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)

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