Durbar with the queen of Sawantwadi

Meeting the surviving scion of the bygone Bhonsale dynasty was an unexpected pleasure in Sawantwadi, which keeps its crafts tradition alive

The call of hornbills distracted me as I was focusing my binoculars on a pair of woodpeckers. Surrounding me was a dense canopy of cashew plantations. I squinted through the trees as the sun filtered through them, while a racket-tailed drongo flew past me. The hornbills soon presented themselves, creating quite a racket as orioles and ioras called out in the melee.

I was in a sprawling farmhouse in Sawantwadi in Maharashtra’s coastal Sindhudurg district, reminiscing my journey over the last few days along the Konkan coast. The roads had taken me to forts and beaches, backwaters and forests, while I had immersed myself in mango orchards and cashew plantations.

But it was at an old quaint village called Pinguli, where a puppeteer first told me about the kingdom of Sawantwadi. As he took me into a world of epics and legends through shadow puppetry, he told me that his village owed its name to a maharaja who had visited here centuries ago. He said that Khem Sawant of Sawantwadi was camping in their village while celebrating Gudi Padwa and he changed the name of their village to Pinguli Gudipure more than 300 years ago.

I was curious to know more and I drove across to the town, which was once upon a time the capital of the kingdom of Sawantwadi. An old map showed me it had then included parts of north Goa and Sindhudurg. Speaking to my hostess at the farmhouse I learned that they were ruled by Bhonsales, a clan of Marathas. When the Portuguese colonized India, parts of Goa went under their rule and Sawantwadi came under the Bhonsales who had fled the Portuguese regime. She offered to take me to the town, where I stumbled upon the palace at Sawantwadi.

Sawantwadi was lost in a dreamy stupor as I entered the town; in its heart stood a stately monument still reminiscent of a royal past. A beautiful façade of red laterite stone stood magnificently against the backdrop of the Moti Talao or the pearl lake. Built in the era of Khem Sawant Bhonsale III, this 18th century palace was the royal residence of the Bhonsales. As I took a picture of the façade, I was interrupted by a man who introduced himself as the Queen’s secretary and told me that this portion of the palace was shut to tourists as the queen still lived here.

But he eventually allowed me to go inside the old palace to get a glimpse of their local crafts. The Bhonsales had supported generations of artisans who had lived here to keep these age-old traditional crafts alive. Even today, I was told that the Queen Satvashila Devi promoted them.

Standing there, in a world of fading glory, I was at the durbar hall adorned with beautiful stained glass windows and chandeliers where a few artists were painting some images on small circular pieces of paper. That is where I learned about the 350-year-old craft of painting on handmade ganjifa cards. The ten avatars of Vishnu, the Dashavatar, were painted intricately on these cards by artists whose world revolved around these little colourful pieces of paper.

A lone empty throne stood in the centre. I met a few artists who told me that there were quite a few families still thriving on this profession only in Sawantwadi. The cards, they told me, were an ancient game that dated back to the days of the Mahabharata. I spent a few moments thinking about the lost opulence of the palace just as an old artisan rubbed his glasses, picked up his cards and left the palace.

Finally, the secretary interrupted my reverie and took me to meet the queen in her palatial home. It was my first-ever encounter with royalty and it humbled me to see a regal lady speaking to me with pride about the craft and craftsmen of her town. As I took leave, I realized that the royal past of Sawantwadi lived on in its arts.

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