The Cooch Behar Palace is one of the most popular attractions of West Bengal. It is also regarded as one of the most beautiful royal palaces of India. Located in the northern part of Bengal, the architecture of this regal palace was inspired by the norms of the Italian Renaissance. Surrounded by a lush garden adorned with a cornucopia of seasonal flowers, the palace was the residence of the rulers of the Koch dynasty. The popularity of the Cooch Behar Palace also lies in the fact that it was the paternal home of Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur.
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About the Palace of Cooch Behar:
The Cooch Behar Palace is originally called Victor Jubilee Palace. It was built by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan of Koch dynasty in 1887. The Buckingham Palace served as an inspiration for the architectural style of this Rajbari.
History of the Koch royal dynasty:
The Koch dynasty was founded by one Biswa Singha, who ruled Assam and parts of northern Bengal. The name ‘Koch’ denotes an ethnic group to which Biswa Singha’s mother belonged.
Later, the dynasty was split into two main rival branches among the descendants of Biswa Singha – Koch Bihar in northern Bengal and Koch Hajo in Assam.
The Koch Bihar state maintained its freedom and faced continuous challenges from the Mughal Empire. After the disintegration of the Mughal power, it came into conflict with Bhutan and Tibet. To tackle the northern invasions, the Koch Bihar royal dynasty sought British intervention. The British extended help which put an end to the Bhutanese and Tibetan encroachments. However, it came with a price. Koch Bihar’s freedom itself was curtailed by the British who imposed unfair treaties on it. Following the independence of India in 1947, the Koch Bihar state gave up its royal status and merged with the Indian Republic.
A whirlwind romance:
No account of the Cooch Behar Rajbari is complete without the mention of the whirlwind romance between Prince Jitendra Narayan of Cooch Behar and Princess Indira Raje of Baroda. The romance hit the headlines as the affair involved the Princess of one of the most powerful royal dynasties of British India on one hand, and on the other, a Prince belonging to a minor dynasty of an obscure princely state. To make matters worse, the Prince was not even the heir apparent.
Princess Indira was the daughter of Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, who was one of the richest and most influential rulers of British India. The Princess herself was highly educated (a rarity in that era) and, renowned for her exceptional beauty and sharp intellect. No wonder, she got a bevy of suitors aiming for her hand in marriage.
Finally, Indira was betrothed to Maharaja Madho Rao Scindia of Gwalior, who was 20 years older and already married once. She was barely 18, and her parents did not bother to ask for her opinion. In 1910, the engagement was officially announced.
The following year, a twist of fate awaited the Princess. In 1911, members of the royal families from all corners of India assembled at Delhi to celebrate the crowning of George V as the Emperor of India. It was here that Indira met the dashing Prince of Cooch Behar. No wonder, it was a love at first sight.
But, royal engagement used to be synonymous with wedding. And, Indira knew that her parents would never break off her engagement and let her marry a humble Prince. So, the daring Princess took a bold step – she wrote a letter to her fiancé, informing him that she was unable to marry him, and called off her engagement. This action of Indira was unprecedented by the standard of the early 20th century. Naturally, the Maharaja of Gwalior was taken aback. He sent a telegram to Indira’s father with a single sentence – ‘What does the Princess mean by her letter?’
The Maharaja of Baroda and his wife were also stunned by the turn of events. Scandal followed and Indira was given a piece of their minds. Despite being jilted, Madho Rao created no scene and married elsewhere.
What followed was an endless tussle between the Princess and her equally formidable parents. Her parents were concerned with the differences in race, culture, and traditions. While Baroda’s royal family was Maratha in descent and practised orthodox Hinduism, Cooch Behar’s royal family was Bengali and followers of the liberal and monotheistic Brahmo religion. Moreover, regarding history, wealth, size, and importance, the Koch dynasty was nowhere near the Gaekwads.
Above all, Indira’s parents were not fond of Jitendra Narayan, who had the disrepute of being an alcoholic and womanizer. The Koch dynasty was replete with cases of alcoholism and bankruptcy.
For the next two years, Indira and Jitendra Narayan carried on with their clandestine romance. As her parents did not show any sign of relenting, Indira resorted to threatening them. She warned them that she would elope lest they give their approval. Fearing another scandal, the Maharaja of Baroda gave in. Indira and Jitendra Narayan were officially engaged in 1913.
However, things did not settle easily. Indira was set to marry Jitendra Narayan in May 1913 at Calcutta. Two days before the wedding, her father changed his mind and refused to marry her daughter to a lowly Prince.
Indira struggled to gain her parents’ consent. Ultimately, in August 1913, while holidaying in Switzerland, the Maharaja gave his consent to Indira. However, she was directed to travel alone to London for her wedding and that none of her family members would attend.
At last, Indira and Jitendra Narayan married on 25th August 1913 in London. A civil wedding ceremony was followed by lavish Brahmo wedding rituals.
However, the honeymoon period did not last long for the newlyweds. Just three weeks after the royal wedding, Jitendra’s elder brother, Maharaja Rajendra, passed away owing to alcoholism. The couple returned to the country. Jitendra and Indira were now crowned the Maharaja and Maharani of Cooch Behar.
Soon Indira mended her relationship with her parents. She started to visit Baroda frequently and attended hunting and lavish parties. Jitendra, on the other hand, joined the Indian Expeditionary Force during the First World War and was posted in France. After the War ended, his bravery was acknowledged and he was knighted.
Indira and Jitendra had a blissful marriage. Their marriage, unfortunately, lasted only for 9 years as Jitendra, who like his elder brother suffered from alcoholism, died at the age of 36. Together, they had 5 children including Gayatri Devi, who later became the Maharani of Jaipur and was renowned as one of the most beautiful women of the contemporary world.
Architecture of the Cooch Behar Palace:
The Cooch Behar Palace is built in the Classical Western style of architecture, drawing inspiration from the flair of the Italian Renaissance. Distinguished by its effortless elegance, the double-storied palace sprawls over an area of 51,000 square feet. It is 120 metres long and 90 metres wide. Originally, the palace had three stories. However, it was razed to the ground owing to the 1897 CE earthquake.
The most stunning part of this palace is the Durbar Hall. Dodecagonal in shape, it stands on four arches supported by massive Corinthian pilasters and decorated. It has a metallic dome with a cylindrical louvre attached to the top. The massive hall is surrounded by small balconies. At present, the Durbar Hall displays the history and photographs of the Koch royal family. It also houses two beautiful busts of Maharani Suniti Devi and Maharani Indira Devi.
This imposing palace has as many as 50 rooms. Apart from the stunning Durbar Hall, there are bedrooms, a dining hall, a billiards room, a library, Toshakhana, a Ladies’ Gallery, and so on. Some of the rooms have beautiful paintings on the ceilings, walls, and doors. The furniture and articles that once adorned these rooms and used by the members of the royal family are now lost.
Outside, the palace has a well-manicured lawn beautified by flowering plants. There is also a murky lake.
The Palace at present:
Presently, the Cooch Behar Palace is under the maintenance of the Archaeological Survey of India. It has now been converted into a museum, displaying artefacts dating back to the Pala and Sena times which were excavated in and around Cooch Behar and few personal belongings and letters of the members of the royal family.
Where is Cooch Behar Palace located?
The splendid palace is located in the Cooch Behar town of Cooch Behar district, West Bengal.
How can I reach Cooch Behar?
Several trains run between Kolkata and Cooch Behar town. From Sealdah railway station, you can board 13141 Teesta Torsha Express, 13147 Uttar Banga Express, 13173 Kanchanjungha Express, and 12377 Padatik Express; 12345 Saraighat Express and 15959 Kamrup Express from Howrah; and 02501 Agartala AC Special Express from Kolkata station.
The nearest airport is Bagdogra in Siliguri. It is 146 km away from Cooch Behar. If you book a cab from Bagdogra, you will reach Cooch Behar within 4 hours.
Many NBSTC and private buses ply between Siliguri and Cooch Behar. Buses take over 5 hours to reach Cooch Behar.
What is the best time to visit Cooch Behar?
The winter months are perfect for exploring Cooch Behar. If you are visiting at the end of November, you will catch the town’s famous Raas Mela.
Where can I stay in Cooch Behar?
There are many budget hotels in Cooch Behar such as Hotel Yubaraj, Hotel Royal City, Hotel Elite, Hotel Royal Palace, and Hotel Maa International. Recently, a resort called Gulmohor Royals has also popped up here.
Where can I eat in Cooch Behar?
The town has a lot of good eateries such as Monarch Restaurant, Trishna Restaurant, Terminal 1, and Mitali Restaurant. Do try the Boroli fish, which is abundantly found in the Torsha River of Cooch Behar and is touted as the ‘Hilsa of North Bengal’.
What are the timings of the Cooch Behar Palace?
The palace remains open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM. However, the museum remains closed on Fridays.
What is the price of the ticket?
The ticket price is INR 20 for Indians and INR 200 for foreigners.
Is photography allowed?
Photography is allowed both inside and outside the palace. However, videography is restricted inside.