The Lost Crown of Satara

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    Late one night, I was researching the treasures at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the US when I stumbled upon an exhibit that took my breath away. I was flipping through the museum’s bulky catalogue and, just like that, staring up at me, was the picture of a magnificent crown from halfway across the world.

    I knew, immediately, that this wasn’t just any royal headdress. The richness of it seemed to leap off the page. Studded with more than 200 diamonds, delicate light-catching emeralds that dripped from red silk, this was a pagdi or a royal turban from Satara in Maharashtra.

    But even though it looked spectacular, the tale attached to it is tragic. Rather than evoking memories of coronations and royal durbars, the pagdi was a marker of the end of the mighty Maratha empire founded by Chhatrapati Shivaji back in 1674 CE.

    Current Location: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, USA
    Period: Probably from the 1850s
    Dimensions: 28 cm in diameter

    -Made using red silk, pearls, diamonds, emeralds, silver and gold
    -223 diamonds with total estimated weight of 25 carats
    -17 large emeralds with total weight of 173 carats

    But, first, I had to ascertain the origins of the crown. The museum catalogue said the pagdi had come from a ‘Maratha court’ near Pune. In the medieval Deccan, Maratha headgear varied with each dynasty and closer study reveals the evolution of each style.

    The Peshwas were initially prime ministers of Chhatrapati Shivaji and later became the de facto rulers of the Maratha empire. This pagdi was not from the Peshwa period, whose rulers wore the typical ‘Puneri Pagadi’, which is still recognised in Maharashtra today.

    The pagdi in the catalogue was dated to the 1850s, and one can find similar examples in the Scindia (Shinde) court at Gwalior or in the Kolhapur darbar in Maharashtra. The photograph below shows one such example from Kolhapur.

    As you can see, the Kolhapur crown is different in some fundamental ways from the one I was researching. The emeralds are missing, so is the ‘sarpech’, the crown ornament with a diamond inlay.

    Finally, my detective work yielded an important breakthrough, which came from this painting. It was made in Satara, home to one of two royal lines that descended from Chhatrapati Shivaji. The painting shows a very similar pagadi worn by the Chhatrapati of Satara.

    The painting has two inscriptions. In Marathi, it reads: “श्री शाहू महाराज छत्रपती श्री प्रतापसिंह माहाराजयानीII कासी मुकामी दतक घेतलेल्याची तसवीर संस्थान सातारा” In English, it reads: “Shree Shahoo Maharaj Chhatrapati The adopted son of the late Maharajah Partap Singh of Sattara”

    In this enlarged view of the Chhatrapati’s face, you can easily see the resemblance between the pagdi in the American museum and the one in the painting. It is quite possible that the crown did originate in Satara.

    Through my contacts, I reached out to the Satara royal family, to seek more evidence on why the pagdi may belong to the Satara Chhatrapati. The family told me that the other crowns and family jewels in their possession have similar green emeralds in them. This supported the assumption that the pagdi in the catalogue may indeed be a lost crown of the Chhatrapatis of Satara.

    If that was indeed true, how did a royal head dress belonging to a king in Maharashtra in India end up in an American museum? Let’s trace the path the crown may have taken – and here is where the story takes a tragic twist.

    After Chhatrapati Shivaji’s grandson Shahu died, the Peshwas seized the reins of the Maratha empire, even though they retained the Chhatrapati of Satara as their titular head. The Chhatrapatis had no say in daily matters of state, no independence whatsoever, and had to follow the dictates of the Peshwa. The only consolation, if any, is that the Peshwas allotted a generous sum for the Chhatrapati’s personal expenses.

    The Chhatrapatis had no say in daily matters of state

    Peshwa Bajirao II was the last Peshwa and his capital was Pune. In 1817, he opened a military front at the Battle of Khadki, against the growing interference of the British in Maratha affairs. It ended unsuccessfully at Dhulkot in the summer of 1818, and Bajirao was forced to retire to Bithoor in North India, never to return to Maharashtra.

    After dismissing the Peshwa, the British opened negotiations with the Chhatrapati of Satara, Pratapsinh, who was the titular head of the Maratha state, and restored his rule under the guidance of the First Resident, Captain James Grant Duff.

    It was a painful quid pro quo for the king. The British slashed the sum allotted for his personal expenses and further curtailed his powers. Accordingly, the heir to the once mighty Maratha empire was barred from communicating with the outside world. He was unable to undertake even marriage negotiations and ceremonial exchanges outside his jurisdiction.

    In a last-ditch bid to regain his title, Pratapsinh sent Rango Bapuji Gupte as his ambassador to London

    What the Chhatrapati did enjoy was a couple of decades of peace and the relative independence to collect, grow and maintain the jewels, paintings and manuscripts in the family’s possession. Things took a turn for the worse in September 1839, and the British deposed Chhatrapati Pratapsinh from the throne of Satara and dispatched him to Banaras, where he stayed till his death in 1847.

    In the painting above, we can see a reference to Banaras (‘Kashi’ in Marathi) and Pratapsinh in the inscription along with his adopted son, Chhatrapati Shahu and his younger brother, Appasaheb Chhatrapati. In a last-ditch bid to regain his title, Pratapsinh sent Rango Bapuji Gupte as his ambassador to London, where he tried to overturn the dethronement in the courts.

    Gupte even appealed to the British Parliament, but in vain. After Pratapsinh’s death, the British did not recognise his adopted son as the ruler of Satara and the Satara state was annexed by the East India Company, under Lord Dalhousie’s ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ in 1848. They were allowed to keep their ‘Saranjam’ or private estates, which they own to this day.

    With the loss of their kingship, the Chhatrapatis also lost many treasures from their ample collections

    Now, enter a speculative and dark phase of history. With the loss of their kingship, the Chhatrapatis also lost many treasures from their ample collections. We can assume that many were sold for money, stolen or lost, based on what the purchasers have recorded. Few recognised the historical value of what they had bought and only a part of it was saved. Today, we can see a part of the Satara royal treasure in the Aurangabad University and Deccan College Museum in Pune.

    Now, back to our bejewelled crown and its mysterious journey across continents. We do not know the exact circumstances but, in time, the pagdi appeared to fall into English hands. It is presumed that a jeweller at Satara sold the crown to an English official, who eventually took it to England.

    The Kohinoor diamond is the most high-profile example of jewels that India lost to her colonial rulers but the truth is that a vast quantity of treasures, including jewels, valuable manuscripts and works of art, found their way from India to England before Indian independence in 1947. What people don’t know is that many of these treasures were later purchased by wealthy Americans, which is why museums in the United States have some fine collections of priceless Indian artifacts.

    One such little known museum in Richmond is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which bought the Satara pagdi through a New York art dealer who specialised in acquiring Indian antiquities. Today, it lies in the museum’s vaults, nursing its melancholy tale.


    Manoj Dani is an independent researcher of art history based in California and is currently working on classifying the art treasures of BISM, Pune.


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