Delhi: Short-lived Capital of the Raj
At the Coronation Durbar of 1911 George V announced that the capital of British India was to be transferred from Calcutta to Delhi. But the move to the new model city was a troubled one, as Rosie Llewellyn-Jones explains.
Today Coronation Park lies in a desolate area north of old Delhi, just off a major motorway. It has reverted to scrubland, where cows graze and makeshift cricket is played by local lads. At its centre a square of chipped steps leads up to an obelisk, which looks at first glimpse like a war memorial. Only a red sandstone plaque at the scruffy entrance gate to the park hints at the former glory of this site, which witnessed a profound and final change in the governance of India by Britain.
The wording, in Hindi and English, reads: ‘This memorial was erected to commemorate the Coronation Durbar of King George V and Queen Mary held in December 1911. On the occasion the King announced the transfer of the Capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi.’ The plaque is recently installed but its cement base is already crumbling, rather like the foundations of British rule in India a hundred years ago. Although the durbar, held in the purpose-built Coronation Park, seemed to epitomise the very summit of British rule in the Indian sub-continent there were subtle indications, no more than the slight earth tremors that still shake Delhi today, that all was not well. The bold announcement that the capital was to move took 20 years to implement because of delays caused by the First World War. And then the British enjoyed their new capital for just 16 years before independence swept them away.
The ostensible purpose of the durbar (which means an appearance at the court of a ruler) was to affirm Britain’s George V (r. 1910-36) as the ‘king-emperor’ of India and heir to the great Mughal emperors of the past. The king’s grandmother, Victoria (r. 1837-1901), had been appointed queen-empress of India in 1877, 19 years after the British government abolished the old East India Company and established direct rule over almost half the country. The queen’s nomination, suggested by Benjamin Disraeli, her prime minister, was to establish not only a recognisable figurehead for the great subcontinent, with its tradition of powerful women, but to show its people that the British Raj was now the legitimate successor to the Mughals. The durbar was both a deliberate acknowledgement of Mughal custom, where India’s princes would pay homage at the Delhi court, and an affirmation of the benefits that benign British rule offered in return for their unwav-ering loyalty. (No one mentioned the Indian Mutiny that had taken place half a century before and had led indirectly to a British emperor in India.) But, quite apart from providing a glorious pageant to flatter the princes and promote British royalty, the 1911 durbar was an attempt to undo the damage that had been caused by the ill-judged partition of Bengal six years earlier.
The vast province of Bengal lay at the easternmost part of India. The size of France, it was divided geographically and culturally into two distinct areas. West Bengal included Calcutta, the seat of British rule since 1833, when the East India Company’s governor-general was given authority over the governors of Bombay and Madras. East Bengal, with its isolated tribal peoples and difficult communications, was seen as a poor relation. British officials argued that partitioning the province would make it easier to administer and that more focused resources could be allocated to the eastern districts. There was plainly a world of difference between the sophisticated urban Bengalis of Calcutta and the eastern tribes, including the Nagas who had only recently abandoned their practice of head-hunting. There was a religious divide, too, with a concentration of Hindus to the west and Muslim and Christian converts in the east. During Lord Curzon’s period in office as viceroy (1899-1905) agitation for a greater role in governing their own country came mainly, but not exclusively, from Bengali Hindus, encouraged by the demands of the increasingly radical Congress Party.
Curzon made no secret of his dislike of the nascent political party that would, within half a century, shake off British rule. Writing in February 1905 to the secretary of state, St John Brodrick, Curzon declaimed:
Calcutta is the centre from which the Congress Party is manipulated throughout the whole of Bengal and indeed the whole of India. Its best wire-pullers and its most frothy orators all reside here. The perfection of their machinery, and the tyranny which it enables them to exercise are truly remarkable.
If Curzon believed that by partitioning Bengal he would halve the power of the agitators he could not have been more wrong. It was a drastic mistake in Britain’s policy of divide and rule because it united the people of Bengal as never before. Partition, which took effect in October 1905, transformed Bengali politics, leading to terrorist attacks, to the Swadeshi movement which advocated the boycott of non-Indian goods and to a new-found awareness of the power of collective opposition. Two assassination attempts were made on the life of Sir Andrew Fraser, lieutenant-governor of West Bengal and an advocate of partition. Something had to be done.
Both pragmatic and practical reasons lay behind the decision to transfer the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, to rescind the partition of Bengal and to announce a new governorship for the unhappy province. The king’s announcement, made on December 12th, 1911, in the middle of ten days of glorious pageantry, came as a complete surprise to the 60,000 spectators gathered around the royal pavilion. It was the best-kept state secret in the history of Imperial rule in India, in a country where to keep anything secret is almost impossible. The official programme had contained no indication of what was to come, although the decision had been made almost six months before at the India Office in Whitehall.
Preparations for the durbar itself had begun a year earlier, when the measurements of the proposed amphitheatre in Coronation Park had been marked out with flags in Windsor Great Park. This enabled the planners to study the logistics of moving large numbers of eminent people to and from the royal pavilion at its centre. It was the newly-crowned king’s idea to revisit India, where he and his wife had spent a pleasant winter season in 1905-6 as Prince and Princess of Wales. There had been two previous British durbars, the first in 1877 to proclaim Queen Victoria as Empress of India and the second in 1903 to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII. But the 1911 durbar was the only one at which British royalty was actually present and the amount of work involved, not to mention the expense of ten days of celebration, was enormous. The cost of the viceroy’s camp alone, housing some 60 people, was over £30,000, equivalent to more than £2 million today.
The campsite for the durbar covered 25 square miles, housing a ‘great canvas city’, which only a year earlier had been a barren waste. Within the site were three distinct tented enclaves, the royal camp, the commander-in-chief’s camp and the viceroy’s or the government of India camp. Three huge reception tents, innovatively lit with electric lights, hosted events for Indian notables. During an evening investiture, when 4,000 people were gathered, a distant tent caught fire and, although it was quickly extinguished, the smell of burning penetrated the largest tent. The ceremony was not interrupted, although the Duchess of Devonshire got up and had to be told to sit down again.
A full programme of events began on December 7th when the king met India’s ‘ruling chiefs’, the collective name for assorted nizams, rajas, maharajas, princes and begams, led by the foremost – and richest – ruler, the Nizam of Hyderabad. This was followed by state dinners, grand receptions, polo and football matches and a torchlight tattoo on the polo ground. The queen met the wives of the rulers and was presented with a magnificent tiara by the Maharani of Patiala. Although the main purpose of the durbar was to show the new king to his Indian subjects and for the ruling chiefs to pay homage to the king-emperor, British subjects were not forgotten either. New colours were presented to British battalions and veteran soldiers were paraded. A memorial stone was laid to the king’s father, Edward VII, where a bronze equestrian statue would later be erected between the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, and the Red Fort.
The climax of the durbar came on December 12th. The royal couple, wearing their coronation robes, arrived at the amphitheatre at noon to a 101-gun salute. Both took their seats in a tented pavilion surrounded by attendants holding the symbolic trappings of Indian royalty, the mace, the fly-whisk and the fan. The viceroy, Lord Hardinge, was the first to kiss the king’s hand, followed by his executive council, before the ruling chiefs stepped up to the pavilion. They were followed by the chief justice, High Court judges, the governors and lieutenant-governors and the chief commissioners. The protocol of who went first was worked out in minute detail, but it was remarked that there were no Bengali chiefs among the glittering throng. On the following day half a million people gathered in front of the Red Fort to greet the royal couple, who stood where the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, had shown himself to his subjects only half a century earlier. The message could not have been clearer.
On December 15th the royal couple travelled by car from their camp to that of the government of India’s, where the ‘first stone of New Delhi’ was laid. Preparations for the ceremony had to be kept quiet because it would have given away the secret of the move to make any arrangements that could have been spotted by sharp-eyed workmen. The Hon. John Fortescue, librarian and archivist at Windsor Castle, who had accompanied the king and queen to the site, commented on the necessary but unfortunate lack of ceremony for so momentous an event. A contingent of Indian police was inspected before the couple returned to their camp. It is usually thought that Delhi’s foundation stone was laid in Coronation Park itself, but this is not so. It lay to the north of the huge campsite, which itself was some distance from Coronation Park. The gesture of laying the stone was more symbolic than actual and, when the site for New Delhi was finally settled on, it was quietly removed at night and taken south by one of the contractors, Sobha Singh. It is said that he carried it away on the back of his bicycle but common sense tells us it would have been on the back of a two-wheeled flat trolley. However it arrived, the stone now rests in South Block, the administrative headquarters of the Indian ministry of defence.
Calcutta did not cede its place without a fight, egged on by Britons who saw its abandonment as a surrender to ‘unprincipled agitation’ and a betrayal of trust. Lord Curzon, who had stepped down as viceroy in 1905 after a quarrel with the commander-in-chief, Lord Kitchener, surprisingly championed Calcutta’s cause. It was the case of a man who loved Calcutta but clearly disliked its citizens. He would have felt particularly at home in Government House because it was modelled on Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, the seat of the Curzon family. While viceroy he had conceived the idea of a grand memorial to the late Queen Victoria, something British to rival the Taj Mahal, and it must have been galling that the erection of the Victoria Memorial Hall only began the year after his abrupt departure. More important than a viceroy’s hurt feelings, though, were the inevitable economic losses. The Bengal Chamber of Commerce protested vigorously against relegation to provincial status and even two years after the announcement of the capital’s transfer Bengalis were still sniping at the cost of its relocation. In truth Calcutta never entirely recovered from its demotion, although it is today a much more interesting city than New Delhi.
So anxious was Lord Hardinge to leave Calcutta that a temporary ‘Viceregal Lodge’ was completed within the year in north Delhi on the site of an old circuit house, or tourist lodge. It could not, of course, match the splendour of his former accommodation. His staff mourned the loss of Calcutta’s Tollygunge country club, with its beautiful golf links, and the charm of the government’s country retreat at Barrackpore on the dreamy banks of the River Hooghly. But since the lodge was to be merely an interim dwelling for a few years while the real Government House was being built this did not seem to matter. The important thing was that Hardinge was able to celebrate Christmas 1912 in the new lodge and that its ballroom was ready in time for the festive dances. The spot chosen and the probable reason for its name was that it stood near an old hunting lodge built shortly after the East India Company’s capture of Delhi in 1803. There was also a pleasing symmetry of name with Viceregal Lodge in Simla, the summer capital of the Raj. The increasing use of electricity meant that ceiling fans could be introduced in place of the old, manually operated punkahs.
In order to function properly as the new administrative headquarters of the government of India, a secretariat building was quickly added, designed by the British architect Ernest Montague Thomas. The last necessary component, the headquarters of the commander-in-chief, followed shortly afterwards. From these three buildings, representing the political, the administrative and the military, India was governed for the next 20 years, until New Delhi was ready. It is a pity that the three are usually overlooked in histories of Delhi. While they are only open to the public by appointment, all are well-designed structures with nothing temporary about their appearance. Viceregal Lodge became the registry for Delhi University, which has lovingly restored the building and opened a small permanent exhibition. The old secretariat today houses the Delhi State Assembly and the commander-in-chief’s residence is a college.
As for New Delhi, a committee consisting of two architects, Edwin Lutyens and George Swinton, and the civil engineer John Alexander Brodie had been charged with finding a permanent site for the Imperial capital. Work began immediately, with Lutyens setting up his headquarters in Maidens Hotel, which had been built to accommodate the Duke of Connaught and other luminaries attending the earlier durbar in 1903. From his suite on the first floor of the hotel, Lutyens would go out each day, either by car, or on elephant back, depending on the terrain, to survey suitable sites for the capital. There were a number of eclectic considerations to be borne in mind. Certain drawbacks, like the flooding of the plains east of the old Mughal Red Fort across the Yamuna river, ruled this area out. A site to the west of the river, on higher ground, would have effectively cut the new capital off from the old city, with the minarets of the Jama Masjid hidden from view.
The obvious site, high up on the ridge to the north west of Delhi and thus looking down on it, was vetoed on the grounds that ‘… it would have still further perpetrated and enhanced the memory of the events of the Mutiny, since all loyal Indians regard the episode with shame while disloyal Indians regard it as a defeat’. The British were not insensitive to past events in their successful struggle for dominance in the subcontinent. The Mutiny had seen Delhi besieged by the British, stationed on the ridge and firing down into the walled city, before its recapture with much bloodshed. In the end the village of Raisina, far to the south of the old city, was chosen. This would allow the important buildings of Delhi, such as the Jama Masjid, to be visible from the new capital, while the isolated Mughal tombs to the south would be accessible. Eighteenth-century drawings of the selected site show a barren landscape, dotted with the odd picturesque tomb or ruined pavilion.
Hampered by financial constraints during the First World War and bitter arguments between Lutyens and his fellow architect Herbert Baker, the huge project plodded on with elephantine slowness. Perhaps no one apart from the rhesus monkeys that frolic around South Block was ever going to be completely satisfied with it. When Lutyens found that the vast Viceroy’s House (now the Presidential Palace) would not be wholly visible from ground level because of a steeper gradient than anticipated, he famously quipped that he ‘had met his Bakerloo’.
But New Delhi is considerably more than its grandiose government buildings. Connaught Circle, the central shopping arcade, was deliberately based on Nash’s Regent Street in London and works well. Its colonnaded style has been successfully copied in a new arcade on Baba Kharak Singh Road. ‘Lutyens’ bungalows’ are now within a heritage zone and are much prized by their ministerial tenants, who can prove extraordinarily difficult to dislodge when their term of office is over. One of the most successful individual buildings of the capital is the garrison church of St Martin’s, designed by Arthur Shoosmith, who worked with Lutyens, interpreting his drawings for the contractors. The church makes no concessions to vernacular architecture but is a monumental, sculptural block of masonry with no ornamentation and few openings. The 15,000 trees that line New Delhi’s endless roads were planted by Sydney Percy-Lancaster, who established the extensive Sundarbagh Nursery around an old Mughal tomb so that the city would always have a reservoir of plants and trees. But in spite of these delights New Delhi is not a walkable or even an accessible city. Its long vistas were designed for government officials in cars, or princes in carriages, not for pedestrians. The service lanes to the rear of the grand buildings are equivalent to the servants’ back staircase, where the rich had no need to go.
The inauguration of the new capital in February 1931 did not mean that it was complete. Some planned buildings have still not been erected. It also took time for the name ‘New Delhi’ to be accepted and until the 1950s people living in the old city would talk about taking a drive to Raisina. Khan Market, now a favourite shopping centre, consisted at first of only three or four stalls and a convent school for primary children had to be held in a tent until a permanent building was erected. Suburbs like today’s hi-tech Gurgaon and the expensive Mehrauli district were within living memory a hunter’s paradise where blue deer, wild boar, ducks and geese proliferated, which reflects the enormous growth in population, from about one million in 1947 to 13 million today.
Dotted around New Delhi were statues of British royalty and heroes of the empire. Not surprisingly numerous figures of Queen Victoria had been erected, including a seated bronze portrait statue, that once stood outside the Town Hall but now sits glumly in the inner courtyard of the College of Art. A marble figure of George V stood originally at Viceregal Lodge in old Delhi. It was commissioned from the sculptor Bertram Mackennal and paid for by the Maharaja of Gwalior, one of the ruling chiefs who had kissed the king’s hand in December 1911. But the most striking statue of the king, by Charles Sargent Jagger, stood under a giant canopy in the Princes’ Park, along the main vista and adjacent to India Gate, the First World War memorial. The marble George is 18 feet tall, on a pedestal of 46 feet. After Independence in 1947 this statue was removed along with four others to Coronation Park, where it languishes today in a fenced-off enclosure.
An ambitious plan to revitalise the park has been drawn up by the Indian Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to commemorate the centenary of New Delhi’s foundation. The Delhi Development Authority has agreed to fund the work and the deadline for completion is December 12th, 2011. If all goes well the giant statue will stand in the King George V Garden, facing the steps leading up to the commemorative obelisk that marks the exact spot where the royal pavilion stood. Four other British-era statues will stand at axis points, for Indians have never been vindictive towards the tangible remains of British rule. A 1947 Plaza will commemorate independence and a simple, formal layout will mark the 1911 Gardens. The site will be planted with trees and shrubs, which will develop in time into a forest park and wetland. It will be unrecognisable as the site of the durbar. But it will be an acknowledgement and gentle tribute to the events that took place here a century ago.
Rosie Llewellyn-Jones is a historian and Honorary Secretary of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia.
- John Fortescue, Narrative of a Visit of their Majesties King George and Queen Mary and of the Coronation Durbar held at Delhi 12 December 1911 (Macmillan, 1912)
- Andreas Volwahsen, Imperial Delhi (Prestel, 2002)
- Malvika Singh and Rudrangshu Mukherjee, New Delhi: Making of a Capital (Roli Books, 2009)
- Maerlin Fulcher, ‘Lutyens New Delhi Could Be Declared World Heritage Site’, Architects Journal, August 3rd, 2009
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