The Rani of Cooch Naheen in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a queen in British India so Anglicised and taken with European culture that her skin – in the best traditions of magic realism – “was going white in blotches”. “I am the hapless victim of my cross-cultural connections,” the Rani says, justifying her Vitiligo. “My skin is the outward expression of the internationalism of my spirit”.
Cooch Nahin – literally “nothing” in the Urdu of the novel’s tragic narrator-cum-protagonist Saleem Sinai – is a pun on an actual princely state in British India, Cooch Behar. And while Rushdie was obviously being critical of the tendency of Indian princes to imitate the British, one needs to actually go to Cooch Behar to see the limits to which Indian royals did actually ape Europeans during the Raj.
The royal palace of Cooch Behar, now a part of West Bengal, is the most beautiful sore thumb there is. A massive palace built in the classical style of the Italian Renaissance – bang in the middle of a small Bengali town. With its ribbed dome and Corinthian pilasters spanning multiple storeys, the building is in fact clearly inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The resemblance is even starker on the inside, with windows streaming in sunlight placed in a row below the dome’s cornice.
Not only is the palace beautiful, it has also housed extraordinary beauty. Maharani Gayatri Devi was born in the palace in 1919 and later married into the princely state of Jaipur. Devi – known as one of the world’s most beautiful women during her time – entered politics as part of the Swarajya Party of C Rajagopalachari. Rumour has it that as late as 1999, the Trinamool Congress asked her to come back to Cooch Behar and contest as its candidate – but she didn’t respond.
In spite of this beauty and history, the Cooch Behar palace is little visited. In fact, Cooch Behar’s most popular tourist spot isn’t even the palace, it is another royal monument: the Madan Mohan Temple.
It is unusual for Bengali temples to have a dome and the structure houses Madan Mohan, Krishna in his sensual form – literally meaning the one who has enchanted the god of love. The name derives from Kamdev, the Hindu god of love, also known as Madan, whom Krishna is supposed to have won over.
Next door to the temple, the city hosts the annual Rashmela fair to commemorate Krishna’s victory and attracts people from all over. As a little paean to the syncretic Koch Rajbanshi local culture, the centrepiece of the fair, the 20-feet tall Rashchakra is, by royal tradition, built by a Muslim family of artisans.