India

The only people willing to take Delhi's 'most haunted house'

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Media captionAshish Khetan gives BBC News a tour of the house

An exclusive bungalow in the Indian capital, Delhi, long shunned for being "unlucky" for its occupants, recently became the headquarters for the local government's policy planning unit. The BBC's Geeta Pandey takes a tour of the house to get to the bottom of its ghostly reputation.

Image copyright Bhasker Solanki
Image caption The white marble of the spiral staircase is gleaming

A sprawling mansion can be found at 33 Sham Nath Marg in the leafy Civil Lines area, spread over 5,500 sq m with two storeys, three bedrooms, drawing and dining spaces, conference rooms, a room for the guard and 10 quarters for servants and staff.

It is surrounded by lawns, so big that they could "host a football match" and there is a fountain in the back gardens.

But this prime property, worth millions of dollars, has long been regarded as jinxed - a place where careers - and sometimes, even people - have met a premature end.

Civil Lines was built by India's British rulers to accommodate senior officers and old residents of the area say the house was built in the 1920s.

Image copyright Bhasker Solanki
Image caption Ashish Khetan, the new occupant of the house, rubbishes reports that it is haunted

After Independence, it was considered the best location for Delhi's chief minister as it was only 100 yards from the legislative building Vidhan Sabha.

The city's first chief minister Chaudhary Brahma Prakash made it his home in 1952. In the 1990s, it was home to another Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana.

But both lost their jobs prematurely, and the house began to be considered inauspicious.

"There were no takers for the house after Mr Khurana lost his job. Rumours started that the house was haunted and other Delhi chief ministers like Sahib Singh Verma and Sheila Dikshit refused to live there," says journalist Sujay Mehdudia who covered the Delhi assembly for The Hindu newspaper in the late 1980s and 1990s.

But then in 2003, much against the advice of his aides and well-wishers, Deep Chand Bandhu, a minister in the Delhi government, moved into the house.

Image copyright Bhasker Solanki
Image caption The house has 10 quarters for servants and staff

"He said he didn't believe in superstitions and moved into the house. But soon after, he fell ill. He had contracted meningitis and died in hospital," Mr Mehdudia adds.

The tragedy strengthened the belief that the house was cursed in some way and it remained vacant for the next 10 years, with ministers and bureaucrats declining to stay there.

In 2013, senior bureaucrat Shakti Sinha decided to stay there and though he said he enjoyed living there, many point out that he too did not complete his term in office.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Former Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana lived in the house but he had to quit prematurely
Image copyright Courtesy: Hindustan Times
Image caption Former Delhi minister Deep Chand Bandhu fell ill soon after he moved into the house; he later died in hospital

But now the house has new occupants - on 9 June, it became the new office of the Delhi Dialogue Commission, set up by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to provide policy direction to the government.

Ashish Khetan, the commission's vice-chairperson, rubbishes reports that the house is haunted and says that he, in fact, sought the place out.

"I came to know about this huge expensive public property that is not being touched by politicians and bureaucrats because they believe it is jinxed," Mr Khetan told the BBC.

"In this day and age, when we talk of a digital India and we are sending satellites in space, I thought this jinx needed to be broken."


Glimpses of a crumbling colonial past: photographs of Civil Lines by Dhruva Chaudhuri

Image copyright Courtesy: Dhruva N Chaudhuri
Image caption Civil Lines is steeped in history - this photograph of the Old Secretariat building near Sham Nath Marg was taken in 1957 by author and photographer Dhruva Chaudhuri
Image copyright Courtesy: Dhruva N Chaudhuri
Image caption A typical British bungalow, once a small but exclusive hotel called Woodlands, was built probably in the early 1920s and was converted into a hostel after 1945. Dhruva Chaudhuri took this photo in 2003

He had no problems getting the government to allot the house to his commission since "there were no takers for it".

Mr Khetan's assistant Devendra Singh says when they first came to the house, "the rooms were filled with broken beds and other furniture".

But in recent weeks, the house has been cleaned up - it smells of fresh paint, curtains are being put up on windows, the white marble of the spiral staircase is gleaming, the conference room has new furniture, and work is on to restart the fountain.

And the bedrooms - now converted into offices - are a hive of activity where nearly three dozen staff and fresh-faced interns are busy working.

Image copyright Bhasker Solanki
Image caption The house is now a hive of activity where nearly three dozen staff and fresh-faced interns are busy working

"Everyone should take a vow to fight superstition and promote scientific temperament. It's a sad situation that educated people promote black magic and blind faith," Mr Khetan says.

I ask him if he has had any ghostly encounters since moving into his new office?

"No, but we're looking for some ghosts. And if we do find them, I will make them work here. We are short of staff anyways," he says.


Jinxed house?

Image copyright Bhasker Solanki

At the turn of the 20th Century, when India's British rulers moved the capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Delhi, Civil Lines became the "Temporary Capital", says Delhi historian Narayani Gupta.

"The British very quickly built up buildings in the area which served as the government secretariat and elegant homes for the British civil servants until the new capital city was built up," she says.

The area is steeped in history - from 1912 to 1929, the viceroy of India lived there, as did the British military commandant. This is also where Lord Mountbatten proposed marriage to Edwina Mountbatten in 1922.

Author and photographer Dhruva Chaudhuri, who grew up in Civil Lines, says the bungalow at 33 Sham Nath Marg was built in the 1920s.

His father, celebrated author Nirad Chaudhuri, worked for All India Radio which was headquartered in Civil Lines and the family lived in the nearby Mori Gate area.

"As young boys in the late 1930s and 1940s, my brother and I would walk up and down the road. There was a small mound of earth next to this house and we would climb on to that to look inside the house."

Over the years, it was home to senior government functionaries and in the mid-1940s, Mr Chaudhuri says, it was the residence of an Englishman who was the manager of Delhi Electric Supply.

"The house interested us very much. We would watch the family come out, sit in the garden and drink tea."

"In those days, no-one said the house was jinxed. It was only in the last few decades that people began to describe it as a "bhoot bangla (the bungalow where ghosts live)," he says with a laugh.


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