New Delhi in One Day

Photo by Patrick Horton

Examine buildings built by the British as the visible stamp of their Imperial power in Delhi

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New Delhi is the centre of Indian administrative and political power. It contains Rashtrapati Bhavan, which is the president’s palace, the Secretariat and the Sansad Bhavan (the Parliament). The latter two buildings cannot be entered without difficult-to-get special permission but they’re worth looking at from the outside. The president’s palace is open to visitors. In 1911 India’s British rulers decided to move the nation’s capital to Delhi. The original, Calcutta, was in an area of the country prone to nationalist upheaval. Moving to Delhi established a centre of government designed to be the stamp of imperial power. Time was running out when it was finished in 1931,  British rule had just 16 years left.

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The President’s Palace

The main buildings are atop the low Raisina Hill with the President’s Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan) at one end. This immense building, bigger than the Palace of Versailles, was built as the Viceroy’s Palace. The viceroy represented the British Emperor/Empress of India and ruled in his or her name. Accordingly the palace was designed to assert the dominance of British rule. Completed in 1929 it cost £1.25 million pounds or US$2.5 million to build. There are 340 rooms including 50 bedrooms and the first occupant, Lord Irwin, regularly lost his way when walking around.

Sir Edward Lutyens, the main architect of New Delhi, designed the building with both Mughal and Western architectural styles. The large copper-clad dome is the most obvious Indian feature, a style of architecture used extensively in New Delhi and known as Indo-Saracenic.The palace is not open to the public. A set of intricately wrought iron railings keeps you out, copied from monumental railings in London. Set into them is a plaque with the seal of India, a set of three lion heads that sat with a fourth atop an Ashokan column now in an archaeological museum at Sarnath.

Behind the railings stands the 44m-high Jaipur Column,  a gift to the viceroy from the Maharaja of Jaipur. On top are a bronze lotus flower and a glass Star of India that bears the following inscription: ‘In thought faith; in word wisdom; in deed courage; in life service. So may India be great’.

Behind the palace are the ornamental gardens that are open to the public during a few weeks in February and March. In the viceroy’s time there were over 400 gardeners, 50 of whom were boys whose only job was to chase the birds away. Flanking the descending hill is the Secretariat divided into a North Block and a South Block. These two massive rows of pink and yellow sandstone buildings house the administration. Architecturally they are mirror images but the tall porchway entrance to the North Block carries the engraved message: ‘Liberty will not descend to a people: a people must raise themselves to liberty’. How one interprets this oblique message is a matter of opinion but when liberty, or independence, was given in 1947, India embraced it wholeheartedly. Apart from Indira Gandhi’s ‘emergency’ 1975-77, India has remained a vibrant democracy, indeed the largest in the world.

Parliament and India Gate

Below the hill to the north side is the Indian Parliament (Sansad Bhavan). For security reasons you can only gaze from afar. Descending from the President’s Palace and dividing the Secretariat is the wide Rajpath (road). This extends east for a distance and in doing so passes beneath a tall imposing arch. Originally named the All India War Memorial, India Gate is the ceremonial heart of India.

The 45-metre-high archway was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens as a war memorial to commemorate those who died fighting for the British in World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919. Since independence the names of those who have died in India’s wars with Pakistan have been added. Beneath the arch is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a black marble cenotaph marked with an inverted rifle topped with a soldier’s helmet. An eternal flame the ‘Amar Jawan Jyoti‘ burns alongside.

The lawns around India Gate and along Rajpath (Kingsway in British times) are popular on warm evenings for locals who come here to stroll or picnic on the grass. On hand are sellers of fizzy drinks, ice creams, Indian snacks and potato crisps, while hawkers sell toys and knick-knacks.

Behind the Gate is an empty chattri or canopy that until 1968 housed a tall statue of George V, the last (British) emperor of India. This statue can now be found abandoned and forlorn in a statue park near the site of the 1911 Coronation Durbar, north of Delhi. Some suggested that a statue of Mahatma Gandhi should replace George V. Others believe it is best left empty to represent the departure of the British and freedom.

Art of the Imperial

After all that walking, consider refreshments at the Imperial Hotel in Janpath. As much an art gallery and museum as a hotel, the Imperial has been a New Delhi landmark since 1936. Lady Willingdon, wife of the Viceroy and a well-travelled woman, decided that Delhi needed a first class hotel. She persuaded building contractor Sardar Bahadur Ranjit Singh to erect a luxury hotel in Art Deco style, which she named.

The Imperial became the meeting place for the Indian aristocracy and the leaders of the independence movement. Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and others hammered out the Indian constitution in the ballroom while the Maharajahs took tea on the terrace outside. On other occasions informal meetings would include the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, who had been given the task of organising India’s independence.

Every corridor is hung with the paintings, engravings, etchings and sketches that the hotel owners have collected over the years. They give a fascinating insight into the historical landscapes, monuments, cultures and traditions of India. Amateur artists, either those serving in India or their family members created many of them.

The most famous of these artists were the Daniells, uncle and nephew, who painted extensively throughout India in the late 1700s. The Daniells Tavern in the hotel is named for them. Down on the ground floor, the entrance to the 1911 dining room has photographs of the coronation durbars (celebrations for the crowning of the emperor) while its bar has a collection of medals won by Indians, including a Victoria Cross.


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