

So it came to pass that on June 30, 1799, His Highness Krishnaraja Wodiyar III was installed on the throne in the Fort of Mysore, which Wellesley had ordered renovated as "the most acceptable seat of the rajah's residence".

A month later, Wellesley wrote to the Court of the Directors of the East India Company, justifying his decision.

"Between the British government and this family an intercourse of friendship and kindness has subsisted, in the most desperate crisis of their adverse fortune, they had formed no connection with your enemies."

That friendship would continue. When the Indian Mutiny flared in 1857 - some 32 years after the maharaja's carriage had been created, perhaps as a gift from the British - Mysore remained one of the areas loyal to the distant crown. Indeed, reported the Mysore Gazetteer, "the safety of southern India was assured by the exemplary conduct of His Highness, who proved a firm friend of the British".

The maharaja himself expressed his fealty in a letter to Sir Mark Cubbon, the British commissioner of the state of Mysore.

"As I am protected by the British government, I consider my life and property as bound up in their own welfare and stability. You may, therefore, rest assured that as far as possible, I shall at all times be ready to render any assistance it may be in my power to afford."

Queen Victoria herself was apprised of the maharaja's support, and expressed her thanks. When in turn in 1859 it was announced that she had taken on the direct governance of her Indian territories as Empress, Krishnaraja Wodiyar III celebrated that "joyful intelligence" with a salute of 21 guns from the ramparts of Mysore Fort.

The fates of Britain and the Wodiyar dynasty would remain inextricably linked for the next 90 years. Just three more Wodiyar rulers would succeed Krishnaraja III.

The last, Sri Jaya Chamaraja Wodiyar XI, ascended the throne in 1940. His reign, and that of the British in the Subcontinent, ended with partition in 1947, when the ancient princely state of Mysore was absorbed into the new Union of India.

Mysore lived on as an Indian state until 1973, when it was renamed Karnataka. Today, the city of Mysore is second in size only to the state capital, Bangalore, and the palace of the maharajas is a tourist attraction.

This is the history bound up in the gilded carriage of Krishnaraja Wodiyar III - a history rich enough to make the expected sale price of between £70,000 and £100,000 (Dh410,000 to Dh584,000) seem a small price to pay.

Although "the elephant," said a spokesman for the auctioneers, Brooklands Historic, "is extra".

* You may register to bid via phone. For more information, go to www.historics.co.uk