Saurashtra, a city with an ancient past, is no stranger to opulence - Hindustan Times
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HistoriCity | Saurashtra, a city with an ancient past, is no stranger to opulence

ByValay Singh
Mar 13, 2024 08:32 PM IST

Jamnagar, the site of the Ambani pre-wedding bash, has a long history going back over four millennia. But its more recent history is one of gems and cricket

Jamnagar was in the news recently for the pre-wedding celebrations of Mukesh and Nita Ambani’s son, Anant with Radhika Merchant. The city now hosts a Reliance township and an oil refinery hub owned by Reliance Industries. Barely an hour’s drive from Jamnagar is Pithad village, which houses a Harappan Chalcolithic site known locally as Jadak-no-timbo (mound), per the Indian Archaeology Review 1959-60 that is more than four millennia old.

Statue Of Jam Saheb Ranjitsinh at Lakhota lake, Jamnagar, after whom Jamnagar is named(Onedeepen/Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Statue Of Jam Saheb Ranjitsinh at Lakhota lake, Jamnagar, after whom Jamnagar is named(Onedeepen/Wikimedia Commons)

Drive on and in Jamjodhpur block of Jamnagar district, a 6th century Sun temple made of unornamented stone, provides us the earliest surviving example of ancient buildings in Gujarat. It is, however, not older than the Uparkot Buddhist caves in neighbouring Junagadh that date back to the Ashokan era (1st-4th century AD/CE).

Saurashtra, the region in which Jamnagar lies, was once referred to as Saraostus in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an over 2,000-year-old Greek naval log.

Nawanagar state (of which Jamnagar was part), was one of the largest princely states in Saurashtra. In 1872, its total area was nearly 9,000 square kilometres, which is more than the size of present-day Goa. This region of Saurashtra, and Sindh, now in Pakistan, was known for its fertile soil which produced wheat, rice, sesame, and sesame oil.

The region in and around Jamnagar was famous for its marine treasures like pearls and isinglass (a rare fish glue which has had valuable uses from making plaster for head wounds in the 1st century to being used as an ingredient in alcoholic beverages; it is even used in the restoration of paintings today). Pearls are found within sea-living oysters. Before the modern period, in this region, pearls were innovatively harvested by building stone enclosures (vadas) and bush enclosures, both in shallow waters. A semi-circular structure of stones was erected with the highest point being closest to the sea. During high tides (twice in a 24-hour period), oysters attach themselves to the wall.

The business of pearls was, and still remains, extremely lucrative, and was therefore kept a secret by the local Jadeja rulers. Fearing the permanent confiscation of his territory once Aurangzeb (17th century) found out about its rich marine treasures, the Jadeja chief Jam Tamachi thought it wiser to not mine pearls at all. This, even after the Emperor in Delhi restored Jamnagar’s administration back to Tamachi in the 17th century, according to the Jamnagar Gazette.

Putting the ‘Jam’ in Jamnagar

According to the Gazetteer Bombay Presidency Vol 8 Kathiawar, 1884, the name Jamnagar derives from a pioneering Jadeja Rajput chief Jam Raval, who forayed into this peninsular region in the 16th century (1540 CE/AD), defeated local Jethwa rulers, and incepted this new kingdom, which was first called Jamnagar, then named Islamnagar by Aurangzeb for a brief period in the 17th century, and renamed as Nutannagar or Nawanagar in 1697, the extant name till 1959. Since then it has been called Jamnagar.

According to the Jamnagar Gazette, “Jam Hala acquired a major part of Jamnagar district which he called Halavar. But it was his descendant Ham Raval who conquered Joduya and Amran parganas from the Dedas and Chavdas, and the Khambhalia pargana from the Vadhels and founded Hamnagar in 1540 on the site of Nagnah Bandar which he took from the Jethwas…”. Since then the rulers of this state have been known as ‘Jams’, or Jam-Sahibs.

A legend recorded in the Jamnagar Gazette describes an incredible origin. “The rulers of Jamnagar trace their origin from the great Yadav race of Lord Shri Krishna. According to the bardic tradition, King Devendra was 82nd from Shri Krishna. His older son Aspat, it is said, courted Islam and became a Muslim. While this Aspat ruled over Egypt, his three brothers came to Afghanistan via Syria and Persia and founded there the city of Gazni [sic]. He installed his brother Narpat on the throne of Gazni with the title of Jam, as a Muslim ruler was called at the time, and he came to India with his 15 sons. The title of Jam, which the Jadeja Rajputs of Nawnagar State have inherited is thus from their ancestor, Narpat”.

The Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, Ranjitsinhji returned to play cricket in England in 1908. Here he is depicted in a punch cartoon in Punch Magazine March 20, 1907(Bernard Partridge/Punch Magazine March 20, 1907/ Wikimedia Commons )
The Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, Ranjitsinhji returned to play cricket in England in 1908. Here he is depicted in a punch cartoon in Punch Magazine March 20, 1907(Bernard Partridge/Punch Magazine March 20, 1907/ Wikimedia Commons )

From cricket to crown

In an earlier piece, we visited the hoary history of Okhamandal, of which the ancient coastal town of Dwarka is a part. Presently a part of the Jamnagar district, the Okhamandal region has a proud past of challenging invading authority over centuries. It was finally captured by the British after local rulers, known as Kalas and later as Vaghers, killed an English couple in 1804 after seizing their vessel. However, one individual seemed to betray this historical trend.

Arguably, the name of one of Jamnagar’s most famous sons has been known to almost every Indian, but his connection with this town has seldom been noticed. And there is a good reason for that: Colonel Kumar Sri Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji II (1872-1933), who was a prolific batsman, became the king of Nawanagar after prolonged scheming and with the help of his friends in the British press. India’s biggest domestic cricket tournaments, the Ranji trophy and Duleep trophy are named after him and his nephew Dilip Sinhji.

The short version of how Ranjit Sinh became king is as follows: Vibhaji, the reigning king of Nawanagar (Jamnagar) adopted Ranjit, born to a farmer in 1872 after the first adopted heir died. However, Ranjit’s claim to the throne was nullified, as a biological heir was eventually born, and was recognised by the British government of India in 1884. Meanwhile, young Ranjit had taken to sports (tennis and cricket) and endeared himself to his British teachers, and later other benefactors who felt bad for a boy who almost became crown prince. Ranjit spent much of his teenage years in England, playing cricket in an unusual style, which basically meant that he didn’t conform to how the British batted.

He virtually created the stylish leg glance, whose other most famous Indian exponent is, of course, former captain Mohammad Azharuddin. It wouldn’t be amiss to say that Ranjit’s years in England turned him into a brown sahib. Once, when visiting Jamnagar in 1907-08 while it was recovering from a long drought and it's after effects i.e. poverty and disease, he is said to have described it as “an evil slum”, Simon Wilde wrote in Ranji: The Strange Genius of Ranjitsinhji. With the help of his cricketing skills, he gained acceptance and later the support of the British and finally became the ruler of Nawanagar (Jamnagar) in 1907. He remained so till his death in 1933.

Under Ranjit, besides the construction of palaces, water tanks and other standard buildings of the British Raj, like a hospital and a railway station, he became known for his collection of jewels. In 1926, Jacques Cartier created for Ranjit Sinh, the Maharaja of Nawanagar Cartier necklace, whose six main emeralds alone weighed over 224 carats.

Even the diamonds and emeralds that came out at the three-day pre-wedding bash held in Jamnagar recently didn’t glitter as bright.

HistoriCity is a column by author Valay Singh that narrates the story of a city that is in the news, by going back to its documented history, mythology and archaeological digs. The views expressed are personal

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