In a quiet corner of the Brompton Cemetery in London lies a 19th century grave partially covered by the undergrowth. The graceful stone cross above it is slightly broken, but the epitaph composed by Queen Victoria can still be read: “Sacred to the memory of the Princess Victoria Gouramma (sic), daughter of the ex-Raja of Coorg…”
That’s where the strange and tragic tale of Victoria Gowramma, the princess from Coorg who was raised Christian and became Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, ended in 1864. But her story has come to light again in all its fascinating detail thanks to C.P. Belliappa’s rigorously researched book ‘Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg’, which was recently launched in the city.
“Historical writings on Coorg – mostly gazetteers by the British who lived there during the 19th century – mention the story of Gowramma and her father, the exiled Raja Veerarajendra in a paragraph or two,” says Belliappa, author of ‘Tale of a Tiger’s Tail & Other Yarns from Coorg’ and ‘Nuggets from Coorg History’. “But the details were never there, and I got more and more inquisitive.”
His big break came when he accidentally stumbled upon three books written in the 19th century by people who know both the raja and his daughter. “I was able to download them – for free! – from www.archive.org, where old books are digitised and uploaded,” he said. “They were authentic, firsthand accounts, and comprised 75 per cent of the information I needed.”
The rest he found from the digital archives of the Times London – reports of court functions and events that contained all sorts of interesting titbits of information.
‘Victoria Gowramma…’ traces the intriguing series of events surrounding the princess’ journey to England with her father in 1852, and her difficult and often lonely life there subsequently. The various threads include the exiled raja’s attempts to reclaim the wealth the British took from him (his reason for taking Gowramma to England in the first place), and the grand plans by Queen Victoria to match-make between Gowramma and another young royal convert to Christianity, Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab.
“Queen Victoria believed that if two royals converted to Christianity were married, and their children were born Christian, it would encourage more of their subjects to convert,’ says Belliappa. “What’s interesting is that although the plan didn’t work, the queen continued to be fond of Gowramma to the very end.”
The book, then, is more than just a portrait of a princess; it gives you a glimpse into the political and religious power dynamics of the time. With its wealth of primary sources, it’s a solid historical work, though Belliappa admits that he was very tempted to go the historical fiction route. “I gave it a lot of thought, and decided finally that the facts themselves were so sensational that they didn’t need fictionalising,” he says.
Since the book’s release in England last year, the author has uncovered even more interesting nuggets of information – for instance, after a bit of detective work, he’s discovered that direct descendants of Gowramma live on to this day in Australia.
“I have enough material to add at least an epilogue in future editions of the book,” he says. “It’s been a very exciting time.”