The Government House or the Raj Bhawan in Calcutta owes its existence to Marquess Wellesley, the Governor General of Bengal from 1798 to 1805. Before the onset of the 19th century, the British Governor General of India, like other officials below his rank, used to live in rented residences. When Marquess Wellesley assumed his office on 17 May 1798, he went into occupation of a building known as Buckingham House, situated on the spot of the Southeast wing of the present Government House.
The building, constructed facing South on to the Esplanade was rented from Mohammad Reza Khan, a Nawab of Chitpur. Lord Wellesley was not at all satisfied with the condition of the building and the unsuitability of the rooms, which he considered too few in number and too small in size. In fact, he did not like the idea of staying in a rented house and maintained that, India should be ruled from a dignified palace and not from a counting house.
Within a month of assuming office, Lord Wellesley took the decision to construct a dignified building and without consulting or informing the Court of Directors, called on Captain Wyatt, an Engineer officer and Edward Tiretta, an Italian Civil Architect of the East India Company, to prepare plans for the proposed building. Meanwhile, the Nawab signed a deed of release and assignment of the rented Government House on 2 October 1798. The other houses on the landed property were also purchased in order to make a huge compound. However, in the absence of the Governor General, the foundation stone of the dream project was laid by Timothy Hickey, one of the supervisors of the Engineer Department on 5 May 1799. Before the occasion, Lord Wellesley had to leave for Madras, in connection with the Mysore Campaign, which resulted in the storming of Seringapatam at which Tipu Sultan was killed on 4 May 1799.
The graceful building was officially opened on the 18 January 1803, although Lord Wellesley took up his residence in it many months before the last artisan was out of the house and official Parties were arranged in the premises from April 1802 onwards. Nevertheless, credit goes to him for the construction of one of the finest colonial buildings in Calcutta. Built across three floors, it flaunts brilliant neoclassical style of architecture and distinct baroque overtones.
The complex sprawls over an area of 27 acres and the total area over which the mansion stands is 84000 sq ft. With the shifting of power from the East India Company to the British Crown in 1858, it became the official residence of the Viceroy of India and since the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, it served as the residence of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal until the independence of India in 1947. After the independence of the country, it became the official residence of the Governor of West Bengal and was renamed as Raj Bhawan.
It is interesting to note that, the Council House, which once stood on the present Council House Street, was one of the buildings demolished to make room for Government House. Today, the present SouthWest wing containing the Governor’s private apartments stands on part of its site.
The Raj Bhawan, considered as the best example of Georgian architecture in the country, had undergone several changes since its day of opening during the time of Lord Wellesley. The beautiful metallic dome was added in 1860s by Viceroy Lord Elgin, while Lord Curzon introduced electricity in the premises in 1899 and installed a lift in the building. The ornamentally designed little lift, known as the Bird’s Cage Lift, is still in use.
The huge compound of the Raj Bhawan, surrounded by a balustrade wall, has six decorated gateways, one each on the north and south and two each on the east and west. The four gates on the east and the west include a grand archway crowned with a lion, while the minor archways on the sides are topped with Sphinx. The North Gate, which serves as the main gate, has a long graveled way, past a decorated Chinese cannon and leads to a flight of majestic stairs to the portico crowned with a huge pediment supported by six ionic pillars. The Chinese cannon, mounted on a dragon and flanked with other minor cannons, were brought from Nanking in 1842.
The staterooms of the Raj Bhawan, situated in the core area are accessible from outside by a flight of grand steps on the north. A portico surrounded by a colonnaded veranda with a dome above is on the south side. The central area on the ground floor is called the Marble Hall. The Throne Room, Banquet Hall and the Breakfast Room are in the central area of the first floor. The Banquet Hall, used for entertaining eminent guests, has rows of Doric pillars on each side with flowering chandeliers and black Mahogany tables.
The throne room, which displays the thrones of Tipu Sultan and Lord Wellesley is decorated with the oil paintings of Mahatma Gandhi, Subash Chandra Bose, Nehru and other eminent persons of the country. The Council Chamber is located in the northeast corner of the first floor, where important government decisions were made during the British rule The second floor includes the residential suites, including the Governor’s private quarters and the Ball Room. Apart from that, there are two aesthetically decorated drawing rooms, elegantly named as Yellow drawing room and Blue drawing room.
The Raj Bhawan is equipped with four fabulous Royal suites. The Prince of Wales Suite, located in the northwest wing of the first floor, is for the use of the very important guests of the state, like the visiting heads of other countries and the President, Vice-President and the Prime Minister of India. While the Wellesley Suite is located on the second floor in the northeastern wing, the Dufferin Suite is on the second floor in the northwest wing. The fourth suite is known as the Anderson Suite.
Ridiculously, during his tenure as the Hon'ble Governor of West Bengal, Keshrinath Tripati proposed to change the names of the Royal suites from Prince of Wales suite to Rabindranath Tagore kaksh, Anderson Suite to Vivekananda kaksh, Wellesley suite to Sagar kaksh and Dufferin Suite to Kanchenjunga kaksh.
Apart from the Marble Hall, Throne Room, Banquet Hall, the Breakfast Room and the Drawing rooms, there are about 60 rooms in Raj Bhawan. The quarters of the Raj Bhawan employees are located outside the North Gate.
Persons interested to visit the Raj Bhawan may apply to the Additional Chief Secretary to the Governor of West Bengal clearly indicating the preferred date of the visit, purpose and the number of persons. However, the entrance of the permitted persons is restricted only through the north gate, facing the Telephone Bhawan.