Posted by: John Elliott | December 16, 2011

Delhi marks 100 years of ‘re-emergence’ and bypasses a British century

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.

Yesterday morning I drove to the north-eastern outskirts of the capital and found 200 or so labourers shifting earth and chipping stone walkways to turn that “re-emergence” into new ornamental gardens. They were working at Coronation Park, where statues of King George (above and below) and other dignitaries were dumped on brick plinths in the 1960s by a government that was unsure what to do with these embarrassing relics of a not-so-distant past – totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union and China (plus the US in Iraq) demolish such statues, but the world’s largest democracy was more self-consciously caring. (King George had previously stood under a canopy at India Gate on central Delhi’s grand Raj Path).

King George’s statue, and a ceremonial column with a plaque (below) 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. “How does it matter – it’s history,” says A.G.Krishna Menon, who heads the Delhi branch of INTACH, a conservation organisation that is running the work with Delhi authorities. “It doesn’t matter if it was the Moguls or the British. We are interested in conserving history and we can’t not do it just because it’s King George the Fifth”.

There have been no celebrations at Coronation Park this week, but events in the past few days have included receptions to launch a splendid book, Delhi – Red Fort to Raisina, published by Roli Books, and an associated exhibition. The book includes a wide range of photographs (see durbar below) of old Shahjahanabad, now known as old Delhi, mostly assembled by J.P.Losty of the British Library with essays by Salman Khurshid, a lawyer and writer who is currently India’s law minister, and others. There has also been an exhibition and music evening at the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and a grand maharajah’s dinner, appropriately in Delhi’s Imperial Hotel. More events are planned during the coning year.

The forsaken Coronation Park location was apt – not only was it largely hidden from view, but it was also the site of three imperial British durbars. The third of these huge celebrations of colonial pomp and power was the one in December 1911 when 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 15kms south in what is now New Delhi.

the 1877 Delhi durbar

While Delhi was growing into a conurbation of approaching 20m people, grass grew around the crumbling imperial monuments, encircled (as I discovered when I last went there a decade or so ago) by a wall and rusty gate with a padlock that a bored attendant would sometimes open to curious (usually British) visitors. Several statues vanished, leaving topless plinths that added to the desolate symbolism. Some of the statues went I am told to welcoming destinations in the UK, Ireland and Australia – Rufus Daniel Isaacs, the 1st Marquis of Reading and a Viceroy of India in the 1920s, now stands in the English town of Reading.

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 (right), 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 that 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 (below), saved from the rubbish heap by conservationists’ sense of the city’s history.


  1. hmm.. gud bt quite negative

  2. Delhi governance structure is deeply flawed, so like many capitals in developing countries with decentralized structures (Mexico City, Lima, Jakarata, Bangkok) it is a mess. Since now there are hundreds of decentralized systems that are producitive all the key officials need to do is to go out and figure out how to improve their own systems.
    You need to understand hwho is coming to Delhi. Most of the migrants are from UP and Bihar. Rural failure is leading more farmers to leave the farms;but, first they go to places within own states (ex. Tamil Nadu).
    http://articles.timesofindia. india/30481060_1_migrants- upper-castes-urban-population
    Flow of migrants highest to Delhi, not Maharashtra
    The problem here is that Delhi is victim of the government lack of an urban policy.
    A case of rise and sprawl

    Click to access Canton_Megacities-2.pdf

    The extreme future of megacities

  3. Below are some of the comments made on The Independent (UK) newspaper’s website where my blog also appears

    John Smith
    Britain was nothing but a killing machine in India. It’s time to stop the lies and remove the veneer of “respectability” that Brits and “upper class” Indians both perpetuate.

    Rubbish. The British founded the modern state in India. Law, education, science and medicine; all the result of the British presence.

    John Smith
    Britain actually prevented India from becoming a modern state. It built them no workable sanitation system to speak of, meaning that 2/3 of Indians do not have and have never had clean drinking water. I guess we should cut Britain some slack; after all they only ran India for what, 250 years? Perhaps that’s not enough time to dig some wells and build reservoirs. All that cricket must be played after all. What India always needed was American-style capitalism, which is what it’s getting now. Yankee capitalism is helping reverse centuries of British thuggery, neglect and class warfare.

    Ian Watson
    A tiny snippet of a very interesting nation with a history as equal to any European nation.

    I am a bit of a Indiaophile, the inset picture is of my Indian built Vespa and have long expressed to go visit the nation as I have always enjoyed listening to the stories and tales from the Indian’s.

    Yet like it or not, India was shaped by Britain, the Indian mutiny was a turning point for the British empire as well, shocking the sitting Monarch so much that she used every ounce of pressure she could find to bring the perpetrators of the appalling reprisals to justice.

    The mutiny however was a classic case of how false flag and chinese whispers can cause devastating effects on an occupying power, whether the rumours passed to the sepoys that the cartridges for their guns had beef and pork grease in them came from France, Spain or Muslim instigators no one will ever know, by the time the British responded by waxing the cartridges in a vegatable based oil, the damage had been done and the uprising was ghastly in what the Indians did to the British.

    And the reprisal was horrific, one account of where British soldiers forced Indian men to lick the blood clean off the walls and floors of charnel houses the Indians used to kill British people and then were tied to cannon and using canister shots were literally blown to bits, tales of crucifixion, torture, many men were put to death by slow and brutal methods and it was that which shocked Victoria as much as what the Indians did to British women and children of which 10,000 or more died.

    Yet the mutiny was an awakening for both nations, the British saw in a new and respectful light that the Indians were not mere slaves and had to be treated with more tolerance. It moved Britain to adopt new policies and accept recognition of Indian religion and practices.

    And it always amazes me in this modern day and age on how racist British can be to people of that region yet when war was declared, the Indians volunteered and fought bravely and many an Indian regiment earned honours to their colours, surprisingly the Germans in WWII viewed some Indian regiments with the same caution as they did the Scots regiments or the Gurkhas in fighting tenacity.

    Of course this changed with Gandhi but whilst he was a superb leader of an independence movement, he made an awful politician and due to his and others completely abysmal organisation of the partition of India, many people suffered and when India asked for help, Britain turned them down.

    The title states ‘re-emergence’ correctly but the first paragraph mentions ‘founding’. Therein lies the problem that the likes of John Elliott can’t quite see. The British did not found Delhi. The Lutyen bungalows and the Viceroy’s house was only a small mark in the city’s thousand year history.

    There are 7 cities if not more under the fabric of Delhi. Shahjahanabad, the city of Chadki Chowk and the beautiful havelis are long behind us. That city was pillaged by conquerers throughout the centuries. After Nadir Shah and then Abdali robbed it of its final glory it was left to the British to dispose of Bahadur Shah Jafar, the last Moghul emperor in 1857. The British posted him off to Rangoon in a ox cart. My father’s maternal great grand father was the protocol office working for the East India company who escorted the octogenarian emperor to the boats that finally took him to Burma.

    Yet, the crumbling havelis lived on and so did the Great Mosque and the original Delhiwalas. When India became independent, it merely reclaimed what had always been its spiritual capital.

  4. Facinating stuff.

    I’ve always thought that part of growing up involves being self confident in one’s past. As India continues to rack up success after success as a high tech democracy it makes sense that it would take a greater interest in all of its history.

  5. I am so glad that the work on Coronation Park (CP?) is now going ahead. Following several discussion after the refurbishment of Nicholson Cemetery by the British Business Group and then G4S, I knew the redoutable O P Jain was developing plans and hoping to have the park ready for the Commonwealth Games…….
    There was one small “British” event to mark the centenary: a Cricket Match between a local British expat team and a team of High Commission veterans (the latter won a nail-biter by one run and so won the Moveablility Delhi Durbar Cup). At a Delhi Durbar Ball held at the Imperial (where else?) that evening, Kapil Dev handed out the prizes, including the Nawab of Pataudi Award (with kind permission of Sharmila Tagore) as “Tiger” himslef was a High Commission veteran.
    The organisers (sadly) decided against publicising the event given the sensitivities to which you allude. Maybe next year…….

  6. Thanks for the reminder – haven’t been there in ages.
    “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” too too true!

  7. Thanks Sir,You have a better understanding of Indian values than many Indians. Being good is good .Being too good is weakness which we Indian have. It offers ample chance to trample us and we always find ourselves pushed to the wall

  8. its sad, John, ’cause i always took all my guests to the park to see the statues. there were a lot of pedestals with nothing on them and in a small area, the 5 statues.
    i would love to see what this looks like in the monsoon- it is usually under 3 feet of water- the very reason they moved the capital to the top of the ridge.

  9. Nice Post!!!Good info
    Pls visit and make comments

  10. Thanks, John. A hugely enjoyable, informative, read.

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