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City Monuments – Princely Houses, New Delhi

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

The capital housing society.

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; photographs courtesy-Niyogi Books; above picture is of Bikaner House]

Believe it or not, traces of the US-Pakistan relationship can be found in Delhi’s National School of Drama.

A new coffee-table book tells us that Bahawalpur House, which has housed the prestigious institution since 1975, used to be the Delhi residence of the nawab of Bahawalpur, a princely state located in present-day Pakistan. This building is also where the American embassy was based for years, before it moved to Shantipath in Chanakyapuri.

Princely Palaces In New Delhi (Niyogi Books), by Sumanta K. Bhowmick, reintroduces us to colonial-era landmarks that have drifted away from the original purpose for which they were built.

Take Patiala House, the court complex near India Gate that pops up in the news every time a gangster or a politician happens to have a hearing there. Who would have known that the land for it was acquired by the maharaja of Patiala, a colourful man whose wives were even more numerous than his 27 Rolls-Royce cars. Similarly, Hyderabad House, where banquets are held for visiting heads of state and government by the Prime Minister, was built by a famously miserly nizam of Hyderabad as his Delhi accommodation.

After the British moved the capital city from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 and started building the Viceroy’s House on Raisina Hill, the rajas and nawabs of princely India followed suit, planning their own little palaces around the new centre of power. No wonder then that most of these “houses”—built from 1911-1956—are located around the sandstone edifice now home to the President.

Ironically, these princely rulers weren’t able to inhabit their new homes for very long. During World War II, the British requisitioned almost all these buildings for the war effort. Then came independence. The princely states acceded to the new union. Today, many of these “houses” belong to the state.

Jaipur House has become the National Gallery of Modern Art. Baroda House is the headquarters of Northern Railway. Tilak Marg’s Kanika House became noteworthy for its later occupant. Once owned by the raja of Kanika (now in Odisha), it was B.R. Ambedkar’s official residence when he became the country’s first law minister (he married his second wife, Savita, here). Today, it is the Polish ambassador’s residence.

On Copernicus Marg, Faridkot House was destined to take on a succession of diverse identities. It was turned into Lord Louis Mountbatten’s temporary Delhi residence, and has successively housed the Canadian high commission, the National Human Rights Commission and the National Green Tribunal.

The grandeur of Hyderabad House, however, hasn’t been completely compromised. It used to be guarded by men in blue during the days of the nizam. People would come from Old Delhi to look at the building, designed by British architect Edwin Lutyens. The furniture was made of rosewood and walnut.

This is where Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev stayed during their visit to India in 1955. The late Raj Kapoor’s famous movie Sangam was shot here. According to the book, Indira Gandhi wanted to turn the place into the prime minister’s official residence. Today the ministry of external affairs controls Hyderabad House. The grand billiards room serves as a venue for the formal signing of bilateral agreements.

Perhaps the most beautiful of these heritage structures is the atmospheric Travancore House, on Kasturba Gandhi Marg. Built by a maharaja of that erstwhile state, it houses the Kerala government’s offices, and once had the distinction of housing the first Soviet Union embassy in Delhi. Delhiites of a particular generation might have fond memories of visits to the Russian library there to brush up on their Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys.

The book, crammed with heaps of such detail, presents extraordinary facets of early 20th century Delhi. The black and white photographs take us inside that era’s high society—the parties, the weddings, the luxurious drawing rooms, with their carpets and chandeliers, and the sightings of Edwina Mountbatten stepping into Darbhanga House (see picture 4 below). The nawab of Pataudi, in a long turban and sherwani, standing outside Faridkot House.

That old world is gone but at least you can stand outside these great houses and imagine the life they once watched over.

Those were the times

1. (Bikaner House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

2. (Bikaner House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

3. (Bikaner House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

4. (Darbhanga House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

5. (Darbhanga House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

6. (Hyderabad House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

7. (Hyderabad House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

8. (Hyderabad House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

9. (Hyderabad House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

10. (Jaipur House)

City Monuments - Princely Houses, New Delhi

2 thoughts on “City Monuments – Princely Houses, New Delhi

  1. And there is a reason why the American embassy was housed in Bhawalpur House – before or during the second world war, most (I don’t know how many) countries were allotted space to office their embassies in North and/or South Block. But the Americans were not given that courtesy.

  2. There’s another peculiarity here. The position of houses represents the closeness of their rulers with the British. The closer they are to the India Gate, the closer were those kings with the British.

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