We called on Mrs. Patil on Saturday. She wasn’t home but was gracious enough to let us have a look around her place. And it made our day.
An old friend Siva, was meeting me after nearly two years and old friends don’t bring stale news. He came armed with passes for a little tour inside Mrs.Patil’s house through an acquaintance of his who works for her.
I have been in front of those humongous gates, at the very crest of broad Vijay Path, before. Each time though only to take a u-turn and head back through Rajpath and down to the common man’s Janpath. The gate didn’t open today either. It turns out they open only for the President and her choicest guests.
We were ushered in past 4 layers of security before we parked inside. The building is enormous. The forecourt is even more enormous. Mr. Edwin Lutyens obviously spent a lot of time making everything about the place enormous and grand. Work on the building commenced in 1911-12 after the King and Queen announced Delhi as the new capital with the seat of power at the ‘Viceroy’s House’. Work was stopped when the First World War began and resumed only in 1920-21. When it was finally completed in 1928, it became the single largest building housing any Head of State and remains so to this date. The building is spread over 5 acres, in the backyard is the spectacular Mughal Gardens (15 acres) and the total area of Raisina Hill is 300 odd acres.
I walked down to the gates, just to have a feel of how the world looks like from inside. For all its grandeur, the Rashtrapati Bhawan would seem rather lonely without the imposing presence of North & South Blocks which flank it. Stories abound of clashes of the ego between Lutyens and Herbert Baker who designed the ‘twins’. Between the gates and the Bhawan, the Jaipur Column stands proud and tall. It was gifted by the Maharaja of Jaipur (peculiarly titled “Major General”) to commemorate Delhi’s rise to capital-hood. On one side is this inscription, on another the coat of arms of England and on the third, a layout of India Gate and its neighboring areas. The fourth face has the inscription, ‘So May India be Great”. The column is crowned by the “Star of India”, that is also a magnetic compass.
A large flight of steps from the forecourt leading into the building and presumably used only by Mrs.Patil passes by a one-eared bronze bull and strangely, unkempt pools of water. We waited in a drab reception room for an hour before gaining entry and found out that on Tuesdays and Saturdays, people who can manage security passes are given guided tours of some parts of the place. We were joined by a couple of Malayali families (small world!). Sadly cameras and mobiles are not allowed beyond the reception room.
An all-white clad, typically sarkari guide led our impromptu group through huge, arched and darkly lit corridors that give you the impression of walking through some ancient beast’s belly. Our first stop was the Marble Hall, where you can find marble busts and life size canvases of dignitaries of the Empire, including the royal personages. It also has the chairs, that the King and Queen were seated on when declaring Delhi as the new capital in 1911. Next we visited the “Kitchen Museum”, the only one of its kind in the world or so the guide claimed. It has all sorts of cutlery and utensils and knives and what not. My personal favorite was a 3 foot tall coffee filter of brass and steel. There was even a folding picnic box with wooden thermos, plates & glasses!
On our way to the in-house Museum, we met a four-headed, one thousand armed Buddha gifted from Vietnam. The museum itself is really a collection of the gifts that Indian presidents have received from other heads of state. The gifts range from gold leaf crowns from Greece and magnificently carved daggers in ivory sheaths from Malaya to gold embroidered blue-velvet gowns from Kazakhstan. With all due respect to Mr.APJ, it would have been hilarious to seem him wearing these items 😉 Strangely, there was also a gift from Vodafone Essar (gold of course). There is enough gold in that ‘museum’ to buy out a small country.
Next up was the Durbar Hall, which is right underneath the great spherical Chhattri that adorns the building. This is where the country’s highest military and civilian awards are given away. There is a slightly raised dais at the head, which has a 2000-year old Buddha statue. The Buddha is the exact centre of the building and his feet are at exactly the same height as the top of India Gate. From the apex of the dome, a spectacular, gobsmacking chandelier hangs at least 20 feet down. The thing must weigh a few tons. And I thought the 2 foot one in the reception room was pretty.
Nearby, is the Ashoka Hall. It used to be the ball room prior to 1947. The wooden floors are still retained intact (and from the musty smell and faded look, so too are the maroon carpets). The ceiling is covered, in Sistine Chapel fashion, with beautiful Persian paintings on canvas. I could make out Sorab and Rustom up there. This is the venue where the sports awards and swearing in ceremonies are held.
We walked through a mostly barren Mughal Garden. It is at its finest in February when it is an explosion of colour and fragrances.
Our last stop was the banquet hall. It has a huge table of Burma Teak that can seat 104 in the centre. The walls have life size photographs of former presidents and ancient weapons. The mechanics of handling such a large (usually esteemed too) gathering was demonstrated by our guide.
There is a waiter for every 2nd guest; so there are 26 on each side of the table. A Head waiter stands at the head to direct operations. Look carefully and just above Venkatraman’s or Giani Zail Singh’s head you’ll notice three little lights (red, blue and green). The Head Waiter controls these lights and the waiters’ eyes are glued to them. When the blue is on, it signals the serving of a course. When the red is flashed, the table is to be cleared and when the green is turned on, the 26 on each flank turn as one and march single-file into the wings. A second flash of the green and they return with the next course and the cycle resumes! Surely, this too is a remnant from the days of the Empire. It seemed very un-Indian to me 🙂
Gracious as Mrs.Patil was in letting us look around, she was a poor host. We were not offered even a cup of tea. Well, I guess that’s too much of an ask but, not a single cooler or dispenser we came across had a drop of potable water in it! To be honest though, the guests at this place don’t drink from coolers.
Besides Mrs.Patil’s residence, the building also houses the President’s secretariat, a cabinet wing and a guests’ wing. The basement floor houses a cinema, kitchen, laundry, bakery, wine cellar and anything else one could think of.
By then we had encroached upon the guide’s lunch hour and we were escorted out for ‘security reasons’. What we saw was but a fraction of the entire complex of 340 rooms and halls, but it was enough to leave us feeling a little overwhelmed and giddy.
Once outside I found myself dealing with one of life’s greatest riddles. I have always wondered why crazy fans brave grave bodily threats like a shoulder charge from Andrew Symonds to run on to the field? What is it that prompts a regular English bulldog to run naked onto Centre Court and skip over the net while Roger giggles?
I had a momentary glimpse into that unique frame of mind in the courtyard. The Old Man had just been coaxed (more like kickboxed) into starting when I had this irresistable urge to drive myself around the forecourt. And in the event make the unique record of being the first Malayali to drive a second-hand Bullet around the President’s courtyard. I had involuntarily started in that general direction, but out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed guards from the Assam Rifles and sanity prevailed. Thank god they carried cannons and not lathis. The surprisingly friendly guards were happy enough though to let me pose for a picture in front of the building (I wonder if that is some kind of a record too?).
This definitely is the best house in town; but how the hell does a person live in a house with 340 rooms?? And worse, how the hell can he move out after getting used to it over 5 years???
Warning: All facts and figures quoted in this post may be erroneous due to their dependence on the guide and my feeble memory.