Letter from England – The Maharajah’s Well, Oxfordshire
[Text and photos by Solveig Marina Bang]
A hundred and fifty years ago, on hearing that a thirsty child had been beaten for stealing a gulp of water from private land because communal ponds had dried up, the Maharaja of Benares (Varanasi) donated money towards the building of a well in the impoverished community. The needy boy was not in India but in the tiny village of Stoke Row in the Oxfordshire countryside.
Ishree, Maharaja of Benares, had heard of the child from his good friend, Oxfordshire native Edward Anderdon Reade, who worked as a civil servant in India for decades. Mr Reade had had a well sunk and a mango orchard planted in a local Indian community, and, in return, the Maharaja provided funds for a well and a cherry orchard in Stoke Row. The orchard was named Ishree Bagh and sales of cherries from the 101 trees were used to fund the well.
The well, which was dug by hand, is 112 metres deep, or about 2½ times the height of India Gate, and the bucket took 10 minutes to reach the bottom. The well’s machinery is painted a deep green and is topped by a golden elephant, and sheltered by a gilded dome on whose base are the words “His Highness The Maharajah of Benares. The well served the community for 75 years, usually yielding more than 2,000 litres of water daily.
Nearby, the former three-roomed well-keeper’s cottage – a tiny but distinctive octagonal building – is now a private home in a neat garden.
Having left India for the Oxfordshire countryside more than six months ago after five years in Delhi, I was delighted to find this well. Although no longer in use, it has been lovingly preserved and — as it is the well’s 150th anniversary – decorated in bunting the colours of the Indian flag and bedecked with garlands, ribbons, and messages from well-wishers.
One message reads, “Thank you to the Maharajah for our well”, and another, “Love to Stoke Row and India”.
[The author is a former Delhiwalla]
With love from the Maharajah
The diary of a (fictional) Victorian girl written in Khempore, India 1860):
“Papa is very very very busy with the maharajah most evenings. After his office work he goes to The Retreat and they spend hours poring over maps and plans. Apparently the maharajah wants to get a well dug as a present for the people of a village in the Chilterns in Berkshire. They have no water in summer when the well runs dry. Then the ladies of the village have to walk two miles carrying buckets home for their washing and cooking.
Miss Symonds (the governess) was sniffy about it. She is advanced in her thinking. Papa told me her brother is a Darwinian in England. Miss S. thinks if the maharajah wants to spend his fortune he should look to his own people…”
This is a quote from “Indian Summer” (Walker, 2009) by Pratima Mitchell- a children’s book.
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