Varanasi, the timeless centre of the Hindu universe, has much written about it. One of the intriguing stories about this ancient city is that of Maharajah Chait (Chet) Singh and the first Governor General of British India, Warren Hastings.
Varanasi (Benares) at the time of this event was not yet part of the territory of the East India Company, but was considered of strategic importance. Varanasi was ruled by Balwant Singh from 1738 to 1770, who, although a vassal of the Nawab of Oudh, Shuja-ud-Daula, had considerable autonomy. Following his death in 1770, he was succeeded by his son Chait Singh.
In 1775 the Nawab of Oudh died, and the East India Company (the Company) decided that the governance of Varanasi no longer resided with Oudh, and wished to take over the city. Anxious to raise money to fight the war in Madras, Hastings decided to install a British Resident, Thomas Graham, and to charge Chait Singh the 2.3 million rupees that he would have paid the Nawab. He then imposed an additional “war tax” of 5 lakhs of rupees on Chait Singh from 1778 to 1779 who paid up with considerable reluctance.
In 1780, the Company demanded that Chait Singh provide them with 2000 mounted troops. Chait Singh ignored this demand, which resulted in the Company reducing its demand to 1000 mounted troops, with a counteroffer from Chait Singh of 500 mounted troops and 500 foot soldiers. Chait Singh failed to provide such troops. Hastings then decided to pay him a visit in 1781 with 500 soldiers and a few aides. The news of this prompted Chait Singh to offer gifts of several lakhs of rupees to Hastings, some of which was accepted and deposited with the Company.
When Hastings arrived at Varanasi, further negotiations having failed, he ordered 2 companies of sepoys to arrest Chait Singh. An odd fact is that these soldiers had not been provided with ammunition. The palace guard had no trouble slaughtering the sepoys. In the meantime Chait Singh escaped using a rope made of turbans. He lived in exile for another 30 years, a “broken man”.
This and other events later led to the 7 year impeachment trial of Warren Hastings with Edmund Burke leading the prosecution.