October 10, 2012

Secretariat Blocks, New Delhi

Often considered to be the Indian version of Mordor (“Lord of the Rings” fans would know what I am talking about), the stretch of land housing the Secretariat Blocks, the Parliament House & the Presidential Estate in New Delhi remains out-of-bounds for most visitors at all times of the year. Although people are allowed to visit the place in order to witness the grandeur & pomp with which the Indian democracy is conducted, yet most tourists – foreigners & Indians alike seldom visit the area, except for long drives across the wide & traffic-free roads. The Secretariat consists of the unimaginatively named North & South Block buildings standing facing each other on either side of the Raj Path (“Royal Way”), the former housing the ministries of Finance & Home, while the latter houses the ministries of Defence, External Affairs & the Prime Minister’s office. The mighty India Gate (refer Pixelated Memories - India Gate) & the President’s House are visible on either side of the Secretariat Blocks. The high profile of these ministries & the visitors that grace the premises can be gauged from the presence of army & police personnel, as well as personnel carriers & armoured cars at all times of the day. The structures were designed by Herbert Baker, who in association with Edwin Lutyens designed the British capital of new Delhi – in fact, it was during the construction of the Secretariat Blocks that Herbert & Lutyens, good friends once, fell out with each other.

The North Block

Standing on the traffic post in the centre of the road that leads to the Secretariat Blocks (this spot is called “Vijay Chowk” or “Victory Square”), one can see the Presidential House in the background (refer Pixelated Memories - President's House). One also notices the sharp incline of the road, cutting through the walls of the structures, since both these buildings stand atop a small hill called Raisina. As I mentioned in the Presidential House post, this construction atop the hill was what led to the dispute between Baker & Lutyens – Lutyens wanted to have his masterpiece, the President’s House (or palace, as many prefer to call it), atop the hill so that it might be visible from quite a distance, but was forced to shift it back to accommodate the Blocks since Baker wanted them to be at the same level with the President’s House. As a result, only the dome of the Presidential House was visible from the mentioned traffic square. Realizing his folly at a later stage, Lutyens ran from pillar to post to get the blocks either scrapped or shifted elsewhere, but to no avail, leading to festering grudges between the two. Lutyens even went as far as considering this a war & called it his defeat at “Bakerloo” in his private correspondence.

Later the Parliament House was also constructed nearby. It was also designed by Baker, but because of the time lapse between the building of the Parliament & the structures atop the Raisina Hill, it does not share a common axis with the rest of the structures. Do read the post Pixelated Memories -Parliament House for more details about the Parliament House Complex & its construction.

Secretariat Blocks - View from Vijay Chowk (visible in the center  background is the dome of the President's House)

Completed in 1929, the buildings show an amalgam of the Victorian & Indian styles of architecture – the most prominent features (& the most visible too) being the pillars, Mughal-style perforated stone fretwork ("jalis"), imposing domes, small chattris (circular umbrella-like structures surmounted on thin pillars) & the eaves (locally called “Chajjas”, to protect the residents of a building from harsh sunlight & slanting rain). Together the buildings boast of a thousand rooms spread over four floors, long corridors, courtyards, decorative stone elephants & fountain pavilions. Modelled on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, which were also designed & constructed by Baker, the Blocks & surrounding decorative structures are built largely of red & cream sandstone sourced from Dholpur. The four 41-feet tall columns, each surmounted by a ship sailing towards east, two in front of each Block, are called “Dominion Columns” & represent the then British dominions of Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The large gateways of either block are decorated with red sandstone medallions, while the gateway of the North Block is inscribed with the words "Liberty will not descend to a people: a people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing which must be earned before it can be enjoyed". In both the buildings, one can see tablets affixed in wall niches built close to the base of the hill, inscribed with the names of the engineers & artists who helped construct these magnificent buildings. Also located within the Blocks are identical chambers called Yaadgar (“Memorable”) Chambers that store the foundation stones that were used when the capital of British India was shifted from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1911 (Reference - Times of India article "City's foundation stones forgotten, lie in locked halls" dated Dec 27, 2011).

I got rather close to one of the buildings, prompting the police guards to chase me!!

Such is the aura & grandeur of these Blocks that even those officials & ministries that have been allotted office spaces elsewhere prefer to have their bosses sitting here. The officials of the Army & Defence Ministry & External Affairs Ministry prefer to have their offices in the Secretariat rather than the nearby located “Sena Bhavan” (Army Complex) & “Jawahar Lal Nehru Bhavan” (External Affairs Ministry complex, named after the former Prime Minister, J.L. Nehru).

The symbols of Indian bureaucracy - One of the Blocks & Cars (Ambassador!!) with the Tricolor on the hood 

One should especially visit the Secretariat Blocks on the national days – Republic Day & Independence Day – when the structures are beautifully lit with lamps & bulbs. The “Beating the Retreat” ceremony also takes place at the Vijay Chowk square on January 29th every year, & witnesses the presence of dressed army soldiers, guards, camels & horses, & army band platoons in full regalia. A must visit spot in order to witness the Indian democracy & its nuances in its various colors & (often not so) charming people & guards. & if not for anything else, the place is full of photography options with its mix of old, regal buildings & modern complications.

Sparkles - The view on national days (Photo courtesy - jpaudit/flickr)

Fun fact - While the North Block has a small red board with "North Block" written on it, the South Block has a red letter box outside it. This can be used to distinguish photos of the two blocks.

Nearest Metro Station : Central Secretariat
How to reach : One can simply walk from the metro station. Taxis can be availed from different parts of the city. Public transport doesn't ply here & it is better to take a tour on a private car. Also stopping for more than two minutes at a single place is prohibited. Forget parking.
Entrance Fee : Nil. But entry is through prior permission only
Photography charges : Nil. But try not to head too close to the Blocks as the policemen here can get a bit stingy.
Video Charges : Prohibited
Time required for sightseeing : 30 minutes
Relevant Links - 

  1. Pixelated Memories - India Gate
  2. Pixelated Memories - Parliament House
  3. Pixelated Memories - Presidential House

1 comment:

  1. beautiful photos by Claudia Angela shan