Lutyens Delhi Trip 2013

Please click on the underlined words below to view a selection of photos from our trip to Delhi 2013.

Saturday

Our week started with an early evening meeting with Mitch Crites. Mitch, an American who has lived in India for 40 years and is fluent in several Indian languages including Sanskrit plus Persian and Arabic, is an expert in Indian crafts, particularly architectural stonework, where he is able to produce jalis and jewel inlaid marble just as was done in Mughal times. We had a fascinating introduction to Lutyens’s and Baker’s use of Mughal detailing and of the use of architectural stonework in the landscaped gardens of Rashtrapati Bavan (formerly Viceroy’s House). www.saraydesign.co.uk.

We progressed on to dinner with four very hospitable members of Delhi’s Central Public Works Department who had worked their magic and facilitated most of our visits to the important buildings of New Delhi. They were able to give us a very good insight into the on-going plans for restoration and care of Lutyens’s Delhi.

Sunday

We began the day with a visit to Lal Kot , to see the fine early Sultanate buildings there and thence on to one of the highlights of the week, our tour of Rashtrapati Bhavan. As is usual, we had to surrender our phones and cameras before entering the building but, unusually, we were allowed to take pictures of the façade of the house and the Jaipur column from inside the gates before doing so.

Our visit lasted close to four hours and included a tea break with the very nice custodian who is in charge of the building. He was also gracious enough to use his own camera to take some pictures for me of the bust of Lutyens above the words “Architect of this House”, a very special memento indeed. Although I have seen the house twice before, we were given special access to far more rooms than I had ever seen and I was really excited to find two of my favourite small chairs by Lutyens, (unexecuted by us yet) which I had not seen before. It is impossible to describe every room and staircase or to do them justice without accompanying pictures but we were all so struck by the minutiae of detail, perfectly executed, and at the same time, the marvellous articulation of space and circulation.

We ended our visit with an extensive tour of the gardens. The gardens are open to the general public every year for a month and we were in this period. It was quite wonderful to see the hundreds of people, many families with children, exploring and enjoying all the different spaces within the gardens – which is how Lutyens had designed them to be from the start. The planting was magnificent and the colours of the flowers breathtaking.

From Rashtrapati Bhavan, we moved on to the Lutyens bungalow where Indira Gandhi lived and was assassinated. About half the bungalow is a museum of newspaper front pages documenting her career and also that of her son Rajeev. The rest has been left as her own suite of rooms (bedroom, dining and living rooms, study) as she would have lived in them. There wasn’t much left of the original Lutyens interior but the plan – very Lutyens – was quite evident and the exterior façade was good.

Monday

We began with an early morning meeting with Pradip Krishen, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pradip_Krishen) who is probably the greatest living expert on Delhi’s flora and fauna. He has also studied all the New Delhi committee-meeting minutes concerned with the massive planting projects for all the avenues. Together with Pradip we went for a lovely walk on The Ridge (woodland behind New Delhi and once a suggested site for the principal buildings of the city). The joy at the end of the walk was the dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan, barely visible in the early morning mist, but a faint shadow against it.

Pradip was able to tell us about all the trees we walked through on the Ridge, a few indigenous but mostly the imported, by the British, Mesquite which is a native of the southern USA and central America. We learned how the Mesquite population had exploded – not what was planned – and how its invasive and acid secreting roots have decimated indigenous planting.

Invigorated by our morning walk, we moved on to Lok Sabha, Baker’s parliament house. Robert Byron, writing in Country Life in 1931 described it as “Sir Herbert’s (Baker) unhappiest venture. It resembles a Spanish bull-ring, lying like a mill-wheel dropped accidentally on its side.” This is a comment that is very hard to disagree with and the experience is no better inside. Compared with Viceroy’s house of the day before, we were entering a different world in quality terms.

It was, architecture apart, a most entertaining visit. The security machinations alone were quite extraordinary and numerous – I think we went through five security gates followed by a thorough (some would say enthusiastic!) frisking. The last two check points were within sight of each other and only some 30 metres apart; one wondered what on earth one could have acquired and secreted about the body between one and the next.

Finally inside the public gallery of the lower house, we were afforded a very good view of the matter in hand, which was apparently questions to ministers. Quite a lot of shouting and we saw Sonia Gandhi (who now effectively runs the show) in full voice. We were all struck by the appalling quality of the acoustics – not really ideal for a debating chamber. The viewing was not without incident. One of the group got in trouble for crossing his legs (against protocol) and another was severely poked when he nodded off. I was admonished for pointing at something. Half an hour was quite enough and I think we were all quite happy to troop back through the legions of security staff who were just as zealous on the way out as on the way in.

After lunch we headed North with a brief stop at St James’s church (the oldest in Delhi), a forlorn little building full of memorials to the fallen Brits of the Indian mutiny, and thence on to Maidens Hotel where Lutyens would stay at the early part of the project. We were shown a suite of rooms identical to his and enjoyed the hotel’s photos of British and Indian dignitaries dating from the period.

On then to the Durbar field where the proclamation of the building of a new city was made in 1911. This was also the place where many of the old statues of Kings and Viceroys had been pushed to when no longer needed or wanted on their original plinths. Much to our surprise, we found a massive development underway where the field is clearly being turned into a museum dedicated to the Raj statues and the Durbar. Walkways and a visitors’ centre are being constructed and many statues are already on their especially constructed plinths wrapped in black plastic. Identifiable by shape amongst them was the grand statue of George V on a structure resembling the Cenotaph, which used to stand in the canopy behind India Gate, now empty. Though the site was very much work in progress, we found this inspirational as there is clearly now an appetite in India to celebrate rather than bury its Raj history.

We finished our day as it began with a walk in north Delhi’s Shahbagh Park with Pradip, originally a Mughal orchard laid out by Shah Jehan outside his new city Shahjehanabad (now Old Delhi), in which the locals would give fruit to the state in return for free plots for their trees. This is now a community garden but still boasts a wonderful selection of fruit trees, a Mughal pavillion, and rather a lot of wild boar!

Tuesday

We began the day back in Baker-land, starting with a walk up Raisina Hill to view the Bakerloo first hand. It is my opinion that Lutyens was wrong to be as upset as he was by his Bakerloo as there is something truly magical about the way the great dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan rises into view. Of course, one can understand his angst but I think an unemotional perspective on it is that it is a triumph.

Having marched up the hill, dodging the traffic, we then marched half way back down it and into the North block of Baker’s secretariats. In terms of detail, these are significantly better than Lok Sabha (not difficult!). And the colour of the red sandstone of the unadorned lower facades is really very dramatic.

The North block is currently undergoing significant restoration and the South block will follow. Home to several ministries including Defence, it is a warren of corridors, internal courtyards and endless rooms. A highlight of the visit was to the “mural room”, an upper floor domed meeting room whose dome was covered with beautiful Indian allegorical murals representing Justice, Learning, Peace and War. They were quite fantastic and need looking into in more detail.

We completed our visit with a look at the foundation stone of New Delhi laid in 1911, which resides in its own memorial rotunda room beneath South Block. Here we noted that Baker had decorated the vault with a Mughal motif, which we were to see several times in various Mughal and Rajput buildings over ensuing days and it became fondly referred to as the “Bakerloo Line”.

From the Rajpath, we moved on to no 8. Rajajimarg. This is a bungalow next door to the one that Lutyens himself used and is currently being refurbished for a member of the judiciary. The refurbishment is taking the rooms back to their original plan and this was yet another very encouraging sign to do with the positive restoration work that is going on all over New Delhi at the moment.

Lunch was followed by the first of the two highlights of the day, Hydrabad House, now used by the government for VIP entertaining. I consider this building to be the finest example of Lutyens’s domestic architecture that I have seen. It is staggeringly good in every respect. We were very honoured in that I was allowed to keep my camera and use it prolifically inside and out. Cameras, (as with all public buildings in India) are usually banned and only one was allowed. We were even allowed out on to the roof terrace of the first floor and got great views up to the dome and down to the gardens below.

Whilst at Hydrabad House, our gracious host who had been amongst those entertaining us for dinner the first night, arranged, to our great excitement, for us to go immediately to no. 10 Rajajimarg, Lutyens’s own bungalow. This was a massive honour and coup for us as the bungalow is now the retirement residence of former President of India, Dr Abdul Kalam. Dr Kalam was at home and came through the garden to receive us. He was so kind and generous with us and read us one of his poems that he had written about an old tree in the bungalow’s garden. The house itself is wrecked and shabby inside but the exterior is very fine – reminded me greatly of Homewood so definitely a home from home for Lut.

Wednesday

Up horrendously early for the first train of the morning to Agra and straight from there to Fatepur Sikri by bus. This was a first for me and we spent a couple of hours wandering all over the site and into some jewels of buildings. We could certainly see that both Lutyens and Baker had been greatly influenced by certain details of Akbar’s grand plan.

Then back to Agra and a stop at the lovely small tomb of Itmad ud Daula. This was a forerunner of the Taj: smaller, more delicate and to my mind a lot prettier without the rather self-important grandeur of the Taj.

However, we had to do our duty by the Taj and we spent a very pleasant hour in a newly re-discovered and re-created Mughal garden, Mehtab Bagh, across the river from the Taj itself and from where we were able to see the sun set behind it. This was a peaceful introduction to the Taj and from the beautiful and almost empty garden, it was fun to watch the ant-like hoards swarming all over the building across the river. This was the commercial side of Agra and was the view of the Taj that most visitors would get as their first as arrived by river to trade.

Thursday

Up at the crack of pre-dawn again to visit the Taj proper and experience the sunrise. We joined the ants! Lutyens hated the Taj. He disliked the fact that it is marble clad rather than constructed, found the ornament and embellishment too much and was critical of its “very extravagant plan”. Personally, I don’t really disagree but I do find the mosque and its facing non-mosque twin lovely with almost classical proportions and domes.

On then to Agra Fort for a fairly swift visit before heading south to Gwalior. Our lunch stop was at an insane hotel, built as a palace of the Dholpur royal family. The exterior is a question of Mughal meets Victorian Scottish baronial. The interior is mostly tiled with Dutch – we were told though we thought English – ceramics, some with barnyard animals all over them; others, very Arts & Crafts in their decorative relief work. Quite bizarre and extraordinary!

Late afternoon in Gwalior, we stopped for a visit to the wonderfully awful Laxsmi Vilas Palace, dated 1874, whose more than 200 rooms are home to the Scindia royal family. The glorious and sycophantic, (to George V and Mary) vulgarity of this monster of a palace is just so funny. It takes itself terribly seriously, which is all the more funny as it really is quite ridiculously ghastly.

High spots are the twin crystal chandeliers in the Durbar hall – 3.5T each, heaviest in the world and it took 8 poor elephants a week’s stay on the roof to test the strength of it to take them. One hates to think what the result would have been if it hadn’t been strong enough. Then the dining room with its solid silver mini-gauge railway trundling around the vast dining table bearing decanters in its carriages for the prince and his guests. Finally the wall hanging featuring 115 (??) of the world’s most influential heroes. We spotted Jesus, Moses, Louis XIV and Napoleon. No obvious Brits or Americans though one of the group was certain she had found Micky Mouse, (a little unlikely as it predates Disney by about 100 years but a nice try anyway).

Our hotel that night, on the other hand, the art deco Usha Kiren palace, was ravishing despite being the original guesthouse for the palace. That the prince didn’t see fit to waste more of his money on his guests was a very good thing and the house and gardens were a haven of beauty, peace and tranquillity, with an indulging staff.

Friday

A leisurely morning off was welcome by the entire group as we discovered that the road down to Datia, where we had planned to see a palace, which greatly impressed Lutyens, was being rebuilt and virtually impassable. We decided that the effort would far outstrip the reward and we all needed a bit of a break. After lunch we rounded off our Gwalior visit with a tour of the wonderful fort – by far the best of those we saw in my view – plus a couple of temples ( Hindu and Sikh) outside its walls and some monumental Jain rock-sculptures.

Our train back to Delhi was almost 2 hours late and we got back into our hotel exhausted at about 1am.

Saturday

Up early for a final visit in Lutyens’s Delhi to the India Gate and the canopy. This wasn’t much more than a quick photo op as the hawkers and the security prevented us from getting too close. The arch is very fine indeed and I noticed that Lutyens used the tiers of the stone in decreasing rows – as he did with Midland Bank Poultry to give a false sense of vertical perspective.

A last stop was to Mughal emperor Humayan’s glorious red sandstone garden tomb, the true precursor of the Taj Mahal, where we admired the painstaking quality restoration and – at last – water flowing in all the garden’s channels, fountains and chutes as it should do at the Taj.

Our trip was marvellously organised by Louise Nicholson (www.louisesindia.com, indianicholson@nyc.rr.com ). Working with her local agent and their wonderful team of guides, her passion, great knowledge and enthusiasm for India, its people, history and culture added so much that we certainly couldn’t have achieved anything like as much or learned so much without her. Her local contacts secured the permissions for us to do some pretty extraordinary visits with respect to the Lutyens and Baker buildings and we both very much hope that we will be able to repeat and expand upon this trip with others in the coming years. Be in touch with Louise or myself if you are keen!

Candia Lutyens March 2013.