The Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) is an iconic institution, unique in what it does, how it does it, and in the history that it preserves. As a library, the IIAS has a collection of more than over 150,000 books and over 40,000 bound volumes. The collection includes texts, manuscripts and books in Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Hindi and modern Indian languages, Urdu, Tibetan, and English, among many other languages. And it has major collections on History, Comparative Religion, Psychology, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, Literature, Economics, and Public Administration.
As a premier academic institution, the IIAS is arguably India’s best centre for scholarly research through its Fellowship programmes, preserving the nation’s secular approach to dialectical study of social sciences and also preserving the history of the India and the Indian sub-continent through a diverse spectrum of material, discourse, research and publications. The IIAS is also the Inter-University Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences (on behalf of University Grants Commission), the Tagore Centre for Study of Culture and Civilisation (under the HRD Ministry), and the International Centre for Human Development. It is one of India’s outstanding institutions recognised the world over.
Since its inauguration on the 20th of October 1965, the Institute has been housed in the erstwhile Viceregal Estate of colonial times (‘Rashtrapati Niwas’ since independence in 1947) in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. And the Viceregal Estate is an institution by itself, having witnessed some of the major developments and decisions in Asia under British colonial rule since the Viceregal Lodge was the seat of the British government in India as its summer capital.
Designed by Henry Irwin, the Viceregal Estate was a 331-acre property straddling Observatory Hill, Bentick Hill, and Prospect Hill, with the Viceregal Lodge exuding its commanding authority over the Shimla region from its perch atop Observatory Hill. Completed in 1888, the Viceregal Lodge served as the residence and offices of the Viceroys of India, starting with Lord Dufferin (Frederick Hamilton Blackwood, the Marquees of Dufferin and Ava), who moved in on July 23, 1888.
Much of the history and information on the Shimla region was recorded in a comprehensive manner in Edward J. Buck’s Simla Past and Present. As per the notes in the second edition published 1925, E. J. Buck describes the expanse of the Viceregal Estate as of 1925 as:
“The Viceregal Estate … embraces an area of 331 acres. Upon it there stand 26 houses, and in them reside some 840 persons, of whom 40 are Europeans and 800 Indians.”
Today, the IIAS estate is a bit smaller at 110-acres.
The Viceregal Lodge itself had several distinctions. While electricity came to the broader Shimla region on July 15, 1913, Viceregal Lodge was the first structure to be lit by electricity – the estate had its own little Electrical Engine House that supplied the power for the 1000 lamps (a majority were 16-candle-power) in the Lodge. Subsequently, of course, the engines were sold and replaced by a transformer. Almost a century later, my aunt and my uncle (her husband) moved to the official quarters near this very Electric House, when they were working with the IIAS.
Growing up, I have spent most of my summers and several winters on the Viceregal Estate, since my aunt, uncle, and my uncle-in-law were all employed with the IIAS since 1970. We have lived in official quarters on Summerhill, Observatory Hill, and Prospect Hill. The dense forests, paved pathways, gravel approaches, temples, chapel, courts, stables, and various residences and buildings were part of my daily life and play. I have had the good fortune to see many national and international academic luminaries and meet some of them through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. And I have always looked up to the IIAS as a cultural institution as much as an academic icon since all the Directors, Scholars, Officers, staff, and employees of the IIAS I have met through the years were knowledgeable, gracious, and carried a sense of history and legacy in their bearing – have often considered them as great role models for young people and society in general.
Naturally, given such interactions, I have often disagreed with the critical viewpoint that the Lodge comes across as ‘foreboding’, ‘ominous’, or even with the criticism on its mixed architectural style. But I have the benefit of looking at it after 100 years of history has been played out around the property, and the estate has a personality and a place in the history of India, and it is this personality of the estate that I have found warm, welcoming, and inspiring. I very much agree with E. J. Buck’s opinion that the Viceregal Lodge possesses one of the most commanding positions in Shimla. Coming up to Shimla on the Kalka-Shimla Railway, one knows the destination is excitingly near when you get glimpses (from Tunnel 97 onwards) of the imposing Lodge on the crest of Observatory Hill.
While the design and construction of the estate usually finds mention as a statistical matter or as a curiosity, I have found the available information very illuminating. Firstly, all the construction material came from India: the light-blue limestone used in the masonry was quarried across the hill in Kareru on Prospect Hill; the wrought stonework sandstone was brought up from Kalka; The iron girders, beams, and trusses cam from Bombay; There was some Burma teak procured for the construction, but the rest of the wood work was with Deodhar, Kail, and Walnut from the forests around Shimla. Iron was moulded into the structure to provide strength while glass was used to provide ventilation. Labour was mostly local. Lady Harriet Dufferin’s journal makes for delightful reading, giving a very colourful, involved and interesting account of life, living, and integration of the cultures. This extract records her observations on the women masons who worked on the Lodge at the time of the construction:
“The workpeople are very amusing to look at, especially the young ladies in necklaces, bracelets, earrings, tight cotton trousers, turbans with long veils hanging down their backs, and a large earthenware basin of mortar on their heads. They walk about with the carriage of empresses, and seem as much at ease on top of the roof as on the ground floor; most picturesque masons they are.”
There are several detailed descriptions of the interiors of the Lodge and the estate buildings on several websites, and books, therefore I shall skip those, except to share that the IIAS estate inherited and then very ably nurtured one of the most diverse horticultural delights in the Himalayan mountains – the gardens and forests of the Viceregal Lodge.
The Viceregal Lodge became a symbol of the importance of Shimla in British India governance and it also marked the ascendance of Shimla society in India. The political importance of Shimla was also underlined given the co-existence of the British government, Punjab government and Princely hill-states, and their interaction in civil and local government matters. And later, Shimla and the Viceregal Lodge played an important role during the transition of governments during independence – it was the venue for the Simla Conference of 1945 and the Tripartite Talks in 1946 – and post-independence (after its rechristening as The Rashtrapati Niwas), the Lodge has served as the home of the IIAS as the Institute spearheaded academic research on crucial matters of history and social sciences.
I have been visiting Shimla regularly since 1972, and I make it a point to visit the Indian Institute of Advanced Study on every visit because it represents not just the living history of India, but also because its philosophy and scientific approach symbolise the inclusive nature of Indian thought.