The Rajah: reformer, radical and religious

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When you visit the cemetery, one of the most prominent tombs is the ornate Grade II* memorial of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. But who was he and why is he remembered in Bristol?

Who was the ‘Rajah’?

Ram Mohan Roy was born in 1772 in Radhanagar India into a wealthy Kullin Brahman family. From a young age he thought a lot about religion and belief and nearly become a monk. As a teenager he began to question some Hindu practices. The young Ram Mohan Roy was intelligent and learned a number of languages including Bengali, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and English.   As a young man he used these skills to study ancient religious texts, and philosophies.  Later, his brilliance with languages allowed him to publish on multiple issues and communicate with a diverse range of people.

Social Activist

As a wealthy member of the social elite, Ram Mohan Roy could have led a life of luxury. However he chose to use his influence, intelligence and skills to improve the lives of people.

As a religious thinker Ram Mohan Roy was very against some religious practices in India,  in particular those affecting women and children.  He crusaded against some local customs including sati (widow burning), polygamy, child marriage and the caste system. At this time India was part of the British Empire and Sati was being tolerated under the rule of the East India Company. Ram Mohan Roy campaigned directly to the company to have it banned. Eventually the Governor General of British India passed ‘Regulation XVII’ in 1829. Even after his death, his legacy was used to fight for the abolishment of slavery as this short film ‘Relics of the Raja by Dr Suman Ghosh, Subject Leader Film and Media, Bath Spa University explains.

The Society of Brahmo’s

In 1828, he set up the the Society of Brahmo’s which was a movement of Bengali Brahmins, who fought against social ills. This organisation still exists today and many of these Brahmo Samaj visit the memorial of Rajah Ram Mohan Roy to remember his influence and good works.

The tomb has had many interesting visitors since it was built. A wonderful book set up Mary Carpenter records these visits. Swagata Ghosh shares some of these names in a wonderful short film called ‘The Tomb and the Tome‘ by Swagata Ghosh, Technical Operations Manager, Bath Spa University.

The Father of Indian Journalism

As part of his work to spread education Ram Mohan Roy also started publishing newspapers and magazines and he was called the “Father of Indian Journalism”. Using his language skills he edited the Bengali newspaper, “Sambad Kaumudi”, and the Persian newspaper “Mirat-Ul-Akbar”.

Why is he called ‘Rajah’?

In 1830 Ram Mohan Roy went to Britain as an envoy of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar Shah II, who gave him the title of Raja.    The Raja Ram was sent to ensure the Sati Regulation of 1829 was not overturned by King William and the British Government. Whilst in the UK he also took the opportunity to visit friends that he had been writing to on religious and social matters.

Why was he in Bristol?

Ram Mohan Roy came to Bristol to see his friend, Lant Carpenter who was a non-conformist preacher.  Whilst in Bristol he also met Lant’s daughter and future social reformer Mary Carpenter. His visit heavily influenced Mary and she also became a political and social activist. Mary’s grave can also be found at Arnos Vale.

Struck down by illness

During his time in England, the Rajah developed meningitis and died in Bristol in 1833. As a Hindu, his body should have been cremated but this was not allowed at the time in England. In addition to this he could not be buried in a Christian graveyard.  So he was initially buried in the grounds of Beech House, Stapleton Grove.

The making of a memorial

Rajah2012 ceremony rammohan roy

However such an important man deserved an fitting memorial and his remains were reburied on May 29, 1843 under his new chattri in Arnos Vale.  This was possible as the cemetery was founded as a non- religious site. His stunning tomb was funded by his friend and a co-founder of the Brahmo Samaj, Dwarkanath Tagore.

The founder of modern India

Due to Rajah Mohan Roy’s far reaching influence in India in the fields of politics, religion and education he is known as ‘the founder of modern India’.  His beautiful stone tomb in Arnos Vale is the most visited of all in the cemetery.

His monument reads: ‘Beneath this stone rest the remains of Raja Rammohun Roy Bahadur, a conscientious and steadfast believer in the unity of Godhead, he consecrated his life with entire devotion to the worship of the Divine Spirit alone. T great natural talents, he united through mastery of many languages and distinguished himself as one of the greatest scholars of his day. His unwearied labour to promote the social, moral and physical condition of the people of India, his earnest endeavours to suppress idolatry and the rite of sutie and his constant zealous advocacy of whatever tended to advance the glory of God and the welfare of man live in the grateful remembrance of his countrymen.’

It is worth noting that his last name is not Bahadur, it just means ‘a great man’ or ‘a brave man’.

Where else in Bristol can I discover the Rajah?

A life-size, bronze statue of The Raja can be found at at College Green between City Hall and Bristol Cathedral. The statue, sculpted by Niranjan Pradhan, was unveiled in 1997. The Rajah faces towards America, which would have been his next destination.

His portrait by Henry Perronet Briggs hangs in Bristol’s Museum and Art Gallery,  and there is also a bust of him on display inside City Hall

You could go and take a look at his original grave site at Beech House, Stapleton and there is even a pedestrian path at Stapleton called Raja Rammohan Walk.

In addition you could find Mary Carpenters’ grave in the cemetery. She met with him before he died in Bristol.

Further afield  there is a portrait of his adopted son Rajaram hanging in The British Library. Plus a blue plaque hangs on 49 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, London, WC1B 3DP

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The Rajah: reformer, radical and religious
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