Did the Peshwa land up in Nepal, or was he living in Bhutan in the court of Druk Desi Jigme Namgyal?
Located at the centre of Bhutan, Trongsa Dzong is the largest fortress of the Himalayan country and the seat of the ruling Wangchuck dynasty. The sprawling, multi-layered fortress has a room called the “Pasha Raja’s zimchu”; it is one of the few rooms with an attached bathroom. An intricately carved ivory statue of Mahishasurmardini was found in this room.
“Pasha Raja” is the Bhutanese name for the 19th century Marathi leader Nana Saheb (1824-date of death uncertain), heir to the erstwhile Maratha kingdom and one of the key figures of the Revolt of 1857. The Bhutanese believe that Nana Saheb spent at least six years in their country after fleeing India. This remains an unknown chapter in the turbulent life of the Maratha hero.
Two years after the Revolt of 1857, the East India Company put a bounty of Rs.1 lakh on the head of Nana Saheb. Branded as a criminal leader of the mutiny, Nana Saheb took sanctuary in Nepal. The Nepalese Prime Minister, Jung Bahadur (1817-1877), was an ally of the British, but he provided Nana Saheb asylum after making a deal with him.
Known as the king of kings, Jung Bahadur Rana is described as ruthless but one who kept his word. He assisted the British in the siege of Lucknow by sending the Nusseree Battalion of Gurkha soldiers, which later became the famous 1st Gurkha Rifles. However, he did not give away Nana Saheb to the British.
For this favour, Jung Bahadur claimed not only Nana Saheb’s junior queen, Begum Kashi, but also took possession of the crown jewel. By one estimate, the crown jewel was worth Rs.50 lakh and included the famous naulakha haar, a necklace studded with flawless pearls, emeralds, and diamonds. Naulakha means 9 lakh, which is the initial cost at which the necklace was made by Peshwa Baji Rao I.
The Rs.1 lakh bounty on Nana Saheb’s head meant that Jung Bahadur had the upper hand. He conveniently valued the crown jewels at Rs.90,000. (However, the historian Perceval Landon places it at Rs.93,000.) This bought Nana Saheb three months of undisturbed stay in Nepal calculated at Rs.1,000 a day as fine.
In Bhutan, oral stories circulate about how Nana Saheb fled Nepal and took refuge in the court of Druk Desi Jigme Namgyal (1825-1881), the father of Bhutan’s first king. According to Bhutanese historians, Nana Saheb arrived at the Bhutanese court limping, having been shot in the leg in an earlier feud.
Trongsa Dzong’s caretaker, Sungkhop Karma, says that before Pasha Raja’s arrival in Trongsa, Lama Jangchub Tsongru (1817-1839), the root guru of Desi Jigme Namgyal, had prophesied his arrival by saying that a dark-complexioned man with a limp would come from the south and he would be helpful to Desi someday. Desi Jigme Namgyal took good care of the Raja and they gradually became close friends. Later on, during the Duar War (or Anglo-Bhutan War, fought between British India and Bhutan in 1864-1865), Pasha Raja provided Desi Jigme Namgyal crucial information about the British India outpost and the army base. Desi Jigme Namgyal was successful in capturing the outpost in 1865 in Deothang, where he shot the commander of the British India force.
However, the biography of Lama Jangchub Tsongru from 1859, Changchub Tsongru Kabum, makes no mention of the prophesy. Whatever the story, it is a fact that when Nana Saheb arrived in Bhutan, the Desi welcomed him and looked after him. It is said that Pasha Raja wore gho (Bhutan’s traditional dress for men), ate doma (paan), and spoke the national language.
While several books have been written on Nana Saheb’s Nepal sojourn, the period between 1859 and 1872 is mostly a blank. Nana Saheb’s open letter to Queen Victoria provides a clue to what was happening in these years, but being undated, it has added to the mystery.
- The Bhutanese believe that Nana Saheb spent at least six years in their country after fleeing India
- During the Duar War (fought between British India and Bhutan in 1864-1865), Pasha Raja or Nana Saheb provided Desi Jigme Namgyal, the father of Bhutan’s first king, crucial information about the British India outpost and the army base
- While several books have been written on Nana Saheb’s Nepal sojourn in 1859, the period between 1859 and 1872 is mostly a blank
- Whatever the stories, it is a fact that when Nana Saheb arrived in Bhutan, the Desi welcomed him and looked after him and they became good friends
Nana Saheb was the adopted son and heir of Baji Rao II (1755-1851), who was the 13th and last Peshwa of the Maratha empire. Born to Narayan Bhat and Ganga Bai as Nana Govind Dhondu Pant, Nana Saheb was adopted at the age of three. As the Peshwa’s heir, he received a good education. He is said to have been religious-minded and a brilliant billiards player.
Baji Rao II was defeated by the British in the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1819), which brought the Maratha empire, and almost the whole of India, under the rule of the East India Company. Baji Rao agreed to retire after the defeat in return for an estate in Bithoor (near Kanpur) and an annual pension. In 1851, after the death of Baji Rao II, Nana Saheb inherited his English-style country house with its handsome park and menagerie. However, the British refused to acknowledge him as the legal heir. When Nana Saheb’s appeals to the British to reclaim his title fell on deaf ears, he took up arms.
He led the rebellion in Kanpur during the Revolt. The journalist Atul Sethi writes: “When the revolt broke out, Nana Saheb initially sided with the British, offering assistance to General Wheeler, the commanding officer of the Kanpur garrison. However, when General Wheeler, along with his soldiers and their families, was escaping by boat from the Sati Chaura Ghat in Kanpur for Allahabad, Nana Saheb’s men attacked them, killing almost all the British men, women and children.”
The British retaliated by attacking Nana’s stronghold in Bithoor, razing it to the ground. The Marathi writer Manohar Malgonkar’s historical novel The Devil’s Wind is based on the life of Nana Saheb. Here it is stated that in 1859 Nana Saheb went on a “pilgrimage”: he fled to Nepal with 20,000 followers and a parade of elephants and lived there for the next 14 years.
The Devil’s Wind details Nana Saheb’s life and struggles in the Terai and his unpleasant dealings with Jung Bahadur. Malgonkar writes that during one monsoon Nana Saheb learnt about the deadly fever prevalent in the foothills in the rainy season and moved to Taklakot or Burang on the Tibetan border. It is possible that he learnt about Bhutan there.
“It is said that Pasha Raja wore gho (Bhutan’s traditional dress for men), ate doma (paan), and spoke the national language.”
When Nana Saheb’s brother contracted the fever and died in the Terai, Jung Bahadur received the ashes in Kathmandu, believing them to be the last remains of Nana Saheb, and deputed his priests to carry out the final rites in a grand manner before writing to the British Resident, Colonel Ramsay, about Nana’s death. The British were not convinced as Nana Saheb’s wife, Begum Kashi, still wore vermilion, the mark of a married Hindu woman, instead of dressing up in a white sari, which was customary for a widow. Nana Saheb was probably living in Butwal at this time, without Jung Bahadur’s knowledge. In India, a massive manhunt started for Nana Saheb, and his portrait drawn by one Beechy was widely circulated (the portrait was probably inauthentic and part of the British propaganda against India, but that is another story). Over the years, scores of Nana Saheb’s followers were cross-examined but to no avail.
The last years of Nana Saheb still remain a mystery. By some accounts, he passed away in Deukhuri in western Nepal. Others claim that he went to Constantinople.
The Devil’s Wind does not mention Nana Saheb’s connection with Bhutan since Malgonkar learnt about the episode after the book was published. He wrote in a letter dated May 30, 2009: “Jung Bahadur was a friend of the British and Nana Saheb did not like him nor trust him. So it is more than probable that he gifted him to Bhutan and it is from here that he sent the open letter to Queen Victoria.” Malgonkar admitted that the new revelation filled the historical gap.
Years after the Revolt of 1857, the British colonisers sent a so-called peace mission to Bhutan led by the administrator Ashley Eden (1831-1887) in 1863-64. Eden was forced by the Bhutanese to sign a treaty in 1864, and this led to the Duar Wars. Eden’s book, Political Mission to Bootan (1865), confirms the presence of an Indian man in the court of the Bhutanese ruler.
The book states: “He [Jigme Namgyal] placed himself entirely in the hands of a Hindostanee who had come into Bootan from Nipal shortly after the Mutiny…. He has also learned to speak Booteach, and he told our Sepoys that he was going on a Mission to Nepal and the North West Provinces to raise up a final crusade against the English. He spoke of the Begum in Nepal as his immediate superior; he is therefore probably a Lucknow man. He is a wiry, thin man with hair slightly streaked with grey, and about five feet seven inches in height; his hair was cropped close; he had a moustache but no beard. He was very bitter against our government.”
It is possible that Eden had been misled to believe that Nana Saheb was dead and the Indian man in Bhutan was a servant of Nepal’s Begum Kashi. With research, more facts might emerge about the Nana Saheb’s stay in Bhutan after the Revolt. It is a fascinating story that calls out for a detailed investigation.
Tshering Tashi is a writer of creative non-fiction, and co-director of Bhutan Echoes Literary Festival.