Rajnagar : The Cradle of Modern Mithila

November 15, 2022 History Prasoon Raj
Rajnagar : The Cradle of Modern Mithila

Around 15 kilometers north-east to the bustling town-center of Madhubani in Bihar’s Mithila region, lies the rural block of Rajnagar. Well-connected through the national highways and railways networks, Rajnagar has about 60 villages and 2.5 lakh inhabitants. It also functions as an electoral constituency in the state assembly. Most of the families rely on agriculture, while some minor industries, including those based on Madhubani paintings provide livelihood to the people. What brings the tourists to this place is the photographic beauty of green lands, expansive orchids of mangoes, large ponds clad with lotus leaves (for makhana production), villages with painted houses and celebrity Madhubani artistes, some fish delicacies, and almost a century-old abandoned city of the kingdom of Darbhanga-Raj.

While Mithila and Madhubani trace their histories back to ancient times, through bouts of multiple civilizations, kingdoms and religions, the origins of the Darbhanga-Raj date back to the 1550s. In an interesting turn of change-of-powers, a celebrated Thakur family based out of Darbhanga in North-Bihar was awarded the Zamindari (land-ownership and tax-collection agreement from Mughal-era) of the Mithila or Tirhut province by Akbar, the erstwhile ruler of Mughal-India.1 By the time of the restructuring of the independent India’s tax systems in mid-20th century, Darbhanga was one of the largest and wealthiest Brahmin-ruled estates of the modern-era northern India.

Spread in an area around 6000 square kilometers, it covered most of the present-day Darbhanga and Madhubani districts (which were separated only in the year 1972) and even included parts of present-day Nepal. Although a large lot of their histories are unknown to the general public, the benevolence and intellectualism of the later monarchs of the dynasty are commonly quoted. With umpteen folklores and examples, from making large charities to their subjects, to enterprising industries in the region, contributing to the socio-political uplifting of the British-India, and taking keen interest in cultivating centers of language, literature, art, music, religion, and philosophy.



The Zamindars of Darbhanga, who were to eventually adopt the titles of Raja, Maharaja, Bahadur and even Maharajadhiraja, ruled from vast and extravagant palaces in Madhubani. And from the time of Raja Madho Singh in the late 19th century, also in Darbhanga. Noted as a family of connoisseurs of their times, they sanctioned lakhs and crores of rupees upon their signature Mithila-architecture, seen in numerous of the Darbhanga-Rajparisars (palace-campuses) across the two cities. The last Maharaja, whose reign was officially nullified by the government of independent India in 1952, Sir Kameshwar Singh lived in Darbhanga. The famed campus of today’s Lalit Narayan Mithila University was originally his office and residence. Several remains of the royal monuments can be spotted also in Madhubani; the most illustrious among them and probably one of the grandest architectural remains of modern India, is located in Rajnagar.

Through generations, the Rajas of Darbhanga kept a tradition of gifting lands to their brothers. As a part of that, the 19th ruler, MaharajadhirajaLakshmeshwar Singh is said to have given three villages of Madhubani to his younger brother Rameshwar Singh in the year 1880. Rajnagar, on the banks of the Kamala river, was among them.2 In the wave of developing a new royal residence there, choice of place being of the awardee Rameshwar Singh himself, the interest and money kept flowing into the otherwise agricultural block of Rajnagar for the next 50 years. When Lakshmeshwar Sing died heirless, Rameshwar Singh took over as the Maharaja. He shifted parts of the administration from Darbhanga to Rajnagar, in turn justifying its name joining the words Raj (meaning king or kingdom) and Nagar (meaning town).

Rajnagar, a short drive from Madhubani, was constructed majorly as a princely-township, a walled regal complex which was spacious and colorful, with richness and diversity of art and craftsmanship imbibed in all of its ten-odd temples, palaces, numerous gardens and lakes. Constructed from scratch, over a span of 48 years, it remains a prime example of the elaborate and aesthetic town-planning, as well as the aristocratic display of wealth by last of the Mithila’s kings.

It was built in the times when the Indian architecture was seeing a rapid wave of change, and a lot of influence of contemporary British and European styles.

An Italian-origin master-architect M. A. Corone is said to have convinced Maharaja Rameshwar Singh to enliven his experiments in a neo-classical fusion of Indian palace-arts with those from the west, reason why a renowned historian went on to call Rajnagar as the ‘Italian Lutyens of Darbhanga-Raj’.3 In the later years of his life, in 1920s, Majaraja is said to have invested more aggressively into it but a completed capital city remained an unfulfilled dream in the 31 years of his rule. As the fate had it, it was neither fully finished nor did it survive too long.

One fine winter morning in the year 1934, while the ruling Maharaja with his family was vacationing in Calcutta, the infamous Nepal-Bihar earthquake hit his kingdom. This was one of the worst natural disasters the region has seen in the past century. It not only resulted in devastating tremors but also in large ruptures, sand fissures, and water vents, flattening most of the Darbhanga-Raj.4 Five years after the death of its patron king Rameshwar Singh, Rajnagar’s lavish monuments were ravaged to the extent of final abandonment. As the then Raja was residing in Darbhanga, the havoc in Madhubani remained out of his diligence.

The agony of Rajnagar sustained as it remains mostly unmanned and unpreserved even now. Much of what is to be seen in the city are ruins: of gigantic arched city-forts and walls, intricately ornamented imperial palaces and their marvelously carved pillars, gates and halls, staircases, pavilions, some surviving and some broken temples with their eye-catching domes, and ponds with their Ghats.

Much of the legacy of Rajnagar remains to be seen, heard and told. A quick visit to the historical complex would acquaint one to the plenty of what constituted the cultures and lives of Maithilas (residents of Mithila) in the 19th and 20th centuries. Spread across an area of about 6 square kilometers, a rightful ‘quick visit’ would actually demand a full day or two. The centerpiece is the Naulakha Mahal, a multistoried palace, which apparently costed about nine lakh rupees to the king and so the name.5 Many believe it was still incomplete when the 1934 earthquake shattered it down.

The administrative center, the secretariat building, along with the Raja’s court, his dining and study rooms were placed behind the grand and much-acclaimed Durga Bhawan, having a notable idol of the goddess Durga at its entrance. While the halls were destroyed, the entrance portico and the inner houses survived the calamity. The imperial residence was built like a typical Maithila’s house, still seen in the villages nearby. Central Angana (courtyard) is surrounded on four sides by houses, each featuring its own Asora (verandah). There is a covered platform called Marbaa for religious rituals in the courtyard.

One of the houses is dedicated to the family deity as Bhagwati or GusauniGhar, while usually the one on the southern side is kept for newlyweds, KohbarGhar. The only daughter of Raja Rameshwar Singh was married in this house in 1919. It is noteworthy that the décor on the KohbarGhar of the palace done for her wedding, happens to be the oldest existing wall painting of Madhubani style. Even though the Madhubani painting has existed for more than 1000 years as folk art, the earliest of its formal recording was done in 1940s (Archer’s collections, British Library), most of those also were lost in the wake of impoverishing which followed the 1934 earthquake in Bihar.

Multi-layered details of the carvings often claimed to be more elaborate than those present in Taj Mahal, are too alluring to be missed on Rajnagar’s monuments and their remains.

Giant elephant sculptures at the entrance to the palace and the planned secretariat building (also termed as Hathi Mahal at many places, probably one of the very few secular sections of the campus) are as easily witnessed as they are critical in the masonry history of India. These are the oldest sculptures made out of cement in India, have survived the enormous earthquake, and have one of the most iconic stories of the forgotten city associated with it. To exemplify the strength of cement, a new invention, and never-used as a sculpting material, chief architect Corone had said to the king that even elephants could not break a cement statue. The legend goes that Maharaja had, therefore, ordered him to build real-size elephants out of cement.

While being an entrenched magistrate in his yesteryears, a prolific ruler, a multi-faceted literatus who would gather a wide audience of political, academic and religious pundits, Rameshwar Singh was also an established Tantric and followed quite an arduous daily routine of worshipping and Vedic rituals.6,7 Much of this is evident from his Rajparisar, which constitutes an assortment of as many as 11 Puranic temples, dedicated to Shiva, Hanuman, Kamakhya, Rajrajeshwari, Ardhanareshwari, Girija, Kali, etc.

He is said to begin his day with meditation and extensive puja of Dakshineshwar Kali in the white ivory temple, a repaired version of which still stands to amaze the visitors with its pristine beauty. Packing in itself the splendor of Hindu temple-art and one of the most regarded centers of Shakta tradition in India, Rajnagar campus hosted the grand official celebration of Dussehra for years, even after Rameshwar Singh’s passing away.

The glory of Rajnagar has been decaying in open since the past three-quarters of the century. It is high time the ornate monuments and the campus itself be systematically and professionally conserved. Some of the buildings are in use by local government offices and paramilitary organizations, but the most distinguished ones are in deplorable conditions. Whistleblowers have noted that the magnificent ruins are now home to stray cattle.8 The place holds the potential of being one of major tourism spots in the state, but right now its management is next to nothing. Dilapidation of Rajnagar is a graphic endorsement of the sheer neglect and under-development the region in Bihar has witnessed since decades.

Art and archeology historians have long claimed it to be a site of national importance and have raised the urgent need to protect Rajnagar from further natural degradation, manmade damages, and encroachments. Non-government bodies have been investing resources into awakening the locals, the incumbent custodians, regarding the matter. An essential motto of events like the Madhubani Literature Festival is to divert the country’s attention to this prominent, unmatched sample of India’s varied cultural heritage, and to re-establish Rajnagar as a unique identity of Mithila.

1. Raj Darbhanga–home of India’s wealthiest Zamindars, IANS, Telagana Today (2019).
2. Rajnagar : The lost city of Mithila, G. Manish, 2ghumakkar, (2019)
3. Rajnagar: An ‘Italian Lutyens’ in Bihar, A. Anurag, Live History India, (2019).
4. Documenting the image in Mithila art, C. B. Heiz, Visual Anthropology Rev. 22 (2), (2006).
5. Navlakha Palace, Wikipedia page, (2019).
6. Maharaja Rameshwar Singh, Srividya, Nirvana Sundari, (2019).
7. Tantric Maharaja, Darbhanga Raj/ Sarkar Tirhut, R. D. Jha, (2019).
8. Rajnagar Campus, special report by L. N. Jha, Mithila Mirror, (2019).
(By: Prasoon Raj (Research Fellow, Nuclear Sciences,Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany.)

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