Gifts from India to villages in England

LIFE DEPENDS ON WATER. A few days ago, at the end of March 2021, we drove to a village in Oxfordshire to see two old wells. They are no ordinary wells: they were gifts from India while it was still part of the British Empire.

Edward Anderton Reade (1807-1886) was a British civil servant in India between 1826 and 1860. Brother of the novelist Charles Read (author of “The Cloister and the Hearth”), Edward was born in Ipsden, a village in Oxfordshire ( He entered the East India Company in 1823. In 1832, he was transferred to Kanpur (Cawnpore), where he introduced opium cultivation to the district. In 1846, he became Commissioner to the Benares Division, a position he held until 1853 when he was moved to Agra.

Edward encouraged genial relations with the local Indian gentry and aristocracy. One of his Indian acquaintances, who became his good friend, was Ishri Prasad Narayan Singh (1822-1889), the Maharajah of Benares, who reigned from 1835 to 1889. During the years before the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (aka ‘First War of Independence’ or ‘The Indian Mutiny’), Reade and the Maharajah discussed much about England including the shortage of water that existed in Ipsden, the part of Oxfordshire where his family lived. Apparently, the villagers in this part of the Chiltern Hills had little or no access to clean drinking water, much as must have been the case for many villagers in India.

During the Rebellion of 1857, the Maharajah remained loyal to the British. In June 1857, the town of Kanpur was besieged by Nana Sahib and his forces. After 3 weeks, the British garrison surrendered under condition that the British inhabitants would be given safe passage out of the town. However, Nana Sahib decided to hold about 120 women and children and kept them housed in a house known as the ‘Bibighar’. This ended badly when some of the hostages were killed. Some of them tried to escape their grizzly end by jumping into a well at the Bibighar. This well became one of the most powerful images of the Rebellion in the minds of those who lived in Britain.

I do not know whether or not it was the tragedy at Bibighar that brought the conversations he had with Reade to the forefront of the mind of the Maharajah of Benares after the Rebellion was over, but in 1862, after his loyalty to the British had been formally recognised, he consulted Reade as to making a charitable gift to the poor people of Ipsden, whose plight he recalled. The Maharajah financed the construction of a well at Stoke Row, not far from Ipsden. It is also possible that the Maharajah remembered the help that Reade had given him when constructing a well in Azamgarh (now in Uttar Pradesh) back in 1831.

Work commenced on the well in March 1863. The well shaft was dug by hand, a perilous job for the labourers as they removed earth from the depths of an unlit and unventilated shaft, bucket by bucket. The shaft, 4 feet in diameter, was 368 feet in depth, greater than the height of St Pauls Cathedral in London, for this is depth of the water table at Stoke Row. Special winding machinery constructed by Wilder, an engineering firm in Wallingford, was installed. It is topped with a model elephant. The mechanism and the well stand beneath an octagonal canopy topped with a magnificent metal dome with circular glazed windows to allow better illumination. It resembles a ‘chhatri’ or architectural umbrella such as can be seen at war memorials on London’s Constitution Hill and on the South Downs near Hove.  The structure, restored in recent times, looks almost new today. Reade, who helped plan the Maharajah’s well, planted a cherry orchard nearby; dug a fish-shaped pond (the fish was part of the Maharajah’s coat-of-arms); and constructed an octagonal well-keeper’s bungalow next to the well. The profits from the cherries harvested from the orchard were supposed to help to finance the well, for whose water the villagers were not charged anything.  The Maharajah’s well at Stoke Row was the first of many such gifts given by wealthy Indians to Britain. Other examples include the Readymoney drinking fountain in Regents Park and a now demolished drinking fountain in Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:

“Reade was wryly amused that an Indian prince should thus give a lesson in charity to the English gentry.”

The well at Stoke Row provided the locals with fresh water until the beginning of WW2, when, eventually, piped water reached the area. It provided 600 to 700 gallons of water every day. The Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row is relatively well-known compared to another Indian-financed well next to the parish church at Ipsden, where Reade’s grave is located. The well, whose winding mechanism is similar to that installed at Stoke Row, is not covered by a canopy. It stands by a cottage next to the entrance to the churchyard. It was presented to Ipsden in 1865 by ‘Rajah Sir Deon Narayun Singh of Seidpor Bittree’ (I am not sure where this is: these are the words on the well), who had, like the Maharajah of Benares, remained loyal to the British during the 1857 Rebellion.

The Ipsden well is deep but not nearly as deep as that at Stoke Row. A lady, who lives in the cottage beside the well, told us that she had tasted water from the well and it was ice cold, deliciously clean, and tasted pure, having been filtered by many feet of chalk through which it has seeped. She said that once a year, the local water board opens the well and takes a sample of its water to check its purity.

Both wells are worth visiting. We parked in Benares Road in Stoke Row close to the Maharajah’s gift. After viewing the well head and its surroundings, we bought hot drinks at the village’s shop-cum-café, which his run by a couple of friendly people from Zimbabwe. I am grateful to Dr Peter U for bringing the existence of this unusual well to my attention.

An Indian patriot from Kutch

My new book “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” explores the brave exploits of Indian patriots living at India House in London between 1905 and 1910. They dedicated their efforts towards gaining independence for India – complete liberation from British imperialist rule. India House, which was in north London, was purchased by Shamji Krishnavarma, a barrister and leading scholar of Sanskrit. If his origins in Mandvi (Kutch, now Gujarat) were humble, his academic acheivements were quite the opposite as these excerpts from my book explain:

Shyamji Krishnavarma[1] (‘Shyamji’) was born in Mandvi, an estuarine seaport in Kutch, in 1857. Until June 1948[2], Kutch, a largely arid desert area, was one of the semi-autonomous Indian Princely States controlled by the British Government in India. Sandwiched between Sindh (now in Pakistan) and the Saurashtra peninsula, Kutch is now part of the State of Gujarat.


Mandvi was an important trading centre. It was surrounded by a long wall, constructed in the 16th century and now mostly demolished. The old heart of the town and its bustling bazaar area remains picturesque with many houses displaying intricately carved wooden structural and decorative features. One bank of the mouth of the River Rukmavati continues to be a thriving centre for the construction of traditional wooden dhows, which are favoured for transporting goods mainly between the Arabian Gulf and East Africa. Fishermen mend their nets and maintain their colourfully decorated small vessels on the opposite bank. Mandvi is probably best known for the Vijay Vilas, a Maharao’s palace built in the 1920s in a Rajput architectural style. It was used to film some of the scenes in the highly popular Bollywood movie Lagaan, which was released in 2001 and depicts the struugle between the Indians and the British.

Shyamji was born into a poor Bhanasali family. The Bhanasali community comprises mainly poorer farmers and traders, who are Vaishnavite Hindus, worshippers of Vishnu (an avatar of Krishna) [3]. Krishnavarma’s first name, Shyamji, can mean: ‘dark complexioned’, ‘dark blue’ (as Krishna is often portrayed), and ‘Krishna’[4]. It was an obvious choice for a son’s name by worshippers of this god. The ‘Varma’ suffix on his surname was questioned by members of the Indian police in British India, who became very interested in Shyamji’s activities after 1905. A police report dated 27th September 1905 suggested Shyamji:

“… added the title “Varma” to his name in order to pass himself off as a Kshatriya[5]…”

This might have been a defamatory act of the authorities against someone they feared. If this was really the case, it might have been added because the Kshatriya (warrior) caste is believed to be superior in status to that of the Bhanasali people and some members of Shyamji’s family’s caste claim to be of Kshatriya descent[6]. Fischer-Tiné wrote that despite his name Shymaji was not a Kshatriya[7]. Regardless of whether he was a Kshatriya, Shyamji’s educational successes allowed him to mix with men from backgrounds more prosperous than his.

Young Shyamji attended the local primary school in Mandvi from 1870 onwards[8], and continued his education in the Alfred High School in Bhuj (60 kilometres northeast of Mandvi). The language of tuition in Bhuj was English. He was an excellent student and topped the school in academic achievement. His father, who had a small business in Bombay where he lived, may have given news of Shyamji’s prowess to members of a group of reformers based in Bombay[9], with whom he had business relations. Some of them had family members in Kutch, who might have also heard about the child prodigy. In any case, news of Shyamji’s scholastic excellence reached the ears of men who were prepared to help bright young Hindu men.

The reformers in Bombay were followers of the Arya Samaj movement (see below). Led by men such as Vishnu Parsaram Shastri, Madhavdas Raghunathdas, Karsandas Mulji (sometimes called an ‘Indian Luther’[10]), and others, the Arya Samaj reformers fought against pillars of Hindu Brahminical tradition such as: untouchability, child marriage, enforced widowhood, sati (widows’ self-immolation by burning), and worship of idols. One of these gentlemen, a Bhatia merchant and philanthropist from Kutch called Mathuradas Lavaji[11], paid for Shyamji to enter the Wilson High School in Bombay to continue his studies…

… As in Bhuj, Shyamji became a first-class student in Bombay. His academic ability and knowledge of Sanskrit won him the Seth Gokuldas Kahandas Parekh[12] scholarship, which paid for him to study at Elphinstone High School, a much more expensive and prestigious establishment than Wilson High School. His great knowledge of Sanskrit allowed him to use the title ‘Pandit[13]’.  Elphinstone’s pupils were mainly the sons of Bombay’s wealthy elite. It was here that Shyamji became a friend of a pupil Ramdas, son of Chhabildas Lallubhai, a wealthy Bhanasali merchant of Bombay. Chhabildas was impressed by Shyamji. He asked Shyamji, then aged eighteen, to marry his daughter Bhanumati with her approval[14] (possibly unusually for the period), then aged thirteen. They married in 1875.

The year before his marriage, Shyamji met Swami Dayanand Saraswati (‘Dayanand’; 1824-83), who became important in his life. The Swami had come to Bombay to meet members of the reforming movement, with which Shyamji had become associated.

Dayanand[15] was an influential reformer of Hinduism and the founder of the Arya Samaj movement. He was born in Tankara, which is now in the Morbi district of the State of Gujarat…

… While visiting Bombay, Dayanand met Shyamji, who then received private lessons in Sanskrit from him. Shyamji and Dayanand rapidly became friends and corresponded with each other. Their friendship might have been enhanced by the fact that Dayanand’s mother came from Kutch, as had Shyamji[16].  Shyamji provided valuable assistance in the editing and distribution of Dayanand’s Vedic publications…

… The arrival in Bombay of a scholar from Oxford in 1876 was a turning point in Shyamji’s life. The scholar was the orientalist Monier Monier-Williams[17] (1819-99), an Englishman who was born in Bombay. He had become Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford in late 1860. In 1876, Monier-Williams had come India to elicit donations from Indian princes to help finance his project to create an institute dedicated to furthering studies of Indian culture at Oxford. His Indian Institute was established in 1883, and finally opened in 1896[18].

During his visit to India in 1876, Monier-Williams wanted to find a man who could read and write Sanskrit in the Devanagari script[19], in which, for example, the Vedas were originally recorded in writing (after having been transmitted from one generation to the next orally and learnt by rote). Judge Gopal Rao Hari Deshmukh (1823-92), a social reformer belonging to the Chitpavan[20] community of Maharashtra, introduced Monier-Williams to Shyamji, the brilliant young scholar of Sanskrit…

… Shyamji travelled to England on the SS India. He was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford, in April 1879 and was awarded a BA in 1882[21].


A house cover

IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS (ISBN: 9780244203870)

is available on,, amazon, Kindle, and can be ordered from bookshops.



[1] For a readable, informative biography, see: GL Varma: Shyamji Krishna Varma The Unknown Patriot, publ. by Ministry of information and Broadcasting Government of India, New Delhi: 1993

[2] Rushbrook Williams, LF: The Black Hills, publ. by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London: 1958

[3] See: , accessed 22 March 2019

[4] See: , accessed 22 March 2019

[5] Bose, AC: Indian Revolutionaries Abroad: 1905-1927, publ. by Northern Book Centre, New Delhi: 2002, first publ. 1998

[6] See:, accessed 23 March 2019

[7] Fischer-Tiné, H: Shyamji Krishnavarma: Sanskrit, Sociology and Anti-Imperialism, publ. by Routledge, New Delhi: 2014

[8] See:, accessed 22 March 2019

[9] Yajnik, I: Shyamaji Krishnavarma, publ. by Lakshmi Publications, Bombay: 1950

[10] See: Barton Scott, J: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March 2015, Vol. 83, No. 1, pp. 181–209, and Motiwala, BN: Karsondas Mulji: A Biographical Study, publ. by Parbhudas Ladabhai Mody, Bombay: 1935

[11] Yajnik, I

[12]He was Gujarati. See Fischer-Tiné; Yajnik, I adds the ‘Parekh’ to his name

[13] Pandit: ‘learned’ or ‘wise’. See: Johnson, WJ

[14] Yajnik, I

[15] For a succinct biography of Dayanand, see Johnson, WJ

[16] Varma, GL

[17] DNB: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition, accessed 24 March 2019


[19] See: Bose, AC

[20] Many Indian freedom fighters and reformers of note belonged to the Chitpavan community.

[21] DNB