One step inside the grounds of Teen Murti Bhavan, and I’m already lost. Not the lost-in-awe kind of confusion, which did happen later, but literally lost. The colonial mansion in Lutyens’ Delhi, which is the one-time residence of Jawaharlal Nehru, is tucked deep within a 30-acre property framed by a canopy of trees with ripe fruits and a burst of variegated flowers. Walking on pathways, framed by manicured gardens and sign-posts that I missed entirely in my excitement, the history geek in me rejoices when the impressive complex comes into view. A group of teenagers snap selfies at Kushak Mahal, Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s picturesque hunting lodge that’s housed on the grounds along with Nehru Planetarium, inaugurated by Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) that’s usually swarming with academics and students.
I cross the lawns, only to find my way blocked by a forage of picnickers. Couples and families stretched out on chequered cloths, prepped to the T with baskets of homely food and beverages. Some seeking shade under the barks of spindly old trees, others sprawled on the grass for an afternoon siesta. With a half-smile, I continue towards the mansion. What I had read about the Teen Murti Bhavan seems true enough. It belongs to everyone.
The Teen Murti Bhavan was actually built in 1930 for the Commander-in-Chief of the British-Indian Army. Then called the ‘Flagstaff House’, it was to be the winter headquarters of the officer in hold of the position. A Victorian mansion with expansive French windows and made of white stone and stucco, the house was built by Robert Tor Russell, a celebrated British soldier and architect, his rich legacy boasting the designs of Delhi’s Connaught Place and the Pataudi Palace in Bhopal. Post-1947, a unanimous decision rang through all administrative quarters that the house would then serve as the official residence of the Prime Minister of India. And with this, Jawaharlal Nehru—the first Prime Minister of an independent India, moved in. With Nehru’s residence, the ‘Flagstaff House’ became the ‘Teen Murti Bhavan’, its nomenclature inspired from the three statues or ‘teen murtis’ at the entrance. Built by British sculptor Leonard Jennings, the statues commemorate the Jodhpur, Hyderabad and Mysore soldiers who had fought alongside the British across Syria, Palestine and Sinai in the First World War.
I marvel at this bit of history as I walk into a sleek mahogany room of Nehru’s past. A framed letter with Nehru’s penmanship greets me at the door. “We were Kashmiris…”, it begins. In it, Nehru traces his lineage from his ancestor, a famed scholar Raj Kaul and how, on the invitation of then Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar, he made a new home with his family in the capital. Framed photographs of a Nehru I don’t recognise—of a young boy on his mother’s lap, posing in identical jackets with his lawyer-father Motilal, donning graduation robes at Harrow and later Trinity in England, a nervous groom next to Kamala on his wedding day—envelope the walls.
The next room brings with it a familiar history—original newspaper clippings of Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience, the Lahore Session of the Congress—events I can recite from memory thanks to my college education in History. What I don’t expect, however, is to feel a powerful jolt when I come across hand-written letters addressed to ‘My dear Jawahar’ from—gasp—‘Yours, Bapu’. It almost feels like an invasion of privacy, that I’m reading someone’s private correspondence and have no business doing so. My heart hurts a bit when I look into the smiling faces of the All India Congress Committee members at the peak of their fight for swarajya—names like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai in patriotic fervour.
In the next room, glass cases atop tweakwood cabinets enclose priceless gifts to Nehru from world leaders and travel emissaries he encountered as Prime Minister. An inscribed steel cigarette box from the Kennedys, porcelain plates and songbirds from China and Japan catch my eye.
As I make my way to the grand staircase, I pass corridors flanked by framed photographs of special events in Nehru’s life and overstuffed bookcases, where Nietzsche and Trotsky make several appearances. Once upstairs, I stand with my nose almost pressed against the glass wall that encloses Nehru’s office, his desk covered by vintage landlines, ink blotters, paper weights and files. Behind the desk are rows and shelves lined with books untouched, while unseen family portraits and famous artwork bring character to the elegantly designed room. I imagine Nehru then, his trademark topi askew on his head as he bends over his desk to write the ‘Tryst of Destiny’ speech. A sudden voice behind me breaks my spell and sheepishly, I cross the landing to stand outside the very room that Nehru breathed his last, in 1964. A Kashmiri-style bedspread covers his bed, as a plaque beside it quotes Robert Frost’s “I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep”.
I make my way back to the lawns, aware that the afternoon sun has shooed away a majority of the picnickers. A group of tourists pass me then, their guide pointing to the Rashtrapati Bhavan ahead saying, “ministers from there used to just walk over here…imagine!” True to form, my imagination kicks in and I have a split-second image of a group of well-dressed ministers anxiously waiting for traffic to stall so they can cross the road in a single-file. I let out a loud giggle at that, earning myself a few dirty looks from the group. Grinning, I make my way to the entrance. Too much history for one day.
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.