Queen Victoria’s Durbar Room: East Meets West at Osborne House

With the Durbar Room, the eminent Punjabi Sikh architect and designer Bhai Ram Singh realized Queen Victoria's wish for an 'Indian dining room.'

durbar room osborne house queen victoria bhai ram singh kipling
The Durbar Room was an Indian-style ceremonial hall in the Osborne House. (Image Credit: Derek Voller)

The Durbar Room is an exquisite Indian-style stateroom in Osborne House — the Italianate summer retreat of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the Isle of Wight.

Built between 1890 and 1891, the Durbar Room is the last major addition to the Osborne House. Envisioned by Victoria as an “Indian dining room,” the Durbar Room functioned as a reception hall to entertain guests, hold ceremonial events, and display gifts to the queen from Indian princes.

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A fountain outside the Italianate Osborne House, the summer retreat of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. (Image Credit: Steve Daniels)

The word durbar — generally transliterated as darbar — is borrowed from the Hindi and Urdu languages, which derived it from Persian.

Its meaning varies by context. But the word “durbar” is used to refer to the royal court where rulers conducted the affairs of the state and convened ceremonial gatherings.

The Durbar Room: Queen Victoria’s Virtual India

Stepping into the Durbar Room, one enters another world. And that is the intended effect. Victoria, who had been proclaimed “Empress of India” in 1876 by an article of parliament, was unable to visit India. The Durbar Room instead brought India to her.

Queen-Victoria-Portrait-Queen of Great Britain Empress of India
A portrait of Queen Victoria by the artist von Angeli. The caption on this print from 1887 reads, “Her most gracious majesty Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Empress of India.” (Image Credit: Library of Congress)

India was the most prized possession of the British Empire, which had colonized it decades earlier and formally ruled it after suppressing the great sepoy revolt in 1857.

For Victoria, her connection to India was also sentimental and romantic. Victoria, according to the historian Françoise Le Jeune, developed a fascination with India in her youth, as documented in her private diaries.

Victoria was keen to learn about India’s customs from colonial agents and Indian interlocutors, including staff like her munshi, Abdul Karim. She learned the Urdu language from Abdul Karim and had Indian dishes included in her menu.

Inspired by the Mughal-style interior of Elveden Hall — the Suffolk estate of Duleep Singh, the exiled last maharaja of the Sikh Empire — Victoria desired to build an imaginal Indian world of her own.

That world would be the Darbar Room, which you may also recognize from the film Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench:

Bhai Ram Singh: The Man Who Designed the Durbar Room

In 1890, the task of designing the Durbar Room was given to the Punjabi Sikh architect and master craftsman Bhai Ram Singh.

Singh was a student of John Lockwood Kipling — the father of Rudyard Kipling and the principal of the Mayo School of Industrial Arts. Kipling supervised the project, but it is Singh who served as chief designer.

Born in 1858 in the village of Rasulpur in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district, Ram Singh came from a clan (biradari) of carpenters known as the Ramagarhia Misl.

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A portrait by Rudolf Swoboda of Bhai Ram Singh, the Punjabi Sikh architect of the Durbar Room at Osborne House. Queen Victoria commissioned the portrait.

Already a skilled carpenter, Singh attended the Lahore School of Carpentry, which was folded into the Mayo School during his time there. At the Mayo School — now known as Pakistan’s National College of Arts — Singh was trained in what was termed the Indo-Saracenic style.

(The Indo-Saracenic style was devised by the British colonialists by fusing Gothic and neo-classical architecture with prominent elements of Hindu, Mughal, and other Indo-Islamic design.)

Years earlier, Singh designed with Kipling the carved wood paneling for the Billiard Room at Bagshot Park, a royal residence, which caught the eye of Victoria. And that’s how Singh came to be chosen as the designer of the Durbar Room.

The Durbar Room’s Architectural Features

Singh and Kipling initially proposed for the Durbar Room to also have carved wood paneling. But, as Singh’s biographers Pervaiz and Sajida Vandal write, that would prove to be too costly for the royals, as they would be bearing the expenses for this project, unlike with the Billiard Room.

And so plaster was instead used to make the ceiling and walls. Nonetheless, the ornamentation — made from wood molds designed by Singh — is deeply intricate. Floral patterns dominate the ceiling. Brass, electrified lamps hang from elaborate honeycomb vaulting known as muqarnas.

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The deeply coffered ceiling of the Durbar Room in the Osborne House. (Image Credit: Michael Garlick)

The Durbar Room also contains markers of India’s religious traditions. A statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha appears near the minstrels’ gallery. And the Arabic phrase “La Ghaliba illa Allah (There is no Victor but God)” — the motto of the Nasrid Dynasty inscribed on the Alhambra in Spain — also appears on a gilded wall panel of the Durbar Room.

An ornate peacock — one of the many design elements that reflect the influence of Princess Louise, Victoria’s youngest daughter — protrudes above the fireplace. Made of plaster, it took hundreds of hours of labor to produce.

durbar room peacock fireplace osborne house
A peacock protrudes out of the plaster wall above the fireplace in the Durbar Room. (Image Credit: Michael Garlick)

The Durbar Room also features overhanging balconies, or jharokhas, made of carved teak wood.

In addition to serving as a banquet room, the Durbar Room also displayed many of the gifts Victoria received from Indian princes, including for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

durbar room osborne house queen victoria balcony jharokha
Teak wood jharokhas or balconies in the Durbar Room of the Osborne House. (Image Credit: Michael Garlick)

Singh’s lead role in designing the Durbar Room is sometimes obscured in accounts today. But he was hailed in the British press and by the royal family for his work. Victoria even commissioned a portrait of him by her court artist, Rudolf Swoboda.

While some may see the Durbar Room as Bhai Ram Singh’s greatest feat, he left a tremendous legacy in the city of Lahore, designing the main building of its prestigious Aitchison College, Lady Aitchison Hospital, and the Lahore Museum. He was a Punjabi Sikh who, in the colonial era, left his mark on his native Punjab and far beyond.

Durbar Room 360° Video

The Osborne House is located on the Isle of Wight. Accessible by ferry, it is open to visitors seven days a week from 10am to 5pm. Admission starts at £19.00 for adults and £11.40 for children.

Mogulesque is a digital magazine celebrating the aesthetics, cultures, ideas, tastes, and sounds of the East in their classical, modern, and cosmopolitan forms.

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