Shillong was selected as the capital of the Provincial Government in the year 1874 when Assam was carved out from Bengal as Chief Commissionership. Before that, it had already been the headquarters of the then Khasi and Jaintia Hills district for some years. Lieutenant Colonel Richard H. Keatinge, was the first Chief Commissioner of Assam. The private house of the Deputy Commissioner became the Chief Commissioner’s Residency in Shillong and came to be known as the Government House. It was a stone building like most of the other houses in Shillong and had a corrugated iron roof.
The massive earthquake of June 1897 struck Shillong while preparations were on for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The official report states that the shock lasted for not less than 3 minutes, though the period of extreme intensity was no more than 30 seconds. However, the destruction caused within that short span was of immense proportions. The Government House, and virtually every other masonry building in Shillong was laid flat instantly. Sir Henry Cotton was the Chief Commissioner at that time. He had an extremely narrow escape from death as he and Lady Cotton were in the porch just boarding the open single horse carriage for their evening drive as the House collapsed. The pony bolted, with them, towards the main gate, while the house fell in a heap behind them.
The work on reconstruction of a new Government House was started in right earnest. Mr Arundell, MSA, Executive Engineer, Assam Bengal Railway drew up the sketch plan for the new House in May, 1898. Instead of conventional stone masonry, the new building was of the ‘earthquake-proof’ pattern, using timber frames, with ‘ekra’ covered with plaster in between, while the roof was made of teak shingles, an improvement over the old iron corrugated sheets. The new Government House was finally completed, with many modifications as suggested by the new Chief Commissioner Sir J.B. Fuller, sometime in October, 1903.
The building, pretty rather than grand and warm rather than imposing, has served numerous Chief Commissioners, Lieutenant Governors and Governors. After Independence, profiles of both the Governor as well as the Government House underwent significant changes. The area of the compound is approximately 30.67 acres consisting of lawn and garden as well as kitchen garden.
The Government House was renamed as “Raj Bhavan” on December 6, 1951. During the course of its existence of over 100 years, the Raj Bhavan had been witness to many momentous events that have left deep imprints on the course of history of this region. After Independence, Shillong was the capital of composite Assam until the reorganisation of North Eastern States was undertaken in the early seventies of the twentieth century. Even after the reorganisation, the Shillong Raj Bhavan had the distinction of being the seat of the common Governor until arrangements were made to have separate Governors for the new States.
Since the creation of Meghalaya as a separate State, the Raj Bhavan has been witness to relatively more sedate times. Though there have been many important political developments, and many a precedent – mostly healthy- were set in politics and public life, these happened in the quiet environs of the Raj Bhavan precincts without too much tumult and tension. This is also, in no small measure, a reflection on the civilized traditions of Meghalaya; a society that places great emphasis on values such as civility, moderation, fair play, equity, justice and generosity. The Raj Bhavan building which completed 117 years in October 2020 is one of the few heritage buildings left in the State now.