When Pranab Mukherjee becomes the latest occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan as the country’s 13th President on Wednesday, he will not move into the residential quarters planned 100 years ago by Edwin Lutyens.
Spectators at Raisina Hills watch the illuminated Rashtrapati Bhavan during the Beating the Retreat ceremony in New Delhi.
Instead, he will be following a tradition set by independent India’s first head of state, C Rajagopalachari.
Sitting on a plateau at the top of Raisina Hill, Rashtrapati Bhavan famously has 340 rooms – frequently the subject of debate and even ridicule considering the largely ceremonial nature of the President in a country where several thousands have no roof.
The majestic palace is divided into two wings. Lutyens, the architect who designed the building as the Viceroy’s House, planned the larger wing as the residence of the Viceroy and his family, and the smaller wing to house guests. All British Viceroys who lived in the palace -- built between 1912 and 1929, and occupied from 1931 – followed Lutyen’s plan.
But Rajagopalachari, who took over as governor general in 1947, decided to break with the past. He moved into the smaller, guest chambers, and what was till then the Viceroy’s residential wing became the section where state guests were housed. The building’s name itself changed to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Every President – starting with Rajendra Prasad in 1950 – has since followed this tradition.
As President, Mukherjee can take long walks every day in the Mughal Gardens, as he has hinted he wants to. The gardens – which actually boast as much of British landscaping as they carry a Mughal signature – are opened for the public in February every year.
The building itself is as stylistically rich in the diversity of origins from where designs are drawn. The central dome, Lutyens claimed, is modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, though other architects have argued that it may have been inspired at least in part by the Sanchi stupa. Under the dome lies the Durbar Hall, the building’s main ceremonial space, with a 2-ton chandelier and intricately carved columns. Inspirations from British, Roman and Indian architecture surround visitors.
But it is the men and women who designed and lived in the building, with its massive, red-sand courtyard, who added to the history of Rashtrapati Bhavan over the past 100 years.
Despite its pacific appearance and the behind-the-scenes nature of the President’s role, Raisina Hill has seen eviction, bitter personal fights and political intrigue.
Over 300 families had to be evicted from the village of Raisina before construction could be started. Lutyen fought bitterly with Herbert Baker – with whom he designed New Delhi – over the plan of the complex. Lutyen later skipped the role of Indian architects like Sir Sobha Singh in the building of the Viceroy’s House.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is believed by many political researchers to have tried his best to secure a Presidential term for Rajagopalachari in 1950, instead of Congress leader Rajendra Prasad who eventually became India’s first President.
Over three decades later, Giani Zail Singh, the then President, is believed by many to have tried to hurt Rajiv Gandhi’s government. Singh was appointed President during the prime ministerial term of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv’s mother.
As a master of Indian political history and as a veteran who has seen and survived political intrigue for 40 years, Mukherjee may appreciate his new home better than most.