If you weren’t planning to undertake the uncool, school-picnic trip to the Mughal Gardens when they open this week, you should change your mind. The flowers are spectacular: a luscious bed of red-white tulips alone is worth the trauma of parting with your cellphone for an hour.
We can say this with confidence because we got ahead of the crowd and got a peek at the gardens, where spring is already making its home, as part of a tour of Rashtrapati Bhavan itself. It’s funny how the most important building in India is so far off the tourist trail: almost none of our friends who grew up in Delhi have ever been, and no tourists put it on their checklist; in fact, few people seem to know that you can sign up for a guided tour simply by filling a form online and stumping up Rs 25.
It’s a pity: Rashtrapati Bhavan might just be the most beautiful building made in the 20th century, and we don’t mean “this is better than the Bilbao Guggenheim” beautiful; we mean “if the Louvre was commissioned in 1911 it might look like this” beautiful.
Everything about Rashtrapati Bhavan was meant to be new, and it is, indeed, a shockingly modern building. The architecture, for which Lutyens sketched an entire Delhi Order; the aesthetic, which brings together Buddhist, Jaina, Hindu and Muslim influences in quiet, perfect grace; the design, evident in furniture that Le Corbusier would have loved and that designers today would kill for: it’s all here.
We take the “House & Garden,” as the security refers to it on their comms channels, on the first morning the grounds open after Republic Day. There are few others as we file through security check and climb a winding, medieval staircase up to the house’s vast forecourt and main entrance, familiar to us from a thousand pictures. The process isn’t hassle-free, possibly because this is a busy time of year for all 7,000 staff. Even our notebook and pen has to be surrendered at the reception.
Trooping through high, gleaming rooms, we have to keep our feet off 85-year-old Kashmiri carpets and hands off wooden globes that were the last word in GPS two centuries ago. Small things are touching and surprising, like the alabaster bust of Edwina Mountbatten in the corner of one museum room; and translucent, minimalist sets of crockery on display in the Kitchen Museum that will make ceramics nerds weep for joy.
We peer at the banquet hall and the “Upper Loggia,” where “refreshment” is presented during banquets (because alcohol isn’t served at the dinner table). While the tour itself is somewhat bureaucratic, with queues and rather formal narration about the importance of each section, the building speaks for itself, serenely and utterly in control of its own story.
If you aren’t all that interested in architecture, design or history, you may ask whether it’s worth it to be whisked for an hour and a half through these historic, ceremonial chambers. Only 63 of the 340-odd rooms of the house are now in use, and you’re allowed to see less than a dozen of those, some of which, like the Ashoka and Durbar Halls, you think you already know. But the colour and life are missing from dingy newspaper and TV images. To see Rashtrapati Bhavan as a living, breathing estate, full of workers, allows you to imagine a more complicated tale to this big house than a relic of Empire. Whatever your feelings about the Indian nation itself may be, its sandstone-and-marble embodiment will give you at least a dozen new boxes to put them in. And as for that magnificent garden: remember what we said about the tulips.
Getting there: Sign up for the Rashtrapati Bhavan tour here; make sure to read instructions for which gates to take depending on your mode of transport. The Mughal Gardens will open to the public for about a month starting 11 February.
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