November 27, 2012

Raj Bhavan, Calcutta

The gubernatorial house of Bengal, Raj Bhavan (“Regal House”), is an essential stop on the itinerary of any heritage enthusiast on a sightseeing tour of the historic British-built BBD Bagh Area (formerly Dalhousie Square) despite being out of bounds for visitors. Strewn with history from the colonial past with Gothic and Victorian edifices, beautiful churches, ancient cemeteries and impressive English buildings complete with exquisitely sculpted Corinthian pillars, ornamental statues, imposing facades and splendid interiors, BBD Bagh is one of the most renowned and endearing heritage zones in the city of Calcutta. As its centerpiece, the skillfully designed and laboriously executed enclave has the residences of the mighty – Raj Bhavan and Writers’ Building (office of the Chief Minister of Bengal, refer – Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building). By the numerous police officers on duty around Raj Bhavan, one is only granted permission to click the lovely cream-yellow facade from the streets afar and from the massive gateway if one happens to be unyieldingly adamant, like yours truly (unlike the superbly visitor-unfriendly Writers’ Building where photography is prohibited even from afar!) and hence one has to rely on old photographs and satellite imagery to achieve an idea of what the Governor’s residence is actually like. The largest and unequivocally the most highly adorned residence of a state head after the President’s House in Delhi (refer Pixelated Memories - Presidential House, New Delhi), the Raj Bhavan sits snugly in a colossal green space measuring 27 acres in the heart of the city and consists of a central domed rectangular core from which emerge four annexes connected to the core by quadrangular curved sections – the dome is not visible from the primary (northern) gateway since the raised triangular facade of the structure supported on six Doric pillars impedes the view from this particular side, however one can observe the giant semi-circular dome from the southern gateway.

The Raj Bhavan. At the bottom of the staircase is a Chinese canon brought by the armed forces following the First Opium War.

Though there are masonry gates along all four sides of the vast lawns housing the palatial building, only the northern gateway has been envisaged as a grand, though simplistic, structure with an ornamental iron gate complementing the thick marble pillars crowned by decorative marble vases; the rest of the gateways possess cement-finished terracotta/brick sculptures of lions (atop central (largest) arch) and sphinxes (atop the smaller side arches) but simply fail to hold a candle to the northern gateway, probably because the statues are undoubtedly unrealistic or because despite their decorative appearance and much adorned surfaces, they are unremittingly not as grand as the intention behind their conceiving might have been. The present form and composition of the statues was arrived upon after much experimentation that continued for over a decade! Photographs depict how luxuriously regal the structure is from within and since I haven’t been inside (but would love to!) I am sharing photographs from the official website to display the same. On the north side, an enormously long gravel-lined walkway flanked by palm and other trees leads to a wide flight of stairs following which the building’s interiors can be accessed. At the bottom of the staircase rests a beautifully decorated Chinese cannon mounted on a winged dragon and brought to India in the year 1842. A plaque fitted on the cannon's plinth reads "Edward Lord Ellen borough, Governor General of India in Council, erected this trophy of guns taken from the Chinese, in commemoration of the peace dictated under the walls of Nan kin by the Naval and Military forces of England and India under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir William Parker and of Lieutenant-General Sir Hugh Gough (1842).", thereby commemorating the victory over the Chinese in the highly unethical First Anglo-Chinese Opium War that broke out as a result of the Chinese emperor’s opposition and punishment with regard to the pushing of massive quantities of illegal opiates into his country but was largely motivated by the British frustration at the Chinese trade framework which limited their influence in the region. The seal of Indian sovereignty – the Ashokan lions mounted on their pedestal and underlined by the national quote “Satyamev Jayate” (“Truth alone triumphs”) – can be seen embossed in gold on the northern gateway as well as the triangular pediment of the main structure – these replace the British coat of arms that once made up the insignia defining the Viceregal lodge, as noted by the renowned painters Thomas and William Daniells –

“Contiguous to the Esplanade is the Government House, a superb edifice, approached by four colossal gates emblazoned with the Britannic Arms” 

As witnessed from vintage photographs, the coat of arms belonged to the British government and the East India Co. (these were later removed in favor of the former) and featured on the triangular pediment as well was emblazoned on the front face of each annex. 

The simplistic yet marvelous northern gate. Notice the Indian administrative insignia emblazoned in gold on the gates.

Completed in 1803 after four years of laborious construction work, the grand building, then referred to as “Government House”, was a brainchild of Lord Wellesley, the then Governor-General of the British East India “trading” Company (which incidentally also owned vast territories and commanded a very powerful army). Prior to the construction of this splendid structure, the Governor-General used to reside in a rented country house that stood at this very spot and was owned by Mohammed Reza Khan, the Nawab (revenue collector/”Zamindar”) of Chitpur but was found to be unfit for regal residence by the Governor-General. Embarrassingly, though Lord Wellesley has been credited with gifting one of the most elegant colonial buildings to Calcutta, he was soon charged with misuse of Company funds for construction and furnishing of this extremely expensive structure and was recalled to England in 1805. Considered to be amongst the finest European architectural legacies in the subcontinent, the structure was designed by Captain Charles Wyatt and inspired by the Kedleston Hall of England (the ancestral residence of Lord Curzon, a later Governor-General and occupant of the Government House). It, however, differs from Kedleston Hall in several key aspects – the latter features only two annexes curving along its front instead of the four elegant pavilions curving symmetrically along each corner of the central building as observed in the former; nor does Kedleston Hall boast of a fusion of several architectural influences like spacious verandahs and colonnaded hallways.

Warm and regal - The Throne Room within the gubernatorial house (Photo courtesy -

The Neoclassical Raj Bhavan building has since housed numerous Governor-Generals, (following the transfer of governance from East India Co. to the Govt. of Britain in 1858) Viceroys, (following the transfer of British administration to Delhi in 1911) Lieutenant-Governors of the territory of Bengal and (following independence) Governors of the state of Bengal – it was only natural that several changes would have to be made to the structure to accommodate the requirements of these illustrious personalities while also modifying it to keep pace with technological and structural developments – thus somewhere around 1805 the metallic dome was added – it used to be surmounted by a sculpture of a female deity holding a spear and shield but it was removed to avoid lightning strikes – the dome has since been repaired and replaced several times, Lord Curzon had a small electric lift installed within even though the building only possesses three floors with a total of sixty regally furnished and tastefully decorated rooms; he also added the ornamental vases, each of which is over six feet tall (a fact not apparent from the gateways!), marking the roof and modified the color scheme from pale yellow to dazzling white, though at present yellow seems to be back in favor (I must point out that in comparison the new supposedly “gentle and soothing” blue and white color scheme being enforced in the entire city by the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) dispensation appears to be a highly garish eyesore, nowhere more apparent than in the elitist, elegant and warm BBD Bagh area). Several more cannons and guns were added as trophies around the main structure as the British established administrative and military control over new territories – Sindh (Pakistan), Mesopotamia (Iran), Punjab (India-Pakistan), Mandalay (Myanmar), Kabul (Afghanistan), Seringapatnam (capital of Tipu Sultan's kingdom at Mysore, from where comes the Governor-General's stunning throne) – I wish public entry to the complex was allowed if only to view these historic artifacts. A lesser proportioned “Garden House” was added in the huge lawns in 1977 when T.N. Singh, the then Governor, expressed unwillingness to stay in the main building citing its massiveness and opulent character. The most prominent of the recent Governors of Bengal, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, a forthright and extremely brilliant writer-columnist whose articles and essays I adore, had several environmental measures taken up in the complex, including solar panels and rain water harvesting systems.

An aerial view depicting the central core topped by the metallic dome, the triangular facade supported by the six Doric pillars and the four annexes (Photo courtesy -

The richly decorated offices and the lavish residential quarters are accommodated in the four annexes; the complex also maintains, in a corner of its lawns, a small cemetery dedicated to the gubernatorial pets that deceased during the tenure. Besides a “Throne Room” (where once princes and visiting dignitaries were received but today the Governors are administered oath of office), the structure also boasts of several huge and colonnaded banquet halls, visitor rooms and conference chambers, each of which is lined with precious artifacts and magnificent paintings besides rich carpets, comfortable seating arrangement, luxurious chandeliers and expensive wooden furniture thereby completing the lavish royal appearance deserved by the Governor (based on the photographs available on the official Raj Bhavan website, see site link at the end of this post). Of course, one can argue that such extravagant show of splendor and affluence is sick and demoralizing in a poor state such as Bengal where the government makes headway in providing the most basic civic amenities only after receiving millions of rupees worth bailout packages from the central government, but – one, the (nominal) head of the state needs an exclusive, lavish residence in accordance with her/his position, and two, duh, people aren’t after all allowed within the massive structure! (except occasionally, like the recent much written about, open invitation to visitors by then Governor M.K. Narayanan). 

Lavishly luxurious - One of the several drawing rooms (Photo courtesy -

It is interesting to note that while the British no longer run the country and the Governor is only the titular head of a state with the actual legislative power resting with the Chief Minister, the landmark gubernatorial houses in every state are still referred to as “Raj Bhavan” or “Government House” – definitely a colonial legacy in nomenclature which has been adopted to modern vernacular utilization. The Raj Bhavan at Calcutta has been the site from where some of the foremost personalities of their time legislated over the entire country and several eminent Governors managed affairs of Bengal; it is also the site for the undertaking of several key projects and signing of several important treaties and orders. The majestic structure proved to be a pinnacle of European construction in the magnificent city and has undoubtedly been paid a grand tribute by Lord Curzon (who happened to be a discerning visitor and pro-conservation administrator of several endearing historic structures throughout the subcontinent) through his words – 

“(It is) without doubt the finest Government House occupied by the representative of any Sovereign or Government in the world.” 

Flamboyant! (Photo courtesy - Mukhopadhyay)

Location: BBD Bagh Area (formerly Dalhousie Square)
Nearest Bus stop: Esplanade
Nearest Metro station: Esplanade
How to reach: Buses and metro can be availed from different parts of the city to Esplanade from where one can walk/take a taxi to Raj Bhavan. One can also take a taxi from any part of the city to Raj Bhavan/BBD Bagh.
Entrance fees: Nil, but visitor entry strictly disallowed without prior written permission from the authorities or appointment with the Governor.
Photography/Video charges: Nil from the outside. Again, prohibited within the complex.
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant Links – 

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