A remarkable event took place on 30 June 1852 in Queen Victoria’s private chapel at Buckingham Palace, London. An Indian princess was baptised in the presence of the Queen, her family, senior officials of the Government, and the Directors of the East India Company. The princess was 11-year-old Princess Victoria Gowramma, daughter of Chikka Veerarajendra, the last Raja of Coorg, who was deposed by the British in 1834, and exiled to Benares. Paradoxically, it was Veerarajendra’s wish that his daughter embraces Christianity and receives a Western upbringing. However, he had his own agenda.
The Governor-General at the time, Lord Dalhousie, and the directors of East India Company had their own reasons for giving permission to Veerarajendra and his daughter to travel to England. They were the first Indian royals to set foot in England. The Company hoped that the voluntary conversion of the princess would improve their sagging image in Britain.
Soon after the baptism, Queen Victoria presented Gowramma with a beautifully bound and autographed Bible. She surprised those present by announcing herself the godmother to the Indian princess. She further astonished everyone by lending her name ‘Victoria’ to Gowramma. Princess Victoria Gowramma of Coorg, as she came to be known, was the first Indian royal to embrace Christianity. As goddaughter of the Queen, she attracted widespread attention. Her conversion, and the unprecedented affection showered on her by the Queen and her royal consort Prince Albert were prominently reported. The Queen made it a point to invite Victoria Gowramma to her various palaces and socialize with her children. In order to ensure her goddaughter received proper respect in her court, Gowramma was accorded a rank equivalent to that of European princesses. Gowramma became a close friend of Princess Alice, the second daughter of the Queen.
Around the same time, the 14-year-old deposed Maharaja Duleep Singh of the Punjab expressed his willingness to convert to Christianity. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert concurred with the directors of the East India Company the advantages in bringing about a matrimonial alliance between the two Christian Indian royals.
Maharaja Duleep Singh arrived in England two years later in 1854, already baptised. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took an instant liking to the handsome 16-year-old Maharaja. They were impressed with his knowledge of English and commitment to Christianity. By then Victoria Gowramma had matured into a vivacious 13-year-old who was fond of ballroom dancing, parties, picnics, family get-togethers and other social events for which the Queen frequently invited her. Both the Queen and Prince Albert saw the two Indian Christian royals ‘pointed out for each other’. They took it on themselves to play cupid! Duleep Singh and Gowramma were invited together to various events in the numerous palaces including the Queen’s favourite getaway: Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The Queen commissioned her artists to make portraits and marble sculptures of Gowramma and Duleep Singh. By bringing them together, the Queen and her royal Consort hoped that romance would soon blossom.
In the meantime, the real purpose of Veerarajendra visiting England was revealed when he filed a case against the East India Company at the Chancery Court to recover large investments made in the Company by his uncle, Dodda Veerarajendra. It was the proximity to the Queen, because of his daughter, that prevented the Company from deporting him to India.
Gowramma, though popular in the social circles, was falling behind in her studies. Her guardians, Major and Mrs Drummond, requested the Queen to permit them to take Gowramma away from the distractions of London so that she could concentrate on her education. She was taken to Edinburgh where the Drummond’s owned a farm. Gowramma was most unhappy and missed the bright lights of London. In her depressed state of mind, she fell for the charms a young handsome stable boy in the farm. What started as casual flirtation soon became quite torrid. One day Major Drummond was shocked to find Gowramma and the stable boy in each other’s arms in a barn. The Queen was informed. To everyone’s surprise, the staid Queen was uncharacteristically forgiving of her goddaughter’s behaviour. Gowramma was brought back to London, and put under the guardianship of Sir John and Lady Lena Login, who were long-time guardians of Duleep Singh. The Queen hoped the Logins would be able to bring the two Indian royals closer, and fulfil her desire to see them married.
It was 1858. Gowramma, now a 17-years-old, was delighted to be back in London and to be invited again to grand events in the various palaces. The Queen made it a point to invite both Duleep Singh and Gowramma to banquets, Juvenile Balls, concerts, birthday parties and other events. However, Duleep Singh didn’t seem very much attracted to Gowramma even though they got along well. As days went by, Gowramma became more and more coquettish, and was visibly falling for European young men with blue eyes! One of the young men she was attracted to was the 17-year-old Prince of Wales (Bertie), already a known playboy!
On the Queen’s instructions, Logins took Gowramma on a tour of Europe with an extended sojourn at Rome. The tour was to give Gowramma a wider exposure to European culture, and also to improve her health since symptoms of tuberculosis were detected. Gowramma enjoyed visiting all the historical sites in Rome and the Vatican. One of the highlights was witnessing the annual Carnival – Mardi Gras – along with the visiting Prince of Wales, his German cousins, and Duleep Singh. Bertie and Gowramma were seen exchanging furtive glances. Bertie presented a bouquet of roses to Gowramma and gave her a peck, which raised many an eyebrow. Bertie invited Gowramma to a get-together the following day at the hotel he was staying. It was quite a raucous party. Gowramma got merry on wine and flirted openly with all the young friends and cousins of Bertie. Duleep Singh and the Logins were shocked at Gowramma’s inappropriate behaviour. Duleep Singh later made it known to the Logins that he was no longer interested in Gowramma as a wife, but would henceforth consider her as his ‘honorary sister’.