Princely Palaces of Delhi

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    In Lutyens’ Delhi today, there are numerous official or Sarkari buildings with peculiar names and connects. The Patiala House Court complex, today’s Northern Railway headquarters that was once the Baroda House, the National Green Tribunal- the old Faridkot House and the old Bahawalpur House which is now the National School of Drama and so on. Few people realize that these buildings were part of a British attempt to recreate the grand Mughal court in Delhi. When the British capital shifted to Delhi after the Delhi Durbar in 1911, the princely states were asked to make grand houses around the residence of the Viceroy, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and offered prime plots at very low prices.

    In Lutyens’ Delhi today, there are numerous official or Sarkari buildings with peculiar names and connects

    The India of the early 19th and 20th century was divided into two parts: British India under direct administrative control of the government and crown in UK, and Princely India, covering about one-third of the British Empire in India, administered by the princes over centuries. Some of the princely states were larger than England. Gwalior for example was as large as Portugal! The revenues earned by them, the enviable fleet of cars they owned coupled with their extravagant lifestyles made headlines across the world. But despite their riches, these princes were in no way seen as equals to the British Crown. It is interesting to note that the King of England was addressed as King-Emperor while Indian Maharajas and Nawabs were known as Ruling Princes and Chiefs, and were considered as just ‘vassals’.

    Shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi

    In December 1911, when the grand durbar was held in Delhi, in attendance were the who’s who of British India and the princely states. It was a big occasion - to commemorate the coronation in Britain of King George V and Queen Mary and to make an important announcement.

    Amidst the glamour and pompous display of the Delhi Durbar, the Viceroy of India Lord Charles Hardinge was seen giving a simple piece of paper to King George V, seated on the throne with Queen Mary under an ornate canopy in the durbar arena. The King read it and announced to everyone’s surprise that the capital of India was being shifted from Calcutta to a new city in Delhi. Hundreds of people gathered for the occasion rejoiced at the news; the delegates from Bengal remained ambivalent in their reaction.

    The Princes’ Park

    Once announced, the plan of the Capital was laid out with the Viceroy’s House (Rashtrapati Bhavan), Council House (Parliament) and other buildings at the heart. The British government, eager to render the new capital a ‘garden city’ makeover, invited Indian princes to construct palaces for their stay in the new capital. These lavish residences were not just to get the princes to ‘court’ or the capital. It was also to create a veneer of grandness - a permanent Durbar of sorts - just like Mughal grandees had built residences in Delhi and like the British dukes built their town houses in London.

    Large plots were allotted to Indian princes based on their rank. The idea was to create a ‘Princes’ Park’ area around what was called the C-Hexagon and where India gate would be built later.

    The princes did not miss the chance and sought vast tracts of land measuring anywhere between 25 to 50 acres! On the whole this was a total of 500 acres and the British authorities were quite baffled at the size. Alarmed by this ‘rush for land’, the Viceroy devised a scheme restricting the size of plots to be allotted to the princes to a maximum 8 acres, reducing the overall acreage to half the initial plan and dividing it into over 36 plots.

    The British government invited Indian princes to construct palaces for their stay in the new capital

    The next hurdle was around the question of the cost of land and what the annual ground rents would be. The princes wrote long, detailed letters to the authorities asking for plots free of cost. Their argument was simple: they did not want to be seen as ordinary leaseholders paying taxes. They also argued that ‘a wise consideration would pave the way for a stronger relationship with the Crown.’ A lump sum premium of Rs.1800 per acre was finally agreed upon for land development and other facilities. And the earlier distribution of land on the basis of gun salutes, so deeply resented by the princes, was also done away with.

    After the First World War was over, the palaces were built, with the first completed by 1928. Alongside, the imposing All India War Memorial Arch or India Gate made its mark in the center of the park by 1931, the year New Delhi was inaugurated.

    Today, amid the clogged traffic around the India gate, it is difficult to imagine the visual panorama Delhi presented when it first became the capital of British India. Unbelievable as it sounds, even till the early 20th century CE, elephants rode the roads and carriages with gold and ivory accessories carried the bejeweled maharajas down the central vista here. It was not uncommon to see a maharaja wearing a headdress of gold studded with emeralds being driven in his carriage-and-four to Viceroy’s House and the Viceroy returning the visit to the palace at Princes’ Park in a State coach-and-six accompanied by court attendants. Atop the palaces fluttered the crimson and gold flag of Bikaner, the blue, white and yellow of Bahawalpur, the scarlet of Patiala – it was a riot of colours! Gun-salutes were fired from the Fort on every arrival and departure of the rajas. The princely palaces and the Viceroy’s House at Raisina Hill, were the centre of the new world.

    The best way to explore the city is by walking around the area with the India Gate at the center.

    The Viceroy’s House (Rashtrapati Bhavan) stands on the top of Raisina Hill. Down the hill is the Great Place (Vijay Chowk) and then starts the ceremonial Central Vista (Rajpath), crisscrossed by other roads, leading straight to Princes’ Park at the C-hexagon reserved solely for the princes' palaces. Stand at India Gate, at the foot of the canopy and look around and you will get a view of the grand palaces of those days : Hyderabad House, Baroda House, Patiala House, Jaipur House and Bikaner House.

    Stand at India Gate and you will get a view of the grand palaces of those days

    The palaces, designed by British architects like the famed Sir Edwin Lutyens, C.G. Blomfield, Walter George and others, mostly followed western architectural styles. Apart from the palaces that you see from the India Gate, there are 25 other palaces scattered around Shahjahan Road, Mansingh Road and Mandi House circle that have been grouped territorially. So, if you want to see the palaces of Rajputana, you need to walk down Shahjahan Road to see Bikaner House, Dholpur House, Kota House, Kishangarh and Alwar plots (not built); further away are Bundi House, Jaisalmer House, Bharatpur House and so on.

    Starting from Ashoka Road towards India Gate, our first stop is Hyderabad House, the most prominent and magnificent among the princely palaces in New Delhi. It was the palace of Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan Saheb, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad.

    Designed on a ‘butterfly plan’ by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it has two identical wings going backwards at an angle of fifty-five degrees from the main porch to embrace the identical loggias (covered exterior corridor) behind. Lutyens drew inspiration from neo-classical Roman architecture and decked it with European motifs. The palace, visited by Nizam for the first time in 1928 when it was completed, was rejected by both his sons as ‘unsuitable for an Oriental house.’

    Lutyens drew inspiration from neo-classical Roman architecture

    Ever wondered why the ‘richest man in the world’ didn’t build a grander palace in Delhi? He could have if he wanted to do so. By one account, the Nizam owned £100 million worth of gold and silver bullion and jewelry worth £400 million, apart from several palaces. The main reason was that the British authorities would not allow the native palaces to be bigger than the Viceroy’s House. So we see smaller palaces in New Delhi as compared to the palaces in respective princely states. Moreover, Delhi palaces were used more as guest houses for the princes rather than permanent residences.

    Simple incidents added zing to life and more so in the tedious administrative world of a viceroy. When Viceroy Lord Willingdon met the Nizam’s daughter-in-law Princess Niloufer at a party in Hyderabad House, he could not take his eyes off the legendary beauty: ‘her violet eyes and blue black Circassian hair were enough to ruin a man’s appetite.’ The feisty Lady Willingdon could not stand it and breaking all protocol took her husband by hand and walked away. Lord Willingdon was heard whispering to the Nizam: ‘I haven’t enjoyed myself so much for years!’

    Hyderabad House hosted many dignitaries including the Maharajas of Nepal and Bhutan, Viceroys and the Dalai Lama, to name a few. During his last visit to Delhi in 1954, the Nizam threw a lavish party at his palace attended by President Rajendra Prasad, Prime Minister Nehru, Eleanor Roosevelt and others. Hyderabad House is now the venue where the country’s Prime Minister welcomes visiting foreign dignitaries to banquets while official agreements are signed in one of its many richly decorated rooms.

    The palaces, designed by British architects like the famed Sir Edwin Lutyens, C.G. Blomfield, Walter George mostly followed western architectural styles

    Just across the road is the palace of Maharaja of Baroda or Baroda House set on the same ‘butterfly plan’ by Sir Edwin Lutyens, but on a smaller scale. Unlike the Nizam’s palace, it does not have a separate zenana. There also was a stark dissimilarity in the personalities of the rulers of Hyderabad and Baroda: The Nizam, though wealthy, wore simple clothes and led a Spartan life while Maharaja of Baroda was liberal and steeped in western culture. ‘The Baroda house exuded an atmosphere of British affluence: its furnishings were “comfortably Anglo-Saxon” and its plumbing American, as in the sprawling palace at Baroda. The cook and bandmaster were French, the stable master Irish, and the valet and maids English. Table linen was woven to order in Belfast, and the dinner service was fashioned in Bond Street. Scarlet-liveried servants offered guests whiskey or hock with seltzer at breakfast, champagne and port in the evening,’ according to an account.

    The Baroda palace was grand. It had arcaded verandahs, loggias and courtyards and embellishments of intricate geometrical jaali, ornamental urns on the parapet and a prominent central dome. Each room had a fire place made of brick and mortar and lined with marble exuding the nostalgic British Raj. We can only imagine members of the family sitting around and having lovely chat. The rooms were decorated with masterly paintings and other showpieces. The fireplaces, sadly, are now being used for keeping files. Many rooms have wooden flooring with stone borders. During the days of its use as a princely palace, Baroda’s famed carpets might have been laid on these floors.

    Each room had a fire place made of brick and mortar and lined with marble exuding the nostalgic British Raj

    Funnily, the frugal Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad used to call this palace, his ‘White Elephant’ as it cost so much to maintain. In 1950s, Baroda House was acquired by Indian railways and is now the headquarters of Northern Railways. It can be easily identified by the presence of an old rail engine MTR No. 1 made in 1910 in front of the main gate. You can see it in operation from 9.30 to 11 am on weekdays except Monday and weekends.

    It’s now time to walk a little more on the bend to reach Patiala House. As with every princely palace in Princes’ Park, the white chhatri-lined building has been converted into a court and is more popularly known as Patiala House Courts. As you enter the premises, it would take several moments to make sense amid the chaos.

    Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala was known for his flamboyant lifestyle and quite justifiably so. The Patiala Necklace famously made for him in Paris contained 2,930 diamonds, including the world's seventh largest diamond, the ‘De Beers’ weighing 234.65 carats in its final setting. He was the proud possessor of 27 Rolls-Royce cars. As Chancellor of Chamber of Princes, he got the prime land earlier reserved for the Begum of Bhopal’s girls’ school but could not live to see the palace built on it.

    Maharaja Yadavindra Singh completed the elegant Patiala House quite identifiable for its numerous chhatris. As a sports enthusiast, he organized a meeting of 13 countries in Patiala House that culminated in the First Asian Games in New Delhi. Politicians from the ruling side and the opposition including Jawaharlal Nehru, Jagjivan Ram, Nath Pai, Feroze Gandhi, Swaran Singh and Piloo Mody occasionally dropped in the evenings at Patiala House for a friendly chat.

    Post independence, Patiala House accommodated the offices of international organizations and even became home to renowned poet Amrita Pritam who was then working with All India Radio. On one of those days, Maharaja Yadavindra Singh gave away to a friend, a rare Maybach car gifted to his father Maharaja Bhupinder Singh by Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1935. There were only six of these specially made cars in the world and Hitler’s gift was lying unused in the Patiala garage!

    The National Gallery of Modern Art is nestled within Jaipur House, the palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur.

    Few realize that the entire land on which today’s ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’ stands, was owned by the Jaipur royal family during the Mughal times. The princely state of Jaipur surrendered 314 acres of land in Jaisinghpura and Madhoganj villages for the establishment of the new capital city. The plot allotted for its Delhi palace was once reserved for constructing a Princes’ club that did not materialize. British architect C.G. Blomfield designed Jaipur House on this plot in Princes’ Park when Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II ascended the throne.

    The ground floor of Jaipur House is on a raised platform and highlighted with alternating horizontal layers of red and buff stone, while the upper floor gets a lighter hue in buff stone only. It creates a beautiful band of red and cream colours on the façade, punctuated by a high dome.

    Maharaja Sawai Man Singh accompanied by Maharani Gayatri Devi often invited fellow princes and polo players to their palace during the Delhi festive week every year. The horses, after the match had been won, were treated to champagne as part of celebration!

    Our last stop is Bikaner House, one of the oldest princely palaces now turned into a cultural centre with a cozy restaurant.

    Maharaja Ganga Singh, during whose reign Bikaner House was built in New Delhi, was described as ‘handsome soldierly, more than scholarly’ by fellow princes and the British royalty. As Chancellor of Chamber of Princes, he worked hard for betterment of relationship between the princes and the Crown. He first put Sir Edwin Lutyens to the job of designing his Delhi palace but later handed it over to C.G. Blomfield.

    Unlike Jaipur House which he designed later, Blomfield settled for an austere building built in brick covered with white plaster. The architectural style of the palace does not reflect the aspects of Rajput tradition yet the playful chhatris on the top are visible from a distance. The general design and the façade are greatly western. There are four units – three on the ground floor and just the zenana on the first floor. The ground floor has the reception suite; on the right are private rooms for Maharaja and on the left are the guest rooms. All the three units on the ground floor could be entered through three separate porte-cocheres or carriage porches. These porches are in fact one of the salient features of the architectural style of Bikaner House. The Viceroy and other dignitaries, whenever invited for dinner, would arrive at the main porte-cochere and would head straight to the dining hall after crossing the drawing room. Across the dining hall are the open loggia and the sprawling gardens ahead.

    The porches are one of the salient features of the architectural style of Bikaner House

    On the eve of Independence, Bikaner House became the main meeting venue for the princes to discuss complicated issues pertaining to partition, dissolution of Chamber of Princes and the position of princely states in Free India. Maharaja Sadul Singh of Bikaner would often meet the Nawab of Bhopal, Jamsaheb of Nawanagar, Maharajas of Patiala, Rewa and Bundi and Lord Mountbatten in Bikaner House.

    After Independence, the Maharaja occasionally received requests for the use of Bikaner House by friends and government officials. In 1950 Ravi Shankar, who was yet to become the famous sitar maestro, requested the Maharaja for some of the rooms at Bikaner House. He wanted the premises to establish an international music centre in New Delhi on the lines of India Culture Centre at Almora established by his famous brother Uday Shankar. Though it did not come up for some reason, we now have free public access to the art galleries, book launch functions and other cultural activities in Bikaner House, thanks to the efforts of the Rajasthan State government.

    There are several other houses in the lanes around India gate. Cochin House, the palace of Maharaja of Cochin at Jantar Mantar Road, was once the residence of Sir Sobha Singh, contractor of New Delhi and father of renowned writer Khushwant Singh. The house named as ‘Baikunth’ had huge pillars, corridors and courtyards full of mango trees where Khushwant used to roam about as a child. Dholpur House, which currently houses United Public Services Commission (UPSC) is almost a smaller replica of Indian Parliament, while the Bahawalpur House, now a National School of Drama is a smaller replica of Rashtrapati Bhavan. There is no end to the quirks of the Indian princes!

    We have already covered Princes’ Park full-circle, on foot, from Hyderabad House (1928) to Bikaner House (1929) through Baroda House (1936), Patiala House (1938) and Jaipur House (1936).

    These palaces, now converted into government offices, courts and cultural centres, are part of Delhi’s urban topography. The princely palaces were built for purposes that may not be of relevance at present, but they speak of a time that was part of the continual process of knitting an unstitched destiny. We need to preserve them in their original beauty, if not with their associated glory.

    Photo(s) courtesy: Maharaja Ganga Singhji Trust, Bikaner; NDMC; Photo Division; Rajmahal Palace, Jaipur; Allama Aijaz Farruq and the author.


    Sumanta K Bhowmick is the author of the book Princely Palaces in New Delhi published by Niyogi Books in 2016.

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