Note : Original article by Akshay Chavan
This is the story of one of the most opulent private residence built in Mumbai. Today, Mukesh Ambani’s Xanadu called “Antilla” towers over the city of Mumbai. It undoubtedly holds the title of being the most lavish Mumbai residence ever built. However, Antilla did have predecessors who shared the title of the most opulent homes in Mumbai. As per my extensive research on this topic, the homes which would qualify as most opulent Mumbai residences would be Petit Hall of Sir Dinshaw Petits, Jay Mahal palace of Gaekwads of Baroda and Samudra Mahal palace of the Scindias of Gwalior. Sadly,due to extremely high cost of real estate and maintenance costs involved, all three of them have been demolished and redeveloped into huge apartment blocks.
Recent discovery of some rare photos of Samudra Mahal by Shivang Vijay Singh of Dumraon, eldest great grandson of Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia has rekindled interest in the story of Samudra Mahal. It is part of Mumbai/Bombay that shall be forever be associated with a mighty kingdom in Central India, that of the Scindias of Gwalior. But why did the Scindias build a palace in Bombay?
In the late 1800s and early 1900s , Indian princes were encouraged to travel outside their states. Bombay (as Mumbai was called then) was a centre of commerce and trade. It was also famous for its racing season. As a result, large number of princes started spending extensive periods of time here. Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia was a financial genius of his time. He invested the financial surplus of the Gwalior state into various industries in Bomaby which gave handsome returns, making Gwalior one of the richest of Gwalior states. His closest advisor was Sir Framroze Eduljee Dinshaw , the financial king of Bombay. Sir FE Dinshaw was extremely busy man and hence could not visit Gwalior to discuss the financial affairs; hence, Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia felt that it would be better to have a suitable residence in Mumbai where he could stay for his extensive visits.
He purchased 20 acres of land at Worli point from Aga Khan. It was a spectacular location, with a small hillock surrounded by sea on three sides. It extended from Markandeshwar temple (a small Shiv temple) on one end and Haji Ali dargah on the other end. Maharaja commissioned the Gwalior State architect John Ritchie to build a large palace for him. John Ritchie built a spectacular palace on the hillock on the modernist style. The huge and opulent palace was built using finest teakwood, Carrara marble and Bohemian chandeliers. It was surrounded by a large park with impeccably manicured lawns, fountains and superbly cut flower beds. The rest of the estate included club house with swimming pool, tennis courts and gymnasium, staff quarters and extensive stables.
Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia must have truly loved Samudra Mahal as he made a WILL in 1925, in which he clearly stated that Samudra Mahal must never be sold and be always be used for the family. Madhav maharaj died soon after. His son, Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia continued the love affair of the Scindias with Samudra Mahal. Jiwajirao Scindia was one of the biggest and most successful owners of race horses in India. The racing season in Bombay began in November and extended till March. Jiwajirao would spend the season in Bombay at the Samudra Mahal which was virtually across the road from the race course to see his horses flying the Scindia colors win race after race.
During this time, a part of the Gwalior court would shift to Samudra Mahal. Maharaja Jiwajirao would fly down to Bombay in his personal aircraft but a vast army of staff would be dispatched to Bombay by road and rail. . His personal aides would travel with him but senior officers would arrive separately. Almost 50 cars would be sent down from Gwalior containing provisions sufficient for four months. The staff that moved from Gwalior to Bombay included typists, clerks, cooks, waiters, physicians, compounders, dressing boys, drivers and even dog boys to attend maharaja’s dogs. These people were in addition to the permanent based staff at Samudra Mahal. Thus, for few months, this part of Worli in Bombay would turn into mini-Gwalior with all paraphernalia of a grand princely court.
Samudra Mahal played an intrinsic part in the lives of the Scindias. Jiwajirao and Vijayaraje spent their honeymoon in Bombay. Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia writes as to how she entered her suite in Samudra Mahal to find every surface displaying spectacular jewels. Apparently, it was her birthday and Jiwajirao had ordered all Bombay jewellers to display their wares so that she could select whatever she wanted. When Vijayaraje Scindia was pregnant with Madhavrao Scindia (the politician), she stayed here and gave birth to the heir to the Scindia throne.
Jiwajirao Scindia as a big patron of racing, gave the Samudra Mahal stables on lease to the Amateur riders club to promote horse riding in Bombay. Thus, Amatuer riding club had its foundation in this very palace. Another important event was when noted social reformer Karamveer Bahurao Patil, visited Jiwajirao Scindia at the Samudra Mahal and asked for his help with his Rayat Shikshan Sansthan, an organization he had founded to spread literacy to India’s villages. Jiwajirao promptly donated 1500 acres of land and two of his ancestral palaces at Shrigonda and Jamgaon in Ahmednagar district. This original donation by the Scindias still forms a substantial part of the corpus of the trust which has done pioneering work in Maharashtra’s villages.
After independence, and the abolition of princely states, dark clouds descended on Samudra Mahal. The new socialist govt looked down upon lavish royal residences. In 1952, there was a big debate in the Bombay legislative assembly about confiscating Samudra Mahal and converting it into housing colony for lower income groups. Madhu Dandavate, Indian socialist leader of 50s and 60s decided to target the Samudra mahal. He got a group of homeless people and barged into the Samudra Mahal where they squatted in the main reception hall. The squatters were later evicted but this generated huge publicity in national and international papers.
The dark clouds which were hovering over Samudra Mahal were affecting Scindia family as well. Jiwajirao’s health was deteriorating day by day. The marriage of his eldest daughter Padmavatiraje Scindia to the Maharaja of Tripura was the last grand occasion to take place in Samudra Mahal. Invitation was sent to 10,000 people and the festivities were extremely lavish. The wedding even got a mention in TIME magazine. Sadly, Jiwajirao Scindia died soon after at Samudra Mahal with his wife and young son looking over him. The palace would never be the same again.
The Scindias were faced with a huge estate duty which had to be paid in cash. Scindias were asset rich but cash poor. So under bad advice, Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia decided to put the Samudra Mahal for sale. A group of buyers – Baburao Dhanwatey of Nagpur, Devchand Shah of Nipani and Manoharbhai Patel of Jabalpur purchased a large part of the state from the Scindias. The story of the sale of hazy and murky but what comes out is that Scindias ended with little or no money from the sale. The buyers demolished the palace, sold of the marble and crystal for pittance and but a large commercial complex called Shiv Sagar Estate. The small part of the palace clubhouse still with the Scindias was later developed into a lavish apartment tower where they maintain a lavish apartment.
Today, a large group of buildings including Samudra Mahal apartments, Eden hall, Madhuli apartments, Ceejay house and Poonam chambers stand on the once fabled Samudra mahal estate, while memories of one of the most opulent residences in Bombay ever built remain only in photographs and the name – Samudra Mahal – “Palace by the Sea”.