Written by Praveen Siddharth
On April 14, the nation celebrated the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar. There is a tradition in the Rashtrapati Bhavan where the President offers floral tributes to a photograph of Ambedkar placed in the Durbar Hall on this occasion. As we gather under the majestic dome, one cannot help but notice the coincidences and connections across the fabric of time.
Ambedkar had long deliberated on leaving the Hindu fold. In 1956, while working on his treatise The Buddha and his Dhamma, which would soon form the basis for Navayana Buddhism, he took the step of converting to Buddhism. He chose October 14, since this was the date that emperor Ashoka supposedly converted to Buddhism, sometime around 265 BC. However, Ambedkar’s life as a Buddhist was short-lived as he died soon after, on December 6, 1956, owing to complications from diabetes.
As a philosophy and religion, Ambedkar gave Buddhism an enormous fillip in our country. Census data shows that from around 1,50,000 in 1951 the number of Buddhists rose to over 3 million in 1961. However, Buddhism did not merely provide an alternative avenue for social progress. It also influenced art and architecture tremendously. One such place to see it is the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The Viceroy House was never intended to have anything Indian. Edwin Lutyens, who was selected as the chief architect in 1912, until then, had been designing Palladian structures such as war memorials in Europe, the British embassy in Washington, DC and extravagant British country homes across England. Lord Hardinge, who was the viceroy from 1910 to 1916, strongly felt that the Viceroy House had to incorporate elements of Indian architecture and be a synthesis of architectural styles.
The dome of the Rashtrapati Bhavan today is its most striking aspect. While it is visible from a distance, even up close, the enormous dome, which is more than twice the height of the rest of the building, never ceases to impress. This, most recognisable part of the building, came to be designed in a distinctly Indian style. It was modelled on the Sanchi Stupa all the way down to the balustrade railings that surround it. Built by emperor Ashoka, in the third century BC to house the relics of Gautam Buddha, the Sanchi Stupa is considered one of the best surviving examples of Buddhist architecture. Coincidentally, just as the Viceroy House was being designed and built, the Archaeological Survey of India was excavating and restoring the Sanchi Stupa, from 1912 to 1919. A dome is emblematic as a crown over the room where some of our nation’s most sacred ceremonies are held.
Lutyens never really admitted the influence of the Sanchi Stupa in his design of the dome. Part of his reluctance could also be due to the peculiar impact of Buddhism in his personal life. His wife Emily (daughter of Lord Lytton, viceroy of India from 1876 to 1880) was a devout follower of Annie Besant. She joined the Theosophical Society preparing eagerly for the next incarnation of Lord Buddha as Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. When the Theosophical Society “discovered” J Krishnamurti as a young boy, on a beach, and saw in him the promised incarnation, Emily took him under her wings and brought him into their home in England, where he lived between 1911 and 1914, much to the chagrin of her husband.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan’s tryst with Buddhism did not start and end with the dome. Earlier used as the throne room, the Durbar Hall now holds the President’s ceremonial high chair from where he performs his constitutional duties. A red velvet curtain hangs behind his chair, and here is a fourth century AD statue of a standing Buddha. Sculpted during the Gupta period and belonging to the Mathura School of Art, this sculpture, with elongated earlobes and a halo around the head, breaks the tradition of not depicting the Buddha in anthropomorphic form. The Buddha, although with both hands broken, appears to be in abhaya mudra (fearless gesture) presiding over all our state functions, with his blessings on our President and the nation.
Just outside the Durbar Hall, on the front porch of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, is another Buddhist connection. A third century BC example of Mauryan Art — the Rampurva Bull statue is mounted on a pedestal at the entrance. The bull was one of the two Ashokan pillars excavated from Rampurva, Champaran, Bihar. One of the pillars had a lion capital, along with the inscription of his edicts extolling the Buddhist way of life, and the other was mounted with the bull capital. Both, the standing Buddha sculpture and the Rampurva Bull capital, were part of the India exhibition in Burlington House in London in 1948. On their return to India, the other artefacts of the exhibition were shifted to a museum. At the behest of Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru, these two pieces were retained at the Rashtrapati Bhavan as they were “too valuable and precious” and could not be “immersed in the darkness of the Asian antiquities museum”.
Inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan, there are numerous other examples of Buddhist art. On the south marble staircase is an enormous 1,000-arm statue of Lord Buddha as “Sahastrabahu Avlokiteshwara” given as a gift from Vietnam to our second President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in 1962. There are numerous busts of red sandstone Buddha of the Gandhara School adorning almost every office. The walls of the committee room, where the President conducts all his meetings, are filled with reproductions of Buddhist murals of Ajanta, painted by Syed Ahmed in 1932, and paintings of the Boddhisatva Padmapani, and Indra worshipping Buddha, painted also by Ahmed in 1935.
There is much in common with the teachings of the Buddha and what our Constitution has enshrined as our fundamental rights and duties. The Buddha and his dhamma were an inspiration for the architect of our constitution, Ambedkar. Our Presidents, as defenders of our Constitution, have tried to tread on a path illuminated by these ideals. To make the nation and the world a kingdom of righteousness, dhamma must become saddhamma, Buddha had said. It must provide learning to all without discrimination, promote maitri (compassion and universal brotherhood) and break down all
With the floral tributes, a final piece of connection comes to mind. This practise of remembering the deceased, on his or her birth anniversary or jayanti, is also a Buddhist tradition. Birth marks one stage in the ever-turning wheel of life. The karma of a person determines his next birth and, on this jayanti, it would do well to remember once again the good deeds and words of a noble soul.
Praveen Siddharth is private secretary to the President of India