When the Sikkim Tibet war broke out in 1888, the British sent John Claude White as Assistant Political Officer with the expeditionary force. In 1889, he was offered the post of Political Officer of Sikkim. Though J.Claude White was a Civil Engineer employed with the Public Works Department, he was so enamoured with Sikkim that he accepted the post unhesitatingly.
It was White who built what is today the Raj Bhavan 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 first published in 1909.
"One of the first things to be done on my appointment to Sikkim 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 Gangtok, 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 possible endanger the safety of the house, a necessary precaution, as many of them were quite 140 feet high, an 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 surroundings 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."
White retired in October 1908. The Residency he built was a lasting legacy he left behind. After White, all the incumbents of the post of Political Officer Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet based in Gangtok enjoyed the comforts of the English villa-like 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 McDonald, Capt. R.K.M. Battye and H.Richardson – also temporarily held the post) .
Sir A.J. Hopkinson was the last British Political Officer of Sikkim. When India gained independence from British rule in1947, the Residency became the residence of the Indian Political Officer, locally referred to as ‘Burra Kothi’. A span of 86 years i.e. 1889-1975 (Claude White to Gurbachan Singh) lay between the first P.O’s appointment and the withdrawal of the last.
Residency and Local People
White’s completed Residency was a revelation, an object of much curiosity for the Sikkimese hitherto not exposed to such a house. They would often call on the Whites and request permission to wander around the house; to see how the Whites lived and what European furniture was like. The Residency had bay windows and a round dining table. This really fired the imagination of the local Sikkimese Kazis who also incorporated bay windows and copied the round table for their own residences.
From Residency to Raj Bhavan
In 1975, the institution of the Chogyal was abolished and Sikkim was formally inducted into the Indian Union as her 22nd State. For having made this culmination possible, Shri B.B. Lal was made Governor of Sikkim on 18th May, 1975 the very day that the amending Bill received the President’s assent. This marked the conversion of Residency into Raj Bhavan.
In its previous designation as India House or “Baara Khoti”, it had been rated as one of the India’s best Ambassadorial residences-it would now qualify as India’s most attractive Raj Bhavan. Sited well above the town and insulated from the noise and fumes of the bazaar, the classic gabled structure lends into the greenery and trees of the landscape and looks on the entire Kanchendzonga range.
The area of the compound is at approximately 75 acres consisting of lawn and garden as well as kitchen garden and fruit orchids.
Several incumbents since then ( Sarva Shri H.J.H. Taleyar Khan, K. Prabhakar Rao, B.N. Singh, T.V. Rajeshwar, S.K. Bhatnagar, R.H. Thailiani, P. Shiv Shankar, K.V. Ragunath Reddy, Chaudhary Randhir Singh, Kidar Nath Sahani, R.S. Gavai, V. Rama Rao, Sudarshan Agarwal) have held the post of Governor of Sikkim and resided at the Raj Bhavan. White’s Residency has stood a silent spectator for over a hundred years as the winds of change blew over Sikkim’s political landscape
Earthquake of 2006 and After
However, the deadly Valentine’s Day earthquake of 14th February, 2006, the second big earthquake faced by this magnificent complex more than a century after the 1897 one that ripped through Gangtok’s bowels, badly damaged the Raj Bhavan and rendered it structurally unstable. Fortunately, the then Governor was in his winter camp at Rangpo. A camp Raj Bhavan was organized at the Circuit House. In December, 2007 the camp shifted to the old Raj Bhavan Annexe which was renovated. The State Government proposed for the construction of New Raj Bhavan since the existing Raj Bhavan was rendered structurally unstable following February 2006 earthquake. The construction started and completed in the year 2011. It stands as an architectural marvel with the blend of modern and traditional architectural concepts. Under the guidance of Former Governor Shri B.P. Singh who personally took the initiative to conserve the heritage building, a priceless treasure of Sikkim with latest retrofitting technology, the Old Raj Bhavan was restored to its full glory with some additional features.