When an Indian Maharaja saved a drought hit British village

On an evening in the mid-nineteenth century, Maharaja Ishree Persad Narayan Singh of Benares had a guest at his palace. Edward Reade, the acting Governor-General of the United Provinces, who was also a friend of the Maharaja, narrated a story over dinner. The story of a little boy in a village named Stoke Row in Southeast England beaten up by his mother for drinking up the last remaining water during a drought moved the Maharaja and he felt very sad. Reade had told the Maharaja that this was very common in some draught hit parts of England. It reminded the Maharaja of the hardships faced by some of his people some time back. At that time Reade had helped him dig a well there. The Maharaja decided to help the people of Stoke Row by digging a well there.

With the Maharaja’s funding, a well, 368ft deep and 4 ft in diameter, was dug in Stoke Row and it was completed in 1863. The well was topped with a 23 ft dome elaborately designed in flamboyant Indian style. It also had  winding machinery and a golden elephant adorning it. The Maharaja had also built a cottage for its caretaker nearby. The Maharaja had also funded a four-acre cherry orchard in the area.

 

North and south of Sonning Common. Photo Courtesy: Peter Collins on Flickr. 

 

 

The well was officially inaugurated in 1864. The Maharaja never visited the place but he had a bond with the village. Apart from bearing all the expenses for the well, he had also gifted many more things like footpaths and occasional free meals and feats for the residents of the village.

The well served its purpose for 70 years and it got lost into oblivion with new water supply technologies coming up. After Reade’s death, the connection between Benares and Stoke Row was disrupted until Maharaja Bihuti Narayan Singh, the great-grandson of Ishree Persad Singh established contact with the great-grandson of Reade. In 1961 Bibhuti Narayan gifted an Ivory replica of the well to the Queen of England during her India visit and proposed to celebrate the forthcoming centenary as a mark of Indo-British relationship. On 8th April 1964, the centenary of the Maharaja’s Well was celebrated in presence of 1500 people including Prince Philip.

The well that was an enigma in its heydays as it was a gift from the Maharaja of a fabled land that was mysterious for the people of the West still stands as a piece of history. Interestingly the Maharaja’s gift to the Raj had prompted other Maharajas to donate wells in other draught hit English villages as well. One such well was constructed at Ipsden by Raja Deonarayan Singh. However other wells did not get as much attention as that in Stoke Row.

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