Rashtrapati Bhavan: Lutyens’ Empire in Stone

After the crushing of the 1857 rebellion, Her Britannic Majesty, Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, was declared Queen of India on 2 August 1858. The Crown was projected to symbolize the multi-racial Indo-British co-operative society and focused on the unlimited future potential for India and the native Indians. In the same year, on November 1st,  a Royal Proclamation was issued re-affirming all rights and privileges to Indian subjects to be on a par with British citizens, declaring, ‘And it is our further will that, so far as may be, our subjects of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to offices in our services, the duties of which they may be qualified, by their education, ability and integrity, duty to discharge’. Industrial activities were accelerated, and so was construction and expansion of the railway network. Bombay and Calcutta became the second and third largest cities in the entire British Empire, barring only London. New universities were set up in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. The new class of “Brown Englishmen” was a work in progress. In the 1860s, competitive examination was thrown open to Indians for admittance to the Indian Civil Service. As Macaulay had said, ‘By good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government … Having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will come, I know not… . Whenever it comes it will be the proudest day in English history’. Certainly, this was a honeymoon period for Indo-British governance. England was at the vanguard of progress, and India was at its rear.


( Detailing on the Jaipur Column)

However, this was not an easy thing to carry forward in the context of the mutiny still being fresh in many people’s memories, and also a “hardening” of British nationalistic feelings in the face of increased global economic competition.

Lord Lytton was the Viceroy from 1876 to 1880. Son of a novelist father, and educated at Harrow and at Bonn in Germany, Lytton grew up to be a clever writer, known for his friendship with Charles Dickens. Prime Minister Disraeli made him the Viceroy of India as a tribute to his literary merit. In India, Lytton arranged the gorgeous Durbar to proclaim Queen Victoria as the Empress of India in January 1877, a signal of hardening British nationalism to portray themselves as the victorious conquerors of India. In Afghanistan, he ordered war to advance British interests and to counter Russian influences, but the whole project was footed by tax-money from India without any strategic significance to India. He was a cynic, who, when five million people died in an unprecedented famine and when relief camps were ineffective, still chose to arrange the Queen’s Durbar with much pomp.

Prime Minister Disraeli’s government’s proclamation of the Queen as the “Queen-Empress” as the direct heir to Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Jafar: a symbolism sure to resonate in the mindset of Indian subjects to look at the past – a past of the conquerors and conquered – and not necessarily at the supposed greater potential of the Indo-British common future.

Viceroy Lord Litton declared a virtual war on the vision of the romantic future: first by clamping down on free expression, and then by opposing Indians’ entry into the Civil Services. At the same time, the gulf between the British and Indians had been widening owing to various reasons, such as the encouragement to the wives of the British men in India to join their husbands in their India assignments

The next Viceroy, Lord Rippon (1880-84) was the son of a former British Prime Minister, and indeed was born in 10 Downing Street. Privately educated, he grew up to be an industrious, rich and influential leader of the Liberal Party, and was sent to India to break up the inner coterie of permanent officials who ruled from Shimla. Rippon did not intend to do any such thing, and soon he was known as a man who brought the Liberal idea into Indian politics: he repealed Lytton’s restriction on vernacular press freedom; he pushed for self-governance of small provinces, and he introduced the Ilbert bill that allowed British citizens to be tried by native judges under the same criminal laws that were applicable to the local Indians. He was a conscientious not a commanding personality, whose liberal policy obviously earned him respect in India and contempt in Britain.

However, his idea of liberalism could not take roots in a country marred by a long history of distrust, as his officials resisted his new orders. Unofficial British media harped on about “1857 stories”. Soon he was threatened with a “white mutiny”.

Whatever Lytton and the Disraeli government had done previously, it had already set in motion a deep racial divide. Over the years, educated Indians pursued a path of “self-discovery”; soon, it was relevant to consider both the Mughal Empire and the British Crown as forced governments on “authentic” Indianness. Later, under Viceroy Lord Curzon (1898-1905) this idea began to take political hues, giving rise to the Swadeshi Movement (1905-1908) that called for a complete boycott of British goods. After all, Curzon was the Viceroy remembered for his entry into Delhi in 1903, seated on an elephant and followed by camel-riding warriors and 30,000 soldiers. He was a man to whom the colours and opulence of India – rising out if its poverty and dust – had an irresistible appeal. Incidents like the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919 confirmed the belief that the British rule was dictated by autocrats, while liberalism was viewed as empty phrases designed to divide.


There was still no recognition of this by the British, who pursued their idea of being an imperial conqueror of India, which had passed into their hands just like it did from the Lodis to the Mughals or from the Tughluqs to the Lodis. So, the idea of a coronation of the British crown-head was used to force this transition: first the coronation of Queen Victoria as the ‘Empress of India’ in 1877, and then the coronation of her son, King George V as the ‘Emperor-King’ of India in December 1911.

The proposed Durbar and Coronation of King George V was a grand event, a lifetime opportunity for the then Viceroy Lord Hardinge. Both the Viceroy, as well as the British government, wanted to create an atmosphere of a historic event around the King’s visit, and suitable sound bites were in consideration.

The story of New Delhi started on 17 June 1911 when Sir John Jenkins, the Home Member of the Government of India, wrote a letter to Viceroy Lord Hardinge proposing the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi and suggesting that it would be ‘a bold stroke of statesmanship’.  Initially it was just a bureaucrat’s idea, but in the hindsight, a number of justifications were put forward: conflicts between the Central and Provincial governments of Calcutta who both sat at Calcutta, Calcutta was too far away, and even the uncomfortable nationalistic atmosphere of the Bengal.

The idea appealed to the Viceroy who wanted something magnificent for King George V to announce at his unusual Coronation Durbar scheduled for later that year and designed to project the King as the new heir-apparent and Emperor-King of India.

Preparations for the function had started almost a year previously, with planners laying out the measurements of the proposed amphitheatre in Delhi’s Coronation Park at Windsor Great Park in London, so they could focus on the logistics of VIP movement in and out of the gathering.

A great canvas city was erected over an area of 25 square miles, with three distinct camps: the Royal Camp, the Commander-in-Chief’s camp, and the Viceroy’s camp. The Viceroy or Government of India’s camp alone cost 30,000 pounds.

On 7 December 1911, the King had scheduled a meeting with the nizams, rajas and princes, starting with the Nizam of Hyderabad, the richest among them all. The Queen was presented with a beautiful tiara by the Maharani of Patiala. The meetings were followed by polo and football matches, and then a grand reception and state dinner.

On December 12th, the royal couple arrived at the amphitheatre wearing their coronation robes to a 101-gun salute, and announced the decision to shift the capital from Calcutta to Delhi to a surprised gathering, although the decision had already been made six months back. The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge was the first to kiss the King’s hand, followed by other noblemen. Three days later, on 15 December, the royal couple laid the “first stone of Delhi”.

New Delhi was thus conceptualized.

Immediately, the Viceregal Lodge was commissioned as a temporary accommodation for the Viceroy until New Delhi was ready. Lord Hardinge not only hurried back from Calcutta to take up his temporary residence, but also celebrated the Christmas of 1912 in the Viceregal Lodge. However, the commissioning of New Delhi did not take place until 1931, almost 20 long years after its conception – delayed due to financial limitations arising out of the First World War –, and then the British would only enjoy a mere 16 years more of rule before they had to return to their homeland.

1947 was not very far off, when King George V would ultimately glide off into oblivion just like his pretended predecessor Bahadur Shah Zafar in ruling India.

More than 67 years have passed since the baton of power was passed from the British back to us, Indians. The concept of socialism and anti-British rhetoric have long since been assigned to the recycle bin of changing preferences, and in fact, a certain kind of  romanticism for the British has replaced those very feelings. In the resurrected personalities of post-Independence British romanticism, the name of Sir Edward Lutyens is worshipped as the demi-God of architecture, blazing in neon lights on the billboards of Delhi’s history. Lutyens, who considered Indian architecture as ugly and devoid of any intellectual value, is ironically elevated to a super-human perception for the look that he invented for New Delhi.


Today, the entire lot of bungalows built in Imperial British New Delhi and surrounding the Viceroy’s Palace in a boring repetitive architectural pattern, is referred to as Lutyens Delhi, although none of these bungalows was designed by Edward Lutyens, but rather were designed by Robert Tor Russell – the designer of Connaught Place.

And often whenever the slightest whisper of criticism, or talk of demolition, or contemporary developmental plan is made, ear-shattering reverberations of the heritage battle cry of “Lutyens! Lutyens!” is heard loudest from the politicians, generals and air marshals, bureaucrats and other residents of the so-called Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) – including of course many VIP squatters who have refused to let go of their highly-prized accommodation even at the end of their official entitlements, as well as innumerable memorials and trusts created and used by political parties. This, however, has not deterred numerous modifications being done by its owners in the name of contemporary modernity, such as Vastu shastra or even Feng Shui.

Lutyens’ selection as the Chief Architect for Delhi was far from being natural or unanimous: it was perhaps partly due to the fact that he was involved in the progressive London Hampstead Garden project, and partly because his highly networked wife was the daughter of the former Viceroy, Lord Litton.

When Lutyens was assigned the task of “creating” New Delhi, three things highlighted the painful path from concept to delivery:

  1. Selecting the “look” of New Delhi;
  2. Finalizing the site for the Viceroy’s House;
  3. Defining the architecture for the Viceroy’s House.

(a) Selecting the look of New Delhi

For the look of the New Delhi, Lutyens invoked the imagery of a city incorporating the “Grand Manner” concept, which is defined by historian Spiro Kostov as, ‘… an urban grandeur beyond utility, beyond pragmatic considerations….Whether it is ancient Babylon or Nazi Berlin.. The Grand Manner is not the currency of little towns. It is neither practical nor modest. Perceived as an expansive pattern of sweeping vistas … Its effects often grandiloquent. Typically, behind designs in the Grand Manner stands a powerful, centrist state whose resources and undiluted authority make possible the extravagant urban visions of ramrod-straight avenues, vast uniformly bordered squares, and a suitable accompaniment of urban buildings. It speaks of ceremony, processional intentions and a regimented public life’. So, Lutyens selected the look of the new city – an immortal, grand, imperial militaristic cityscape with ramrod-straight avenues radiating out of the Viceroy’s Palace at thirty or sixty degrees, with huge patches of gardens filling the gaps –, successfully reusing his experience of designing the fashionable Hampstead Garden suburb in London.

The mile-long King’s Way (i.e. Rajpath) ran from east to west, with the War Memorial (i.e. India Gate) at one end, and the Viceroy’s Palace at the other end. He designed the triumphant arched All India War Memorial to commemorate the 90,000 Indian soldiers who fought and died for the British Empire in the First World War – again reusing his experience in designing such cenotaphs in London, such as the Great War’s Dead.


The layout of the Viceroy’s Palace and the War Memorial at both ends of the King’s Way was an adaptation of Washington DC where the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial lie at the opposite ends of a long green band. It may be noted that Washington DC’s layout itself was influenced by the French city of Versailles, the original “Grand Manner” city that also appealed to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini.

Washington DC

( Wikipedia picture of Washington DC, showing the Lincoln Memorial,  Washington Monument, and the Capitol : Lutyens’ inspiration? )

Once the central area of New Delhi was crystallized in Lutyens’ mind, he then arranged the residences of other officers according to their rank and seniority, in an unapologetic show of discretion and rank discrimination. The senior-most officers were placed nearest to Raisina Hill, and the rest of the government officials were placed in concentric circles radiating out to the city’s periphery; while marking their seniorities as “Fat White”, “Thin White” and “Thin Black”. Obviously there were no senior Indian government officers or “Fat Black”, while the Indian Princes and affluent locals were offered lands at the eastern end of Kingsway, or Rajpath, and in peripheral roads from Connaught Place, such as Lala Shri Ram’s palatial bungalow, where the Hindustan Times building stands today. The only Indians who figured in the scheme of things were the servants and maharajahs.

The Viceroy’s House, or the now-called Rashtrapati Bhavan, stood on the top of Raisina Hill – height being the paramount factor in Grand Manner to symbolically exude authority. The commander-in-chief’s house (Teen Murti Bhavan), the two-storied quarters of the executive council and the single-storied sprawling bungalows of the senior-most gazetted officers and those of joint secretaries were fanned out successively southwards from the Viceroy’s House.

(b) Finalizing the site for the Viceroy’s House

Work on New Delhi began with the forming of a committee of experts comprising Edwin Lutyens, George Swinton and John Alexander Brodie. Lutyens would set out every day, either by car or on elephant back, to survey and select the site of the new city. The Trans Yamuna area in the neighbourhood of the Red Fort was rejected due to flooding concerns of the Yamuna. Three sites were finally shortlisted: Malcha Marg, the Ridge area and Raisina Hill. Also, the architects preferred a site that was somehow visually integrated with the old monuments, such as Jama Masjid, the Old Fort and Qutb Minar. Finally, the hilltop site of Raisina village was selected as it also offered the height and barren lands surrounding it to raise up the new city.

Lord Stamfordham, George V’s private secretary, opined of the new city that ‘We must let him (the Indian) see for the first time the power of Western science, art and civilization’, while directing that the new Government House must not be dwarfed by Jama Masjid or the Red Fort. The credit for the finalization of Raisina Hill as the site was claimed by none other than Lord Hardinge, who recalled of his survey, along with Chief Commissioner Hailey (of Hailey Road fame), that, ‘From the top of the hill there was a magnificent view embracing old Delhi and all the principal monuments situated outside the town, the Yamuna winding its way like a silver streak in the foreground at a little distance’.

(c) Defining the architecture for the Viceroy’s House

In 1912, Lutyens invited Sir Herbert Baker from South Africa to join in the project of designing New Delhi. Baker naturally looked forward to working with Lutyens, an accomplished master in architecture at that time, and also he looked up to him. It was decided that Lutyens would design the Viceroy’s House while Baker would design the secretariat blocks.

Defining the architectural style for New Delhi involved many advisors: Lutyens preferred European Classical architecture, Viceroy Lord Hardinge proposed a mix of British and Mughal architecture calling it “the Palladian and the Pathan”, while King George V suggested Mughal architecture.


The Viceroy’s preference for Mughal architecture stemmed from his anxiety to make the new city acceptable to native Indians, and he insisted the architects visit Jaipur, Agra and Mandu, and demanded pointed arches to be used in the design of the Viceroy’s House.

Lutyens was, on the other hand, a firm believer in Classical European architecture. He believed architecture evolved from ‘the Greeks, who handed the torch to the Romans, they to the great Italians and on to the Frenchmen and to Wren, who made it sane for England’. On Indian architecture, he was quite forthright in playing it down, ‘Personally I do not believe there is any real Indian architecture or any great tradition. There are just spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect as there is in any other art nouveau’.

However, a detailed look at the Viceroy’s House shows how greatly he was influenced by local architecture.


( Mughal-themed decorated elephant at the entry to the Imperial New City)

Baker agreed with Lutyens and in his opinion, the architecture should offer a synthetic expression, ‘not Indian, nor English, nor Roman, but simply Imperial’. He argued for Classical architecture as  ‘the constructive and geometrical qualities necessary to embody the idea of law and order which has been produced out of chaos by the British Administration, and which have eminently the qualities of law, order, and government’.

For the city layout, some suggested an adaptation of contemporary Pretoria and Canberra, some suggested Greek architecture, while others pushed for Rome because Roman architecture is normally preferred in places with ample sunshine.

Finally, a hybrid style was selected for the plain and massive Viceroy’s House (or the now-called Rashtrapati Bhavan): an over-ornamented dome inspired by St Peters in Rome, where the baroque co-exists with Mughal-style lattice work and lotuses, elephants, Hindu or Jain temple bells and bull carvings. Lutyens incorporated Indian themes to address the Viceroy’s taste: rounded arches, chajjas, sunken chattris on the roof and sculptured elephants at the entrance. Though Lutyens acknowledged that the Copper Sulphide high dome was designed as per St Peters of Rome, some analysts believe it might have also been influenced by the great Stupa at Sanchi. Chajjas or stone slabs used to prevent sunrays from falling directly onto windows, and rooftop chattris designed to break the monotony of a straight horizontal line, and perforated stone screens or jaalis were widely used by Lutyens.

Serpent-mouthed fountains and roof-top terrace fountains of inverted umbrella shapes were also widely used by Lutyens. He was also an excellent designer of huge exquisite lamps that he hung from the ceilings along the entire length of the corridors, with concentric circle designs. The circular shape was widely used by him in all his designs, and some say, it was because of the circular glasses he used.

The dome of the Viceroy’s mansion sits on an unusually high drum, in order to mitigate the near invisibility of the palace from Rajpath due to the high steepness of the road in between the two secretariat blocks  leading up to the mansion, on which aspect the best of colleagues Lutyens and Baker had a bitter fight, prompting Lutyens to observe ‘I have met my Backer-loo’. The two secretariat buildings, designed by Baker, seem to almost slide down the Raisina Hills, and seem placed too close to Lutyens’ masterpiece – the Rashtrapati Bhavan – in spite of Lutyens’ suggestion to keep them further down the hill.

One thing that one must credit the British for though, is the ability to produce outstanding results despite the professional disagreements between the best of colleagues or even between accomplished maestros and their assistants – which in itself is remarkable; as well as the celebration and accommodation of those differences of opinions by British historians and society – a rare trait indeed in today’s world.

Baker’s lumping together of the two secretariat blocks along with the Viceroy’s mansion on top of the hill – ‘to give architectural expression to a common dignity and distinction in the instrument of government as a united whole’ – completely obstructed the view of the mansion from the entire length of Rajpath, as originally intended by Lutyens.  Lutyens even unsuccessfully attempted to change the gradient of the road, but could not convince the Viceroy to spend additional money on a project already delayed and past its budget; so he increased the drum height for “at least partial visibility”.

The land for the mansion was acquired by the British from Sawai Madho Singh, the Maharaja of Jaipur. The Jaipur Column in its forecourt was designed with Trajan’s column in Rome in mind. It was erected as per the request of the Maharaja, who had given 15,000 pounds to the British for this very purpose.


The Jaipur Column, which somehow once again reminds us of the architectural language of victory, just like the Qutb Minar, stands in front of the main east-facing façade of the huge mansion, which in fact is the  largest residence of a Head of State in the entire world, even today. The entrance to the mansion is approached by 31 steps leading up to a verandah, where the 2000 year old Gupta period Bull Capital of an Ashokan pillar is now placed. Directly behind its front high doors, the original “Throne Room” was situated for the Viceroy and the Vicerene directly under the dome. As the Viceroy would have looked yonder towards the Jaipur Column, downhill the Raisina, his sights would have followed along the Kingsway straight to the War Memorial, and beyond.


( Star of India at the top of Jaipur Column)

The “Star of India” was placed at the top of the Jaipur column, and the first stone of the column was laid by King George V and Queen Mary on 15 December 1911.

The below poem is inscribed on the column, written by Lutyens himself:

In thought faith

In word wisdom

In deed courage

In life service

So may India be great.

Finally, the mansion was built at a cost of 877,136 pounds against an original estimate of 400,000 pounds, and in seventeen years as against an initial estimate of four years. With 340 rooms, including 63 living rooms, 37 fountains, 227 columns and 4 floors, it has a floor area of 200,000 square feet and is built using 700 million bricks, and 3 million cubic feet of red sandstone, marble and Dholpur stone, without any steel or concrete.

Carved on an arched gateway of the North Block is a somewhat insensitive message that reads, ‘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’.



( Wikipedia picture of the Sanchi Stupa : the inspiration behind Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Copper Sulphide dome sitting on a high drum ? )

Inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan

Let us explore the interior of the great mansion, the most beautiful building in the whole of India. Irrespective of the imperial tone and governmental purpose for which it was built, it is definitely a privilege to walk inside the “Empire in Stone” created by Sir Edward Lutyens.

Marble Hall Museum. Here, one can find life-size statues of King George V and Queen Mary, bust statues of the Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma, Lord William Beresford, and Lord Chelmsford; along with the portraits of former Viceroys and Governor Generals, a brass replica of the British Crown, and a silver chair for the Queen. The museum also houses a rare painting entitled Her Majesty The Queen-Empress Victoria by George Hayter. Also in the museum are two beautiful benches designed by Lutyens, who was also an excellent furniture designer; incidentally, now the patents for all Lutyens-style furniture are held by his granddaughter, Candia Lutyens, who herself is a furniture designer.

The name of the hall is derived from the marble platform, which once had a fountain in its middle. However, now a replica of the Royal Crown presented in the 1911 Delhi Durbar is kept on the covered platform.

A number of beautiful coats of arms of the Viceroys and Governor Generals are decorated on its pillars. Two huge wooden spheres showing the continents and seas are kept in this hall.

Hung on a wall is an interesting quote by General Amherest, Governor General of British India from 1823 to 1828,

 ‘The Emperor of China and I govern half the human race and yet we find time to breakfast’.

Kitchen Museum. This houses a large collection of colonial kitchenware, roughly starting from the year 1911, some of which were brought from Calcutta during the transfer of the capital. The main collections include the Copper Collection, Crystal-ware collection, Bone China Collection, Silver Cutlery set, Brown China set, Cutlery set, and the exquisite “Star of India” kitchenware with fluted turquoise borders. Also, on display are a few pieces of furniture designed by Lutyens. One interesting attraction to note is a foldable picnic box made of wooden cardboard and waterproof clothes for use outdoors.

State Banquet Hall. This triple-cube room has a long table made by joining together many smaller tables, with a seating capacity of 104 guests in two rows of 52. At the centre of both rows of chairs facing each other, two chairs with armrests are placed for the two heads of state.

Above each of the portraits hung on the wall, there are three lamps of blue, red and green light. The Chief Butler operates the switches using a colour code to signal the butlers: when he flicks on the blue lights, the butlers place the plates; on the red light signal, they remove the plates; and on the green light, they are allowed to move in and out. While the banquet is in progress, bands of musicians play music that changes according to the course of meal being served. To identify vegetarian guests, the butlers place red roses in front of their plates.

An elaborate kitchen, connected by a lift to the banquet hall, is situated in the basement.

Ashoka Hall. This is considered by many to be the most beautiful of all the halls. It was originally built as a state ballroom with wooden flooring, with three-foot springs underneath, creating a central dance space. The beautiful Persian painting on its ceiling depicts a royal hunting expedition led by King Fateh Ali Shah of Persia, who is depicted riding on a white horse and killing a tiger by thrusting a spear into it. It is said that the beauty of the painting is such that the eyes of King Fateh Ali Shah look as if they are looking directly at the onlooker, no matter where the onlooker is standing. The hunting scene depicts the Shah along with twenty-two of his sons. An oval band of poems by 12th century Persian poet Nizami surrounds the central painting. The painting was presented by Fateh Ali Shah (reigned: 1797-1834) to King George IV of England (reigned: 1820-30). It was then transferred to India from the India Office Library at London by Lord Irwin, the first Viceroy to occupy the mansion.

The hall is a rectangular room of 32×20 metres dimension, and is often likened to an open jewellery box. The roof painting is done on a leather canvas and was commissioned by Lady Willingdon, while the fresco paintings on the walls were painted by Italian artist Colonello in 1932, who had twelve Indian artists working under him using oil directly on the walls.

North Drawing Room. This room is used mainly for high-tea functions and for the President to receive visiting heads of state. A rare painting of the transfer of power on 14 August 1947 is situated in this hall.

Long Drawing Room. This room is mainly used for functions by Governors, Lt. Governors, etc.

Presidential Library. Almost 2000 rare books are kept in the library, the oldest one dating back to 1795. The beautiful floor design in yellow and white marble has a Hindu swastika at its centre. The panorama of Rajghat and India Gate can be seen from its windows. Stone temple bells are also decorated on the walls, said to be influenced by the Jain temples of Karnataka. Lutyens believed in the symbolism that the British Empire was still and eternal, just as stone bells that cannot move or ring.

Durbar Hall. Situated directly under the double-dome of the mansion, the “Throne Room”  as it was known earlier, had two separate thrones for the Viceroy and Vicerene. It houses a 5th  century Buddha statue from the Gupta period, whose head is framed by a halo made of foliage. Presently, a single throne for the President is kept here under a 2-ton chandelier hanging from a height of 33 metres by a 77 foot long rope. The flooring of the hall is made of chocolate-coloured Italian marble, while its columns are made from yellow Jaisalmer marble, with a thick line running along the centre. It is said that the line thus drawn on the floor perfectly divides the mansion into two equal parts. Also, the ancient Buddha statue is in a perfect straight line to the Gupta-period Bull placed outside and onto the India Gate at the end of Rajpath. The elevation of Raisina Hills is so great that the top of the India Gate lies at the same level as the feet of the Buddha’s statue placed in the Durbar Hall.


( 2000 year old Gupta period Bull Capital of an Ashokan pillar)

The hall has a capacity of 500 people, and it is here in this building that Pt Nehru took the oath after Independence from Lord Mountbatten at 8.30 am on 15 August 1947. The priceless Buddha statue and the Bull from the Gupta period were specifically retained in the Rashtrapati Bhavan as per a request by Pt Nehru to ASI.

Yellow Drawing Room (YDR), Grey Drawing Room (GDR), Morning Room, etc. A series of inter-connected drawing rooms form a low-roofed corridor joining the Family Quarters of President’s House on the left to the Guest Wing situated on the right, as seen from the Mughal Gardens. The dome of the mansion springs up at the centre. While the YDR is normally used for smaller state functions, the GDR is generally used for serving refreshments, etc.

In the corridor, there is a beautiful statue of Lord Buddha, a 1962 gift from Vietnam, called the Sahasra Bahu Buddha”. The statue stands on a pedestal dragon, and has 1000 small hands arranged in a circular halo shape behind the main statue, which has 42 bigger hands. The statue depicts the virtues of Karuna and Daya. In Hindu philosophy, Karuna means placing one’s mind in other’s favour, thereby seeking to understand others from their perspective. Daya, as per Padma Purana, is the desire to mitigate the sorrow and difficulties of others by putting forth whatever effort is necessary.

The gardens consist of the Mughal Gardens and Herbal Gardens. The Mughal Gardens are situated on the west side of the mansion, designed as per the Persian Char-Bagh garden style inspired from Lahore, Kashmir and Agra, and as depicted in Mughal miniature paintings. It has a grid of squares criss-crossing at four beautiful lotus-shaped fountain heads. It boasts of almost 112 tree varieties and 90 species of birds. It consists of the Main Garden, the Terrace Garden, The Purdah (or Long Garden), and the Circular, Sunken or Butterfly Garden.

The rectangular main garden contains rose beds of various exotic varieties: Mrinalini, Taj Mahal, Oklahoma, John F. Kennedy, Mr. Lincoln, etc.

The Long Garden has rose varieties like Christian Dior, Queen Elizabeth, Iceberg, Summer Snow, etc.

The Circular Garden is a huge terraced bowl lined with flower plants. The Purdah Garden has rose beds enclosed by high walls.

The central lawn in the garden is used for “At Home” receptions by the President.

The Mughal Gardens have been added to with various themes over the years, such as Tulips from The Netherlands, Water Lilies from China, Cherry Blossom from Japan, Lichi from Dehradun, Bouganinvillea from Khajuraho, etc.

Post-Independence Symbolism

Today, the image of New Delhi that comes to mind is based on the mould that the British conceptualized and realized in stone some 80 years ago. The procession of thousands of soldiers on Republic Day, their time-synchronized and colour-coordinated march along the Rajpath, showcasing the nation’s military prowess by displaying  missiles and tanks, and the acceptance of the armed forces’ salutes by the governmental figureheads, shows how seamlessly we have transitioned ourselves into the same glorified position that the British had created as a political statement written in the architectural lexicography of “ordered beauty”  in a show of dominance and power.

For the first time in Delhi’s history and unlike the successive myriad of new Delhi’s built by rulers from Aibak to Shah Jahan, the new rulers of post-Independence India led by Nehru did not build a new city for themselves, instead they found the British imperial city as a suitable architectural setting to step straight into. This might be considered a logical step considering the problems that the new nation was facing, but by doing so, consciously or unconsciously, the imagery and language of exclusion and imperialism has become an ingrained part of people’s perception.

As the tricolour was being unfurled for the first time in 1947, an unprecedented influx of around 5,00,000 refugees arrived from East Punjab, Sind and NWFP into refugee tents of the city, which became engulfed in utter chaos and violence; Delhi quickly turned into an altogether different city. Today’s Delhi is largely built and shaped by the tireless energy of those refugees – who at Independence had lost everything but who rebuilt their lives bit by bit in amazing re-runs of rags-to-riches stories – helped by generous government subsidies, skill enhancement measures and the accommodating spirit of the Dilliwalahs.

To these untethered floating leaves of population, the imposing imperial cityscape on top of Raisina Hills provided a psychological pivot to weave their sense of belonging to their new home. As the Kapoors, Khannas, Chopras, Malhotras, Seths, Puris, Tandons and many others charted their own trajectories to new areas that did not exist before – from Moti Nagar, Tilak Nagar, Patel Nagar and Rajinder Nagar in the west, to Shakti Nagar and Kingsway in the north, to Krishna Nagar in the east, and to Kalkaji, Malviya Nagar, Lajpat nagar, Jangpura and Nizamuddin in the south –, they steered their unprecedented life-course through those difficult times with their drive, patience and competitive spirit. In the new city, their entrepreneurship took shape in the Okhla Industrial Estate that was specially created for refugees to ultimately build tip-of-the-tongue brands such as Ranbaxy, Bharat Steel and Tubes. New Delhi became a symbol of hope to rebuild lives, just like Madan Lamba, who successfully ran the Volga restaurant in Lahore before Independence and who successfully resurrected the hugely popular restaurant in Connaught Circus with the same name, or like the affluent families of Lahore or Rawalpindi who lost everything they had, but who were able to re-build once again in their new dream city of New Delhi. It is those men and women – that “reservoir of energy” –, those unseen people of Delhi remembered through black and white photographs of endless white tents, it is those people who ultimately built today’s glass and steel showrooms and futuristic buildings of New Delhi. And the New Delhi that appealed to them was not the city of myriad dynastical capitals raised by the Yamuna only to be plundered and raised in phoenix-like resurrections, nor was it Shah Jahan or Lodi or Tughluq’s ruined citadels in Delhi that they vowed their belongingness to, rather, it was Sir Edward Lutyens’ Imperial Delhi – the New Delhi of the Empire on which it was once said the sun never set. The same New Delhi that symbolized order over chaos, the same Grand Manner look which offered them a semblance of hope and a vision of an authority to look up to, during an atmosphere at the time of chaos.

As the summer sun rises for yet another blazing day in Delhi, seemingly arising directly above the Rajpath for everyone to see its effects below, every stone of the grand mansion seems to be screaming what Lutyens had noted some 80 years ago,

The Viceroy thinks only of what the place will look like in three years time. Three hundred years is what I think of’.


It was a privilege to be guided by Rosy Gupta, in-charge of the museum and guide program at Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the walk was organized by INTACH Delhi chapter.

  1. Delhi Metropolitan, The Making of an Unlikely City; by Ranjana Sengupta; 2007
  2. Architecture and Empire; by Thomas R. Metcalfe, published in History Today, Volume 30 Issue 12 December 1980.
  3. After the Mutiny – From Queen to Queen-Empress; by David Washbrook, published in History Today Volume 47 Issue 9 September 1997
  4. Delhi: Short lived Capital of the Raj; by Rosie Llewllyn-Jones, published in History Today Volume 61, Issue 12 December 2011
  5. The Viceroys and Governors-General of India 1757-1957; by Viscount Mersey; 1949
  6. The British in India; by Steven Watson, published in History Today Volume 4 Issue 2 February 1954.
  7. President of India’s website : www.presidentofindia.nic.in
  8. The Delivery of New Delhi to the Viceroy, by Takeo Kamiya:  http://www.kamit.jp/01_introdctn/6_colonial/colon_eng.htm

9 thoughts on “Rashtrapati Bhavan: Lutyens’ Empire in Stone

  1. Dear DebasishDas, Sir , I enjoyed the article .I study history and real history , you had done a great authentic and pain striking work. If permitted I do have a small query, The Bull in Rashtrapati Bhavan is Ashokan Bull from Bull capital Rampurva and it was erected by the order of ASOKA the Great, you had mentioned it as Gupta period. it is basically Mouryan period correct me if i am wrong.


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