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

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