It was built on what the celebrated Indian writer Khushwant Singh has described as “a wilderness of cactus, acacia and camelthorn.” This blazing stretch of scrubland on the edge of Old Delhi – founded as Shahjahanabad in 1639 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame – was dotted with ruins, including tombs, of earlier dynasties that had all crumbled to dust. Delhi was said to be their graveyard.
And, yet, what is known as the Rashtrapati Bhavan today – the President’s House – envisioned as a palace in all but name for the last Viceroys of India, stands proudly, and seemingly perfectly, as an architectural emblem of the world’s largest democracy and as an enduring symbol of a bond between the Indian and British people. It has outlasted the East India Company, the British Raj and countless misunderstandings over several hundred years.
The Viceroy’s House was, and remains, the centrepiece of New Delhi, the new capital of the Indian government announced, out of the blue, by George V, Emperor of India, at the spectacular Delhi Durbar – the ‘Court of India’ − of 1911, an event that saw 20,000 soldiers marching or riding past the silk-robed Emperor and Empress. Rather remarkably, the event was filmed in colour.
Until then, the seat of government had been Calcutta. While there was much protest, the new city, planned by a committee chaired by the brilliant English architect Edwin Lutyens, was to be magnificent: bold, sweeping, a place of grand avenues, lofty trees and, then as now, colourful processions.
At the far end of the principal street − Kingsway − Lutyens shaped what is, perhaps, one of the greatest buildings of the 20th Century. This long, low, insistently horizontal red and cream sandstone building is so big that Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral could sit inside its walls with plenty of room to spare. Like St Paul’s, the Viceroy’s House is crowned by a dome. This haunting structure is rooted in the dome of Hadrian’s Pantheon in Rome and, perhaps, too, in the form of the Great Stupa at Stanchi, the 3rd Century Buddhist reliquary restored by John Marshall, Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, who had been appointed by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India in 1902.
When he made the first of what were to be almost annual trips to India over 20 years from 1912, Lutyens, then 42, dismissed traditional Indian architecture as “piffle”, as “spurts by various mushroom dynasties.” And, yet, as the Viceroy’s House rose over 17 long, hot years − and with up to 29,000 workers on site − so this great courtyard house began to display several prominent Indian features. The main façade was protected from the sun by a deep, thin cornice – a chajja, or sun-breaker – while chattri, or umbrella domes ornamented the roof, and jali – latticed windows – filtered daylight into the cool internal courtyards and the 340 rooms arranged behind the imposing colonnaded entrance facade.
That colonnade comprised irregularly spaced columns surmounted with Indian Order capitals, an invention of Lutyens incorporating silent stone temple bells. Some said that if the bells ever stopped ringing, the British would leave India; but, as they were made of stone, they would never ring at all. Completed in 1929, and inaugurated, with New Delhi as a whole in 1931, the Viceroy’s House was not yet nineteen years old when India gained its independence. The first Governor General of India, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, found his palatial quarters too big to live in, opting for a smaller suite of rooms than Viceroys had been used to. From 1950, Indian presidents followed suit.
At first, Lord Irwin − the First Viceroy to take up residence – found the house maze-like, yet soon thought it perfectly liveable, not least, perhaps, because, at 6ft 5in, he was a giant of man. Grand, too. And, yet, he took a liking, eventually, to the tiny, monk-like figure of Gandhi who spent time with him here drinking tea. Irwin’s grandness had its choice moments. In 1937, on his first visit to the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, he mistook the Führer for a footman and was just stopped from handing him his overcoat as he stepped from his official car.
Inside, the teak, ebony and marble-lined halls of the Viceroy’s House, a staff of many hundreds kept architectural representation of the Raj running smoothly. Including gardeners, and administrative staff, up to 2,000 people might work here on any one day. It was certainly a cool, elegant and even exquisite place to be. There were acres of Indian water gardens cooled by sandstone fountains shaped by Lutyens in the form of giant lotus leaves, while inside water tumbled down the side of marble stairs from the mouths of lion heads. A great stair courtyard was protected from the sun by stone coving, but – a lovely Lutyens’ surprise – there is no central ceiling panel; what appears to be a blue panel is the Delhi sky.
Devil in the details
Lutyens designed every last detail, from door handles in the guise of crowned lions, to wardrobes, baths, showerheads and, delightfully, wooden chandeliers in the nursery rooms of the Viceroy’s quarters. One features rocking horses, another angels singing, a third hens laying eggs: these tumble over the sides of the chandelier, with lightbulbs serving as yokes.
It is this balance between grandeur and domesticity, hauteur and humour and a fusion of British and Indian design that does so much to make this ambitious building both appealing and magnificent: Lutyens was a special architect, and a special man. He had a popular touch, and a famously silly sense of humour that endeared him to clients. When, at one point he nearly fell out with the Vicereine, Lady Hardinge, he offered to wash her feet with his tears and dry them with his hair. “It is true”, he told her, “I have very little hair, but then you have such very little feet.” Instantly, he was back in favour.
Funny, yes, but Lutyens was also a quietly profound and highly original architect. Effectively self-taught, he had set up on his own as a teenager and was accomplished from the start. His marriage to Emily Lytton in 1897 was to help him along; her father had been Viceroy of India. He certainly needed diplomatic support. The Viceroy’s House was meant to have been completed in four years at a cost of £400,000; in the event, it took 17 long years and cost £877,000. In its defence, Lutyens said this was less than the price of a pair of Royal Navy warships. It would be impossible to convert this sum into today’s money, not least because labour and all those very many tons of raw materials drawn from across India – some by narrow-gauge railway, others by camel train – were so very cheap at the time.
Lutyens, though, was crafting a building that would last, a true jewel from the British imperial crown to hand over to a newly independent India. Today, Indians can look at this extraordinary building and know that its construction involved the united labour and skill of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Christians alike. The chief contractor, working under Hugh Keeling, head of the Public Works Department, was Seth Haroun al-Rashid, while other work at the complex was carried out by Sobha Singh, father of Khushwant Singh, who at 98 years old, remembers the building of the Viceroy’s House and New Delhi very well indeed.
When I went to visit him in New Delhi, he was even able to mimic the distinctive sound of the tiny, hard-pressed steam locomotives that carried quarried stones to the various imperial building sites. The Viceroy’s House – Rashtrapati Bhavan – sat on its New Delhi ‘acropolis’, and recently restored, serves still as an extraordinary and unmissable bridge between the political ambitions and happily entwined cultural lives of Britain and India.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.