Raja of Aundh: The King Who Gave Away His Power

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    In the 1930s, an Indian Raja gave his subjects the ultimate gift – he stepped aside and handed over the reins of power to his people, so that they could set up a democracy in the princely state of Aundh, in Satara district in Maharashtra.

    But Bhawanrao Shrinivasrao Pant Pratinidhi was no ordinary ruler. Apart from being a visionary, he was a polymath who also developed the Surya Namaskar, one of the most popular Yoga exercises practised by millions around the world. While the origins of the Yoga asana sequence dates back to antiquity, what we currently follow was developed by him.

    Bhawanrao Shrinivasrao Pant Pratinidhi was also an athlete, a social reformer, an able administrator and an artist, and he left a legacy that endures to this day.

    Aundh State

    Not to be confused with Aundh in Pune, the territory in question was a small princely state, 41 km from Satara. The Rajas of Aundh held the title ‘Pant Pratinidhi’, a ministerial position in the cabinet in the Maratha Empire. The title, which was hereditary, literally meant ‘Representative’.

    The Pant Pratinidhi was not part of the Cabinet of the founder of the Maratha Empire, Chhatrapati Shivaji; the position was created during the time of Chhatrapati Rajaram (1689-1700 CE), when in the absence of the king, his 'representative' was designated to govern. This made the Pant Pratinidhi even more powerful than that of the Peshwa, or Prime Minister, for a while, at least.

    In the early 18th century, when the Maratha Empire witnessed a war of succession and split down the middle, the Pant Pratinidhi family too split. The elder brother, Shripatrao, loyal to Chhatrapati Shahu of Satara, became his Pant Pratinidhi, while the younger brother Krishnarao pledged loyalty to the Kolhapur royal house.

    Shripatrao was given Aundh as a jagir, and in time, the rulers of this jagir became known as the ‘Rajas of Aundh’. After political power passed to the Peshwa family, the position of Pant Pratinidhi was downgraded and equated with that of a local chieftain.

    In 1818, the British abolished the Peshwas’ rule and the princely state of Satara was given to the Chhatrapati. Aundh remained a jagir within the state of Satara, till the princely state was annexed by the British in 1849. After that, Aundh State became a princely state in its own right, as part of the Deccan States Agency of the Bombay Presidency.

    Bhawanrao Shriniwasrao Pant Pratinidhi

    Born in 1868, Bhawanrao Shriniwasrao Pant Pratinidhi, also known as Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi, was the last ruler of Aundh State. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Deccan College in Pune, which then came under the University of Bombay.

    Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi became the first President of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha. This was a forum of elected representatives of people in the Deccan, from all castes and creeds, and a precursor to the Indian National Congress in the region.

    He was not the eldest son and hence not the first in line to the throne of Aundh. In fact, he and his family were forced to leave their ancestral home when his elder brother Raja Parashuramrao aka Dadasaheb ascended the throne. But his excellent diplomacy with the British paid off, when he was invited to become the Raja of Aundh in 1909, when his nephew was deposed on grounds of misconduct.

    Athlete & Developer of Surya Namaskar

    Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi was an athlete and is credited with developing the Surya Namaskar in its present form. While the origin of the Surya Namaskar is believed to date back to Vedic times, it has evolved over the centuries.

    In the book Surya Namaskar – An Expression of Gratitude to Life (2011), Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani writes about three types of Vedic Surya Namaskar, two types of Aruna Surya Namaskar, and Maha Sauri Surya Namaskar.

    Krzysztof Stec in his book Dynamic Suryanamaskar (2012) explains how and why the athlete-king of Aundh developed this exercise. As a wrestler, Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi had studied physical exercises and read books on the subject. After practising the Surya Namaskar for years, he felt that his body was getting lighter, his mind was becoming blissful, and he felt youthful. He was free of all ailments and fever for 17 years. So he decided to understand this exercise and began to research it.

    Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi made the exercise a compulsory part of the physical training programme in his state and educated the people of his state and beyond about its importance.

    In a statement in February 1927, he had said,

    I don’t believe in over-muscled men. I believe in the harmonious development of the entire body. It is much more important to see 10,000 men, women and children go through a series of carefully planned exercises than to watch some professional athlete beat the world’s record in some useless attainment by one-tenth of a second.

    Artist & Patron of Art

    Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi was an artist and he sketched scenes from the Ramayana for a project called Chitra Ramayana. According to the research paper The Museum at Aundh: Reflecting on Citizenship and the Art Museum in the Colony (2017) by Deepti Mulgund, the Raja had read Valmiki’s Ramayana seven times because he wanted to depict an authentic version of the text and find actual visual references for ornaments and clothing styles.

    He also collected art from around the world and wanted to make it accessible to his people. So he established the Shri Bhavani Museum and Library in 1938. Built to international standards, the museum’s collection includes articles of sandalwood and ivory, miniature paintings of major schools as well as Western paintings, modern paintings, valuable ornaments and a diamond collection.

    The museum has more than 8,000 articles and 16,000 books, which include 3,500 handwritten holy books. The Shri Bhavani Museum is one of 13 state museums in Maharashtra and is administered by the state government.

    Aundh Experiment

    The ‘Aundh Experiment’ has gone down in Indian history as a test of village-level self-government, which literally placed power in the hands of the people. It has its genesis in a trip taken by Appasaheb Pant, son of Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi, to Bangalore.

    An activist of India's freedom movement and a Gandhian, Appasaheb met Maurice Frydman, a Polish Jew who was an electrical engineer in the Mysore State. Appasaheb and Frydman discussed ways to implement a Constitution in Aundh. Frydman gave up his job in Mysore and became an advisor to Aundh, where he framed a charter for a democratic set-up in the state. The very next month, Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi met Mahatma Gandhi and told him of his decision to turn his state into a democracy. Gandhi, a staunch advocate of village self-governance, was very pleased with this decision and he himself wrote the draft of the Constitution for Aundh.

    A glimpse into this constitutional frameworkcanbe gained from Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Constitution (2016) by Narendra Chapalgaonker. Called the Swaraj Constitution, it granted citizens fundamental rights. The Legislature had the right to decide the powers of the monarch. It could not be dissolved, but one-third of its members would retire every year. The Legislature would elect a Speaker and a Deputy Speaker, and Bills passed by the Legislature would then go to the king for assent to become a law.

    The king would also appoint a three-member Cabinet, which would include a Prime Minister. Similarly, villages in Aundh State were administered by councils or gram panchayats, which elected a sarpanch, or village head.

    Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi had given away his political powers via this Constitution and this became a problem for British paramountcy in the region as Aundh enjoyed sovereignty, albeit limited, under their treaty. It was only because of his good diplomatic relations with the British and friendship with the local British Resident that he saved himself from being deposed.

    The Constitution of Aundh took effect on 21st January 1939, and under this administration, Aundh became a debt-free state. Until the merger of the princely state with the Union of India in 1948, Aundh was administered according to this Constitution.

    Raja Balasaheb Bhawanrao Shrinivasrao Pant Pratinidhi also donated a town to Lakshmanrao Kirloskar to establish a factory there. Today, this town is known as Kirloskarwadi and it became the birthplace of what is now the Kirloskar Group, a multi-national company.

    Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi contributed to transforming India by different fields, whether art, physical exercise, industrialisation or socio-political reforms. His was a truly memorable reign.

    Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons

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