Stories around the Government House Part II

“Contiguous to the Esplanade is the Government House, a superb edifice, approached by four colossal gates emblazoned with the Britannic Arms.” – Thomas & William Daniell, British painters, 1810.

Before we get into more intricate details of Raj Bhawan, there is one little thing, well technically about 100 tonnes (or a little more) heavy, that definitely needs mention! The British Royal Coat of Arms – one of which, restored, now stands as a decoration on a sloped raised platform in a part of the southern garden just outside the main building.

The Royal Coat of Arms includes a lion standing on the “Dexter” (right) representing England and a unicorn, standing on the “Sinister” (left) representing Scotland. It also includes a thistle, a Tudor rose and a Shamrock, representing Scotland, England and Ireland respectively. Surrounding the shield, on both sides of which stand the lion and the unicorn and atop which on the crown of England stands a crowned lion, is a Garter circlet of the Order of the Garter inscribed with the motto “Honi soit qui mal y pense” which translates to shame on he who thinks evil. The bottom of the entire compartment holding all this together is the motto of English monarchy that has been carried to the present day – “Die et mon Droit” meaning ‘God and my Right’.

The Royal Coat of Arms – Rescued pieces (left), Original Coat of Arms (centre), Refurbished coat of arms for decoration and display (right)

The Royal Insignias, manufactured by the now-defunct Messrs Macfarlane of Glassgow, were brought from England in 1810 (or might be even before) to be fitted on the roof of the four faces and the tympanum of the building on the Northern side. According to reports and journal entries, initially, two out of the four Coat of Arms belonged to the British East India Company that were later replaced by the monarchical ones around 1858. The one on the tympanum was replaced by an Ashok Chakra motif while the others were removed altogether in 1947 and left somewhere on the ground when the palace was refurbished to welcome C Rajagopalachari, the first Indian Governor-General. 

Dismantled and neglected for almost 60 years since Independence, the restoration of these relics has a rather interesting story. Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi from his paternal side and first Indian Governor general C Rajagopalachari from his maternal side, was the Governor of Bengal between 2004 and 2009. Gandhi had an avid interest in heritage properties and would often stroll the grounds of the Raj Bhawan to know more about the property. On one such stroll, he came to a strange mound with a lion’s head protruding from it. His interests led him to check records dating back to the construction days of the Government House, as it was then called, and he realized that he had, by sheer luck, unearthed heritage relics. Excavations revealed more and more broken and pieces and Gandhi, who was nearing the end of his tenure, so he approached the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to restore the Coats and requested his successor MK Narayanan, continued to patronize the project.

Built over 27 acres of land, the palatial mansion spreads across 84,00 sq.ft of floor space and stands three-storeys tall with about 60 rooms, apart from the public halls, verandas, porticoes, banquets halls and the Throne room. How the palace differed from Kedleston House were the two extra wings and the specially designed corridors and passages to allow air circulation to accommodate with the particularly hard and torturous Bengal summer.

Colonnaded verandahs on the South face. Picture courtesy Samuel Bourne

Captain Charles Wyatt designed the Government House in a neoclassical style with very distinct Baroque overtones, perhaps as one of the best examples of Georgian Architecture, then in India and till date. Of the six gateways that open up to the palace, four gateways, two each on the East and West is adorned by a grand archway with a lion perched on top while the smaller ones on the sides are crowned with a Sphinx each. The whole 27 acres of land is encircled by a balustrade wall and the thousands of trees within that hide most part of the gorgeous mansion from outside, most of which had been added to post 1870.

On the north is the main entrance with the grand staircase providing direct access to the staterooms in the core area of the palace. Most of the staff quarters also reside on the outer walls of the mansion on the north or north-western side. The Government Place of today adjoining the royal stable that stands on both sides of the Red Cross Place would host the staff, coachmen, durbaans, bearers and others from Indian or lower origin as well as the coaches and horses for the carriages for general travel.

Staff quarters through Government Place and Wellesley Place

The stables on the eastern and western side of the North gate, built during the reign of Lord Curzon, are handsome structures with a replica of a horse on the top of the main gate.

Official stable and carriage shelters

The south, however, offers a far better view of the mansion. The pebbled way from the main entrance to the building is adorned on both sides by towering greenery of trees with the Nanking cannon standing at a distance and the remnants of the coat of arms also adorning the palace gardens. The entrance is surrounded by the passage – a colonnaded verandah along with the staircases, the verandah offering a grand view of the garden around. Atop this verandah is the metallic dome installed in the 1860s by Governor-General Lord Elgin. In fact, the main edifice of the Governor House, as it was mentioned in an earlier post, was enhanced by various Governor Generals through their reigns.

The gates and the views from them

The interior of the Raj Bhawan lie beyond the visitors’ eyes and while I have been fortunate enough to visit the grounds once or twice, what lies beyond is only based on my knowledge based on websites. But what remains as a takeaway are the grand gates, lush lawns, a mini forest right in the heart of the city, a palatial mansion and the story of how an ambitious plan to Govern from a Palace (among the very first in the country) by Lord Wellesley, cost the East India Company a whopping £63,291 way back in the early 1800s and how it cost him his job.

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