Bengal’s stately Raj Bhavans tell their stories in new book

Standing tall:The Raj Bhavans in Kolkata and, below, in Barrackpore.Victoria Memorial HallVictoria Memorial Hall  

In a large room in the south of the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata, an oil painting of the Mahatma by Jamini Ray hangs in the Governor’s study. Not many people know that some of the policies that shaped colonial India — the introduction of English education through Thomas Macaulay’s Minute, the Doctrine of Lapse, the Ilbert Bill, the Partition of Bengal, and many others — were chalked out in this very room.

In the words of Lord Curzon, 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”.

Several anecdotes about the Raj Bhavan, Kolkata — the stately building that remained the seat of power for the entire subcontinent from 1803 to 1912 — have been the documented in a book titled Those Noble Edifices: The Raj Bhavans of Bengal . The publication was unveiled by West Bengal Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi here on Thursday.

In its foreword, Mr. Tripathi says, “We wanted to share these ‘secrets’ and inside stories of Kolkata’s most hallowed precincts with the public.”

Jayanta Sengupta, secretary and curator of Victoria Memorial Hall, who has written the book, described it as 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 also shares stories of the Raj Bhavans at Barrackpore and Darjeeling. Full of maps, archival photographs, letters and manuscripts, the 200-page publication also refers to older buildings where the Governor General and officials of the East India company lived, for instance, the Old Fort located between the Ganga and today’s BBD Bagh (erstwhile Dalhousie Square).

The cost of building the Raj Bhavan, Kolkata, was then estimated at between £170,000 and £180,000, which angered the East India Company’s Board of Directors.

In fact, Lord Wellesley had similar plans of making another Raj Bhavan at Barrackpore, but the plans were rejected by the Board of Governors of the East India Company.

Rare documents

The new book includes references to documents such as a note dated April 1, 1857, in Governor-General 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.

It is believed that Lord Canning’s note was written at Barrackpore not far from where the “disturbances” broke out.

Mr. Sengupta said that although 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 the West Bengal Police, housing the police training academy. Now the academy has been shifted to another site and the building restored. The building now houses a museum.

The third important structure the book discusses is the Raj Bhavan in Darjeeling that came up on what was not part 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 a part of British India in 1866.

By the 1870s, Darjeeling became the summer seat of the Bengal Government and a suitable accommodation for the Lieutenant-Governor was built in the late 19th century. Unlike the Raj Bhavan at Kolkata, which was built without a garden, the Raj Bhavan at Darjeeling has always had one.

“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.

It is an attempt to lift the shroud of mystery and show what lies beneath

Jayanta Sengupta