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Noble edifices: publication lifts veil on mysteries of Bengal’s Raj Bhavans

A view of the stately Raj Bhavan in Kolkata. File   | Photo Credit: Victoria Memorial Hall

A large room in the south of Raj Bhavan, Kolkata overlooking its gardens has a beautiful oil painting of Mahatma Gandhi by Jamini Ray, hung on the wall just above the desk of the Governor in a room that is called the Governor’s study. Not any people know that some of the most fundamentally transformative policies that shaped colonial India, including the introduction of English education in India through Thomas Macaulay’s Minute of 1835, the Doctrine of Lapse, the Ilbert Bill, the Partition of Bengal, and many others, were plotted in this very room. In words of Lord Curzon himself, the room ‘has witnessed discussions as agitated and decisions as heavily charged with fate as any private apartment in the wide circumference of the British Empire.’

Other rooms in the Raj Bhavan, Kolkata like the Council Chamber in the North-east wing of the first floor, which hosted the swearing-in ceremony for each new Governor-General or Viceroy, the Ball Room which from the very beginning was fitted with the original chandeliers and mirrors that once belonged to the French General Claude Martin and the Throne Room where the so-called throne of Tipu Sultan, captured from Seringapatam in 1799, is kept have all been witness to major historical events of the subcontinent in the 19th century.

Several anecdotes about the Raj Bhavan, Kolkata, the building that remained the principle seat of power for entire subcontinent from 1803 to 1912 have been the documented in the book titled “Those Noble Edifices- The Raj Bhavans of Bengal” which was unveiled by Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi here on Thursday. In the foreword of the publication, The Governor said that, this volume was planned because “we wanted to share these ‘secrets’ and inside stories of Kolkata’s most hallowed precincts with the public” and “ the purpose is to bring the Raj Bhavan – including its exteriors and interiors – closer to the public”.

Jaynata Sengupta, secretary and curator of Victoria Memorial Hall, who has written the book ,said that this publication is an attempt to “ lift this shroud of mystery and show what lies beneath, what the Raj Bhavan really means as a residence, to its exalted overlords as well as to its humbler inmates and workers”. Mr. Sengupta, in the publication about throws light of three Raj Bhavans of Bengal, the Raj Bhavan build by Lord Wellesley in Esplanade in early 19 th century which is similar to architecture of the Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire and the Raj Bhavans at Barrackpore and Darjeeling.

Full of maps, hundreds of archival photographs, letters and manuscripts the 200 page publication also refers buildings older that the existing Raj Bhavans where Governor General and officials of the East India company lived, from the Old Fort located between the river Ganges and today’s BBD Bagh (erstwhile Dalhousie Square), a house on what is on the street that subsequently came to be named after him (Clive Street) and the Old Government House which was also known as the ‘Buckingham House,’ . It was at this very spot at the Old Government House that Lord Wellesley constructed the Raj Bhavan. The cost of building Raj Bhavan then to between £1,70,000 and £1,80,000, that is, between Rs. 22 and 24 lakh which angered the East India Company’s Board of Directors.

In fact Lord Wellesley had similar plans of making another Raj Bhavan at Barrackpore, which derives its name British barrack or cantonment, but the plans were rejected by the Board of Governors of East India Company. The first bungalows at Barrackpore, was bought by the Bengal Government in 1785 for the occupation of the British Commander-in-Chief. After assuming the title of British Commander-in-Chief, which was conferred to him after the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799, Lord Wellesely took over the house British Commander-in-Chief was Sir Alured Clarke. “Wellesley later described Barrackpore as ‘a charming spot which, in my usual spirit of tyranny, I have plucked from the Commander in Chief.” Mr Sengupta writes in the book. Documents like a minute dated 1 April 1857, in Governor-General’s Lord Canning’s own handwriting, “regarding the outbreak of the ‘disturbance’ (the Revolt of 1857) at Barrackpore on the occasion of the disbandment of the 19th Native Infantry” have been highlighted in the book. It is believed that Lord Canning’s note was written at Barrackpore not far from where the “disturbances” have broken out. Mr Sengupta said that the Government House at Barrackpore was a mere shadow of what Wellesley’s grand and ambitious plan could have produced, it was still spacious enough to serve as a country residence for Governor-Generals and Viceroys. After independence, the Raj Bhavan at Barrackpore came under the care of West Bengal Police, housing the police training academy. Now the academy has been shifted out and the building has been restored. The restored building now houses a museum.

The third important structure the book discusses in detail is the Raj Bhavan in Darjeeling which came up on what was not of the conquered territory of the British. After the introduction of Tea to Darjeeling in the early 1840s and the British negotiating treaties with both Sikkim and Bhutan in the 1860s, Darjeeling became formally a part of British India in 1866. By the 1870’s Darjeeling became the summer seat of the Bengal Government and a suitable accommodation for the Lieutenant-Governor was built in the late 19 th century. Unlike the Raj Bhavan at Kolkata, which was built without a Garden the Raj Bhavan at Darjeeling always had a Garden.

“The main house was so extensively damaged by the Nepal-Bihar earthquake of January 1934 that it had to be entirely demolished, and replaced by a new Government House built in ferroconcrete during the tenure of Sir John Anderson (1932–37),” Mr Sengupta writes.


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