History on a stone in Bhavnagar

The Pil Garden in the centre of the city of Bhavnagar (in the Saurashtra district of Gujarat) is a pleasant place to relax. Triangular in plan, the park is named in honour of Sir James Braithwaite Peile (1806-82)[1]. Educated at Oxford University, he entered the (British) Indian Civil Service in 1855. He went to India the following year. He learnt Gujarati and worked in many places in Gujarat including Bhavnagar. Between 1874 and ’78, Peile served as a Political Agent in Saurashtra. He helped to coordinate the activities of the numerous heads of Princely States in the area, including that of Bhavnagar. He also helped organize famine relief during the great famine of 1877. Peile gained the respect of the heads of the Princely States. Mr Peile described the Kingdom of Bhavnagar as follows:

With flourishing finances and much good work in progress. Of financial matters I need say little; you have no debts, and your treasury is full.[2]

Peile left India in 1887, but his name has been immortalised in Bhavnagar by giving it, slightly oddly spelled, to a lovely public garden.

PERC 1

We visited the Pil Garden earlier this year. While I was wandering around, I came across a carved cube of stone partially hidden in some vegetation growing around it. There was an inscription in Gujarati script on one of its faces. On another face, I saw a carved Scottish thistle with some letters carved beneath it: A_RUC_ _ _ L U (or II) S. A third face was carved with a bas-relief depicting the profile of a man wearing a jacket and tie. The face parallel to that bearing the inscription in Gujarati bears the English words: “The Percival Fountain erected by public subscription in 1879 as a mark of esteem for _ _ _ Percival Esq, Bombay Civil Service, Joint Administrator of the State.”

The Mr Percival mentioned on the stone must have been Mr EH[3] Percival of The Bombay Civil Service. His title ‘Joint Administrator of the State’ needs explaining. When Jaswantsingji, the Maharaja of Bhavnagar died in 1870, his son and successor Takhtsingh (1858-96) was only twelve years old, too young to handle the affairs of his state. Until 1878 when he attained his majority, his kingdom was administered by two men[4]: Gaorishankar Udayashankar (1805-1892), a senior and experienced administrator of Bhavnagar, and EH Percival of the Bombay Civil Service. Takhtsingh became a fine ruler of Bhavnagar, executing many useful projects that benefitted his subjects for a long time.

Mr Percival’s administration was considered to have been beneficial to the Indian subjects of Bhavnagar. Even the socialist HM Hyndman (1842-1921), who was a vehement critic of the activities of the British imperialists in India had to admit in his book The Bankruptcy of India (published 1886):

The independent Principality of Bhaunagar was for eight years, 1870-78, under the joint administration of Mr. Percival, a Bombay civilian, and the old State Minister. During this period a complete change took place. The government was reformed in every part, a revenue survey was introduced, and the revenue and trade greatly increased buildings of all sorts, public offices, schools, hospitals, tanks, roads, bridges, lighthouses. So the Bhaunagar State is now by far the most flourishing in Kattywar[5], and the cause of its recent and rapid advance is by common consent allowed to have been the benign influence of Mr. Percival’s presence.”

These were indeed words of praise coming from the pen of a man who believed that the presence of the British in India was hastening the subcontinent’s rapid decline and was doing the Indians no good at all.

One of the many improvements made during Percival’s administration was the city’s water supply. I quote the following, which describes an important urban problem in Bhavnagar and Victorian India in general, from a biography[6] of Percival’s co-administrator Gaorishankar Udayashankar:

For many years the people of Bhavnagar had Suffered for want of a supply of good drinkable water. During the summer season the fresh-water wells in the City failed, with the exception of one or two. Even in the case of this latter, it was painful to see fifty or sixty women gather round the deep well struggling hard to fill their canvas buckets with the limited supply to be found at a considerable depth. Most of the people obtained their supply from temporary wells sunk in the bed of the river Ghadechi, and from a well close by the river, but situated at a distance of two miles from the town, ‘The climatic changes and ‘scarcity of water’, remarked Dr. Burjorji Behrmji, L.M., in a report, ‘influenced the salubrity of the town to a marked degree, and brought on an increase of illness in the shape of malarious fevers, bronchitis, diarrhoea, dysentery, guinea- worm, and dyspepsia in various forms.’

Mr. Gaorishankar had long desired to relieve the 40,000 inhabitants of Bhavnagar by giving them a good water-supply. With the advice and cordial co-operation of Mr. Percival, who thoroughly appreciated this want, he now set about the work in sober earnest. It was found that two miles up the river Ghadechi, there was an excellent site for a large reservoir… The canal carries the water into a reservoir situated in the heart of the town, which supplies, by means of pipes, pure wholesome water to the principal localities. The completion of the works cost the State Rs. 6,00,000. When they were opened to the public, they were, at the desire of Mr. Percival, named after Mr. Gaorishankar.”

What is left of the Percival Fountain might have been part of a gift to celebrate his assistance in the improvement of Bhavnagar’s water supply.

PERC 2

Of the thistle mentioned earlier, I have discovered that some Percival families use the thistle as part of their coat-of-arms. It is likely that EH Percival was Edward Hope Percival (died 1904), who was married to Louisa Jane Wedderburn (1842-1895), daughter of Sir John Wedderburn (1789-1862), who was in the service of the British East India Company.  According to a source in the National Library of Scotland[7], Louisa Jane:

Married at Tibberton, co. Gloucester, 7 Jan. 1869, Edward Hope Percival, of the Indian Civil Service…”

Louisa Jane was the first of her siblings not to be born in India.

Although I have so far been unable to find out the dates of Edward Hope Percival, I have discovered that his collection of various artefacts and peepal tree leaves collected in Bhavnagar were presented to Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum by his grand-daughter Alicia C Percival. In their Annual Reports, they refer to Edward Hope Percival as being “Adviser in Bhaunagar State in the Bombay Presidency during the regency of the Maharajah[8]”, thus confirming that EH Hope was Edward Hope Percival.

I am very pleased I discovered the semi-neglected stone in Bhavnagar’s Pil Garden because it has opened up a small window into the colonial past of India.

[1] Biographical details from Dictionary of National Biography (on-line edition)

[2] https://bhavnagar.nic.in/history/

[3] Probably Edward Hope Percival

[4] https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Takhtsingji

[5] i.e.: Kathiawad, another name for Saurashtra

[6] Gaorishankar Udayashankar, G.S.I., ex-minister of Bhavnagar, now in retirement as a Sanyasi, by JU Yajnik, publ. Bombay: about 1889.

[7] https://digital.nls.uk/histories-of-scottish-families/archive/95655759?mode=transcription

[8] http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/sma/index.php/museum-annual-reports/260-1959-60-annual-report.html

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