July 31, 2012

Alipore Zoo, Calcutta

“To those who can remember the dirty and rather dismal looking approach to Belvedere, the improved and satisfactory condition of the neighbourhood, at present, must afford a very striking contrast. Both east and west of the roadway leading from the Zeerut Bridge were untidy, crowded unsavoury bustees. Today we shall find on the site of the old bustees, the Calcutta Zoo. A very large share of the credit for the establishment of this pleasant resort is due to Sir Richard Temple, who was Lieutenant Governor of Bengal from 1874 to 1877, but long before the scheme assumed any proper shape, Dr. Fayrer, C.S.I., in 1867 and again in 1873 Mr. L. Schwendler (known as the 'Father of the Zoo') had brought forward and strongly urged the necessity of a Zoological Garden. The visit to Calcutta of His Majesty King Edward the Seventh, then Prince of Wales, was seized upon as an auspicious occasion. On the 1st January, 1876, the gardens were inaugurated by His Royal Highness, and in May of the same year they were opened to the public."
Sir H.E.A. Cotton, Politician–Barrister–Administrator–Journalist–Historian–Writer, in his book “Calcutta Old and New”

"Painted horses"

I am back in Calcutta (I don’t like the new name – Kolkata), the city as ancient as civilization and famous for its rich ancient customs that complement the poverty, filth and chaos of everyday life. For some one born and brought up in Delhi, comparisons are natural – Delhi is ancient but timeless and extravagantly royal, Calcutta on the other hand has long abandoned such pretensions – the city is vintage, the structures seem to be falling apart and yet the people make it work one way o the other, as if some magical force is holding its existence together. My ramblings were vast and my imagination soared sky-high as I made the 4-hour long journey, accompanied by two college friends Sunil and Aakash, from the sleepy suburb of Durgapur where our college is located to the heart of Calcutta with the simple motive of spending the entire day at Calcutta Zoological Park, popularly and in most official documentation referred to as Alipore Zoo. Though I, like all photographers, experience boundless pleasure in clicking nature and getting the occasional picture-perfect click, I do not possess the means to spend several days in exorbitant resorts in the middle of forests/sanctuaries like the Sunderbans or Kaziranga, and therefore zoos form an integral part of my itinerary whenever I get the rare opportunity to visit a new city/state. Alipore Zoo had long been on my list too, however my problems were compounded since most of my friends hate zoos and I was again stuck with the dilemma of having to travel alone and cut costs (which is a genuine issues given my spendthrift tendencies) – thankfully Aakash and Sunil came to my rescue the day before I was to travel to the zoo. So here I was, sitting cramped by the window seat of the bus and taking in the sunrise and the cold morning breeze while music blared loud into my earphones and my two companions slept unperturbed by noise and motion on adjacent seats.

The colors of Alipore

Alipore Zoo began out in the year 1800 as a small menagerie maintained by Arthur Wellesley, the then British Governor of Bengal, at his residence in Barrackpore, a suburb of Calcutta. Wellesley soon returned to England, leaving his collection in the care of one of his Zoologist friends. Plans were underway regarding establishing a proper zoo in Calcutta and they had support from the Asiatic Society of Bengal too, but couldn’t materialize due to unavailability of enough space to create a massive garden complex to house the animals – Sir Richard Temple, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, shifted the mini-zoo to Alipore and upgraded it into a formal, full-fledged zoo in 1873, thereby making it the oldest designated such property in the country. The zoo was finally inaugurated on January 1, 1876 by Edward VII, Prince of Wales and thrown open to the public the same year; the first batch of animals were from the private mini-zoo of the German electrician Schwendler, who also happened to be a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal besides involved in setting up of telegraph communication between Agra and Calcutta and studying the feasibility of electric lamp lightning of Indian Railways; a monumental stone obelisk still stands in the zoo complex in his honor. The zoo saw rapid expansion as many more animals were gifted by Indian and British residents from all over the country; today it has a gigantic variety of flora and fauna on display in its 45 acre campus. Initially, the zoo was maintained by Schwendler himself along with Botanist-Professor George King; the first Superintendent of the zoological garden was Rai Bahadur Ram Brahma Sanyal, a most notable manager of the species in the zoo and far ahead of his times when it came to animal husbandry and upkeep – he introduced several successful breeding programs to the zoo, and also maintained journals where he recorded all observations regarding the animals (housing, feeding, behavioral patterns, reproduction and treatment) which he later published as “A Handbook of the Management of Wild Animals in captivity in Lower Bengal” (1892).

Schwendler's commemorative obelisk

Sleep-deprived as we were (left college at 4:30 am to catch the first bus), and after enduring the long journey to Calcutta and then to the zoo, naturally the expectations were high in our minds and there was eagerness writ all over our faces. However, as soon as we stepped down from the rickety bus, we were disappointed to see the small gate of the zoo and the cramped spot it was confined in, I had already mentally started comparing it to the Delhi Zoo (refer Pixelated Memories - Delhi Zoo), which, flanked by a medieval fortress and with its large enclosures presents a postcard-perfect moment. A colorful and extremely chaotic, though monotonous in its fares, bazaar was operating outside the Alipore zoo; there were vendors selling ice creams, hats, faux leather belts and guavas, while a line of taxis stood at attention, ready to drop one anywhere one fancied to visit; if one escaped being heckled by a group of beggars in tattered clothes and braided hair, there always were taxi drivers heckling visitors with inquiries regarding where they wanted to go, irrespective of if one just stepped out of the zoo complex or a bus/taxi! Waiting in the queue at the ticket counter and promptly realizing my folly of comparing cash-strapped, congested Calcutta with affluent, flamboyantly lavish Delhi, I promised myself to keep an open mind and just take in the sights and sounds of the place instead of judging and photograph the beautiful birds, animals plants with the new camera that my maternal uncle very recently gifted me. 

Standing proud - Swamp Deer

A small board outside the zoo notifies public that no eatables, plastic materials and polythene wrappers are allowed within and photography is permitted for free but for videoing the premises one needs to pay Rs 250 per hour. Once inside, we immediately looked if there was a map depicting a general idea of the enclosures and walkways and after consulting it we decided to follow the path that first took us along the aviary cages and then the enclosures of lions, tigers and jaguars. The map was actually very old and ill-maintained, and at first we thought that the zoo was quite small, but then realized that even the faded portions of the map were part of the premises and we shall have to spend at least 4-5 hours if we wanted to explore the complex in its entirety. The zoo was almost deserted and besides us there were only a few tourists.

Astounding, right? - Pariah kite

The remarkable bird enclosures, visible from a distance, are impressively designed in several unique shapes and boast of ample space for the small creatures within – some resembled small pagodas with their roofs topped by pointed finials, while others were massive circular wells surmounted by conical roofs and divided into numerous smaller sub-enclosures – the extraordinary range of bird species that the zoo boasts of can overawe any visitor – there are peafowl, pheasants, mynas, macaws, parrots, parakeets, kites, ostriches, emus, cranes and pelicans, besides numerous migrant birds are also lured into making stopovers at the zoo by the prospect of vast green spaces and water bodies that it has to offer. To the grey-green monotony of the cages, the beautiful birds bring tinges of vibrance and heartwarming attractiveness; several of the enclosures are also equipped with large wicker baskets and baked-mud pots (“matka”) for the birds to nest in. However at first glance, the enclosures appear to be eyesores, given that the wire meshes are thick, rusty and often double-layered, making photographing the quick avian fellows all the more difficult – the weather was opening up and dark clouds rumbled overhead while we were exploring the zoo premises, but clicking the majestic peacock that had begun strutting around its enclosure with its magnificent plumage spread and glistening was near impossible thanks largely to the thick wire mesh.

Large - One of the bird enclosures; it is divided into numerous segments radially. 

Next we headed to the mega-fauna enclosures – the massive elephants were roaming about in the extremely humid weather, perhaps like us waiting for the dark, ominous clouds overhead to open up and drench the world; the obstinate tiger was content with lying down somewhere in his thickly vegetated open-air enclosure (bound by a wide moat), the tall grass ensured that we couldn’t catch a glimpse even though we had circumambulated the enclosure several times in no less than 20 minutes. Among the other animals that we saw which didn’t have open-air enclosures but cemented cages were striking white tigers, regal lions, a very muscular Royal Bengal tiger and a magnificent jaguar – the condition of these animals was deplorable since they were being housed in very small spaces with cemented floors that certainly would heat up in summers and be chilly in winters, besides not providing a natural, foliage-and-rock environment to these mighty beasts; visitors, largely uneducated in animal husbandry and even otherwise, made mockery of the animals, teasing them and rattling the enclosure bars every time the animal decided to sit in a corner or enter the shed at the back; many of them resorted to shouting and making loud sounds to scare the animals – I felt a surge of pity and even asked one of the boys there to not do the same, but to no avail! At least, in this aspect, I have to concede that Delhi zoo fares far, far better than Calcutta zoo – the maintenance of animals is superior, so is the enclosure size and the treatment meted out to the animals by the visitors and zookeepers.

Majestic - Indian Elephant, once a common sight on the country's streets but have almost disappeared now and can only be seen in zoos and protected wildlife sanctuaries.

Moving ahead we saw deer, not aplenty as in Delhi Zoo – the Calcutta Zoo makes up with gorgeous birds what it lacks in terms of deer specie. There was a lone rhinoceros, grazing in a corner of his large enclosure, a hippotamus who soon disappeared in the depths of his pool, a bear that when teased by visitors ran to hide in his cave and a gharial basking in the sun. In a corner of the zoo complex, a segregated area has been created for inhabitation of bat species, and there were literally several scores of them flying around the tree tops or hanging upside down from the branches, it sent a chill down everyone’s spine just to look at them and almost everyone (except us since we were so engrossed clicking them) proceeded rather sharp and rapid over the low bridge through the bat territory. I was reminded of the recently released Batman movie (The Dark Knight Rises) which I really enjoyed watching in a theatre just a few days back, again with the same set of friends. Underneath the bridge flows a deep artificial stream and on considerate observation, one can observe large shoals of blue-ish fish swimming under the clear surface. The Reptile House too is located close by, but it was under renovation when we visited and therefore closed for public entry.

An attempt at minimalist photography

There’s a restaurant just around the corner next to the zoo entrance – shaped like a storybook cottage and lined with stone tiles in orange and deep red, it seemed to have jumped out of the pages of “Hansel and Gretel”, though the food served consisted not of cakes and doughnuts, but rice, noodles and Chinese-style curry dishes. The entire landscape is dotted with numerous small shops offering refreshments like water bottles and ice creams. At certain times it seemed that the zoo has more green space than enclosures and looks more like a glorified garden – couldn’t the space have been utilized more efficiently, perhaps increase the size of existing enclosures rather than stuff so many animals in small, pitiful cages?

Classic storybook-like - The zoo's restaurant

The zoo, until 2006, was home to Advaitya, a 255-year old Giant Aldabra Turtle, said to be the same as the one in the private menagerie of Robert Clive of the East India Company – it was said to be the oldest documented living being alive at the time of its death. Robert Clive gained the East India Co. a foothold in the Indian subcontinent through territorial expansion following military campaigns against the Indian sovereigns and their proxies and governors, under the suitable excuse of avenging British citizens’ death in the notorious “Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta” (refer here Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial) – not just Clive’s fame, but also his huge tortoise far outlived him, in fact Advaitya saw the establishment of the East India Co.’s territorial rule, its demise, the “Quit India” Movement, independence and subsequent partition of India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh, besides the banalities and frivolities of everyday grind. The turtle was the zoo’s pride and its demise was deeply mourned by the zoo authorities as well as all the major newspapers of the country. 

Black beauty - Black-crowned crane

For the past few years, the zoo is in news for all the wrong reasons – inability to handle the large population of animals, thefts, inefficient and often unethical cross-breeding programs, death of animals due to stress and lack of space for movement and so on. The zoo has also been warned by the Central Zoo Authority of India (CZAI) about the same and it risks its license to handle and showcase animals being revoked – even PETA India has called the place a “death trap for animals”. Our trip, however, was a good one and we enjoyed the time spent there. So did the other visitors and kids we observed. Certainly the zoo does need to address the issues about animal health and care and also try to improve itself in terms of visitor experience – benches meant for the visitors were unclean, signboards on the cages detailing the animal/bird inside were either absent or old and faded, water taps were broken and water dripped from everywhere except the faucets themselves, plus more route maps definitely need to be installed with immediate effect. I would hate it if the zoo were to be closed down, but given the space crunch that they face, especially by the pressure exerted by urbanization and infrastructure development in the surrounding areas, the zoo cannot expand any further, and it would perhaps e in everyone’s interest to shift part of the animals to another area, or create subsidiary zoos – point in case, the aquarium just across the road maintained and funded by the zoo authorities (we couldn’t visit it since it had begun raining cats and dogs by then). Awareness campaigns, if possible to organize and sustain, would unquestionably go a long way to attract publicity and visitors and profit the zoo and its financial needs. In my opinion, the zoo is a must visit place, especially during the period of late July to November since that’s when the migratory birds, especially the large and stunning Sarus crane, travelling to their winter destinations stop by at the zoo. 

A thing of beauty..

Location: Alipore
Open: All days except Thursday (If a holiday falls on Thursday, the zoo remains open that day and the weekly closure is observed on the next available working day).
How to Reach: One can avail bus/taxi services from different parts of the city. The locals, especially the bus conductors/taxi drivers, recognize the zoo by its vernacular nomenclature “Alipore Chiria ghar”, since most of them are uneducated, hence it’s better to ask them in vernacular.
Timings: The ticket counter opens from 9 am to 5 pm; the aquarium opens from 10:30 am to 5 pm
Entrance fees: Rs 20 (Rs 5 extra for the aquarium)
Photography charges: Nil
Video Photography charges: Rs 250
Time required for sightseeing: 4 hrs
Relevant Links -
  1. Deccanherald.com - Article "Alipore Zoo as vulnerable to animal theft as before" (dated Aug 28, 2014) by Prasanta Paul
  2. Kolkataonwheelsmagazine.com - Kolkata zoo
  3. Kolkatazoo.in (Official website of Alipore zoo)
  4. Lankabusinessonline.com - Article "In Indian zoos, life can be brutal and short" (dated June 5, 2006)
  5. Maamatimanush.tv - Article "Historic changes at Alipore Zoo – Model for the rest of India" (dated Nov 11, 2013)
  6. Outlookindia.com - Article "The Thief, His Tortoise, Their History, And The Revenge Of Myth" (dated April 28, 2006) by Vinay Lal
  7. Telegraphindia.com - Article "Zombies at Alipore zoo" (dated Aug 14, 2013) by Zeeshan Jawed
  8. Thehindu.com - Article "Under foster care" (dated Aug 18, 2013) by Shobha Roy
  9. Thehindu.com - Article "Want to adopt a lion? Come to the Alipore Zoo" (dated Aug 4, 2013) by Shiv Sahay Singh
  10. Thehindu.com - Article "Where past overshadows present" (dated Jan 14, 2001) by Gautaman Bhaskaran
  11. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Parched & pained: it’s a dog’s life at Alipore zoo" (dated June 9, 2003)
  12. Wikipedia.org - Alipore Zoological Gardens
  13. Wikipedia.org - Carl Louis Schwendler

July 27, 2012

Presidential House, New Delhi

“From the middle of the King’s Way, it (the dome) appears to be neither behind the Secretariats nor in front of them. Enough that, in a symmetrical plan, it lies between them. For its character is so arresting, so unprecedented, so uninviting of comparison with known architecture, that, like a sovereign crowned and throned, it subordinates everything within view to increase its own state, and stands not to be judged by, but to judge, its attendants. The Secretariats, remarkable buildings in themselves, exist only in relation to it, and inasmuch as they minister to its success. Its individuality, its difference from every dome since the Pantheon and particularly from the domes adjoining, lies in its intrinsic solidity. It has the character of a pure monument..it seems not to have been built, but to have been poured compact from a mould, impermeable to age, destined to stand for ever, to watch the rise of an eighth Delhi and a hundredth Delhi. Let the breath of destruction threaten all around; this it cannot penetrate.” 

– Robert Byron, The Architectural Review, "New Delhi" 

The President's palace

The Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, also known as the Presidential House or the Presidential Palace, is regarded as one of the most magnificent regal buildings in the entire world and guarantees to blow one away with its grandness and royal charm. Sadly the premises, often admired as well as derided as symbolic of British resolve and pretensions of invincibility, remain closed for public entry for a larger part of the year and open only during the month of February when rare and colorful roses and tulips in the renowned Mughal Gardens bloom – I visited the place this month when I was taken for a guided tour of the nearby located Parliament House (read here for the complete story – Pixelated Memories - Parliament House) and hence could only savor its grandeur from outside and see part of the complex through the large, ornamental iron gates, emblazoned with gold medallions bearing the Ashokan lions, the symbol of Indian sovereignty – but even the little that is visible behind the decorated, intricately designed gates yields credence to the extraordinary conceiving and crafting of the entire structure and fills one with pride upon seeing the seat of Indian governance housed in a comparatively modern marvel of architecture that still competes with the architectural and artistic grandeur of the other sites that this city, strewn with magnificent tombs and gigantic monuments dating several centuries back, boasts of. The grandly classical structure was designed and built by the British, after evacuating and demolishing the villages that stood at this site prior to the construction, as the Viceregal House in a symbolic gesture declaring to the revolting Indians that they were here to stay, but as the curse of Delhi goes – whenever a new lineage of kings establishes their capital in Delhi, they soon lose all their fortunes and spoils – the British were soon ousted from the country. Indians, to whom the governance and administration were then transferred, quickly rechristened the building as the Presidential House and it has since seen Delhi being transformed from a city under construction to the capital of one of the largest powers in the modern world. Situated alongside the twin majestic Secretariat Blocks and the gigantic Parliament, the architectural masterpiece is the seat of Indian politics and power from where all laws, governing a nation of over 1.29 billion citizens, emanate and are monitored.

Fountains and greenery. Notice the ornamental cannons too. (Photo courtesy - Indiatvnews.com)

The first feature of the palatial building that catches a viewer’s eye is of course the colossal dome surmounted on the colonnaded front facade – inspired by the stupa at Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh) according to architectural scholars (and not by Pantheon (Rome) as Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the chief architect, had declared it to be), the giant dome, measuring 22.8 meters in diameter, becomes visible from afar when one begins to walk towards the place from the opposite located India Gate or the Parliament House. The entire enormous building sits on a majestic artificial plateau known as the Raisina Hill and as one approaches the traffic square from whence the Secretariat Blocks (refer Pixelated Memories - Secretariat Blocks) begin to visually appear as conjoined flanks of it, one can observe the large incline cutting through the walls of the Blocks and rapidly inching towards the top where the outline of the massive dome and the equally enigmatic, towering Jaipur Column (more on it later) dominate the horizon. But from here, the copper-clad, purplish dome appears far from the giant that it is; in fact as one begins walking up the incline it gradually diminishes in size and disappears as a consequence of the immense gradient angle, but reappears immediately as one begins to draw level with the top of the incline and then makes its vastness apparent – this optical phenomenon has its background composed by an interesting tale of how two close friends, Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, the city planner-architects tasked with converting the colonial vision of an inspiring capital into actionable plans and enormous structures, fell out following professional differences in opinions regarding the conceiving and construction of this remarkable capital – originally the Viceregal House (as the Presidential House was then known as), Lutyens’ brainchild, was supposed to be on top of the Raisina Hill so that its magnificence could be observed and wondered at from afar; but Baker, entrusted with the design and construction of the warm Secretariat Blocks and the Parliament and also supervising the construction of the Viceregal House according to Lutyens' plans (since Lutyens decided the cold, hilly ambiance of Shimla suited him better), got Lutyens to agree that the Secretariats would be better suited seated along the incline and the Viceregal residence could be shifted to the other side of the plateau. It was only later that Lutyens realized that the consequence would be that from the Secretariat side, the Viceregal residence would visually disappear once one began walking towards it and that, in his opinion, was an architectural travesty since his regal masterpiece was supposed to be the toast of the new capital (it still is!). He felt that the Secretariat Blocks obscure the grandeur of his Viceregal House and held Baker, one of the most eminent architects of his age and the chief designer of British South African capital Pretoria, responsible for this (despite himself approving the plan in the past), even going to the extent of considering his inability to get the plans modified later on as his defeat at “Bakerloo”!

Recently issued stamps depicting the palace and its architectural features. I purchased the entire sheet from General Post Office, Calcutta, another beautiful Victorian edifice. (Photo courtesy - Rainbowstampclub.blogspot.in)

Despite their bitter quarrel, both Baker and Lutyens believed that the imposing structures they were building should reflect an amalgamation of the Indian and British styles of architecture, but went about it very differently – while Baker used classical European architectural forms (like the colonnaded pavilions of Parliament House) with Indian architecture as subdued decorations (pierced stone lattice screens (“jaali”) of Parliament House and Secretariat Blocks), Lutyens tried to achieve a fusion of the two (the dome, Buddhist railings and overhanging eaves (“chajjas”) of the butterfly-shaped Victorian style Presidential House). But the latter remained in his personal correspondence and communications deeply disenchanted with and fiercely against Indian architecture and artistic preferences as well as the lifestyle and social practices of the subcontinent (which explains his vehement denial that the imposing dome was drawn from the Sanchi Stupa or that the sculptures of lions and elephants in the gardens were based on Indian artistic preferences). Openly scornful of Indian beliefs and the attempts of architects to create an Indo-Victorian fusion architectural-artistic style, he never explained why he believed in the Indian legend that guaranteed a dynasty’s reign in Delhi as long as its bells did not toll and embedded realistically sculpted stone bells below the eaves of the palace. He also went on to invent a new style of carved pillars for the front facade of the Presidential House – christened as “Delhi Order”, these neo-Classical columns fuse Greek and Indian elements and use Indian bells as ornaments hanging along the capitals (pillar head) between the flourishes of Acanthus leaves.

Stone bells, Indian legends and Lutyens' disbelief (Photo courtesy - Indiatvnews.com)

The building was to be built in 4 years following King George V’s unprecedented durbar in Delhi and the subsequent announcement to shift the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi (until then, the Viceroy lived at and administered the subcontinent from Calcutta's Raj Bhavan, refer Pixelated Memories - Raj Bhavan, Calcutta), but soon thereafter the work came to a near halt as a consequence of the heavy toll of men and resources that World War I exerted on Britain and its colonies, including India. In 1929, after 17 years of hard labor on the part of architects, supervising engineers and construction workers, the enormous palace, consisting of 340 lavishly furnished rooms, 15 acres of heartwarming ornamental Mughal Gardens, numerous outhouses, its own hospital, swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, stables for the Presidential guard of cavalry and camel-mounted soldiers and a huge golf course, all spread over 330 acres of prime space in the heart of the city, was finally handed over to the Viceroy as his official residence. It remains till date the world’s largest residence of any head of state – in contrast, the White House of America is sprawled in just 18 acres, slightly more than only the formal gardens of the Indian President’s residence! The entire building that was constructed at the cost of Rs 1.2 crores (12 million) today costs the exchequer Rs 100 crores (1 billion) for maintenance per year!

Lavishly regal - The North Drawing Room where the President meets important dignitaries and government ministers (Photo courtesy - Indiatoday.intoday.in)

It would be fairly incorrect to consider the Presidential Estate only Lutyens’ architectural legacy, even though he was involved in finalizing almost every detail, right from the architectural plan to the design of furniture and shape of door handles – numerous other architects and administrative officers, including Viceroy Lord Hardinge who had envisioned the shift of British capital from Calcutta to Delhi and wanted the buildings to assimilate Indian features in a British framework, were also involved in the planning and even design of numerous components of the estate. In fact, Lutyens was unequivocally opposed to the utilization of red sandstone in the construction of these fantastic edifices and was convinced that white marble should be the preferred choice. Lord Hardinge had insisted upon the creation of Mughal Gardens as opposed to Lutyens’ obdurate desire for an English garden; the gardens were eventually landscaped and planted respectively by the architect Walter Sykes George and W.R. Mustoe, Director of horticulture. Drawing from the Indian architectural motifs which employ elephants and lotus flowers as the primary artistic motif, the British sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger designed the beautifully decorative lamp-bearing stone elephants that mark the enclosure walls of the Presidential Estate and exist at the flanks of the ornamental gates.

Jagger's lamp bearers (Photo courtesy - Phototravelings.blogspot.in) 

Commemorating the efforts of His Highness the Maharaja of Jaipur Major-General Sir Sawai Madho Singh who had partly commissioned, through his rich treasury, the building of New Delhi, the huge Jaipur Column, installed in the middle of the vast lawns separating the ornamental gateways from the palatial building, was also designed by Jagger. Piercing the sky, the unusually designed pillar consists of a 148-feet high ornamental column surmounted by a brilliant six-pointed glass star (“Star of India”) emerging from a lotus-shaped bronze pinnacle. The flower and the star together weigh over 5 tonnes! Carved into the column is a plan of Delhi as it was envisaged by the planners and the inscription –

"In thought faith 
In word wisdom
In deed courage
In life service 
So may India be great."

An unparalleled majesty - View of the court and walkway leading to the Jaipur Column and the palace (Photo courtesy - Wikimedia.org)

Interestingly, Indian Presidents and their families do not use the luxurious living quarters that Lutyens designed for the Governor-General and instead occupy only a few rooms spread over two floors of one of the wings of the house – the humbly down-to-earth C. Rajgopalachari, the first and last Governor-General of independent India, opted not to live in the master portions because of the out-of-place royal feel they afforded and instead chose to convert the considerably smaller rooms belonging to the Vicereine’s lady-in-waiting into his residence – all Indian Presidents since then have followed the tradition and live in the same rooms. The Viceregal rooms are now used to luxuriously accommodate visiting heads of other countries when they travel to India.

Mughal Gardens - Trees, walkways and water channels. The two smaller domes in the background are Herbert Baker's Secretariat Blocks (Photo courtesy - Blog.theotherhome.com)

Apart from the humongous dome that is flanked by a small domed turret in each cardinal direction and connected to the roof by a white perforated screen resembling a Buddhist railing, the monotony of the tremendously large roofline is only interrupted by the chattris (domes mounted on slender pillars) and saucer-like fountains built into the structure. Given that it is nearly impossible to see a living soul within the compound to actually compare the size of the megaliths or justify the enthralled response the various features of the palace evoke in several writers and photographers who have been close and inside, one feels an explicable difficulty in understanding the true extent of the gigantism of the entire building and even its numerous features. Photographs, though extremely useful in visualizing the individual features, undeniably fail to evoke the mesmerizing effect that the place has upon visitors and onlookers who had not expected its colossal proportions. The interiors are lavishly rich and adorned with tasteful tapestries, luxurious drapes, rich carpets, captivating paintings, expensive chandeliers, realistic statues and priceless antiques. There is even a large library possessing over 20,000 books on several topics, a museum and several courts for outdoor sports including polo. The Durbar Hall (Throne Room), located immediately underneath the dome, boasts of a 2-tonne chandelier and a statue of Gautam Buddha belonging to 5th century BC. The Ashoka Hall, originally a ballroom but now used for ceremonial occasions like swearing-in ministers and Governors, is adorned with a striking ceiling painting depicting Fateh Ali Shah, the King of Persia, hunting with his sons.

Awe-inspiring! - The Ashoka Hall where state ceremonies are held  (Photo courtesy - Indiatoday.intoday.in)

The entire fortified area is guarded by policemen and security officers round the clock and protective barriers have been put in place on all roads leading to it; cars too aren’t allowed to stop for more than two minutes around the Presidential House or the Secretariats; photography, though not prohibited, is limited by the presence of security officers and army personnel; armored vehicles recce the area intermittently and armed personnel carriers are a common site around this secure fortress. All this ensures that the place doesn’t get the same amount of attention from tourists as other monuments in Delhi – and that’s one reason that there are so few photographs and information about the ceremonial “Change of Guard” that takes place every Saturday morning in the Vijay Chowk square opposite the Secretariat Blocks or the dazzling sight that the area turns into on national holidays like Republic Day (26 January) and Independence Day (August 15) when it is lighted up with brilliant incandescent bulbs and adorned with vibrantly colorful flags. I intend to return to photograph the structures on both occasions as soon as I return to Delhi permanently.

Nocturnal glory (Photo courtesy - Trekearth.com)

The architectural marvel that the Presidential House is speaks highly of its British architects and Indian engineers and workers (most renowned of course thanks to Khushwant Singh’s numerous essays and articles – Sujan Singh and Sobha Singh, his grandfather and father respectively), the likes of whom do not find a mention in the annals of modern history, yet played their parts in shaping (or rather, constructing the modern capital of New Delhi. The regal structure, along with the marvelous Secretariat Blocks flanking it will charm you and force you to peer closely and try to find a living soul inside the elaborately detailed grille iron gates; the beautiful Jaipur Column will force you to photograph it; and in case you visit during the months of February-March, the Mughal Gardens in all their bloom are a treat against the city’s cement jungles. And every visitor does experience the same enchantment that Robert Byron (who was very biased towards Lutyens and antagonized Baker through his highly critical commentary about Parliament House/Council House. His quotes can be read in the post about the Parliament House – Pixelated Memories - Parliament House) did when he visited the new British capital soon after its unveiling and admiringly wrote about the principal structures and city plan in “The Architectural Review” (year 1931) –

“The building is remarkable for its gigantic size, its perfect proportion of mass and detail, its colour and its ponderous adhesion to the earth. But its essential genius, its novelty, lies in the way these qualities have been brought to serve a taste in architectural form which pertains specifically to the twentieth century…The Viceroy’s House at New Delhi is the first real justification of a new architecture which has already produced much that is worthy, but, till now, nothing of the greatest.”

More of the Mughal Gardens (Photo courtesy - Indiatvnews.com)

Location: Raisina Hill, New Delhi
Nearest Metro Station: Central Secretariat
How to Reach: The Central Secretariat metro station is located immediately next to the Parliament House, only 15 minutes walk away. Private cars should be avoided as stopping in this high-profile area is not allowed.
Timings: Entry prohibited except in the months of February-March when Mughal Gardens are opened for public viewing. The timings and dates for the same are notified to the general public by various media channels.
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Other monuments located in immediate vicinity –
  1. Pixelated Memories - India Gate
  2. Pixelated Memories - Parliament House
  3. Pixelated Memories - Secretariat Blocks
The seat of British administration before the capital shifted to Delhi - Pixelated Memories - Raj Bhavan, Calcutta
Suggested reading - 
  1. Blog.buzzintown.com - A day in Rashtrapati Bhavan..now possible for commoner
  2. Forbes.com - Article "Lutyens' Legacy" (dated Feb 07, 2007) by Pranay Gupte
  3. Hindustantimes.com - Article "Rashtrapati Bhavan: A house Pranab would savour most" (dated July 24, 2012) by Charu Sudan Kasturi
  4. Nationaltrust.org.uk - Sir Herbert Baker: A great British architect
  5. Outlookindia.com - Article "Lutyens' Delhi" (dated Oct 01, 2007) by Aman Nath
  6. Presidentofindia.nic.in - Official website of the President of India
  7. Rashtrapatisachivalaya.gov.in - Official website of the President’s Secretariat
  8. Theguardian.com - Article "Restoration plan for India's President House after years of neglect" (dated July 18, 2014)
  9. Travelingticker.blogspot.in - Mughal Gardens - Rashtrapati Bhawan (President's House)
  10. Victorianweb.org - The Viceroy's House (Rashtrapati Bhavan), by E. L. Lutyens
  11. Wikipedia.org - Edwin Lutyens
  12. Wikipedia.org - Herbert Baker

July 22, 2012

Operation ASHA

So I am back in “chaotic” Calcutta to attend the new semester of college & there is crazy written all over the place. Classes that seem never to end, boring lectures & the hostel room allotment fiasco – there is so much on my hands that I have not been able to write for several days. Only good feeling these days is the pride on raising my batch mates’ eyebrows by telling them about the experience I gained during my summer internship. I was working for a non-profit, non-Govt. organization called Operation ASHA (OpASHA) for 7 weeks back in Delhi. I have been thinking since then about writing a post about the amazing work done by Operation ASHA (“ASHA” means “hope” in Hindi). So here it is.

The NGO has the mission of eradicating Tuberculosis (TB) from the world over, & with its centers in India & Cambodia & expansion plans for African nations, it is slowly inching closer to its aim. Yet a lot needs to be done & the time for celebration hasn’t come yet. TB as a disease has become one of the biggest scourge of the developing world, killing several million people every year & orphaning several thousand children. One-third of World’s TB population lives in India, & here I shall focus on the Indian context only. The disease is perfectly curable & the medicines & diagnostic facilities are provided by the Govt. of India free of cost under a scheme called RNTCP/DOTS.

The condition is aggravated by the fact that the treatment course takes more than 6 months & most people quit the treatment mid-term (default), leading to complications & drug-resistant TB. This is where OpASHA becomes more efficient than other treatment providers. By employing a huge work force of Counselors who would provide the treatment to the diseased, alongside detecting new patients & motivating the existing ones not to deter from their treatment course, OpASHA tries to minimize default rate to less than 3%, which is much lower than the figures of Govt. of India & other NGOs. I had the opportunity of interacting with several such Counselors & patients.

HOPE - Giri Prasad, a TB patient in New Delhi, is a tailor by profession & hopes to get well within 6-months by completing his treatment course under OpASHA supervision. He wants to get back to his tailoring business & relieve his father (behind) of the pressure of looking after the family.

Oh, I almost forgot, must tell you about my assignment there. I was supposed to write the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for various field operations & tasks. Alongside I did photography for OpASHA & also helped interview patients & Counselors in order to help spread awareness about their suffering in order to raise more funds for the NGO. A large part of my job involved working in coordination with the Counselors & the office staff. The personnel employed by OpASHA were individually very efficient & eager to do their part in community service. Most of them are young & armed with great experience, they are here to make a change.

OpASHA New Delhi staff

OpASHA opened several centers throughout India – in Delhi, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh etc so that patients don’t have to walk for more than 10 minutes from their residence to take the medicines (TB treatment under WHO guidelines specifies that patients consume the drugs under the supervision of a trained personnel to prevent missed-doses, most patients avoid medicines & quit the treatment because of the side effects involved). The NGO soon aims to reach the tribal population too. This is going to be a new challenge for the organization as most of the tribal groups don’t even have a recognized dialect or written script. The organization tracks its patients by a unique system called eCOMPLIANCE, developed in association with Microsoft, where through small laptops & fingerprint readers all patients are registered to a central database & their attendance marked whenever they visit OpASHA center to consume the medicine (on their scheduled time of course). At the end of the day the data is updated to the central record system via an internet connection & simple phone text messages are sent automatically to the concerned Counselors regards their absentee patients & they then visit the patient’s home to administer medicines. The staff is proud of this system of Biometric mapping, which is a brainchild of the CEO Sandeep Ahuja. An entire team of technocrats is devoted to the upkeep & upgrade of the system.

When I visited the urban slums of Delhi, I saw poverty which I cannot describe in words. The suffering, the misery, the pain & desolation of patients would move anyone. The centers are located at places where there are electricity cuts for more than 4 days at a stretch, water supply is erratic, medical facilities are non-existent, education is but a distant dream & poverty & malnourishment abound in every corner. The shadow of death lurks in every corner. I tried to capture some of the emotions through my camera, yet it was a task next-to-impossible.

DESPAIR - Diagnosed with TB second time within a single year of being cured, Vipin Jha is battling malnourishment & a growing feeling of despair. The sole breadwinner of a family consisting of 4 daughters, all less than 10 years of age, & wife, he is now bedridden. If not provided with food immediately, his chances of survival are low.

OpASHA is doing a really commendable job & we must all show solidarity with the patients by helping the organization expand its operations base by contributing monetarily. I feel that all of us should donate to OpASHA whatever amount we could muster, no matter how minimal, & help them help our fellow men & women in distress. Please see the following link for the same –

Donate to Operation ASHA

Photos © Sahil Ahuja/Operation ASHA

July 13, 2012

Delhi Gate, New Delhi

Suppose you are walking down a street flanked by a bustling marketplace on both sides - the shops stock everything - clothes & accessories, electrical instruments & articles that have become a commonplace in the modern world. The street is in fact a modern one, wide, filled with cars & low-floor buses, there are banks, hospitals & ATMs jostling for space with mosques & Victorian buildings. All of a sudden you come across a medieval structure with arches & bastions, standing in the middle of a traffic square & looking down upon the passer-bys with an impertinent gaze. What would be your reaction??

Mine was literally "Oh Delhi!". The city never ceases to surprise me, every time I think I have covered an entire area & there isn't much left to document, a new structure pops up out of nowhere. So here I was in Shahjanabad (now referred to as Old Delhi), the city that the Mughal emperor Shahjahan (ruled AD 1628-58) established in the year 1638 - Shahjahan had intended the city to be a replica of paradise, had commissioned huge mansions for his nobles & generals, built wide-tree lined avenues, created canals & public squares. But as the city's population increased, magnified by the influx of migrants from Pakistan after the country was divided, Shahjanabad turned into cramped quarters, the mansions were divided into smaller houses, the streets were taken over by shops & flea markets, the ancient structures have all but disappeared. Just a few of them survive not being encroached upon - the Delhi Gate that now stood before me was one of them.

Shahjanabad was enclosed by a high rubble wall as a protection against foreign invaders. The strong wall was interrupted by 14 large, square gates & several smaller ones. Very few of these gates & wall portions have survived the ravages of time & human maltreatment - most of them were destroyed during the British bombardment of the city during the 1857 revolution. The larger gates were named after the cities they faced - the Delhi Gate faced the older citadels of Delhi that existed before Shahjahan built his capital.

The square-shaped, bastion guarded gate is majestically located on one of the major streets of Shahjanabad/Old Delhi, at the beginning of Daryaganj Street (literally “River Facing Avenue”). Close by exists a small portion of Shahjanabad's wall - there is even a Martello Tower that the British added for defense after retaking the city. Not to be confused with the Delhi Gate of Red Fort nearby, this was the city gate, used to enter the city & not the fort. A road next to this gate leads to Red Fort. These aren't ordinary gates, to be opened up one way or the other, these gates are large, monumental structures, built of stone & rubble, with high walls, arches & bastions. Soldiers kept guard over these gates & made sure no hostile element entered within the city limits.

The Delhi Gate

The gate, built with a combination of locally available stone & red sandstone, is now kept locked & a guard stands on duty inside it in order to prevent any encroachment by hawkers or any illegal activity inside its premises. The guard would open the gate if you request him & even tell you about the historical importance of the place & the fact that over the years, the number of enthusiasts wishing to enter the gate has been increasing. The high arches seem inviting & yet cleverly conceal all their secrets from onlookers. The arched doors are large enough to permit the emperor’s convoy of horses & palanquins to pass through without any difficulty during his royal procession to the nearby located Jama Masjid & other parts of the empire. The outside walls have stone carvings & are embossed with geometrical designs & medallions.

The front view

Once inside, you notice that the place is being used to store large concrete slabs & stacks of building material along one of its arched inner sides. I saw mongooses running amok in the interior. The walls had once been plastered & one can still see the remnants of geometrical patterns amidst the flaking plaster in the niches.

The inside view

The 2 bastions along the side of the gate stand tall, keeping an eye all around with their numerous arrow slits. As a whole the structure looms desolately over its surroundings, higher than other buildings & shops nearby, with a small unkempt garden for company behind it. The garden is now used as a cricket ground by local kids, which in my opinion is a good thing in today’s playground-starved Delhi localities. Interestingly enough, the playground is said to be haunted!! Legend has it that a British soldier ("Sipahi"/"Tommy" - take your pick) was in love with a local girl & wanted to spend the rest of his natural life with her. However he later found out that the girl was soon going to be married - in a fit of rage & desperation he shot the girl & himself too. It has been claimed that the Peepal tree (Ficus religiosa - Sacred fig) is now haunted by a Chudail & people can hear her heart-rending screams at night (A chudail is the Indian version of a banshee - she has a dreadful appearance with her feet turned towards the back, is said to appear to young men as a pretty maiden & then drains their blood & virility). The Tommy is also spotted at times - he comes walking out of the gate with his head in his hands & then walks through the Daryaganj street. Now the atheist in me loves these stories - why does the banshee only haunt that certain tree? How come the Tommy carries his head in his arms - he shot himself, he wasn't beheaded. & why isn't entire Daryaganj considered haunted since the Tommy walks past the entire area. People & their silly stories!!

The side view

Entry to the upper floors is prohibited & the doors are now grilled & locked. No amount of persuasion moves the guard to open the grille.

This impressive structure is now being maintained by A.S.I. If you ever happen to visit this structure on Sunday, do pay a visit to the Sunday Book Bazaar which is one of the major attractions of Daryaganj, drawing hordes of people from different parts of the city in search of their literary fill (refer Pixelated Memories - Daryaganj Sunday Book Market).

The "How-can-it-be-haunted??" view

6 months after this post was published - The Govt. has become strict with its orders, entry to the gate premises is locked. The guard refuses to let you enter even if you tell him you have been inside & you write for the city. Another monument taken away from the people. Sad!

Location: Daryaganj, Chandni Chowk
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset.
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk Metro Station
How to reach: As you exit the metro station, walk straight till you reach a temple, a small street near the temple exits to the main Chandni Chowk Street (just follow the crowd, they would enter a very narrow lane). On this street, on one side, you can see the large Red Fort looming, walk till there & take a bus from near the Fort to Delhi Gate. Alternately, buses ply to Delhi Gate from different parts of the city, just climb on those going to Old Delhi (Purani Delhi)
Entrance Charges: Nil
Photography/Video Charges:
Time required for sightseeing: 20 minutes
Relevant Links -

  1. Pixelated Memories - Daryaganj Sunday Book Market
  2. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort

July 11, 2012

Parliament House, New Delhi

“The Council Chamber has been Sir Herbert Baker’s unhappiest venture. Its effect from a distance has been described. It resembles a Spanish bull-ring, lying like a mill wheel dropped accidentally on its side. 
From an intermediate distance, however, when the visible arc begins to decrease in length, the building gains in solidity and personality. The red foundation, with its upper band of white, becomes more substantial, and its in-stepping is at last made apparent. Similarly, the pillars of the colonnade above begin to show their true size; though the larger they grow, the more visible is the tiresome irregularity of the windows and entrances in the plaster wall behind them. Final palliation, the bowler-hatted wart on top disappears. 
The various carriage-porches, supported on heavy, bracketed arches of red stone in the Hindu fashion, are not without merit. From the brackets depend stone bells, significant of the Indian legend that as long as the bells are silent, so long will the dynasty reign.
Robert Byron, The Architectural Review, "New Delhi"

Sansad Bhavan - Parliament House

If one had to describe the Indian Parliament House (“Sansad Bhavan”) in mere two words, 'gigantic' and 'inaccessible' will definitely emerge clear winners. Located in New Delhi, the massive Victorian building is amongst the least visited edifices in the capital, and the reasons cannot be far from fathoming – the entire administrative-heritage area, part of the larger ruling establishment that consists of the beautifully evocative twin Secretariat Blocks (refer Pixelated Memories - Secretariat Blocks) and the Presidential Estate (the majestic seat of Indian sovereignty), is cordoned off for general public at all times of the year – in fact, a thick and high sandstone screen separates the extremely sensitive Parliament House zone from the thoroughfares accessible to public and tourists, while an immense presence of police, armed forces officials and armored vehicles ensure that nobody loiters around and the cars are not allowed to stop at a particular point for more than a minute. Of course, if the arrangements along the exteriors are so severe, getting inside is near impossible without proper purpose, permissions or connections. These and several other measures ensure that tourists, Indian and foreigners alike, give this splendidly magnificent structure a miss, even though almost every visitor to Delhi visits India Gate, the War Memorial situated in close vicinity (photographs and history here - Pixelated Memories - India Gate).

I had been long planning to visit the Secretariat area and photograph the Parliament building and associated/adjacent structures, albeit from outside, but one way or the other, my irresistible habit of procrastinating overtook and the plan kept getting delayed and moved from one vacation to the next. A week back, in a terrific instance of unbelievable coincidence, my maternal uncle recommended that I should also take out time to visit and document the area and suggested getting me in touch with one of his friends, a Joint Secretary of Govt. of India (a very high ranking Administrative Services officer) who can take me inside the Parliament where he was posted as a bureaucrat and ensure I am given a guided tour of the architectural megalith (general public can only enter the building after taking prior permission which, although can be received from the reception, require numerous background checks and documentation formalities – knowing a high-ranking Govt. official helps fast track the procedures (or even waive them off, as in my case). Foreigners can apply through their respective embassies). Obviously I lapped up the opportunity immediately!

Photos do no justice to the overall architectural enormity of this gigantic structure and the considerable attention accorded nonetheless to the finest of details. (Photo courtesy - Dailymail.co.uk)

I was instructed to go through the reception to which there are two separate entrances – the first is for the people who worked in the Parliament and the other for visitors. Externally, the reception building features extensive use of sandstone while the interiors have been entirely modeled out of dark wood panels. Inside a small security cabin connected to the reception building but prior to it, I was asked to deposit my phone and any electrical device I might have upon me, including earphones and pen drives, and then, following a strict pat-down body check, allowed to enter the passage leading to the reception hall. Lead to by a small wooden door, the fully air-conditioned reception is colossal and appealing in its subdued yet expressive affluence, but it really hasn’t been maintained well and the leather upholstery and furnishing of many of the sofas were torn and needed to be replaced. The entire room has been constructed with wood paneling in an efficient three-tiered system that accommodates lounges and tables, occupied at that moment by several bureaucrats and security officers, at the lowest level around a central, thick, tapering pillar composed of curving woodwork that reaches to the roof and resembles a giant blooming flower. It’s a pity that photography is prohibited here, the splendid hall and the striking pillar would definitely prove to be interesting visual compositions. Two rows of chairs facing each other and arranged so that one has its back to the room’s periphery and the other to the back of the lowest level lounges run along the middle level of the circular room. A short flight of stairs immediately opposite the reception entrance leads to a screened cafeteria flanked by a juice counter (with a large poster exclaiming the availability of apple juice) and a small post box. Just within the entrance gate has been created the reception area of both the House of People (Lok Sabha) and the House of States (Rajya Sabha) where are available a number of items for sale as souvenirs – books, memorabilia, pens, pen stands, key rings, calculators, shawls – each embossed with an image of the Parliament and the legend “Parliament of India”.

Sparkles! - The bejeweled look imparted to the monuments every Republic and Independence days. In the background looms the massive dome of President's House. (Photo courtesy - Quora.com)

After a brief waiting period, I was introduced to the Assistant Secretary for security of the entire Parliament complex who was tasked with giving me and a motley group of visitors from different Indian states a guided tour of the building and its constituent blocks. After another round of severely strict security check, we were lead to the main gate leading to Parliament building. Security protocols are certainly followed very seriously here and the officers are undeniably diligent – in 2001, a group of terrorists had attacked the Parliament in the guise of Home Ministry officials and several security men and innocent bystanders were killed in the ensuing gun battle. Tasked with preventing a repeat of the incident, the present set of security men check and recheck, both manually and electronically, all visitors and even officials from various ministries. It was here, at this second entrance point, that I realized that the reception is an individualized building, entirely separate from the central structure. The entire complex consists of 3 individual interconnected structures – the main Parliament building, reception office building and the Parliament House annexes, along with the surrounding tracts of lush green gardens set with towering, enormously crowned trees and huge carved fountains which can be seen from far off. At the entrance gate, explaining the different routes used by general public and elected representatives for entry, the Security officer intimated us about other security measures enforced in the complex – the entire estate is enclosed by an ornamental red sandstone wall interspersed with iron gates that can be automatically closed when occasions demand; the approach roads which cut across the estate and form part of it are also not allowed to be used as public thoroughfares.

Subdued vibrance - One of the numerous fountains gracing the gardens around the entire Secretariat area.

Regarding the prominent design and architecture of the Parliament building – Conceived by Herbert Baker, the renowned architect who along with Edwin Landseer Lutyens designed the British Indian capital of New Delhi, the circular Parliament House building was constructed at a cost of Rs 8.3 million in a span of 6 years and is 27.4 meters high, 85 meters in radius and spread over more than 6 acres. In the center of the circular outline and concentric with it is the Central Hall while along three radial directions along its circumference are situated the three other chief components of the architectural plan – the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha halls and the Parliament Library hall; the area around these four massive chambers is dedicated to lush gardens graced by enormous trees, huge fountains and realistic bronze statues of national leaders while the numerous rooms and halls along the circumference of the Parliament building are assigned to various ministries, political parties and leaders, journalists, key governmental panels and administrative and judicial commissions. The foundation stone of the construction project was laid by H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught on February 12, 1921 and it was inaugurated by Lord Irwin, then Governor-General of India, on January 18, 1927. It’s worth remembering that during the construction of their new capital of India, the British had no intention of creating an Indian Parliament – the entire new city was designed and constructed by them with the intention of showing incendiary and protesting Indians demanding freedom from colonial suppression and exploitation that they had no plan to relinquish their crown jewel in the near foreseeable future. The Parliament Building (then referred to as Council House) was an addition introduced in 1919 following World War I when Indian political parties and princely states demanded legislative representation, a claim which the British found difficult to handle and quickly afterwards instituted Montague-Chelmsford reforms to address the same.

One of the stamps from the set issued on the occasion of the inauguration of New Delhi as the capital of British colonial administration (Photo courtesy - Vijaigandikota.wordpress.com)

The open veranda on the first floor (visible in photos) is fringed along its circumference with thick, cream-colored sandstone sentinel columns, each 27 feet (8.23 meters) high – a walk through the broad, high, pillared corridors, where elected members wield the powers of our country, definitely sends waves of pride and enthusiasm surging through visitors. Numbering 144 in total, these pillars have stood silent witness to the proceedings of the house for the past 85 years during which the building has functioned as the Indian Parliament and before that as the Legislative Council housing representatives from all Indian princely and provincial states, political parties and British administration.

It is conjectured that Baker drew the inspiration for this grand edifice from the Chausath Yogini temple located in Mitawali, Madhya Pradesh. He also introduced a number of Indian influences in the architectural marvel that is aptly considered his magnum along with the twin, regal Secretariat Blocks – built using indigenous material and by a workforce comprising of Indian laborers supervised by British engineers, the structure draws from several Indian motifs and artistic additions including different forms of “jaalis” (stone lattice screens), large fountains and “chattris” (dome surmounted on slender pillars). However, as demonstrated to us by the officer guiding us, the entire magnificent building, despite its antiquity, is fitted with impressive modern technology, including powerful acoustics, air-conditioning, simultaneous interpretation and translation systems, electronic voting and display systems and state of the art security measures – recent reports on the structural stability and disaster preparedness of the building however have cast an unequivocally grim picture and squarely considered these modern electronic additions like heavy air conditioning units as well as newer constructions to house toilet blocks, more offices and staff rooms as responsible for generating unmanageable structural pressures on the heritage building.

Baker's architectural plans for the design of the building (Photo courtesy - Robert Byron, The Architectural Review, "New Delhi")

A giant bronze sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi seated in the lawn immediately opposite the primary entrance welcomes visitors to the heavily fortified central building. Here, after being subjected to yet another round of security checks, we were granted entry to the main structure and instantaneously upon arrival one’s attention is drawn by the numerous beautiful paintings adorning the walls of the ground floor circular corridor. Sketched and painted by several eminent Indian artists, the paintings depict scenes from the country’s unparalleled history stretching from the inspiring Vedic age to the period of subjugation under British colonial rule and the eventual culmination of nationalist tendencies in the attainment of independence in 1947. My favorite obviously has to be the “Shiva Yogi” flanking the entrance which draws from “Pashupatinath”, Indus Valley civilization’s most impressive seal, and its connotations with Indian mythology and folklore.

Next, we were led to the Lok Sabha hall – the Parliament was not in session and hence the halls were kept locked from inside and at least two police officers were posted within at all times who would open the door on our arrival. We entered from the Visitor’s Gallery located on the first floor of the semi-circular chamber – it is from here that general public can (after availing prior permission) observe the council proceedings and observe the layout of the entire chamber, including the huge ceremonial chair (and table) of the Speaker placed, on a raised platform at the center of the chamber, directly opposite. A table in front of the Speaker’s dais is where all the important parliamentary officials and reporters sit and record the proceedings – the Speaker decides what to record, what not to and can order officials to expunge a remark from the record. All important parliamentary papers, meant for discussion or display are also placed on this table. The ruling party/coalition sits to the right of the Speaker, while the Opposition sits to the left. Consequentially, to the right of chair and slightly behind it is located the Official Gallery meant for the officers and bureaucrats required to be present in attendance on ministers in connection with the business of the House. On the left side, a matching gallery is reserved for guests of the President, Governors of states, foreign diplomats, high commissioners, ambassadors and visiting dignitaries who might be interested in attending parliamentary proceedings. All the seats meant for the members of the House are numbered and allotted according to official hierarchy – generally seat number 1 on right side is allotted to the Prime Minister, while the Deputy Speaker occupies the first front row seat on the left side. On the first floor of the chamber, while the Visitor’s Gallery is along the circumference, chairs are reserved along the diameter in clearly demarcated galleries for journalists, Rajya Sabha members, guests of the Speaker and other distinguished visitors. Gracing the wood-work around the chamber are 35 gilded designs representing the various provinces of undivided India, the dominions and certain other British settlements. The golden-red designs look strikingly beautiful and impart a very official, formal appearance to the chamber.

House of the States - The Rajya Sabha chamber (Photo courtesy - Rajyasabha.nic.in)

An electronic system has been put in place for simultaneous interpretation and translation. Members who wish to give a speech in a language other than Hindi/English are required to inform the speaker in advance about their choice of language so that translators can be arranged. Each seat is provided with a sensitive microphone on a flexible stand and a complex vote recording system that has been developed to eliminate cheating or multiple voting of any kind; we were explained the working of the system, the basic gist is that there are three buttons located in a cluster – red (no), green (yes) and yellow (abstain) – voters have to press the choice button along with another vote-recording button for 10 seconds to register their vote, but the button cluster and the vote-recording button have been placed on different sides of the seat so a candidate has to use both hands for pressing the buttons to make their vote count – a fairly simple execution to prevent bogus voting. Immediately after polling, a wall board quickly collates and displays the final vote count as a register of Ayes, Nays, Abstain and Total. A member can, in case of a wrong vote, give the speaker in writing their corrected choice.
Then, we moved to the similarly designed, semi-circular Rajya Sabha hall. The roofs of both halls are covered with beautiful floral plaster work. While the architecture is nearly identical, the few differences that exist between the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha chambers can be enumerated here – the former is comparatively smaller in radius since it has to accommodate a sanctioned strength of only 250 members compared to the 552 that Lok Sabha comprises of; the Rajya Sabha, chaired by the Vice President of the country, also doesn’t have the large, fancy chair, or the large dais, that graces the Lok Sabha chamber; another major difference is the color scheme – the Lok Sabha chamber has all its seats and curtains accessorized to green, but the Rajya Sabha features the same furnishing and paraphernalia, except that here it is all in red color. Apart from these distinctions, the Rajya Sabha chamber too has similar galleries and electronic systems as the Lok Sabha chamber.

"Bapu" - Gandhi, "Father of the Nation" (Photo courtesy - Rajyasabha.nic.in)

The historic Central Hall, where the President addresses both the Houses together in special sessions, is a landmark in Indian history and jurisprudence – the Indian Constitution was framed in this hall and the transfer of power from British governance to Indian administration took place here on August 15, 1947 – it was here that Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, delivered his legendary “Tryst with Destiny” speech. We couldn’t enter it since it was being spruced up and prepared for the upcoming Presidential elections, but we did see the garden surrounding it which is ornamented with larger-than-life bronze idols of important freedom fighter-politicians like Jawahar Lal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, amongst others.

Returning to the reception building, the security officer, who had already dazzled us with precious information besides proving to be highly knowledgeable about the building and very indulgent towards our questions, recounted to us the details of the 2001 terrorist attack and mourned for his fallen comrades before showing us the bullet marks from the attack in a red sandstone wall which has been left unrepaired as a grim reminder of the dangers our country faces from foreign powers and misguided religious and separatist fanatics.

The Central Hall of the Parliament House. Photo from Mr Obama's address to a joint seating of both houses (Photo courtesy - Wikimedia.org

The Parliament Annex, a separate building constructed in 1970, houses offices of the Parliamentary officials and contains the facilities required by them in the discharge of their duties. The official I accompanied too had his office in this building; general public requires a separate permit to visit there but since I only had permission to roam around in the Parliament House, I could not venture in the Annex, though I could have had the reception operators call the official’s office. Officials posted in the Annex cannot carry mobile phones within and instead all departments are linked to each other by an exclusive in-house telecom exchange, therefore, one needs to be aware of the telephone codes if one has to call someone in the Annex. The Parliament Library, separate from the smaller one housed within the Parliament building itself and built to cater to the need of housing the literature that the Parliament had acquired over the years, is also located nearby – but entry to it is also restricted by prior permission. The main entrance of the Library is directly linked to one of the gates of the Parliament.

A model of Parliament Library building depicting the layout and the distinctive utilization of reinforced steel domes in the construction (Photo courtesy - Dr. Yogendra Narain/Rajya Sabha Secretariat, "An introduction to Parliament of India")

Constructed with a sense of unparalleled grandeur and an inimitable Victorian style of architecture with an assortment of various Indian and Mughal styles fused in, the Parliament House, the hallowed seat of Indian democracy from where all the laws of the country are made, executed and administered, is certainly a must-go for all history seekers, travel enthusiasts and especially students. The Secretariat Blocks (which house the Prime Minister’s office and the Home, Defense and Finance ministries) and the Presidential Estate nearby keep company to this majestic building while the awe-inspiring India Gate beckons from afar. Not the places that should be given a miss!

What sort of a person pastes posters on the Parliament building walls?!

Location: Sansad Marg, near India Gate
Nearest Metro station: Central Secretariat 
How to reach: Buses do not ply near the Parliament House but do around the neighborhood of Connaught Place/India Gate from where one can easily avail autos to the Parliament/India Gate. The metro station is located 5 minutes walk away from the Parliament. Private cars should be avoided as stopping (leave alone parking) in the area is not allowed.
Open: All days, 10 am – 6 pm. Prior permission is required for entry which can be availed from the Parliament reception with the assistance of some high-ranking Govt. official (in case of Indian citizen) or embassy officials (in case of foreigners). An individual can even show up at the reception without any official letter of introduction, but with their ID (Indian citizen)/Passport (Foreigners) and apply for a tour (as informed when I inquired at the reception). If you do, be assured that you would spend a lot of time waiting at the reception till the authorities run the security and background checks before imparting the required security clearance.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Interiors: Prohibited, Exteriors: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Interiors: 1.5 hours, Exteriors: 20 minutes
Nearby landmarks - 
Suggested reading - 
  1. -  Official website of Parliament Library
  2. Dailymail.co.uk - Article "The ageing House of a young democracy: Politicians hold special debate to mark Parliament's anniversary - but where's the vision for the future?" (dated May 13, 2012) by Poornima Joshi
  3. Economictimes.indiatimes.com - Article "conic buildings of Lutyens Delhi, including Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhawan, to get a makeover" (dated Aug 16, 2013) by Ravi Teja Sharma
  4. Economictimes.indiatimes.com - Article "Parliament House: Ring-shaped, pillared structure is losing the battle for space" (dated July 31, 2012) by Ravi Teja Sharma
  5. Loksabha.nic.in - Official website of Lok Sabha (House of People), Parliament of India
  6. Parliamentofindia.nic.in - Parliament House Estate
  7. Parliamentofindia.nic.in - The Parliament Estate by G.C. Malhotra
  8. Rajyasabha.nic.in - Official website of Rajya Sabha (House of States), Parliament of India
  9. Rediff.com - Article "Terrorists attack Parliament; five intruders, six cops killed" (dated Dec 13, 2001)