Rashtrapati Bhavan, the imposing presidential palace spread over 130 hectares in the heart of New Delhi, has become a more accessible place for tourists and common people of India. Pranab Mukherjee, who became the 13th President of India on July 25 last year, said his mission was to make the place as "open as possible to people, including children."
All one needs to do is to log on to the internet and make an advance booking for any of the three days it is open to the public every weekend.
Previously, one had to physically go to Rashtrapati Bhavan to make a booking. The new system has seen footfalls spiral from 500 over three days on an average last year to nearly 1,600 over the same period, with a cap of 700 visitors per day, an official said.
A media tour through Rashtrapati Bhavan threw up interesting sights of groups of foreign tourists being escorted by young scholar-guides through the Durbar Hall, the Marble Hall, the south and north drawing rooms, the museum, library and banquet hall.
Explaining the growing popularity of the president's abode on the capital's sight-seeing map, the official said: "We have been receiving online reservations from around the world. We have thrown open new galleries and the front entrance of Rashtrapati Bhavan. The sale of souvenirs at the memento shop has increased, along with brisk sale of tea at a kiosk we have set up on the premises to cater to the visitors."
For the media on Tuesday, it was a landmark tour. "For the first time, the media has been allowed inside Rashtrapati Bhavan other than the designated areas," the official said. Visitors have a choice of two guided tours around the premises.
The interiors were a revelation. The grand British-style decor and the furniture have been spruced up in a mega restoration drive to bring Rashtrapati Bhavan back to its original glory. The main library is the focus of the restoration drive. Nearly 24,000 books and manuscripts are in queue for digitisation - 4,000 having been archived during the tenure of president A.P.J Abdul Kalam.
President Mukherjee is taking personal interest in bringing a semblance of order to the library. "Dr Kalam had initiated many good projects and created infrastructure. I am ensuring that they are utilised. The Rashtrapati Bhavan auditorium which he inaugurated in 2007 is being used regularly," Mukherjee said while interacting with the media.
The decision to build the 340-room mansion - the erstwhile residence of the British viceroy - was taken in 1911 when the British decided to shift their capital from Kolkata to New Delhi. Designed by Edward Landseer Lutyens, it took 17 years to build the abode at a cost then of Rs. 1.28 crore (nearly 13 million rupees).
The most distinguishing aspect of Rashtrapati Bhavan is its dome, which is superimposed on its structure. It is visible as the most eye-catching round roof with a circular base in the heart of Delhi.
The presidential art collection that begins at the Durbar Hall - the public assembly space - with a 5th century statue of Lord Buddha and an Ashokan edict is being catalogued and dusted. The private collection comprising art by masters like Jamini Roy and Jogen Chowdhury has been mounted in a dedicated art gallery that will open for viewing soon, an official said.
The collection that adorns the walls of the presidential abode is a veritable treasure chest with commissioned portraits of all the Indian presidents and East India Company paintings of India in the 19th century.
The artworks complement the art deco furniture of the British Raj - in gilded golden metal, ornate hard wood, rich upholstery and soft carpets.
The south and the north drawing rooms - where the dignitaries call on the president - shine like jewels out of time with ornamental chairs, richly inlaid tables, colourful portraits and expensive panelling.
Two of the most exciting features of the president's house are the kitchen museum and the Marble Hall that draw steady streams of visitors.
Set up by Kalam when he was president, the kitchen museum is a virtual walk through the pantry and culinary traditions of Rashtrapati Bhavan with laid-out tables, British-era cutlery and pots and pans used by the crew.
The Marble Hall is a gallery of marble who's who from modern Indian history - including two single marble sculptures of King George V and Queen Mary - the founding forces behind Lutyen's Delhi as the country's political capital.
The Mughal Garden modelled on the Persian style 'char bagh' is yet to burst into its riot of colourful blooms. But a fleet of gardeners is hard at work to ready it for a spring gala. A single black rose on a freshly pruned black pearl rose bush against the pink backdrop of the presidential home serves as a reminder of the mystique that hangs like an aura around the country's domed echelon.
Last year, nearly 700,000 people visited the Mughal Garden alone when it opened for viewing in February, the official said.