Tour De Presidential Palace: Rashtrapati Bhavan
It was a boring office day with relatively less work and lots of coffee breaks when I finally stumbled on a travel website highlighting places to visit in Delhi. Rashtrapati Bhavan appeared in its top 10 listing and happened to be one of few places still away from my radar. What followed next was obviously logical – a visit the RB website to check out the booking process and other formalities. This was what led me to http://presidentofindia.nic.in/ - the official website of the President of India. To my surprise the booking process was simple. All that was required was to put in details of visitors, the identity card information and to pay up a nominal amount of Rs. 25 per visitor. Once this was done, I received an email and SMS confirmation of booking request. Next morning I received confirmation of approval of the visit request along with instructions to be followed. The instructions were simple enough and provided details of gates to use for entry and parking location. There were a few items listed as prohibited items which should not to be carried into RB premises. Yes – mobiles and cameras were included in them. Now with this mail in hand, we were ready in terms of formalities and all that was left was for the Sunday to dawn.
On 27th we left with enough time-margin in hand to prevent any administrative hassle at the venue, as it was supposed to be a highest security zone. We reached the presidential estate by 10:15 and entered through gate number 2 on Rajpath. The guards there checked our credentials and allowed entry along with directions on how to proceed. In all we passed through two barriers until we reached the parking which is an open ground besides gate number 4. As instructed and given we are a group of over cautious people, we left all the prohibited items in the car itself. After parking the car, we proceeded to the Reception which involved a flight of stairs to the forecourt and then a short walk onto clearly marked path. At the reception a group photograph was clicked for the entry pass. We were asked to wait for a while after which we were called in by names for a security check. Post this began our guided tour of this magnificent building. The whole process was well choreographed and smooth enough for convenience of visitors. The reception area had a cooperative shop serving souvenirs and snacks for visitors.
The first room we visited was the Marble Hall which has a distinguished marble platform carrying a brass replica of queen’s crown (the original gold one now is in London). The hall also housed a number of marble statues of English inhabitants of the house – Viceroys during the British Rule. Along with the statues, there were life size portraits of most of these inhabitants. This hall also had a large model of the Rashtrapati Bhavan which initiated an interesting series of information on history and geography of RB. The first thought of building this palatial house occurred when Britishers decided to shift the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. The idea was to provide an accommodation to the Viceroy in the new capital. With this thought and after required planning, labor and execution, the construction of the building finally completed in 1930. The initial estimate for time of construction was kept as 4 years which finally extended to 17 years because of the First World War which delayed the work on this project. Lord Irwin was the first inhabitant of this building which was then named as The Viceroy House. The name Rashtrapati Bhavan was coined for this building when Rajendra Prasad occupied it as first President of India.
The building was built on Raisina Hills which was the a property of Sawai Madho Singh, the king of Jaipur and was designed by then 42 year old Edwin Lutyens who was the chief architect of the building. He used a fusion of Indian and English architecture for the building including most of the furniture. He took inspirations from Sanchi Stupas, regional styles and Roman architecture. Architect’s penchant for circular designs is evident throughout the architecture of RB which begins with first look of the central dome. The entire building is in shape of an H which stands for Hindustan and covers 340 acres of land for exactly the same number (340) of rooms. Each section of the H is dedicated to specific function viz. Cabinet Secretariat, Guest Wing, President’s Secretariat and Private Residence. Cabinet Secretariat is the office of the Cabinet Secretary of Government of India who is the highest bureaucratic functionary of the government. The President Secretariat houses the officials of the President who perform day-to-day functions of his office. Guest wing is used to provide accommodation to visiting foreign dignitaries. There is a flag mast erected besides the guest wing which carries the flag of the nation of the foreign dignitary using the wing. Residences are the private space for use of the President and his family. The part of building used by President as residence and office is called the North Court and the two wings on other hand of H which house the Guest Wing and Cabinet Secretariat is called South Court. The long verandah connecting the two Courts is called the State Corridor.
Next point of the tour was the Kitchen Museum. The museum is connected to the Marble Hall through a flight of stairs. It was started in 2003 by President Kalam and houses antique utensils from period of 1910 to 1947. It contains copper cooking utensils and glass ware. The silver crockery is amazement in itself. All crockery items carry the state symbol - which was a five pointed star during the English rule and is the Ashoka Lion symbol today. The museum also showcases how the banquet table was set up during state dinners and how it has changed over time. This was followed by a visit to the Banquet Hall. This hall is used for hosting state dinners for visiting head of states. The hall is decorated using Burma teak and Zardosi Art Work on the walls and roofs. There is a long dining table capable to accommodate 104 people for a dinner. President and the visiting head of state have a chair each with arm rest while rest have chairs laid out on both sides of these earmarked chairs. During a state dinner, head butler stands at one end of the table and uses three light indicators to give instructions to the butlers each of which serves four guests. There is a balcony hidden from the view, on the farther end which houses the orchestra for light music during the dinner. Right outside the banquet hall this lobby connects the Ashoka Hall to the Banquet Hall which is called Upper Loggia. This lobby is used for light refreshments after functions held in the Ashoka Hall.
Next we visited Ashoka Hall which is the most beautiful room of the building - artfully designed and decorated for special occasions. This was used as State Ball Room by the British and has wooden flooring suspended by 3 inch springs below the floor. The roof is decorated with canvas painting which is a combination of nine pictures, done using a technique called Frseco Painitng, by an Italian painter. The technique involves direct painting on the freshly applied plaster on the roof. The painting is surrounded by Persian poetry an outer border. This room was used for oath ceremonies and award distribution until very recently which have now been shifted to Darbar hall. Now this room is used for photo sessions after an award ceremony. It is also used for exchanging gifts with foreign dignitaries and presentation of credentials by Heads of Missions of foreign countries. There are marble balconies on one of the walls which accommodate orchestra during events. We were taken to North Drawing Room - NDR after the Ashoka Hall. This room is the first place where a foreign dignitary is brought and is received by the President. This is the room mostly covered over news reports. Besides the NDR is Long Drawing Room – LDR which is used for meetings of President with Governors, Lt. Governors and foreign delegations.
We were also taken to the RB Library which boasts of vast collection of books numbering more than 20000. Out of these there are over 2000 rare books mostly out of print or with comments from renowned personalities who housed this building. The flooring of the room is of yellow stone from Jaisalmer with floral designs amidst the marble cover. There are two fire places which make the room cozy for winter reading.
Last point of tour within building was the Durbar Hall which is located just below the Central Dome and has a 2 ton Belgium glass chandelier which gives it a glittering look. All oath ceremonies take place here along with those of the first President and Prime Minister of India. There is a single throne shaped chair on one end which is continued from British time. During then there were two thrones each for the king and the queen. There is a Buddha statue behind the throne whose feet is at the same level of height as that of the top of India Gate. The central line across the hall divides the RB and India Gate into two equal parts. The central dome is two layered structure and has been coated with copper now. After descending from the hall, the guide showed us the Lord Buddha statue made of Plaster of Paris right where the broad stairs end. It has 42 hands in front representing various yoga postures while 12 faces represent the 12 zodiacs signs. The statue, which is a gift from Vietnam, was brought in 3 pieces and is flanked by 1001 blessing hands towards back.
The last part of the guided tour included the exteriors of the RB including the Gardens and the Forecourt. One of the prominent gardens is the Mughal Gardens which is designed based on inspirations from Mughal architecture. Central lawns within these gardens are used for the at home function after the Republic and the Independence Day. This was also venue of state dinner for President Obama during his Republic day visit. Every year, Mughal Gardens are opened for public during February/March which is when these are at their best of glory and blossom. Post the gardens we were bid good bye by our guide, a young lady Rachna, near the Forecourt where we were allowed time to cherish what we had just seen and create memories through eye of lens.
The vast open area in-front of the RB is called the Forecourt which is used for Guard of Honor presentation ceremonies of visiting foreign dignitaries. Recently, this was in news because Prime Minister Modi took his oath of office in this same forecourt. Thirty one wide steps are what it takes for someone to enter the building from this forecourt. In the middle of the ground, facing the Forecourt steps of Rashtrapati Bhavan stands the Jaipur Column at a height of 146 feet. Placed on top of the Column is the Star of India which is 5 pointed star – official symbol of the English in India. On selling the land for constructing this building, Sawai Madho Singh gifted a giant column now called as Jaipur Column as symbol of his allegiance to the rulers of India. This place also gives a clear view of the Central Dome where presence of a flag indicates availability of the President in the city. The flag is taken down every evening and when at half-mast, it indicates national mourning.
A few pictures and poses later ended out visit to this great monument which is now symbol of Presidential supremacy in Indian Constitution. I would doubt that there would be many heads of state who could boast of a residence similar in terms of grandeur and richness that the Rashtrapati Bhavan provides.