New Delhi, India
May 28, 2012
In the case of Lutyens’s Delhi, the central avenue is Rajpath (originally called King’s Way). At one end is India Gate. At the other, rising beyond the twin buildings of the Secretariat, is the focus of the vista: the beige-and-red sandstone Rashtrapati Bhavan (‘president’s house’). Its construction was completed in 1931, and since then it’s been home to all the Indian presidents, besides the last few Viceroys.
Rashtrapati Bhavan (then known as Government House) was designed – furniture, fixtures, chandeliers, everything – by Lutyens himself. He was an unashamed critic of Indian architectural and design styles, and given a free hand, would have confined himself to a completely European look for the entire building. However, the then-Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, overruled Lutyens, and insisted that Indian elements be included in the architecture. What resulted is an unusual, sometimes whacky, combination of elements that is surprisingly quite effective.
Since Rashtrapati Bhavan is the residence of the President of India, it’s a high security zone. You can’t just barge in. As a casual visitor, you can approach the gates (beautiful wrought iron ones, designed by Lutyens). You can take photos of the exterior from there, and of the cannons outside, and of the columns with their carved stone elephant statues. Look for the carved caparisons of these stone elephants: each caparison has a circle carved into it. Originally, the letters GVR – George V, Rex – were carved here. After India’s independence, stone carvers were commissioned to carefully carve away those initials.
If you have permission to enter (more on this at the end of this review), go in at the gate, where your name(s) will be checked by the security officials to ensure they’re on the list of those registered for a tour. You’ll then be allowed into the reception area, where a photograph of you is taken by the local security on their webcam. (We were a large group – 31 people – and fitting all of us into that one photo, with our faces visible, was a bit difficult). If you’re on your own, you’ll have to show proof of identity – passport, for example. If you’re part of a group, whoever registered the group as its leader must show his/her proof of identity. After this, you’ll have to pass through security and a body search. All bags, cameras, etc must be deposited at the lockers – you’ll be given a token for this, which you keep till the tour ends.
Once you’re in, you can’t wander at will. Tourists are allowed into only half a dozen halls (Rashtrapati Bhavan has a total of 340 rooms, of which the President actually lives only in six rooms – the rest is taken up by offices, support staff, and – presumably – junk accumulated over the years). A Rashtrapati Bhavan guide gathers together a group of about 50 visitors – so, even if you’re already in a small group, you may find yourself joining other groups. The guide takes you through the rooms, gives a brief bilingual (English and Hindi) explanation about them, allows you a few minutes to look around, and then carries on.
Our guide, unfortunately, wasn’t very good; she didn’t seem to know much. Fortunately, we had our own group guide, a historian who pointed out all the interesting things about the building as we walked through it.
The Marble Museum: This impressively-named hall is the first hall on the tour. It doesn’t live up to its name, because it isn’t a ‘museum’ (just one gallery), and it isn’t all marble (just some of the exhibits are marble). However, this turned out to be one of the nicer halls: the walls are hung with impressive old full-length oil paintings of British kings and queens, Prime Ministers, Viceroys, Governors-General, generals, important officials, and their wives. There is also the upholstered chair Queen Mary sat on during the Delhi Durbar (the king’s chair can be seen in one of the corridors). All imposing, and interesting. Also part of the display are a few busts of some of these dignitaries. The best are two life-size marble statues of King George V and Queen Mary, in full regalia. These two statues originally stood in large niches on either side of the main doorway to Government House.
The Kitchen Museum: After the Marble Museum, we were led downstairs to the Kitchen Museum, which is a gallery devoted to the kitchen utensils, the crockery, cutlery, and glassware that has been in Rashtrapati Bhavan since it was first built. Although much of it would be pretty mundane to anyone familiar with sit-down European meals – the soup spoons, knives, forks, fish forks and knives, etc – some of it does consist of interesting cutlery that has vanished from modern tables, such as specialised cutlery for oysters, asparagus, and so on. Also on display is the Star Set, a turquoise-blue-rimmed crockery set designed especially for the Viceregal table.
The Gift Gallery: Although it sounds like a souvenir shop (which, by the way, is there in Rashtrapati Bhavan, next to Reception), this is actually a gallery devoted to gifts received by Indian presidents over the years. This is a mishmash of stuff: some of it is obviously junk, other stuff is less so. There are jeweled swords and boxes; ceremonial keys to London and Tokyo and other cities; statues; photographs of other dignitaries; a small foot-long Indonesian ship, complete with masts and rigging, made out of cloves; etc.
The Durbar Hall: This hall, used for important state ceremonies (high-ranking officials, ministers, chief justices and the like take oath of office here) is, for me, the most interesting of the halls in Rashtrapati Bhavan. It stands directly under the large dome that tops Rashtrapati Bhavan. The hall’s dome is modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, down to the circular opening – the oculus – in the centre. The square-tiled pattern inside the Pantheon’s dome is repeated here, in the form of hemispherical insets along the edges of the ceiling. There’s also a nod to local traditions in this hall: the carved stone screens fitted at the base of the dome are an almost exact copy of those you’ll see at Delhi’s Red Fort. This is also one hall where you’ll see a Lutyens invention: the Indian order of pillar capitals. This one echoes Hindu temple architecture: the capital of the pillar has simple carved stone bells at each of its four corners.
One last tidbit of information: at one end of the Durbar Hall, on a dais, is an ancient stone statue of the Buddha. It’s placed to face precisely in the direction of the India Gate, and its feet are exactly at the same height as the top edge of India Gate. (Lutyens had designed the dais to hold the Viceroy’s chair, which would symbolically thus ‘rule’ the capital; the Buddha is a post-Independence replacement).
The Ashok Hall: Once the ballroom, this hall is now used for state functions and concerts. The main feature here is the Persian-inspired paintings that cover the ceiling and the walls: they were painted in the early 1930s.
After the Ashok Hall, the guide led us out into the back, where the Mughal Gardens stretch. The gardens weren’t in bloom, so we contented ourselves with learning a bit more about the Rashtrapati Bhavan itself: that its dome, now a charcoal grey, isn’t stone, but bronze. That its length is 630 ft, exactly the same as that of Buckingham Palace. That the dome – and the railings around it – are copied from the ancient Buddhist stupa at Sanchi. That the large inverted stone bowls at the corners of the roof were originally fountains, which have since fallen into disuse. And that the rearing metal cobras – so cheesily ‘Indian’ – that mark a fountain, were part of Lutyens’s idea of an Indian element. That the tall star-topped stone column in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan is called the Jaipur Column; it commemorates the fact that the land on which Government House was built was bought from the Maharaja of Jaipur.
Once we were done, we were led out, back to security to gather up our bags and cameras, before heading out.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan was, for us, a mixed experience. The building is grand and very interesting; the corridors and rooms are decorated in typical Indian government office style: cheap, mass-produced, ugly stuff that’s an insult to the edifice in which it’s housed.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan is open to visitors on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 09:45 AM to noon, and from 02:30 PM to 04:00 PM. You must phone a few days in advance – a week would be good – to book a tour. Phone 011-23015231 (extension 4229 and 4479) for enquiries and registrations. All tours are free.
From journal Celebrating 100 Years of New Delhi