Parliament House: Where India Speaks

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    It’s where our laws are framed, the country’s future is debated, and the people’s representatives are held accountable. It’s India’s seat of government, and it all happens right here, in this iconic, circular edifice called Parliament House.

    Yet this edifice in the heart of New Delhi was not envisaged as part of the new Delhi built by the colonial British when they shifted the imperial capital from Calcutta to the former seat of the Mughals and Sultans, in 1911.

    The winds of change were sweeping across the subcontinent and the Government of India Act, 1919, allowed for greater participation of Indians in government. The country needed a larger space to accommodate an expanded seat of government. The Secretariat, where the Imperial Legislative Council convened, was no longer large enough.

    Parliament House, or ‘Council House’ in pre-Independent India, was built between 1921 and 1927.

    It was designed by the same architects who had given the rest of the new imperial capital a makeover – Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker.

    When the new capital was planned, the mandate given to the architects was very clear. While retaining the authoritative stamp of the colonial British, it also needed to resonate with Indians. In architectural terms, this meant a look that blended European classicalism with a distinctly Indic feel.

    Parliament House reflects this central visual theme, as does the rest of New Delhi. Spread across 6 acres, it consists of the familiar circular structure with a colonnaded verandah with 144 pillars. In the middle is the Central Hall, and radiating from it are three semi-circular Chambers – one for the Lok Sabha, another for the Rajya Sabha and the third, the lesser-known Chamber of Princes. Here are some interesting facts about the seat of government that you probably didn’t know.

    Modelled on a Temple? There’s no way to be sure but some experts believe that when the iconic building was being designed, Lutyens drew inspiration from an ancient Indian temple in Madhya Pradesh. And, indeed, the resemblance to the 12th CE Chausath Yogini Temple in Mitaoli village, 40 km from Gwalior, is uncanny.

    A Tantric shrine located on a hilltop, the Chausath Yogini Temple is named after its ‘chausath’ or 64 niches, one each for a yogini (mother goddess). Built of stone, the shrine is circular, roofless and pillared and looks unmistakeably like Parliament House.

    According to one theory, Lutyens modelled Parliament House on this temple as circular structures like these are able to withstand considerable seismic stress. The hilltop shrine has weathered many earthquakes with little damage and Delhi is located in Seismic Zone IV. Besides, the design suited the mandate to use Indic architecture in the new capital.

    Two Houses, Not One: When the new capital was being designed in 1912-13, the Imperial Legislative Council, the country’s main governing body, was to meet at Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan). In time, the Council convened in the government Secretariat building in Delhi.

    With the increasing participation of Indians in government, the Council became a bicameral legislature in 1919; it now consisted of two Houses – the Central Legislative Assembly (precursor to the Lok Sabha or Lower House) and the Council of States (precursor to the Rajya Sabha or Upper House). This meant the government needed more room.

    There was only one option: to renovate the Secretariat building and build a larger chamber. Thus, in 1921, the Secretariat became the venue of the first Central Legislative Assembly.

    But the seat of government needed its own premises, which brought Lutyens and Baker back to the drawing board. While Baker came up with a triangular plan with three wings, Lutyens insisted on a circular design. Of course, Lutyens prevailed.

    Chamber of Princes: Did you know that before Independence, apart from the two Houses of Parliament, India had a third Chamber in Parliament? It was the Chamber of Princes and its members were Rajas, Maharajas and Princes. The Chamber, which existed from 1921 to 1947, was a one-of-a-kind in world history as it allowed royalty a role in governance, even if only consultative and advisory. It occupied the third of the three semi-circular chambers in Parliament House.

    There were more than 550 Princely States in India and they covered about one-third of the British Empire in the subcontinent. The Chamber of Princes, though, represented less than half the Princely States.

    At Independence, when the Princely States merged with the rest of India, the Chamber of Princes housed the Supreme Court of India when it was established in 1950. The court moved to its current premises in 1958.

    Sans its royal members who once met in this hallowed hall, the Chamber of Princes now serves a less glamorous purpose – it is the Library Hall, or a reading room, for Members of Parliament.

    Central Hall: The grand, domed Central Hall of Parliament is where the transfer of power took place in 1947 and where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made his famous ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech on the threshold of Independence, at midnight on August 14. It is also where the Constituent Assembly met and framed the Constitution of India. Joint sessions of Parliament are now held here.

    Incidentally, it was also at Parliament House that, in April 1929, revolutionaries Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt exploded bombs to protest British rule in India.

    As part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, India is to get a new Parliament building near the old one. Once completed, the seat of government will shift to the new venue, leaving the original Lutyens-Baker creation open to being repurposed.

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