Konopiste: How the romantic castle became a part of India-Czech history

November 03, 2021 12:13 PM

The castle park and the romantic Rose Garden are also very popular. Many original pieces of furniture and valuable art collections have been preserved within. Several cultural events are held here.

india Czech historyImages Credit: Provided by (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan,

The romantic castle-chateau of Konopiste, 30 kms from Prague, is well known as the residence of the Austrian Archduke and heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand d’Este, who lived here with his family, and whose assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 triggered the First World War. His unique collection of hunting weapons and trophies is one of the greatest attractions at the castle. The castle park and the romantic Rose Garden are also very popular. Many original pieces of furniture and valuable art collections have been preserved within. Several cultural events are held here.

How many are aware that the Archduke visited India? The castle is full of memorabilia from India including priceless photographs of the places visited.

Konopiste was founded in the late 13th century as a Gothic castle. During the late 19th century, Konopiste came into the hands of the 24-year-old Franz Ferdinand d’Este, the oldest nephew of Austrian Emperor Francis Josef and later heir to the Habsburg throne. Born in 1863, Franz Ferdinand was the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria, brother of Emperor Franz Josef I. After his cousin Crown prince Rudolf committed suicide and his father died, Franz Ferdinand became heir to the Habsburg throne. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand bought Konopiste in 1887, with his inheritance from the last reigning Duke of Modena, and rebuilt it into a luxurious residence, which he preferred to his official residence in Vienna. The Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire then.

During the summer of 1914, as Inspector General of the Army, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, accompanied by his wife, went to oversee military maneuvers in Sarajevo, Bosnia, which, along with Herzegovina, had been annexed by Austria in 1908. On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, affiliated with the Black Hand Terrorist group that wanted to liberate the south-Slav provinces from Habsburg rule, shot and killed the Archduke and his wife in their car. Less than two months later, World War I began. The bullet that killed the archduke is at Konopiste.

Come 1st November, Europe starts wearing on their lapel the red poppy flower that grew on the graves of the fallen soldiers, until the sounding of the Last Post on Remembrance Day on 11 November at 11 am (of 1918 when the War ended). The ‘In Flanders Fields’ poem by a Canadian army doctor John Macrae and the poppy flower are the world’s most recognized symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict. I had occasion to salute those fallen, including several thousands of Indian soldiers who gave their lives so that Europe could be free, at the Flanders fields in Ypres, Belgium, when posted in Brussels, the Belgian capital from 2002-2005. At every subsequent foreign posting whether in Ottawa, Belgrade or Prague, I laid wreaths standing in the bitter cold of November 11 at 11 am in snow boots; imagine what Indian soldiers must have endured! Ceremonies will be held coming November 11 too.

After his assassination in June 1914, the chateau was nationalized in 1921. After WWI it was plundered and during WWII Konopiste became a Secret Service HQ. An ornate centuries old ceremonial shield was taken from Konopiste, along with other items from the castle’s armour collection, by the Nazis in 1943. It was earmarked for use in the planned Nazi mega-museum in Linz, Austria, to be renamed Fuherermuseum, which was never realized.

The State took over the Castle in 1945, and now the Central Bohemian Institute for Preservation of Historic Monuments in Prague looks after the chateau. In August of 2019, I was led into the castle by the Castellan. The visit was initiated by the India-Czech maestro Debashish Chaudhuri who knows more of the country than the Czechs! My son who was visiting me from the US accompanied me; he loves castles.

The castle is now open to the public. I was shown the residential rooms of Franz Ferdinand along with family paintings with wife, Sophie, and two daughters, a large collection of antlers, an armory of medieval weapons. There is a shooting hall with moving targets and a garden with Italian renaissance statues and greenhouses. It is a popular place for weddings. Initially constructed as Gothic, the castle was later transformed in a Baroque style.

A hunting enthusiast, the Archduke went on hunting expeditions in South Africa, Egypt, Australia and India, to name a few countries. Some 4500 hunting trophies and 3200 pairs of deer teeth are on display at the chateau. Originally invited by the Nizam of Hyderabad, I believe he visited India in 1893 for one and a half months between January to March. The British Empress (of India) took personal care of the visit; he received lavish hospitality on the Indian soil.

His travels in India took him from places like Golconda, Gwalior, Hyderabad (Char Minar), Secunderabad, Bombay, to Jeypore (Amber), Jodhpore, Agra (Taj mahal, Diwan-i-Khas), Bharatpur, Siriska etc. He even visited Benaras (Ghats), Calcutta, Delhi (Jama Masjid, Humayun Tomb) etc. The Archduke visited all the major landmarks. The framed photographs on display at the castle are a testimony. He was particularly awestruck by the artistic treasures bequeathed by the Mughals. Much of the hunting was done in Nepal, though, including wild boars and panther!

If his memoirs are anything to go by, he was mesmerized by the might of British imperialism, as he was with the diversity of India: from its barrenness to its chaotic cacophony, from extreme poverty to the splendors of the maharajas; from the piety of religious pluralism to the lack of human dignity. He had a keen eye for detail and tried to observe daily life of an ordinary Indian closely. For him India was less a land of wonders and more a riddle, ‘a territory of almost inexhaustible wealth in goods of all kinds (it) has a profound influence on our thoughts and dreams’.

The Castellan Mgr. Jana Sedlackova later invited me again to the Castle to kickstart an India related exhibition to showcase a whole lot of items hidden in their vaults and cellars, the main exhibits, which are rich, are only a part of the whole collection there.

History does not rest here. After his assassination by a Bosnian Serb, Austria declared war on Serbia. The telegram declaring war landed on the table of Nikola Pasic, the Prime Minister of Serbia (The kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes). He was a powerful politician who for 40 years worked to strengthen the kingdom against foreign influence and interference. His imposing life size statue adorns a major square in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. He had several properties. I landed in one of those on my arrival at Belgrade in 2013. Is it a coincidence that the over 2-acre Ambassador’s Residence in old Belgrade with a rose garden was once the hunting lodge of Nikola Pasic (pronounced Pashich)!

(The author is Former Indian Ambassador to Czech Republic. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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