A walk through the Rashtrapati Bhavan

After angling for it for the last one year, we finally did manage to wheedle out an invitation to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Our ticket to the RB was the India Habitat Centre, which organises various walks (heritage and nature) through the city of Delhi. Saturday, the 16th of December dawned bright and clear. The distance between a dream and its fruition was just 6 hours! I closed my eyes and tried

to imagine what this place would be like. I'd been seeing the imposing structure gracing one end of Rajpath, every working day of my life for the last 3 years. I had seen it at sunrise and at sunset, through smog and mist. And I had yearned to be inside, see the famous Durbar Hall and the lovely Mughal Garden.

 

I am usually punctual about appointments. But on the 16th, my punctuality took a beating and we (Aarti and I) arrived at the meeting point 15 minutes late. On my instruction sheet was written in bold 'at 2.00 p.m. sharp'. And here we were standing at Gate 37 at 2.15 p.m. sharp and the smiling security men were informing us with apparent glee that the 'Habitat Group has left Madam, for the main building'. Now anyone, who's been inside this estate of the President of India, can easily inform you, that walking from any one of the various gates to the palace is…well…quite a walk (that's kind of a lame way to put it). Well, there was nothing left for us to do but to run for it! So we ran!!

We found our group waiting for the other members just outside the main building. We were not the only Late Latifs it seemed. Aarti the Architect started enlightening me about the structure that stood before us. How the mound (Raisina Hill on which the Rashtrapati Bhavan stands) was created by Lutyens and how later he wanted it pulled down because his building was hidden by the North and South Blocks designed by Baker! We were busy admiring the finesse with which each stone had been dressed and joined to each other, when one of the organisers informed us that the walk was about to begin.

Our walk was being led by a tiny, vivacious woman in her 50s called Tina (name changed). She appeared to be a historian of some repute and gesticulated wildly while she informed us about the history of the place. She fairly danced on her toes as she led us to the Rampurva Bull Capital from Bihar (Ashokan Bull Capital dating back to the 3rd century BC), which sat in the gallery adjoining the main entrance! And while she spoke in a continuous stream of fluent English, her facial expressions were worth a study in itself. She proved to be my one and only distraction during the walk, not so much because of the pearls of knowledge that she kept strewing, but because of her dances, gesticulations, verbal exaggerations and the mobility of her facial muscles.

We waited at the fairly comfortable reception for some 15 minutes, before being subjected to a thorough security check. And this was where we met Gaya Chand, our guide through the palace.

Our first destination was the Marble Hall museum, easily the most impressive of all the three museums that we saw that day. It was a huge C -shaped room, which left me awestruck as I entered it. All the Viceroys of British India and some of their wives stared across the space with seeming nonchalance. On either side of the entrance were the busts of King George V and his wife, Queen Mary. Very strangely King George was brushing shoulders with his French counterpart from the early 18th century, LouisXV. Queen Mary on the other hand had a full length portrait of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, for company. Precisely opposite to the entrance was Queen Victoria, staring regally across at us! Lords Bentinck, Hastings and Lytton shared the same niche with a somewhat strange companion – Queen Marie Leszczynska (try pronouncing that!!) of France! Lady Irwin and Lord Ripon hung from another wall. In the middle of the room were two huge old Globes, which I would have liked to examine in closer detail.

At the (not so) far end of the Marble Hall was a long staircase leading down to the Kitchen Museum. This place housed kitchen artifacts from households of the Viceroys and Presidents of India. The kitchenware on display ranged from the ones used in preparing, cooking, serving, dining and post-dining to equipment for outdoor picnics. 'The Star of India', a set of crockery, was displayed here with some pride. But the thing that caught my attention here was a 2-feet-high coffee-maker inscribed with the words 'Viceregal Lodge Dairy' (the Viceroys had their own personal dairy????). The c-m. looked somewhat like a blast furnace!

We came out of the Marble Hall and climbed up an impressive flight of stairs to reach another room, which was simply called 'Museum'. This room housed presents received by the Presidents from India and abroad. There were 3 authentic temperas by Jamini Roy. One of them, titled 'The Mother and Child', was something that I remembered copying when I was 9. Another work of his called 'The Dancing Radha' was a rather graceful piece of art! Something, which really impressed me here was an intricate ship made wholly of cloves. It was a present for Dr. Rajendra Prasad, from Indonesia.

From the 'Museum' we moved on to the tour de force of the Palace. The Durbar Hall, when I entered it, was silent as a church. The first thing that caught my eyes was the statue of 'Lord Buddha – Imparting protection'. This 5th century standing Buddha in white sandstone from the Mathura School of Art was something, which had adorned my history book from Std. 5. The folds of the thin garment, which covers him, is so delicately executed that one almost sees through it. The distinctly Greek face is very serene. It stood in the centre of the Hall on a podium covered with burgundy-coloured velvet and behind it was a curtain of the same material. The impressive chandelier above is said to weigh 2 tons.
''….look at the velvet…'' Tina's 'well-modulated' voice interrupted my thoughts. ''The velvet is original. It has been here since 1929''. I looked at the moth eaten velvet in awe. ''And look at those chairs. They were all designed by Lutyens,'' she continued. We were also informed that this is where the government is sworn in.
Our guide, whose presence I was hardly aware of till then, suddenly spoke up behind me. He was loud enough only for Aarti and me to hear him. 'Madam,' said the man 'the velvet has been changed once before.'
To add insult to injury, he also informed us that all the defense gallantry awards are given away at the Durbar Hall. The government is sworn in at the Ashoka Hall. 'But Madam seems to know better…' Now if that wasn't tongue-in-cheek!
And this was the historic place where the Transfer of Power happened when India attained independence! Was it any wonder that I got goose-bumps standing there in the Durbar Hall??

From then on, one could spot us sticking to Gaya Chand like glue. He had been with the Rashtrapati Bhavan since 1979. A soft-spoken man, he was never tired of repeating things and answering seemingly dumb questions. He quenched our curiosity to the best of his abilities.

If the Durbar Hall was stark and imposing, almost Spartan in appearance I'd say, the Ashoka Hall made up more than amply for it in terms of luxury and ornamentation. The ceiling was made up of 9-piece canvas covered with exquisite Persian painting depicting a hunting scene. The chandeliers (Belgian glass??) were lovely (am running out of superlatives now)!

The Banquet Hall was just off the Ashoka Hall. The hall, with a sitting capacity of 104, had walls panelled in Burma teak and was adorned with full-length portraits of all the erstwhile Presidents of India. The way food is served and the plates are cleared during a banquet is a military exercise in itself. Gaya Chand held the crowd in thrall, with his lucid description in Hindi.

Our last stop was at the Mughal Garden. December is hardly the time to pay this famous Garden a visit as we found to our cost. There were hardly any flowers to be seen. Rose bushes with exotic sounding names like 'The Folklore' or the 'The First Kiss' just showed the promise of what was to come. A revisit in February, when the Mughal Garden would be in full bloom, seemed very much in the offing.

Our walk concluded at around 4.30 p.m. in front of the Jaipur Column. We thanked Gaya Chand, who promised to show us around should we decide to come back again. After applauding our walk leader rather half-heartedly, we made our way to the Coffee Shop at the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Janpath to enjoy a well deserved cup of coffee amidst soothing surroundings – after Tina's 2.30 hours of non-stop entertainment (ahem! enlightenment) our frayed nerves needed all the soothing they could get!

For more information and trivia on the Rashtrapati Bhavan, these would be the best links to visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashtrapati_Bhavan http://presidentofindia.nic.in/panaramicview.html

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