The Maharaja’s Well

Jun 9, 2021 0 comments

We think that charity always flows from the richer nations to the poorer ones, but sometimes it also flows the other way. When Ireland was starving during the potato famine in the 1840s, the Choctaw Nation of American Indians, despite being impoverished themselves and living in extreme hardship, donated an equivalent of $170 to the troubled nation. More recently, in the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the Masai tribe of Kenya sent 14 cows to the United States. Although these gifts, rather than being actually helpful, were simply tokens of goodwill and solidarity, there was one charity they really helped.

Maharaja’s Well

Maharajah's well. Photo: Andrew-M-Whitman/Flickr

In the mid-1800s, Edward Anderton Reade, a gentleman from Ipsden, in South Oxfordshire, when serving as the Governor of Benaras, struck a close friendship with the Maharaja of Benaras (now Varanasi), Ishree Pershad Narayan Singh. Reade would often tell the the Maharaja stories from the land he grew up in. One day, the conversation turned to water shortage problems and the frequent drought conditions in his home in Ipsden and the neighbouring parishes in the foothills of Chiltern Hills. Although the Thames run close by, the river is little more than a shallow stream at this place. Furthermore, the hills are dry and chalky, with very few springs that dry up in the summer months. During these long periods of drought, the people of the region relied on water collected in dirty ponds, or they needed to be fetched by hand from miles away.

One story in particular made a huge impact on the Maharaja. When Reade was a child, he came across a boy being beaten up by his mother for having stolen a drink of water in the village of Stoke Row, 3 miles from Ipsden. The story stayed with the Maharaja, and recalling how Mr. Reade had helped sunk a well in the village of Azamgarh, a few years previously, the Maharaja decided to return the favor by financing the construction of well in the parish of Stoke Row, where the incident occurred.

Maharaja of Benaras, Ishree Pershad Narayan Singh

Maharaja of Benaras, Ishree Pershad Narayan Singh.

The well, now known as the Maharaja’s Well, is 368 feet deep and 4 feet wide. It was dug entirely by hand under difficult and dangerous condition. To get to the water, workers had to dig through twenty-five feet of clay and gravel subsoil, followed by three hundred feet of chalk, interspersed with two layers of sand, each about eight foot deep. The sand layers were the most dangerous as they were susceptible to cave-ins. The final few feet consisted of a mixture of chalk and shells. The work took 14 months to complete. The Maharaja couldn’t travel aboard to see the work, but he kept track of the well’s progress through the photographs and information Reade sent him.

The well was surrounded by red brick base and iron columns leading up to an elaborate onion domed canopy topped by a gilded spear finial. A winding gear was installed to pull water, and this was adorned by a gold-painted elephant. In addition to the well, the Maharaja also planted a cherry orchard close to the well so that its upkeep could be funded from the sale of the fruit. An octagonal caretaker’s cottage was constructed next to the well, which has been a private home since 1999.

Maharaja’s Well

The caretaker’s cottage. Photo: Amateur with a Camera/Flickr

Maharaja’s Well

The gilded elephant decorating the winding mechanism of the well. Photo: Ukiws/Wikimedia Commons

The Maharaja continued to make additions and modifications to the well, which were inaugurated or commenced on special occasions. A footpath was completed at the maharajah's expense when the Marquis of Lorne married Princess Louise in 1871. In 1882, when Queen Victoria survived an assassination attempt, he funded a ration of free bread, tea and sugar, as well as lunch for the villagers.

The well served the community well for some seventy years until piped water arrived in the 1920s, and that sealed its fate. Use of the well declined and the well fell into disrepair.

The well was restored in 1964 on the occasion of its one hundredth anniversary. The centenary celebration and the restored well’s inauguration was attended by Prince Philip and representatives of the Maharaja. A vessel containing waters from the Ganges was brought in and poured into the well.

Maharaja’s Well

Maharajah's well. Photo: Andrew-M-Whitman/Flickr

The construction of the Maharajah’s Well in Stoke Row inspired many more charitable acts by wealthy Indians in Britain, including drinking fountains in London park and a more modest well constructed at Ipsden by Raja Deonarayan Singh. These acts of charity are testimony to the strange relationship between the British and Indian aristocracies in the mid-19th century. Less than a decade before the dedication of the Maharaja’s Well, India’s first war of independence broke out resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of British officers, civilians and Indian rebels. The massacre committed at Cawnpore was particularly cruel. More than a hundred British women and children were hacked to death by the rebels and their bodies thrown down a nearby well. Stoke Row’s well might thus seem like a peculiar choice of construction project to patronage, especially when the wounds of the massacre were still fresh.

Today, the Maharaja’s Well and the surrounding landscape with the orchard and the cottage is a site of heritage in Stoke Row.

# Vikas Pandey & Andrey Vladov, The maharajah and the well, BBC
# Leslie Wilson, The Maharajah's Well, The History Girls
# Ramya Sriram, A Little Bit of Varanasi in England: Why This Tiny Oxfordshire Village Has a Benares Grove, The Better India


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