HIS Highness Anant Narain Singh, the 10th Maharaja of Banaras, could have made Ripley's Believe It Or Not as the strangest gourmet of the Indian culinary scene. I'm afraid, this is a dubious distinction that all Maharajas of the Banaras royal family have had to live down before him. By tradition, they are required to lead austere lifestyles, and one of the unwritten laws in the Holy City is that nobody, but nobody must witness them while they are dining. The reason being that Banaras Maharajas are Bhumiar Brahmins who believe that eating and drinking are a man's most personal habits. Nobody should be privy to these habits. Not even other members of the royal family. So they have always eaten in purdah. Strictly by themselves.
Maharaja Anant Narain Singh, who studied cooking in the Taj kitchen at Bombay and once single-handedly managed a banquet for the Aga Khan and President Zail Singh, is no different from the Maharajas before him. His understanding and liking of food enables him to plan the palace's sit-down dinners for visiting heads of state, royalty, and religious gurus. And when he takes friends out to dinner at restaurants like the Haveli in Delhi and Sea Lounge in Bombay, he will insist on ordering the food for them. But he can never eat on any of these occasions himself. That would amount to sacrilege. So, even though he is the host, the Maharaja will sit through the meal smiling and making small talk while everybody else has their fill. Nobody gets to see a Banaras Maharaja eating. Not even in photographs.
I don't know how it was in the past, but in Maharaja's Anant Narain Singh's case, I am told that tradition forbids even his wife, Maharani Anamika Devi, from sharing a meal with him. She cannot even be present in the room when he is eating. He has his meals in splendid isolation, sitting on the floor of the kitchen behind closed doors, eating out of a silver thali. His food is prepared by a team of Bihari cooks that has served the Banaras royal family for centuries. After the cooking is done, the head cook sends everybody out of the kitchen, then strips off and has a bath. Clad only in a dhoti and wearing a dupatta, he then washes the kitchen floor, spreads a cloth over it, serves the Maharaja's meal and leaves. Not even the head cook, J. Narain Thakur, who has been the royal chef for 40 years, has seen a Banaras Maharaja eating!
Fascinated by this legend, I made an appointment to meet Maharaja Anant Narain Singh at his royal residence, the Ram Nagar Fort, Palace and Museum, in Banaras. "You have been granted one hour. Come at noon and be on time, the Maharaja likes to take his lunch at 1.30 o'clock," I was warned by his secretary, Mr. Sukumaran Nair. Ram Nagar is a rambling, crumbling 17th century monolith built out of buff sandstone. It rises majestically out of the banks of the Holy Ganges. I got my first view of it from miles across the river. Towering pavilions, verandahs, carved balconies, domes and cupolas, magnificent halls, and the royal family's flag fluttering high above. The fort and museum, guarded by Uttar Pradesh's Provincial Armed Constabulary, are open to the public for a fee of Rs. 7, but entry to the palace cannot be gained unless the Maharaja lets you in.
I met him on the terrace of his private residence. He is a painfully shy young man who was coronated Kashi Naresh ("King of Varanasi") as recently as Christmas Day last year when his father, Maharaja (Dr.) Vibhuti Narain Singh, passed away after illness. Physically and mentally, I thought he had not yet got over the death. The hair had not grown fully on his shaved head. And his narrow, pointed face made him look more like Star Trek's Dr. Spock than the tele-serial's actor Leonard Nimoy himself. But he was dressed, and presented himself, like a Maharaja all right, in full costume and cap. Yes cap, these Maharajas don't wear turbans. I understand that when he travels, the Maharaja wears stylishly-cut and colourful designer wear.
This Maharaja enjoys travel, but unfortunately his peculiar eating habits restrict his movements to Bombay and Delhi only. A house has to be rented and a kitchen prepared for his Bihari Thakurs when the Maharaja travels. Or the guest house of the State Bank of Banaras has to be made available. He never stays in hotels (though he's the chairman of the Taj Ganges in Banaras, a five-star hotel built on the grounds of his summer house, the Nadesar Palace). And he's never been abroad. Worse yet (because Maharaja Anant Narain Singh is a gourmet), he's never tasted any foreign cuisines. Nor in-flight meals. No Chinese and no Continental. He only eats vegetarian Brahmin satvik food prepared by his Thakurs. And he's never drank any branded soft-drinks, nor wines and champagnes. No Coke and no Pepsi. And certainly no Sauvignon Blanc and Dom Perignon. He drinks Ganga jal. In fact, he likes to carry it in huge jerry-cans with him when he travels. Mr. Sukumaran Nair, who's been in the royal family's employ for 26 years, and who travels everywhere with the Maharaja, said he had not seen His Highness even have a glass of water. That's how traditional he was.
Now as he led me to a large marble bench on the cool terrace that overlooked the flowing Ganges, I asked Maharaja Anant Narain Singh about his mysterious eating and drinking habits. "Mysterious! What's mysterious? There's nothing special about my eating habits," he countered in genuine amazement. "I eat by myself in my own kitchen. My forefathers have all done so. Why? I don't know! Will I continue this practise in the future? I don't know... but why do you ask?" I confess, I was disarmed. Here was an educated man with a Benares Hindu University background, a gourmet with knowledge of cooking picked up in the Taj kitchen, but who was oblivious to the fact that he was unlike any other man on Earth as far as eating and drinking was concerned. What kind of food did he eat, I asked. "Vegetarian... satvik food," he replied. "I've never felt the need to be non-vegetarian. The whole world is slowly becoming vegetarian, and I am already one! I like all vegetarian food... but without onion and garlic in it. That's the only thing."
How did he handle curious guests at royal banquets who wanted to know why he wasn't eating with them, I inquired. "I tell them about my tradition," the Maharaja said honestly. "And later, when it's all over and the guests have gone, I eat my own food that has been prepared by my Thakurs in the palace kitchen." Was it true that he decided the menu for these banquets himself, even though he had not tasted outside food? "Yes," answered the astonishing Maharaja. "I am familiar with satvik food, and Banarasi sweets, and I am capable of telling even the chefs of the Taj what I want them to serve my guests. I did a bit of training in the Taj kitchen in Bombay, you know. It was quite an experience! I learnt to make different salads. But Ajit Kerkar instructed them not to take me into the kitchen when beef and mutton was being cut. I've seen cooking been done from close. I know what it's all about. But I cannot myself cook. I burnt my fingers. And I never enter the kitchen but to eat."
It was always satvik cuisine that the Maharaja offered his guests. He had stories to tell. Of a Saudi King who liked the food so much, he took a Banarasi cook back with him to his kingdom. And of Nepali Prime Minister Koirala, who had studied in Banaras and was familiar with the city's food. He was happy and surprised to eat it at a banquet he attended in the palace, and got quite nostalgic. There were other stories, of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Indira Gandhi and Mulayam Singh, of Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. And also of President K. Narayanan and his Burmese wife. The Ram Nagar Palace had seen some distinguished guests.
Maharaja Anant Narain Singh produced family albums to show me photographs of long tables groaning under the weight of food, with some of the world's most recognisable faces sitting around them. "All of them have been curious to find that we don't eat with them," he laughed.
It was getting on to 1.30 o'clock, and I could see the respectful Mr. Sukumaran Nair in the background, one eye on his wrist-watch. Since the palace kitchen served as his dining room and he had all his meals there, it must be a spanking, well-appointed, modern place, I said to the Maharaja. "On the contrary," he replied. "It is an old-fashioned kitchen. The Thakurs cook on wood-fires. There is a refrigerator and, yes, we got gas only recently. They don't use it. There's no microwave, but yet the Thakurs produce gourmet food. I've never missed outside food. Never thought of it. Anything that I want in vegetarian khana, they can cook. My tastes are simple. I don't even have Banarasi paan. My Thakurs even make sweets. Only the Chocolate Mithai we get from out. We buy it from Ram Bhandar. It is specially made for us. Do the people of
Banaras treat me like their King? Like the �Kashi Naresh!� Hmmn... I don't know. I don't feel like a King. I feel like a normal citizen."
And Maharaja Anant Narain Singh got up and went for lunch. I came away realising he had not even offered me a glass of water. I wondered why. Ripley would be delighted with him.