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In 1888, during the outbreak of the Anglo-Tibet war, the British sent John Claude White as Assistant Political Officer with the expeditionary force. J.C. White was a civil engineer employed with the Public Works Department. He was appointed Political Officer of Sikkim in 1889, a position he held until his retirement in 1908. It was White who built the Residency, what is today the Raj Bhawan at Gangtok. He gives a vivid account of how he personally selected the site, why it appealed to him and his travails in building it in his memoirs Sikkim and Bhutan: Twenty-One Years on the North-East Frontier first published in 1909. “One of the first things to be done on my appointment to Sikhim was to build a house, not an easy task in a wild country where masons and carpenters were conspicuous by their absence, where stone for building had to be quarried from the hillsides and trees cut down for timber. In my jungle wanderings around Gangtak, I came across a charming site in the midst of primeval forest which seemed suitable in every way, so I determined to build on it, felling only the trees which might possibly endanger the safety of the house, a necessary precaution, as many of them were quite 140 feet high, and in the spring the thunderstorms, accompanied by violent winds, were something terrible and wrought havoc everywhere. By leveling the uneven ground and throwing it out in front, I managed to get sufficient space for the house, with lawn and flower beds around it. Behind rose a high mountain, thickly wooded, which protected us from the storms sweeping down from the snows to the north-east, and in front the ground fell away with a magnificent view across the valley, where, from behind the opposite hills, Kanchenjunga and its surrounding snows towered up against the clear sky, making one of the most beautiful and magnificent sights to be imagined, and one certainly not to be surpassed, if equaled, anywhere in the world. The site selected, my real troubles began; trees had to be felled and sawn into scantlings; stone quarried, lime burnt, and, most difficult of all, carpenters and masons imported. I was fortunate in my carpenters, as I had already in my employment a Panjaubi, Moti Ram by name, the best carpenter and carver I have ever come across, and through him I got other excellent men from his native village, but the masons were distinctly bad. They seemed to find it impossible to build a wall plumb or a corner square- faults that impressed themselves on us later on, to our cost, when the time came for paper-hanging. More than that, too, owing to earthquakes, faulty building and heavy rains, part of the anxiously watched edifice came down, and I began to think my house would never be finished. But, in spite of all difficulties, at Christmas 1890 we were able to move in, about eighteen months after commencing work. Next came furnishing and finding staff of servants. Furniture had either to be made on the spot by our Punjaubi carpenters or imported from England; and the neighbouring hill-man caught and trained to service, as, with the exception of one or two old servants, no plains-man could be induced to penetrate into such wilds where they declared there was always war and where they would certainly be killed. One little lad, Diboo by name, eventually became head bearer and
2 major-domo of the establishment, and only left when we went on board at Bombay on our final departure.” White deliberately chose the location for his house which when completed, straddled a ridge higher than that on which Maharaja Thutob Namgyal’s Palace was built. It was a tacit declaration that here lay the real seat of power in Sikkim, reinforced physically by the intentionally higher elevation. White’s construction was radically different from local construction practices prevalent at that time. He recounts an argument he had with Maharani Yeshe Dolma of Sikkim with regard to the thickness of the Residency walls: “While the house was building, the Maharani came several times to see how it was getting on, and told me I had built the walls too thin and it would never stand. In their own houses and monasteries the walls are very thick, from 3 feet to 4 feet 6 inches, and have always a small camber. However, later on, I had the best of the argument when, in the earthquake of 1897, the palace, notwithstanding its thick walls, collapsed entirely and had to be rebuilt, while the residency, though badly cracked, remained standing.” The Residency when completed was a revelation, an entity of much curiosity for the Sikkimese hitherto not exposed to such a house. They would apparently often call on the Whites and request permission to wander around the house. White recollects that they never touched anything but liked to see how the Whites lived and what European furniture was like. The Residency was, in a nutshell, an English house built by an Englishman for himself, a slice of home during his tenure in remote Sikkim. It had bay windows and a round dining table. This really fired the collective imagination of the local Sikkimese gentry who also incorporated bay windows and copied the round dining table for their own residences. Some of the old landed gentry’s houses like Mazong House and Khendzong House, both on Kazi Road, are still standing proud in the modern skyline of Gangtok, their bay windows a silent testimony to White’s miniarchitectural revolution in Sikkim over a century ago. Interestingly, the proliferation of the bay windows in these houses also gave the local parlance a new word- ‘gol kamra’- or round room, which is an obvious reference to the rounded shape of the bay windows. Many remarkable events that unfolded and moulded Sikkim’s history had the Residency as the springboard. The Residency was the official pivot from which several administrative, political and social changes were brought about in feudal Sikkim and outlying areas. It was the Residency that, for a little over half a century, was a sort of ground zero or base camp for the British Political Officers and all their official dealings. Perhaps the singularly most radical event for which the Residency was the fulcrum was the successful Younghusband expedition and the subsequent signing of the 1904 Lhasa Convention that had far-reaching consequences. It finally gave the British imperialists their long-coveted and much cherished foothold on the roof of the world. It also nipped in the bud the fledgling Russian influence in Tibet and thus put paid to their nascent aspirations there. The opening of three Trade Marts- in Gyantse, Yatung and Gartok- with British personnel stationed there meant that there were finally British footfalls on Tibetan soil.
3 Ironically, although White was serving as Political Officer, he was made only second in command of the mission which was entrusted to Colonel Francis Younghusband instead. Some historians have commented scathingly that although White was the Political Officer, he was a mere civil engineer who lacked the finesse to conduct diplomatic negotiations. This expedition was also monumental for the founder of the Residency, but not for exactly happy reasons. Claude White had to face, in the autumnal years of his service, the ignominy of being overlooked by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India to lead the British diplomatic mission of June 1903 to Tibet. It must have been galling for White to be relegated second- in -command to Francis Younghusband, the British Resident at Indore whom the Viceroy personally handpicked to lead the mission. That Younghusband had no experience of the Tibetan frontier in these parts must have been that much the more galling for White. Perhaps it would not be unwise to surmise that this incident softened White’s attitude towards Maharaja Thutob Namgyal, and the mostly sour relations between the two protagonists of that time started to improve. White played a big role in the British king-making moves and the subsequent anointment of the Maharajkumar Sidkeong Tulku as the heir apparent to the throne of Sikkim. He took a keen personal interest in the education of the young Maharajkumar. The yet unpublished 1908 History of Sikkim by Their Highnesses Maharaja Thutob Namgyal and Maharani Yeshay Dolma records that: “Then came the proposal of sending the Maharaj Kumar Sidkeong Tulku to England with a view to execute his further studies there. Accordingly he set out with Mr. White on the 16 th day of the 7th month of the Bhutia Me-rta Year (1906) from Gangtok to England. In a few months Mr. White came back from England and he did everything in his power to further the interests and meet the wishes of Their Highnesses.” White’s stint in Sikkim thus ran full circle. Initially he behaved like the de facto ruler he actually was, but later he became much more amenable to the royal family, so much so that when it was time in 1908 for the 55-year-old White to retire, the Sikkimese king actually triedunsuccessfully at that- to get White’s tenure extended. In any event, White introduced many changes, administrative and otherwise, in Sikkim before he retired in October 1908. The Residency he built was a lasting legacy. Half a decade later, it was still a landmark building in Gangtok as is evidenced in the 1956 writings of Rene de Nebesky-Wokjowitz who recollects: “Gangtok, a collection of wooden stalls, Marwari shops and a few stone-built houses, numbers some two thousand inhabitants. Its only sights are the Royal Palace, rebuilt a few decades ago; the villa-like Residency of the Political Officer; and the lama temple, situated in the immediate vicinity of the royal dwelling.” Nebesky-Wojkowitz also observed that “At first sight the Royal Palace looks just like a European house.” What he was referring to as the Royal Palace was actually the European-style guest house built by Chogyal Thutob Namgyal. Situated below the Old Palace, it was completed in 1907. Obviously inspired by and modeled on the architecture of the Residency, right down to the familiar bay windows, it has also been described as a Victorian doll’s house. It was this guest house that the next ruler, Sidkeong Tulku, adopted as his residence.
4 Sidkeong Tulku was the Oxford-educated 11th Chogyal of Sikkim who died under mysterious circumstances inside a year of his coronation in 1914. The Old Palace was destroyed by a fire, and the 12th Chogyal, Tashi Namgyal, moved into his predecessor and half-brother’s bungalow, deferring construction of and ultimately opting not to build a new Palace. This bungalow is what we know as the Gangtok Palace today. After White, all successive incumbents of the post of Political Officer of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet occupied the Residency he had built. They were Sir Charles Bell, Major W.L. Campbell, Lt. Colonel W.F. O’Conner, Major F.M. Bailey, Major J.L.R. Weir, Frederick Williamson, Sir Basil Gould and Anthony J. Hopkinson. Three officers- David Macdonald, Capt. R.K.M. Battye and Hugh Richardson - also temporarily held the post. The Political Officer was a member of the Political Service of the British Empire in India, which served in the native states and in areas beyond the frontiers. Though the Political Officer was resident in Gangtok, he was also responsible for official dealings with neighbouring Bhutan and Tibet. While the posting in Gangtok may not have had much appeal for most on account of its remoteness, contrarily, because it was so far removed from the corridors of British power in India, it offered its incumbents, the ‘Politicals’ as they were known, a stab at being a tiny independent power centre by themselves. Besides, thanks to the fact that White built himself a typical English house complete with verandahs and a beautifully landscaped garden, the Residency was not an unfamiliar dwelling for his successors. That White was a civil engineer by training further ensured he not only built a technically sound house but one that was comfortable, well planned and complete with modern conveniences as well, all of which went a long way in making the Political Officers and their families feel at home right away. Margaret ‘Peggy’ Williamson, wife of the much-loved Political Officer Frederick Williamson recounts it best in her 1987 Memoirs of A Political Officer’s Wife in Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan: “At first sight, the Residency struck me as looking just like an English country house, except that it had a corrugated iron roof of a dull reddish colour. The verandahs, where meals were taken when the weather was suitable, were hung with wisteria. The grounds were extensive and descended in three tiers to two lily ponds. On the top terrace there were spacious lawns, a fish pond and the great flag-pole where the Union Jack fluttered proudly when the Political Officer was in residence. The flag went with him on tour, when it was hoisted at each camp. A hill rose at the back, concealing the servants’ quarters. All around there were masses of flowers, trees and tree-ferns. But the crowning glory was the magnificent view that it commanded of the Kanchenjunga range to the west.” Life at the Residency in the times of the British Political Officer was perpetually busy with a steady stream of visitors, as recounted by Peggy: “I looked after the social side. As the only other place in Gangtok, where Europeans could stay was the dak bungalow, we had to put up many of them up at the Residency. Indeed, an endless stream of visitors seemed to flow through the house during our time there. As well as our friends, Government officials, Army people and even the
5 occasional foreign ambassador were delighted to be able to find sanctuary with us from the heat of the plains. All visitors to Sikkim in those days had to get official passes from the deputy Commissioner in Darjeeling, so he could tell us who was coming and would often suggest the degree of entertainment appropriate, which was a great help in avoiding faux pas. Also friends from Lhasa stayed with us, like the Tarings and the Tsarongs, while en route to India to do shopping or to visit their children at school in Darjeeling. Rani and Raja Dorji from Kalimpong were regular visitors too. We entertained the members of the 1935 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition; I have a vivid memory of them all setting off down the garden with ice-axes and umbrellas, with those two great mountaineers, Eric Shipton and H.W. Tilman, carrying between them a wooden strong box full of cash to cover all the expedition’s expenses. Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff were fairly frequent guests, and we also entertained the other great plant hunter, Frank Kingdon Ward. Among our visitors in 1934 was Sir Charles Bell, who had done so much to foster good relations between Britain and Tibet when he had been P.O. Sikkim in the years around 1920. While Sir Charles spent three months in Tibet on a private visit, Lady Bell and their daughter Rongyne stayed with us in Gangtok. A rather more unusual visitor was a man named Stephen Smith, who at the time was pioneering a rather farfetched scheme for sending letters across Himalayan valleys by rocket. However, only one of his rockets managed to travel as far as a hundred yards. And there were many other visitors- so many, in fact, that sometimes there barely seemed enough time to change the sheets between one set of visitors and the next.” The story of the1935 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition led by Eric Shipton remained long untold until the diaries of team members were recently discovered and used to recount the story. Tony Astill’s Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1935 (2005) makes mention of the team’s stopover at the Residency at Gangtok: “Shipton had motored to Gangtok the previous day from Kalimpong and Karma Paul had also arrived by car. Eric and his mother, Mrs Haly, were found waiting at the bungalow and gave the pleasant news that everyone was to be put up at the ‘Residency’ with Major Williamson, the political officer in Sikkim. In 1933 Williamson had been ‘the soul of hospitality’ and Ruttledge wrote that his party had ‘spent many happy hours with him at the Residency, admiring everything; his collection of Tibetan religious banners, arms and brass-work; his lovely garden and the Sikkimese uniform of his official and domestic staff. He knows all about the country and often stays at Lhasa and Bhutan.’ Having been ‘invited to this fine house for more meals than we shall have for many days or have had in the last 3’, they lunched at 1.45 p.m. The Residency was a delightfully charming house set well above Gangtok with a great view, weather permitting. Spender saw for the first time the Himalaya and Kangchenjunga from his bedroom window.” Inside the Residency, “there was an absolute mass of wonderful Tibetan and Bhutanese curios, odds and ends and beautiful thangkas [a Tibetan painting of Buddhas-not to be confused with the Tibetan coinage, tangka] brass, silver and so on.” These first-hand recollections help conjure up images of life in the Residency during the times of the British Political Officers as being a fine melding of east and west; of a British officer
6 living in Sikkim, his dealings with the people of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet reflected in the many oriental curios and bric-a-brac decorating his English home in Gangtok, and his many, mostly European, guests served by domestic help dressed in Sikkimese uniform. In fact, the uniform of the domestic help of the Residency is almost a legend in itself. The kit of traditional Lepcha hand-woven cloth, the ‘Thakro dum’ worn in a kilt-like style, a red jacket with black edging, topped by a bamboo hat with a peacock feather stuck jauntily in it and the official badge showing they worked at the Residency gave another new word to local parlance, ‘Atali’, or the more familiar British ‘orderly’. The Atali’s uniform was very similar to that of the Sikkim Guard, the private guard of the Chogyals but distinguished by his badge. The subsequent British Political Officers continued to share a cordial relationship with the ruling family. Sir Charles Bell, another towering figure, was a mentor for the young Maharaja Tashi Namgyal who lacked the maturity and experience to govern the country when he was anointed the 11th Chogyal in 1914. He was placed under Bell’s tutelage and in June 1917, Bell recommended that he be given full administrative powers. Nari Rustomji, Dewan of Sikkim, offers another instance of how the Political Officer helped nurture Tashi Namgyal’s children in his 1987 Sikkim: A Himalayan Tragedy: “Sir Basil (Gould) took pains to see that the young princes and princesses should be well-equipped to feel at home in western-style society as well as in their own, and took a personal interest in their upbringing. An English governess was engaged to supervise the children in the palace and they were invited frequently to the Residency so that they should grow out of any feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment in meeting people of a different culture.” This mutual cordiality was also very prominent at the 1934 wedding of Frederick and Margaret Williamson at White Memorial Hall where the Maharaja and Maharani of Sikkim not only graced the guest list but also lent them their personal furniture for the ceremony. Towards the middle of the twentieth century, the Residency again witnessed significant history in the making. In 1947, India regained her independence from British imperial rule. The British pullout from India also saw the Residency bid farewell to Sir A.J. Hopkinson, the serving British Political Officer of Sikkim at that time and thus also the last British Political Officer in Sikkim. This critical juncture in India’s history also signaled the end of the first phase of the Residency’s history, the era of the British Political Officer. Interestingly, A.J. Hopkinson has the distinction of being the only British Political Officer who also served as the Indian Political Officer in Sikkim for about a year until the final pullout of the British from India. The Residency then entered the second phase in its history, the era of the Indian Political Officer. From 1948, when Harishwar Dayal took over as the first Indian Political Officer, until 1975, when Sikkim became part of India, the Residency became the official residence of the Indian Political Officer. The other incumbents of this post were Balraj Krishna Kapoor, Apa Parshuram Rao Pant, Inder Jeet Bahadur Singh, Avtar Singh, Vincent Herbert Coelho, Nedyam Balachandran Menon, Katyayani Shanker Bajpai and finally, Gurbachan Singh. Locally, it conuituned to be known as Bara Kothi or the big house. It is not known exactly when it came to be known as Bara Kothi but it was definitely from the times of the British Political Officers, perhaps from the
7 inception of the house itself. It was, of course, a reference to the powers of the principal occupants of the house rather than its physical size. It is a commonly held belief that the Residency came to be known as India House after the lapse of British paramountcy in 1947. However, the name change was effected during Indira Gandhi’s visit to Sikkim in 1968. B.S.K.Grover offers the following insight in his book Sikkim and India: Storm and Consolidation (1974): “The name Residency was considered by many as smacking of colonialism. Even the role of Political Officer has changed since the British left India in 1947. Though the title has been carried forward from the days of British influence and control, but the functions of this office are now of a radically different nature. It is principally an office of liaison between the Government of India and Sikkim and assists the Sikkim Darbar in relation to the many efforts being made towards the economic and social development of the country. To call it the Political Office is perhaps a misnomer in view of the changed circumstances.” Sunanda Datta-Ray explains in his book Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim (1984) the dissolution of the power of the Political Officers in Tibet and Bhutan, and the growing dissension between the Palace and India House in Sikkim: “Chafing at restrictions, the Chogyal complained that the imperial tradition should have ended when a new relationship was forged in 1950. Article XI of the treaty said that “the government of India shall have the right to appoint a representative to reside in Sikkim”. A representative, he argued, was the accredited envoy of a friendly nation, not a proconsul inspired by outmoded notions of paramountcy. But the most he was able to obtain was when, visiting Gangtok in May 1968, Mrs. Gandhi agreed to rename the Residency India House. But there was no diminution of authority, and successive Indian POs draped themselves in the mantle of Claude White’s arrogant legacy. Though White was only public works department official, he cuts a resplendent figure in photographs. Walrus moustache, gold braiding on his dress tunic, a row of ribbons and medals, ceremonial sword, and white gloves epitomize imperial authority. His conduct was equally overbearing. After storming Thutob Namgyal’s palace and driving out loyal retainers, White behaved abominably to the ruler and his consort. He then appropriated for himself the higher of the two elevations between which the town of Gangtok (the high hill) is now strung out. It was significant that the palace occupied the lower eminence. The first PO does no appear to have sought Thutob Namgyal’s consent in choosing his site and building a house. A thousand acres were cleared, primeval forests felled, the ground leveled, and stonemasons, carpenters, and carvers brought from Punjab. The furniture and furnishings were imported from London. Bhutiya and Lepcha boys were trained for domestic service. As the building neared completion, the simple Sikkimese must have realized that this grand establishment was the real seat of power. White’s Eastern version of a Swiss chalet, commanding a magnificent view of Kanchenjunga and its surrounding cluster of peaks, was also probably the world’s first outpost for what eventually came to be called China-watching. Political officers maintained garrisons and postoffices in Tibet, foiled the machinations of the Manchu Ambans in Lhasa, and struggled to influence the Dalai Lama’s government. Nearer home they kept a watchful eye on wayward
8 Bhutanese chiefs. Responsibilities in Tibet came to an end soon after October 1950 when Beijing bluntly notified New Delhi that: “Tibet is an integral part of Chinese territory and the problem of Tibet is entirely a domestic problem of China.” Nehru readily withdrew military escorts from Yatung and Gyantse; surrendered properties in these towns; handed over the postal, telegraph, and telephone services operated by India; and relinquished control of 12 rest houses. Bhutan was separated from the PO’s jurisdiction in 1971. Only the tiny kingdom of Sikkim eventually remained of his once sprawling parish. But the past dominated life in burra kothi, whose paneled drawing-room gave pride of place to a set of massively carved sofas upholstered in yellow brocade. One chair reared like a throne, bigger and higher than the rest. The furniture had been specially made as New Delhi’s gift to the Dalai Lama, but reached Gangtok too late to be sent by mule train through Nathu-la. Tibet had fallen and its pontiff was in flight. A useless gift for the exiled god-king of a disappearing society fittingly decorated the parlour of a functionary whose office was an anachronism.” Datta-Ray further explains that when, ‘visiting Gangtok in May 1968, Mrs. Gandhi agreed to rename the Residency India House.’ The Residency in its new avatar as India House continued to be mute witness to further Himalyan winds of change, in more ways than one, blowing over tiny Sikkim. In 1975, the institution of the Chogyal was abolished and Sikkim was formally inducted into the Indian Union as her 22nd state. India House morphed into the Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of Sikkim. Gurbachan, the last Indian Political Officer has to make way for Bipin Bihari Lal, the first Governor of Sikkim. This change in scenario also heralded the last phase of the Residency’s history, the era of the Governor of Sikkim. After B.B.Lal, Homi J.H.Taleyarkhan, Prabhakar Rao, B.N.Singh, T.V.Rajeshwar,S.K.Bhatnagar, R.H.Tahiliani, P.Shiv Shanker, K.V. Ragunath Reddy, Chaudhury Randhir Singh, Kidar Nath Sahani, V. Rama Rao, R.S. Gavai, Sudarshan Agarwal and the present incumbent, Balmiki Prasad Singh, have since held the post of governor of Sikkim and resided at the Raj Bhavan. Many of them have reminisced affectionately about their stints in Sikkim, the warmth of the people and the incomparable sight of the sun rising over the Khangchendzonga as viewed from the Raj Bhawan first thing in the morning. Throughout the history of the Residency, there is always a silent, central character. The house itself has been mute witness to so many vicissitudes faced by Sikkim. From shrinking geographical boundaries, shrinking powers and jurisdiction, political upheavals, new political dispensations, the house has seen it all. For over a hundred years, the Residency has seen not just the changing political fortunes of Sikkim, but also the growing urban sprawl of Gangtok from its vantage point ridge. Since Sikkim is located in a seismically active zone, earthquakes rather than time have wrought more damage to the Residency over the years. Former Governor T.V.Rajeshwar recollected, “During my days as Governor of Sikkim, (1985-89) there was a serious earthquake which registered 6.2 on the Richter scale. The old Raj Bhawan was shaking and creaking dangerously. We hurriedly moved out of the first floor and till repairs were carried out, stayed in the ground floor bedroom adjacent to the drawing room. It was
9 at this time I discussed with the CPWD authorities about constructing a quick getaway passage from the Governor’s bedroom in the event of an emergency. The stair case adjacent to the Governor’s bedroom leading into the garden was then constructed. This was so designed as to merge with the overall architectural design of Raj Bhawan.” The deadly Valentine’s Day earthquake of 14th February, 2006- the third big earthquake faced by the former Residency more than a century after the 1897 one - that ripped through Gangtok’s bowels badly damaged the Raj Bhawan. It was declared structurally unsafe. Fortunately, the then Governor was in his winter camp at Rangpo. A camp Raj Bhawan was organized at the Circuit House. In December 2007, the camp shifted to the old Raj Bhawan Annexe which had been completely renovated in 2003. Work started on building a modern Raj Bhawan in the Raj Bhawan compound, the idea being that it was time for White’s heritage building to take a final bow. However, the present Governor of Sikkim, Balmiki Prasad Singh has had the epiphany that of all the priceless treasures inside the Raj Bhawan, the most priceless of them all is the heritage building itself. Accordingly, His Excellency has personally spearheaded retrofitting of the Raj Bhawan. The retrofitting process has done more than just restore the old building to its former glory; the introduction of modern technology has undoubtedly injected new life into the building and kept alive the continued chronicles of a still-significant facet of Sikkim’s history that would have otherwise morphed itself for the last time into an anachronism. Claude White would have approved.
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