Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Visit to the Rashtrapati Bhawan

There's something about Delhi that gets me. My love affair started in 2000 when I camped here for three and half months when I started my first job. I had got home sick by the end of that tenure, but not before I had some of the best time of my life while staying there. A day trip to Agra (my first visit to the Taj Mahal), new friends, countless movies, lunches and dinners; I had a great time back then. It's a place where I cannot stay for months, but an occasional visit- even once or twice or thrice a year- is always looked forward to. The affair continues. Safdarjung Enclave, ITO, Delhi Gate, Connaught Place, Janpath, Khan Market, Patel Nagar, Karol Baug, Tughlak Road, Lodi Estate....these are just some of the Delhi corners tattooed in my brain. All my life I have worked for publications headquartered in Delhi, so I've been fortunate enough to keep going there. Plus if you have friends there, all the more reason.

So after a massive delay of 10 hours and embarking to 45 degrees temperature at New Delhi Railway station, I quickly take my Uber ride to the Bahl residence at Patel Nagar. Metro station pillars are the new landmarks; only in India. You turn right or left when you come to a certain metro pillar; how convenient. Saturday is wasted but there's pretty little you can do in such heat, anyway. But a nice get-together with old friends and colleagues is enough to end the day on a high. A-glass-of-wine-and-beer high as well!

Sunday dawns and Rashtrapati Bhawan (the President of India's house) beckons. We have a walking tour to take at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. With effect from September 2013, the Rashtrapati Bhawan is now open for public through guided walking tours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Ofcourse, only a section of it, not the whole facility. Online booking is allowed but we went through a group that specialises in- and what I am told are brilliant- walking tours (Intach Heritage Walks conducted by Ms. Priya: email her at for historical places in Delhi. We meet her- and the group assembles- outside at one of the many gates to the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Cameras, mobile phones, eatables are not allowed.

The tour starts and Priya hands us all over to a charming and very knowledgeable in-house guide. Only in-house guides can take you inside the President's palace. The flag at the centre of the massive complex was hoisted, which indicates that the President of India is in the country.  If the President is travelling abroad, the flag does not get hoisted. We went past the massive entrance at the outdoor seating area where our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and his cabinet was sworn in, in May 2014.

To start with, we were taken to the Marble Hall where, amongst other things, large portraits of past British Viceroys, Queen, King George and so on were there. A large replica model of the Rashtrapati Bhawan was also there. From there we went downstairs to the large kitchen and saw lots of gifts that were given by various foreign presidents and dignitaries to our Presidents, past and present. There were lovely crockery; tea pots, dining ware, cups and saucers and so on. We were told that although the President gets these gifts, they are not personal gifts. These are gifts that were given to a state head and hence the property of the Rashtrapati Bhawan.

We saw the Banquet Hall that had the longest dining table I have ever seen. Chairs were not laid out, but if they are, the President's chair is at the centre and has the longest backrest to distinguish itself. We were told about the very elaborate butler system there was. There were lights at the higher ends of the walls, with different colours. A certain colour light, if switched on, signals the butlers to serve. Another colour acts as a signal for the butlers to clear up dishes. Downton Abbey, anyone? Earlier, the walls had motifs of guns. But we were told that one of the former President Pratibha Patil didn't like it. She felt that there is no place for guns in a dining room, and so the gun motifs were replaced with- if I remember correctly- floral motifs.

The President's library has some very old books. But the highlight I thought was the magnificent Durbar Hall where countless functions have taken place, including the ones where the civilian awards (Padma wards, etc) are given away every year by the President. Did you know that the foot of the statue at the front of the room is of the same height as the tip of India Gate? Infant if you stand near the foot of the statue and look straight, you'd be looking at India Gate. The Ashoka Hall was also quite impressive.

Unfortunately, the Government isn't doing enough to promote the tours of the Rashtrapati Bhawan. It serves as a very good history lesson for our children if they're exposed to such places. Rashtrapati Bhawan has two gift shops; one outside in the garden and one inside the building. The former was shut because it was Sunday (we took a peak and it looks woefully inadequate) and the shop inside the building was an embarrassment. No salesperson to attend to us, the fridge was empty and only a staff's personal water bottle was in there. That was a pity because it was baking hot outside and we could have all bought cold drinks or water. There were hardly any curious, T-Shirts, mementos, etc on sale. If this had been US or Europe, the shop would be full of tons and tons of interesting items, bearing the Rashtrapati Bhawan logo. People would be queuing up to buy something, anything from there. We need to learn how to market ourself.

All in all, a pretty eventful day, thanks to my friend Himalee who had the vision to book a tour here when she heard of it. We must not miss such opportunities. Do visit Rashtrapati Bhawan if you get a chance. It's a trip of a lifetime.

(Picture courtesy: Rashtrapati Bhawan website:

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