New Delhi By-Passes One Century of British Rule

India hasn’t known quite how to mark the first centenary this week of the founding of its modern capital city, Delhi, by Britain’s King George V in 1911. Though many of the country’s elite continue to polish their English accents, and relish their links with long-dethroned maharajas and lesser royal families, it is not quite politically correct to celebrate things done by former colonial masters.

So, after much debate (while British High Commission diplomats kept their heads well below the parapet), it was eventually decided earlier this year to celebrate the historical “re-emergence” 100 years ago of Delhi as the capital – a sly dig at the British who had earlier moved the capital from Delhi to Calcutta in the late 18th century.

King George’s statue, and a ceremonial column with a plaque that he unveiled in 1911 to mark his coronation a few months earlier, will be the notable features along with four other remaining British statues.

There have been no celebrations at Coronation Park this week…. In December 1911, King George visited the country with his wife, Queen Mary, to mark his coronation a few months earlier. Addressing some 100,000 spectators of varying grandeur, he announced the new capital that was eventually built in the 1920s and 1930s some 15km south in what is now New Delhi.

Conservators have sometimes tried to renovate the Coronation Park site. An attempt in 2007 was stopped because it was the 150th anniversary of what the British called the Indian Mutiny but is now seen as the First War of Independence, when the British demolished significant parts of Shahjahanabad near the Red Fort. Eventually, Delhi authorities agreed that the park should be renovated and expanded, and that is what is now happening with the main part due for completion next August.

The Delhi of today is a city of immigrants. Hindus and Sikhs who fled from Pakistan after independence in 1947 and turned it into a major business centre as well as a seat of government. Now it is home of millions who throng here for work, especially from the poorer states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as well as multi-national companies and others who have helped build the chaotic under-resourced satellite city of Gurgaon and the neater satellite of Noida.

It is a city of energy, vibrancy, resourcefulness and skills – all more evident in old Delhi than the wide and elegant but rather anti-social avenues of the 20th century city. And it has a rapidly growing and efficient metro railway. But there is also worsening pollution, corruption, illegally dangerous buildings, poverty and the brash selfishness of the newly rich. Last year’s Commonwealth Games were a low point on many counts – prompting politicians and others to call this week for a renewal of the city’s values and pride.

But, though often condemned by its residents, with the best-off usually saying they would prefer to live somewhere else, it is a place that people always come to with hopes and dreams. That has probably applied to all the eight (some historians say nine) cities that have been built here since it became the first capital of Muslim India in 1193 (plus an earlier one dating back to 5000 BC).

Soon, King George V will be able to survey this vast mosaic from his restored lofty perch in Coronation Park saved from the rubbish heap by conservationists’ sense of the city’s history.

Source: Riding the Elephant, June 12


2 responses to “New Delhi By-Passes One Century of British Rule

  1. Michael Gundy

    May I recommend City of Djinns (1994) a travelogue by William Dalrymple about the historical capital of India, Delhi. It is his second book, and culminated as a result of his six-year stay in New Delhi.

    City of Djinns was the first product of Dalrymple’s love affair with India, centring on Delhi, a city with ‘a bottomless seam of stories’. Shaped more like a novel than a travel book, he and his wife encounter a teeming cast of characters: his Sikh landlady, taxi drivers, customs officials, and British survivors of the Raj, as well as whirling dervishes and eunuch dancers (‘a strange mix of piety and bawdiness’). Dalrymple describes ancient ruins and the experience of living in the modern city: he goes in search of the history behind the epic stories of the Mahabharata. Still more seriously, he finds evidence of the city’s violent past and present day – the 1857 mutiny against British rule (anticipating The Last Mughal); the Partition massacres in 1947; and the riots after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.

  2. Thank you, Michael, for reminding us of Dalrymple. A year or so ago I read a column of his in the Observer linking the war in Afghanistan to the Kashmir dispute and to India v. Pakistan in general. It made a lot of sense.