“The Government House is, without doubt, the finest Government House occupied by the representative of any Sovereign or Government in the world.” – George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of British India on Government House, Calcutta
Imagine living in a palace and ruling from it a century after it was built designed on the lines of the the family mansion! The Goverment House completed in 1803 based on the design of Kedleston Hall in England, the Curzon family mansion, albeit bigger, served as the residence of the George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of British India, almost a century later! And that was not the only coincidence in the context of the Government House, as it was then known as. In a very strange way, it also connects Robert Adam, a Scottish Architect of repute who was credited with wrapping up building the Kedleston Hall in 1765 and his grandnephew, John Adams, a statesman with the East India Company and later an acting Governor-General from January to August 1823. Apparently, John was in Calcutta during the construction of the huge building resided in various parts of the palace, owing to his different positions with the Company. His cenotaph can still be seen at the St. John’s Church and I had mentioned it in an earlier post. Now, whether or not he had any influence over Captain Charles Wyatt of the Bengal Engineers, the chief designer and architect of the Government Place for the selection of Kedleston Hall as the main inspiration is a more socio-political debate, considering John’s Scottish lineage and the known conflicting relationships between the British and the Scottish since time immemorial!
Interestingly, the stories around the Governor House are far more interesting than just descriptions of the different sections of the house, architecturally. Indeed, it made or broke careers – the 1st Marques Wellesley, the then Governor-General of India, bearing most of the brunt! However, we cannot but owe him the credit of conceiving the first real palace and one of the finest colonial building built by the British in India, the land of palaces! Living in the rented Buckingham House, owned by the Nawab of Chitpur, it was Lord Wellesley who had this grand idea of constructing a palace since he believed that “India should be ruled from a majestic palace and not from any country house.” Such was his haste to create a magnanimous and grand palace to proclaim the enormous power of Britain over its colony that he left no stones unturned and spent a ridiculous amount of money to construct and complete something this huge in just about 3 and half years, unfortunately, to be called back even before he could himself really enjoy the fruits of his labour.
Lord Wellesley, however, did have his justifications for this grand plan. As per his plan, the new palace needed to be created for “utility and of ultimate economy” though the “reduction of the expense to be incurred by the Company for the rent of public buildings.”. The palace was to house, not just the Governor-General but also provide residences as well as offices to other senior officials of the British Raj. So convinced was he about the ultimate success and feasibility of his plan that he proceeded with the project and the associated expenses without the consent of the Court of Directors for the British East India Company in London. Unfortunately, once it was completed and audited, the East India Company found the amount of £63,291 spent in the construction of the building unnecessary and way out of limits. The man who conceived one of the grandest of structures in India lost his job for misappropriation of company funds and returned to England in 1805 managing to spend only about a year and a half in his dream palace.
As I was saying, the stories around the construction of the grand palace leave nagging doubts in our minds deepening the mystery by the open ends. For instance, nobody can clarify why the plans proposed by a lesser-known and Bengal Engineers Captain Charles Wyatt’s plans were chosen over those of Edward Tiretta, the Civil Architect of the East India Company. Interestingly, Wyatt was the nephew of James and Samuel Wyatt, eminent architects with James Wyatt having an evident rivalry with Robert Adams of the Kedleston Hall fame. It was the strangest proposition therefore that it was Robert Adam’s Kedleston Hall that served as the inspiration of Charles Wyatt’s proposed plan. Also, interesting to know is that James’s brother Samuel Wyatt later joined Kedleston Hall as Clerk of Works and designed the coach house and stable block. So, you see – the Governor House, as we know it today is built on a web of intrigue and political and professional dynamics.
While still on the issue of the impact of Kedleston Hall on the design and final output of the Governor House, three main differences need to be emphasized. First, The Governor House was bigger than its influencing hall by two blocks – while Kedleston Hall had just two blocks built due to lack of funds, the latter had no such challenges, thanks to Lord Wellesley and ended up with four blocks. The former again has just two storeys while the Governor House is three-storeyed. The second was in terms of how the interiors were made. The spatial arrangements of the interiors had been customised to suit the Bengal climate with exterior walls infused by large windows and thick and segmented interior walls with huge doors to allow “the maximum possible cross-ventilation in a house without a central courtyard.” And third was the placement of the grand staircase, which can be found indoor at the Kedleston Hall but adorns the North Exit of the Governor House, outside the door of the palace.
Talking about the exit, this grand palace has 6 majestic gates. There are four enormous identical gates, two each on the east and west sides of the 27-acre compound, technically out of bounds of the common Indian people, but for the servants and other menial labourers, with a lion perched on top of each. Apparently placing the lions on top of the tall gates had a very clear message written wordlessly on the tall intricately woven wrought iron gates – the power and might of the throne is to remain out of bounds for the ‘plebeians’ and the ‘common man’! The North and South gates, however, offer better views covering the two faces of the magnificence called the Raj Bhawan, with the North one offering the best one with a Chinese cannon placed at the foot of the grand staircase that has seen twenty-three Governors-General and Viceroys enter and exit this first ‘palace of British India’ inthe ‘St. Petersburg of the East’, till the capital was shifted to Delhi in 1912.
The Chinese Nanking cannon, set up on a plinth in front of the Grand Staircase the huge iron gun mounted on a winged dragon with red glass eyes and tremendous scaled convolutions of the tail ending in a forked point, surrounded by ten iron guns with embossed Chinese inscription planted upright in the ground was brought from Nanking in 1842 from the Chinese troops following the peace treaty forced on China by the military forces of British India. This was one of the add-ons to the grand residence by Edward Lord Ellenborough who was the Governor-General during this time.
Like him, Governors-General before and after him have all added something or the other to the grandeur of the palace and most have even been retained till date. Lord Hastings had during his reign imported the finest gravel from Bayswater to be laid on the path in each entryway. Lord Elgin followed him around 1860s supplemented the metallic dome on top and introduced gas to provide light. It is often jokingly said that by the time Lady Dufferin came to live here in 1884, the place was equipped with the most state-of-the-art luxury item. So, the only addition she could suggest was adding a tennis court.
Lord Curzon, being almost the last of the Governors-General to live here brought electricity and introduced the Bird Cage Lift in 1892. Built by Otis Elevator Company, India, this still functional lift was the first to be installed in any Indian building, having undergone modernization twice in 1969 and 2010. This antique lift, along with the magnificent façade, has been a silent witness to the process of seeing the country pass from the British Rule to be a Democracy and survive till date.
Not making this post any longer, I will wrap up here and leave the remaining part of the history and details of the first palace in India, including the stories around the British Royal Coat of Arms, for my next post. So, do come back for more…