Thursday, 28 February 2013

Heritage in Harmony, The Raj Bhavan

This is the entrance gate. Its well-designed sandstone pillars and iron bars have remained ever imposing. They are witness to the history of Meghalaya and of the North-East.

The Heritage building with its six symmetrical spires

Amidst its picturesque lawns and pines, the Raj Bhavan at Shillong, Meghalaya, nostalgically brings to mind  the image of a Scottish manor. Its majestic grandeur and retinue of attendants are reminiscent of the times of the Raj.
Since 1874, Shillong has been the administrative headquarters of the North-East. After the creation of Meghalaya in 1972, Shillong was named its capital. Before Independence, the Raj Bhavan was known as Government House. This Government House was renamed as "Raj Bhavan" with effect from December 6th, 1951. It has undergone many significant changes over the years.

A view from the Upper Lawns

My first visit to this grand edifice of the Raj was in the year 1975, when I was a little girl. In my impressionable mind the magnificence and aesthetics of the building and its surroundings created a lasting impact. At that time, my father was posted to Shillong as the Chief Judicial Magistrate. Little did I know then that in the years to come, my own brother-in-law, His Excellency Mr Ranjit S Mooshahary would become the Governor of Meghalaya and the Raj Bhavan would be like a second home to me. Enchanted by the beauty of this bungalow and the rolling greens, I sought permission from my brother-in-law to document the Raj Bhavan and share with others.

The front view

Saturday, 12th June 1897, was a clear sunny day. The beautiful hill-station was preparing for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria and everyone was looking forward to the festivities. People had gone outdoors for recreation and leisure when the earthquake struck at 5.15 pm. The impact was so immense that virtually every other masonry building in Shillong was laid flat instantly. Sir Henry Cotton, the then Chief Commissioner and Lady Cotton had a narrow escape on that fateful day. They were in the porch just boarding the open single horse carriage for their evening drive as the house collapsed. The pony bolted, with them, towards the main gate, while the house crumbled in heaps behind them.

The building was reconstructed and occupied in 1903-04 after the destruction of the Chief Commissioner's Residency in the earthquake. The entire structure is designed to resist the frequent tremors that Shillong is prone to and also reduce damage in case of a collapse. The roofing materials are teak shingles and the walls are mix of teak-wood and ekra reeds covered by cement plaster; the ceilings are teak-ply supported by sturdy beams from below. It is more than a century old and one of the most well-maintained heritage buildings left in the state now. 

The drive way to the Raj Bhavan goes past the old Jet Fighter-Gnat IE1210-gifted by the Indian Air Force. On the right are the tennis courts and the upper lawns and the Governor's Secretariat.

One of the four fountains that intersperse the lawns

A view of the rolling greens 

On the left of the drive, to the House are the well-manicured sprawling lawns sloping down the wall that separates the grounds from Bivar and Camel Back Roads.

The swans seem to be alarmed by the commotion.

Proceeding along the driveway, one can truly appreciate nature's beauty. A creative touch of the human mind enhances the landscape. There are also birds, fishes and fowls besides the flowers, trees and vegetables of manifold varieties abounding the sprawling space.

The landscape visible from the driveway

The walk-way behind the main building

A side view

The porch (front view from the lawns)

The first six steps from the porch lead you inside. One can see the shining brass cannons on left and right mounted on the veranda. The cannon on the right has "9th Feb 1803" and the one on the left "28th February 1815" inscribed on their barrels.

One of the brass cannons

The Lobby.

Then you step into the lobby. There too is a sleek brass cannon with something in Persian written on it. Then there are scores of other brass vessels with indoor plants, paintings and photographs on the walls around. At the centre of the lobby stands a traditional Indian brass lamp stand as seen here.
The office of Aide de Camp opens on the left. On the wooden beam over the main entrance are the words of the great Ahom Commander, Lachit Barphukan: "My uncle is not greater than my country".

Then you step into the corridors (of power?). Panelled with wood, both sides of this long corridor are embellished with a number of photographs, paintings and curios.

The brass Buddha encircled by a pair of curved ivory

The most striking feature is of course the brass Buddha mounted on a raised wooden box encircled by two curved ivory. Above this is the framed sketch of Buddha with his message: "Whatsoever you find to be conducive to the common good, benefit and welfare of all beings, take it as guide." In fact, this photograph is also seen in all the guest rooms.
From there, the access to the whole building is open. On the left is the office of the Governor, the private dining room, guest rooms, Durbar hall, and Billiard room; the multipurpose hall gymnasium and the memorabilia hall are outside in a separate building. In the front are the banquet hall, library and main lounge. The private quarters are beyond these rooms to the east.

The brass bell on the corridor

This is the door to the office of His Excellency, the Governor. The wood panelled room inside is decorated with paintings, photographs of all the Presidents of India and the present Prime Minister.

The list of Chief Commissioners, Lt. Governors and Governors

One of the first rooms to the east of the corridor is the Library. It has collection of some extremely rare books. The kind of books and journals on official and administrative matters, flora and fauna available here are not easily found elsewhere.

The Grand Piano at the Raj Bhawan is as old as the building itself. Yet it is in excellent functional condition. It is being used occasionally. My fondest memory of this treasured antique is of my daughter reigning in the new year celebrations, playing mesmerizing numbers on it.

This is part of the main living room that can seat up to 40 people.

The other part of the sitting room

This is a fine room with large French windows that open into the courtyard full of flowering shrubs and trees. This room is mainly used for formal occasions. The wood panelled upper walls and elegantly worked wooden high ceiling add to the beauty of this room.

The part of the Banquet Hall where 30 people can dine together. This hall is one of the finest rooms in the House. A wide variety of silver crockery, wine glasses and goblets add to the elegance and charm of this historical house. This dining hall is used for all formal occasions such as State Dinners. The teak table and period chairs add an antique feel. In the days gone by this hall was used as Ball Room and another room was added adjacent to it as the Council Hall before the Assembly building was constructed.

A partial view of the pantry. Equipped with all modern facilities, it serves as the holding space during big gets-together. The two kitchens, one for the family and the other down the stairs, for special occasions, are behind this. Kitchens and pantry have been remodelled providing sky-lights, elegant flooring and cupboards.

The private dining space for eight people. It is entirely a wooden structure with vintage gloss, surrounded by decorative silver wares and curios.

This is one of the guest rooms I love to stay in during my visits to the Raj Bhavan. Apart from the Governor's private apartments, there are seven guest rooms in the house. The best one is the Presidential Suite for visiting Heads of States and Governments. All the interiors have been redone aesthetically keeping in view the ethnic heritage and modern needs.

This is a partial view of the Durbar Hall where important functions like swearing-in ceremonies of the Governors and Ministers are held. It has been completely renovated. A congregation of 300 people can be seated here comfortably. It has a balcony each on the left side and behind.

A part of the Durbar Hall, this is Band Gallery upstairs at one end of the hall. Adjacent to that space there is also a room where attendants accompanying important guests can stay.

The Billiard Room

This is gymnasium and memorabilia hall. It has number of mementos and gift articles which the present Governor has received during the course of his public engagements. This badminton and table-tennis hall at times are used for cultural and social occasions as well. Here I am getting all fit on an exercycle.

The illuminated main building

Front view

On Republic Day and Independence Day the Raj Bhavan and the lawns are illuminated for two days. The present Governor has allowed public visit on those days. Hundreds of people come and enjoy the sparkling splendour on these evenings without any restrictions at all. 

The old Jet Fighter Gnat IE1210 on the left and one of the fountains on the right can be seen here

The main entrance

The Governor, Ranjit S Mooshahary and the Lady Governor Rema Mooshahary, (in bright pink shawl behind) are seen greeting guests during one of the At Homes.

One of the important functions held in the lawns of the Raj Bhavan is the Governor's At Home. Held twice a year on the occasions of Republic Day and Independence Day, a large number of senior officials and important public personalities are invited for this occasion. Unlike in other Raj Bhavans where At Home is held in the afternoons, at Shillong it is at 1100 hrs to 1230 hrs in the warm sun.

This is one of the most beautiful Raj Bhavans in the country. (Even the swans are so exhilarated  here.) The present residents have done their bit to preserve and enrich this heritage site. A beautiful marble plaque embedded on the wall of the Lobby, titled "Heritage In Harmony" is placed below that succinctly speaks of the grandeur of this magnificent property.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Gold Reef City, South Africa

Gold Reef City is a large amusement park in Johannesburg, located on an old gold mine, the park is themed around the gold rush of the 1880s on the Witwatersrand.

19th century Johannesburg is recreated here with staff wearing period costumes of the 1880s, period houses, music, dance and many more. Activities for visitors include a gold pouring demonstration, gold panning and underground mine tour of the old number 14 shaft of Crown Mines.

Although visitors come here for various adventures like the Tower of Terror big drop, The Raging River Rapids water ride, a Ferris Wheel and the very scary high speed Anaconda roller coaster, I simply loved walking around the beautiful surrounding, taking in all that I could on this bright winter morning.

When tired you can always opt for a nice ride around the city.

One of the 4 steam locomotives used by Rustenburg Platinum Mines.
A tour of the Gold Reef City has already taken me back to the 1880s, now to get ready with helmet and miners lamp with its big battery pack to go down 5th level underground 220metres, to actually feel like a miner, which would give one an insight of the conditions the miners worked under. But hold on, before that, we must pause for a group photograph, our guide teased us saying "In case one of us gets lost in the mines."

Our tour started going down the shaft with a cage, a mine elevator to the 220 metres level. This is only the top level of the mine, which once reached the depth of 3293 metres. The major danger the miners faced those days was, there was no electricity and lighting was by candle light, which exposed the miners to risk of explosion. The heat which would rise to 50 degrees or more along with constant ear shattering noise of the drilling machines added to their misery.  

Just imagine a lone miner with a candle light and his drill .... Felt every moment, how the miners worked in such adverse conditions those days, thousands had lost their lives. Person suffering from claustrophobia, pregnant women and a person with disabilities could not take the underground mine tours.

This was the mine manager's station. Each miner would keep his card in a box, to grab it and rush out when there is a blast. Remaining of a card confirms the manager that a miner is missing in the blast.

The miners were not educated nor could they speak the same language as they were brought from different places,  they created a new language which was known as 'Fanagalo', by which they would communicate with each other. Counting of how much each miner mined, the manager would keep a board with 10 holes per row. Each time the miner filled a cocopan, manager would put a pin in the hole (you can see a board hanging over the cocopan). One cocopan would contain 1 ton of rock which would produce 4grams of gold.

There is still plenty of gold to be mined but seems not profitable. 

This is the museum dedicated to gold mining on the grounds where it is possible to see a gold containing ore vein and see how real gold is poured into barrels. Its amazing to see how gold is made ! 

Wow ! This is a real brick of gold ! How does it feel like ? Well, feels cool.... this bar of gold weighs a whooping 32 kilograms ! 

You can not carry home that bar of 32 kilograms of gold, but never mind, you can sure buy some wonderful soveniers from the gift shops like the one I bought, a bottle of pure gold leaves !

Well, what can be more refreshing than being with friends on such a lovely winter afternoon in the Gold Reef City. 

A friend helped me to choose some wonderful hand made chocolates in the chocolate factory in the Gold Reef City.