British In India Museum Collection: 2 'An Indian Durbar'

This film is held by the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum (ID: 2006/082/002).


An Indian Durbar' (1926) Travelogue style film showing coronation of Sir Hari Singh as Maharajah of Kashmir.

Production / Donor Details: Shot by American travelogue film-maker Herford Tynes Cowling



From the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846 until the upheavals of Partition just over a century later, the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir was ruled more or less autocratically by the heirs of Maharaja Gulab Singh. From his trusted position within the armies of Ranjit Singh’s Sikh kingdom in the Punjab, by the early 1820s Gulab Singh had skilfully manoeuvred himself into possession of large swathes of territory in what would become Jammu and Kashmir. After the Sikh Empire’s defeat by the British East India Company in the Anglo-Sikh War of 1845-6, Gulab successfully obtained first recognition as an independent ruler over vast tracts of land which included the vale of Kashmir proper, and then, at Amritsar, a detailed and favourable arrangement with the British which saw him recognised as Maharaja of ‘all the hilly or mountainous country…east of the River Indus and west of the River Ravi’ (Treaty of Amritsar, quoted in Huttenback, 2004, 4). This was less a matter of silver-tongued negotiation than hard cash – Singh paid the British Rs. 75 lakhs (around £500,000) for Kashmir, and the treaty ‘amounted to a deed of sale’ (Lamb, 1991, 8).  

Despotic autocrats, deeply unpopular with most Kashmiris as foreigners, Hindus and tyrants, the Singh dynasty ruled their kingdom with such ruthless arbitrariness that the British were almost moved to intervene during the 1880s and institute direct rule. In the event they did not go quite so far, electing instead to station a Resident in the territory (previously there had only been an ‘Officer on Special Duty’), exclude the Maharaja (then Pratap Singh, Gulab’s grandson) from ‘all interference with public affairs’ and award executive power to a ‘Council of State’ which acted on advice of the Resident (ibid., 13). Lord Curzon reinstated some of the Maharaja’s powers in 1905, and by the death of Pratap Singh in 1925 almost all the original powers had been returned. Thus the incoming Maharaja, Hari Singh (a nephew of Pratap, educated in India ‘under English auspices’: Huttenbeck, op.cit., 136), inherited entitlements little different from those enjoyed by his 19th century forebears.

Hari Singh would be the last Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. Despite some early reforms, Singh proved scarcely more enlightened than his predecessors, and the Muslim majority of Kashmir remained in a state of near destitution, debarred from military service, excluded from significant office of any kind, subject to discriminatory laws (cow-killing, for instance, was a capital offence until 1934), and victim to swingeing taxes of up to 85% (ibid.; Lamb, op.cit., 83-4; Malik, 2002, 26-7).

An Indian Durbar shows Singh’s coronation as Maharaja. Dated 1926, it was shot by Herford Tynes Cowling, an American who had been cinematographer to the celebrated lantern-slide and film-lecturer Elias Burton Holmes, pioneer of the film travelogue. Cowling’s career began in 1909 when he had worked as a filmmaker for the US government in the Bureau of Reclamation; in 1916, several of his films on US national parks were deemed ‘sufficiently important for theatrical release by Gaumont’ (The Educational Screen, January 1942, 16). He had filmed in Kashmir before making An Indian Durbar – between 1922-24 he had accompanied the intrepid William J. Morden, a sometime Director of the Explorers Club and the American Museum of Natural History’s Field Associate in Mammalogy, on an expedition in Africa and Asia, journeys which resulted in several films including at least two shot in or near Kashmir, The Baltistan-Ladakh Hunt and Beyond the Vale of Kashmir (American Museum of Natural History; Morden himself was in fact in Kashmir during the first months of 1926 – he was bound for the Russian Pamirs to collect examples of the legendary Marco Polo Sheep (Ovis ammonpolii) – but Cowling was not accompanying him on the expedition (see Morden, 1928), and the film seems to have been produced independently, perhaps contributing to the reputation he had, according to a writer in the October 1942 edition of the US magazine The Educational Screen, as a ‘well known producer of travelogues’ (The Educational Screen, October 1942, 304).



Cowling clearly had official sanction to film at Singh’s coronation, as An Indian Durbar is both intimate and well planned. The opening shots are taken close to Singh within the place of the ceremony – a ‘Royal Caste Mark’ is placed on Singh’s forehead – and later sequences capture the Maharaja’s elephant procession from several positions along the route. The camera moves slightly in order to follow the procession, and captures events at both street level and from the first floor of at least two buildings, indicating prior awareness of the route, and significant advance planning of the filming (it is also possible that more than one camera was used). The first sequence of elephants advancing through the crowded buildings affords the single, brief glimpse of a European – a pith-helmeted British official rides in the fourth elephant to enter the shot. Later shots – including a sequence of tributes being paid to the new Maharaja by a succession of ‘chiefs’ – also indicate that Cowling had been permitted full access to the proceedings.

The pomp and circumstance of the coronation is evident, and Cowling’s intertitles report that Singh is wearing jewels ‘valued at twenty million dollars’. The display of power and wealth was surely not lost on the Hindu Maharaja’s subjects, the vast majority of whom were impoverished Muslims.   

While the film is a relatively standard short ‘interest’ film, presented in travelogue style, the subsequent history of Kashmir and the crucial role that Singh played in that history give the film a significance that goes beyond its main content.

It was in part due to Singh’s prevarication at Partition in 1947 that the disastrous Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan developed in such dramatic and tragic form. The demographic composition and geopolitical importance of the state marked it as an obvious bone of contention. Predominantly Muslim, it  might have fallen to Pakistan with whom it had much closer economic and geographic relationships; to the nascent India it remained geopolitically crucial and was also of great symbolic significance in the quest for a nation of secular character (not least to Nehru personally, himself of Kashmiri origins). However, whatever the manoeuvres and complexities of Partition elsewhere in British India, and no matter the machinations, controversies and obscurities that characterised the division of the Punjab, Kashmir’s closest neighbour, Jammu and Kashmir’s status as a Princely State meant that the final decision on accession devolved to the Maharaja.

Wishing to bide his time on the matter – he had refused to discuss business with Mountbatten when the Viceroy had visited him in Srinagar – and weighing up the possibilities of an independent Kashmiri state, Singh allowed Partition to come and go, and in September 1947, as convulsions of sectarian violence wracked the newly created Pakistan and India, he obtained a Standstill Agreement: a device which allowed a Princely State to maintain trade, communication and service agreements with all that had previously been British India, while a decision was taken regarding accession.

Discontent in Kashmir, brewing for some decades, began to boil over, and external actors began to appear. A well-organised armed rebellion in the western Poonch district could not be quelled, and Pakistan began to strangle Kashmir’s main supply routes of fuel and food from the Pakistani Punjab. At the same time a wave of Pathan tribesmen, very likely sanctioned by Pakistan, came to the aid of the rebels in Poonch, flowing into the state from the old North-West Frontier (there seems to be some dispute about the scale of this invasion: Huttenback suggests they came in numbers of up to 60,000, while Lamb gives a much more conservative 3000: Huttenbeck, op.cit., 162, Lamb op.cit., 134). On 24 October, Poonch declared independence as Azad [Free] Kashmir; on 26 October, Singh wrote to Mountbatten, effectively as a supplicant, prepared to accede to India. Two battalions of Indian Army infantry troops were flown into Srinagar the following day (ibid., 140).

Thus was the stage set for the first of the Indo-Pakistani conflicts over Kashmir. Cowling’s film, an exotic travelogue for an American audience, captures the moment that Singh succeeded to the position from which, just over twenty years later, he would play a such crucial hand, with such disastrous consequences.  

Francis Gooding 


Works Cited

American Museum of Natural History, New York: special collections catalogue

Huttenback, Robert A. Kashmir and the British Raj 1847-1947 (Karachi: Oxford University Press,2004)

Lamb, Alistair Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy (Melksham: Roxford, 1991)

Malik, Iffat Kashmir: Ethnic Conflict, International Dispute (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Morden, William J. Across Asia’s Snows and Deserts (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1928)

The Educational Screen, volume XXI, no. 1,January 1942, accessed at

The Educational Screen, volume XXI, no. 8,October 1942, accessed at




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