The long story of Jaipur jars

Treasured Heritage

Exquisite: The historic silver jar at the Jaipur City Palace.

Ancient India had a lot of artefacts made of silver. But in those days, the price of silver was very low, as low as one anna or six paisa a gram. In our temples and in the former royal palaces of the maharajas, we have quite a number of silver items weighing several kilos. But, of all these, the most famous and historic items are the three heavy water jugs — weight: 345 kg; height: five feet and three inches; circumference: nearly 15 feet; carrying capacity: 4,091 litres — that are now kept in the city palace of the maharajas of Jaipur. As per the Guinness Book of World Records, these are the heaviest silver artefacts in the world.

The Jaipur state archives reveal that these jugs or huge flasks were made in the year 1894, after two years of labour by the palace silversmiths. It is not known as to why these huge artefacts were made. Today, mere silver required for the three urns would cost Rs 50 million.  But, as it turned out, within six years of their creation, the royal family of Jaipur had an occasion to use it, and that too for a journey to the United Kingdom to attend the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902.

Following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, her son, King Edward VII, took over the British Empire. He decided to invite the most important of the Indian maharajas for his coronation and His Highness Maharaja Madho Singh of Jaipur was one of them. But this invitation threw up a religious dilemma for the Indian rulers, for those were the days when orthodox Hindus were not allowed to cross the ocean to reach Europe. The maharaja, as the head of the Hindu community in Jaipur, was told by his priests that he cannot be exempted from this religious diktat.

But, flouting the invitation of his suzerain would mean insolence, and HH Madho Singh did not want to risk the king’s wrath. The worried ruler called a conclave of religious heads and after much discussion they decided that he could go to London for the coronation, provided he travels in a ship in which no beef has ever been cooked or served, he takes the idols of his family deity with him, spreads earth from Jaipur’s hallowed soil below the deity’s throne and his bed everyday to symbolise that they were on Indian soil, eats only the prasad (religious offering) that was offered to his family deity during the prayer sessions, and finally, drinks nothing but Gangajal during his three months away from India. Greatly relieved, the maharaja ordered his court officials to make suitable arrangements to ensure that he is able to observe all these conditions during his travel to and sojourn in Great Britain.

 Here, the three huge silver jars kept in the Jaipur treasury were to be of great use as they could hold 900 gallons or 4,091 litres of water each.

Meanwhile, the maharaja’s travel agents were asked to charter a ship in which no beef had ever been cooked or served. Knowing the western world’s taste for beef, this was a tall order. Fortunately for the maharaja, the agents were lucky to get the passenger ship Olympia, which had just been completed and had not yet done a voyage. The to and fro chartering of the ship (including a wait in UK for a month) cost the Jaipur ruler a princely sum of Rs 1.5 million (Rs 750 million by today’s value) and he was to be the sole passenger on the ship!

Six luxurious suites were prepared in the ship. The first and the most lavish one was for the family deity of the Jaipur royal family, Gopalji, whose idols were to accompany the maharaja. The second suite was for the ruler himself, the third one for the royal priest, the fourth suite was for one of maharaja’s close relatives, known as ‘Tazmi’ Sardars, and the other two suites were for different members of the group. Ganga water, piously stored in the jars, was for the exclusive use of the ruler, and for preparing prasad for the family deity, and these 2,700 gallons were supposed to last for the three months’ period that the maharaja would be away from Jaipur. Two days before the departure from Bombay, a group of 25 Hindu priests were sent on board the ship to conduct religious ceremonies that would keep the presiding deity of the ocean, Lord Varuna, happy. During the propitiation, symbolic gifts of pearls, diamonds and gold coins were ceremoniously dropped into the sea. Soon after, the three huge silver jars full of holy water and 75 tonnes of the maharaja’s personal baggage were loaded into the steamer and the whole party started on their voyage to Britain.

A few days after leaving the shores of Bombay, on the Red Sea, the ship encountered heavy storms and the agitated Brahmin priests advised the maharaja to dump one of the three huge silver jars into the sea to calm down Varuna, who was obviously unhappy at seeing such an important Hindu as the maharaja crossing the oceans, in violation of Hindu scriptures. It was done and the seas calmed down.

According to  Sahai, the present director of the Sawai Man Singh Museum in Jaipur, the co-ordinates of the place where the treasure was dumped have been recorded.
The voyage ended without any further mishaps and the British were astounded to see such huge silver jars. In fact, according to Jaipur chroniclers, King Edward VII made a personal visit to the maharaja’s camp to see the two jars. Today, these two silver jars are the star exhibits on display at the Sawai Man Singh City Palace Museum in Jaipur.

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