e-Book reproduces rare prints to chronicle glory of Maratha kings

Compiled by Pratap Sinh Serfoji Raje Bhosle, the idea of the picture book 'Rare Prints: A tribute to Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library' is to create awareness among the public about the varied collection in the library and the Maratha dynasty which ruled Thanjavur from 1676 to 1855  

Pratap Sinh Serfoji Raje Bhosle, author of the picturebook, 'Rare Prints'. Photo: The Federal

Pictures of Maratha kings with swords are common, but how about one in which a king holds a musket? A rare sketch of king Sambhaji (eldest son of Chhatrapati Shivaji) holding the musket in the recently-released e-book Rare Prints: A tribute to Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library shows how advanced our weapons were even a couple of centuries ago.

A portrait of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, is another among the great collection maintained by Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library (TMSSML), one of Asia’s oldest libraries. The rare sketches and photographs of kings and princes add significance as it is the first time such images are brought out in the form of an e-book.

Compiled by Pratap Sinh Serfoji Raje Bhosle, a scion of the Thanjavur Maratha dynasty, the idea of the picture book is to create awareness among the public about such a wonderful collection in the library and also about the Maratha dynasty, which ruled the Thanjavur region of today’s Tamil Nadu from 1676 to 1855.

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The library in the Thanjavur Palace complex originated during the reign of Raghunath and his son Vijayaraghava (1600-1634) of the Nayak dynasty. After the Nayaks, successive kings of the Maratha dynasty renovated and enriched the library. It was Maratha king Serfoji II who contributed the largest collection of books and manuscripts to the library during his reign (1798-1832). “Serfoji II was a scholar of great repute, proficient not only in English but also in Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Sanskrit, French, German, Danish, Greek, Dutch and Latin. He even performed cataract surgeries. Music and dance at the palace durbar flourished during his rule,” says Pratap, who is the 14th descendant of the Thanjavur-Maratha family.

The TMSSML houses thousands of rare manuscripts and books. It was king Serfoji II who instructed his library officials to begin cataloguing the manuscripts; the first palm leaf manuscript, according to Pratap, was catalogued in 1801, and the first paper manuscript in 1807.

It was while searching for the photographs of his grandfather prince Tulajendra Rajah P Bhosle shot during the celebration of the birth anniversary of King Serfoji II that Pratap found the bound albums with rare sketches and photographs of kings and princes in one of the shelves of the library. However, he wanted to get permission from the district collector to reproduce them for the benefit of the researchers. “Many don’t know the bound albums have rare sketches and pictures. It was a surprise for me as well. The compilation was challenging because I had to get permission from the district collector for reproducing the rare sketches and photographs,” said Pratap, who is the author of three books, including Contributions of Thanjavur Maratha Kings. He also maintains a blog on Maratha cuisine.

The bound albums contain sketches and pictures of Indian kings and British officials. One such album dating back to 1908 has rare images of illustrious kings. Other bound albums have pictures on hand-made paper of Indian kings and princes of various dynasties.

Pratap’s Rare Prints begins with the sketch of king Chhatrapati Shivaji, founder of the Maratha Kingdom, riding a horse. It was reproduced from the bound album of 1908. The second sketch, however, is of Dharmaveer Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, the eldest son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, holding a musket.

“Sambhaji ruled the Maratha empire for nine years. The king holding a musket shows how advanced weaponry of the Maratha kings were those days,” says Pratap. It is said that the southern staple food ‘sambhar’ is named after king Sambhaji. “Sambhar originated in the royal kitchen during the rule of King Shahaji II. When king Sambhaji visited Thanjavur, he was served a new dish, and from then on, the dish was known as Sambhar,” says Pratap.

King Venkoji alias Ekoji Raje Bhosle was the founder of Maratha rule in Thanjavur. He was the half-brother of Chhatrapati Shivaji, born to king Shahaji and queen Tukabai in Bangalore. He ruled Thanjavur from 1676 to 1683.

Who was Maharani Tarabai? Historians say she was a strong woman who defended the Mughal occupation of the Maratha region. A portrait of Tarabai, who ruled the Maratha Empire for about eight years, included in the book is a great tribute to the queen. Sketches of Rajmata Ahilyabai Holkar (1725-1795) who turned the village of Indore into a beautiful city, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, the lion of Punjab and the founder of the Sikh empire, Guru Nanak (1469-1539), founder of Sikhism, are also included in the book.

Sketches in the album named 119/3 Royal Academy Pictures were printed by Chitrashala Press, Pune. The picture of King Shahaji II, who ruled Thanjavur from 1683 to 1712, adds importance as he was well versed in the languages Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Hindi and Persian. “King Shahaji II was also a composer and musicologist. He composed numerous songs in praise of the deities of the Brihadeeswarar temple. His period was the golden period of literary activities. He built choultries, hospitals, and had physicians from today’s Saudi Arabia,” writes Pratap in Rare Prints.

The logo of the press established by Serfoji II is interesting. “The 1872 journal entitled ‘Indian Antiquary’ volume I mentions that king Serfoji’s printing press was the earliest printing press with Devanagari script printing in south India. The types and blocks were prepared with soft stone and hardwood. Even today the TMSSML preserves some books printed in the press,” he says.

Photocopy of a case sheet of eye treatment done by Serfoji II shows how systems worked out those days. “Serfoji II was known as the prince of ophthalmology. Eye surgeries would take place at his research institute Dhanvantari Mahal. Detailed ophthalmic records were kept. The rajah himself performed many cataract surgeries,” writes Pratap.

A drawing of the herbarium-semparuthi (hibiscus) adds significance. Serfoji’s ‘Dhanvantari Mahal’ produced herbal medicines. The king appointed artists to draw herbal plants in natural colours, to be documented for further reference. He maintained a garden of medicinal herbs and plants in the palace. “The library has three volumes with 92 pictures of hand painted herbarium of medicinal plants in natural colours. I could accommodate only a couple of pictures in this book,” he says. The front cover of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (5th edition, 1784), with the signature of Serfoji II shows the king’s love for foreign languages.

The third section of pictures of Indian royals bound albums were mostly printed in Kot Radha Kishan, a town in today’s Pakistan. Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar of Mysore, Maharaja Pratap Singh Gaekwad of Baroda, Martanda Varma Elaya Raja and Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama varma of Travancore and Ramavarma Thampuran of Cochin and Kerala Varma, the Maharaja of Cochin, are included in this album.

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The TMSSML is one of the oldest libraries in Asia, with more than 30,000 manuscripts, mostly in Sanskrit. “Serfoji II collected more than 4,500 books in English, French, Italian and Danish as well as books on musical notation. He would sign all the books that he had read,” he adds.

Published by Bookganga.com, Rare Prints has pictures of the Sanskrit manuscript of Sabdarta Cintamani, which narrates the story of the Mahabharata if read from left to right, and the Ramayana when read from right to left. A handwritten manuscript of Sivabharatam written in Sanskrit by Kavi Parmanand is another rare piece. It is a biographical work that narrates the early life and times of Chhatrapati Shivaji. “We have released only the e-book due to the pandemic imposed lockdown. The print version is ready. It will be released in a month,” says Pratap.

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