Lay of the Land
Rashtrapati Bhavan is a house of four floors and has some 340 rooms of varying sizes. It would take three hours to cover on foot the numerous chambers, anterooms, corridors, courts, galleries, loggias, saloons, staircases and vestibules, not to mention the kitchens, pan tries, ironing rooms, printing press and theatre. In all, the floor area covers 200,000 square feet (roughly 18,580 square metres). Some 700 million bricks and three million cubic feet of stone have gone into the structure. At the peak of its construction, no fewer than 23,000 labourers worked on the project, among them 3,000 stone-cutters.
Conceptualisation of the Idea
The Delhi Durbar of 1911, held on December 12, marked the coronation of King George V. The most important announcement made in the Durbar, which was witnessed by around one lakh people, was the shifting of British India’s capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Whilst Calcutta was seen to be the center of commerce, Delhi, on the other hand, symbolized power and glory. Subsequent to the announcement, the search for an imperial residence became imperative.
The Perfect Location for the Edifice
The Kingsway Camp, on the northern side of the proposed town, was the initial choice Edwin Lutyens, a British architect, was selected to plan India’s new Capital and was part of the Delhi Town Planning Committee on which the decision for the site and layout rested. Lutyens and his colleagues, who were experts in sanitation, found the northern location to be highly vulnerable to floods, given its proximity to the Yamuna River. Thus, Raisina Hill, on the southern side, which provided spacious high ground and better drainage, seemed an appropriate option for the Viceroy’s House.
Building the Presidential Palace: A Monumental Endeavor
The rocky hills of the chosen site were leveled to accommodate the Viceroy's residence and office buildings, benefiting from a rock base for sturdy foundations. A dedicated railway line facilitated the transport of construction materials, while the absence of nearby rivers necessitated pumping subsoil water for all water requirements. The construction of the Presidential Palace, initiated during Lord Hardinge's tenure, spanned more than seventeen years, despite his hope for a four-year completion. Delays, notably due to World War I, pushed back the project timeline. The final stone was laid by Viceroy Irwin, who became the first occupant of the newly constructed Viceroy's House in April 1929, supported by approximately twenty-three thousand laborers, with a total cost of Rs. 14 million.
Lutyen’s Architectural Vision
Unlike most other palaces and mansions, it does not have annexes and appendages which came up as afterthoughts or in response to later needs. It was conceived, in Lutyens's words, as "one complete organism, perfect and inseparable". The building was his, embodying his ideas about proportion and balance. Lutyens had no use for a building that was much front and little depth. He opted for the H-shaped structure which in the management of the interior space united the most intricate geometrical permutations. Grandeur was his aim, and grace.
Masterful Use of Stone: Lutyens's Blend of Pink and Cream
Lutyens appreciated the practicality of pink and cream sandstone in Delhi's climate. Pink sandstone, sourced from Akbar's Fatehpur Sikri quarries, provided authority with its changing hues, while cream Dholpur stone offered a contrast. Pink stone adorned high plinths, Dholpur stone crafted walls and pillars, with Mughal-style decoration underneath pink chhajjas. Cream stone parapets and pink chhatris accentuated the roofline, capped by a black dome with a patinated copper covering.
The Forecourt - A Grand Entrance
At the centre of the Forecourt, earlier known as the viceroy’s court, is a portico of twenty stately columns, twelve in front and eight behind, approached by thirty-one imposing steps, the lowermost of which is fifty metres wide. The Forecourt is an extension of the main axis of Kingsway. The avenue proceeds to the portico as a wide flat red bed of sand, widening at the centre into a large rectangular space. The court is divided into a broad central terrace, flanked by water channels and fountains, and bounded by trees in formation on either side. At the centre of its north and south edges, wide steps descend to the lateral avenues on either side. These are the means of everyday access to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The Jaipur Column: A Symbol of Generosity and Inspiration
In the centre of this jutting section stands the Jaipur Column, 145 feet (44.2 metres), topped by a bronze lotus from which rises a six-pointed glass star. The name of the column comes from the fact that its cost was borne by the Maharaja of Jaipur. An interesting detail about the column is that inside the stone shaft runs a steel tube which tethers the lotus and the star, which weigh a little more than five tonnes, to a concrete block in the foundation. On the base of the column are inscribed the following words composed by Lutyens himself:
ENDOW YOUR THOUGHTS WITH FAITH YOUR DEEDS WITH COURAGE YOUR LIFE WITH SACRIFICE SO ALL MEN MAY KNOW THE GREATNESS OF INDIA
The Grandeur of the Durbar Hall
Visitors to the Durbar Hall, the heart of Rashtrapati Bhavan, ascend thirty-one broad steps and cross impressive pillars to enter through a massive teak door adorned with brass paint. The term "Durbar," rooted in old Persian, signifies both a royal court and a levee. Upon entering the hall, the adjustment from the bright forecourt sunlight to the exquisitely lit interior is striking. Investiture ceremonies, attended by maharajas and nawabs bedecked in jewelry, took place here during the British era. Today, the grand backdrop remains, but only a single chair for the President occupies the space. The hall's focal point is a sculpture of Gautama Buddha, a symbol of peace and self-conquest from India's golden age, the Gupta period. The statue is framed by a halo adorned with lotus and foliage, embodying a profound sense of serenity and divine bliss. The Buddha sculpture and an Ashokan Bull were part of an exhibition of Indian art displayed in the Durbar Hall in the late 1940s, forming the foundation of the National Museum. This unique architectural masterpiece captures the essence of India's rich history and artistry.
Architectural Grandeur and Processional Design
The architecture of the Bhavan was meticulously designed, featuring a combination of public-ceremonial, private-residential, and support service spaces. The building's layout separated these areas to maintain protocol, privacy, and functionality. The approach to the house, known as Kingsway, offered a dramatic and theatrical experience, with the building gradually revealing itself through a grand forecourt, culminating at the portico of the House. This design created a sense of anticipation and grandeur throughout the journey.
Intricate Indian Motifs and Collaborative Vision
Inside Rashtrapati Bhavan, visitors encounter twelve massive pillars adorned with exquisitely carved bells, inspired by Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temples. These bells draw inspiration from the Moodabidri Jain temple in Karnataka. Additionally, elements like chhajjas, chhatris, jaalis, and motifs including elephants, cobras, and temple bells all maintain a strong Indian connection. Lutyens collaborated with Herbert Baker on the project, and their combined efforts in designing Delhi's architectural landscape are showcased at the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum.