Till the early years of the 20th century, Connaught Place (or where it stands) was one large patch of wilderness. Or rather, a patchwork of villages surrounded by Delhi’s native trees — babool, ronjh, ker, sangri, hingot, meswak, khajoor, dhaak, palaash, peepal, banyan, gular and amaltas. Only on Tuesdays would residents of the royal city, Shahjahanabad, venture out this far to visit the Hanuman temple. Other than devotees, hunters came this way, seeking partridges and quail in the forested patches which, according to some accounts, also had jackals and wild boar.
In 1912, a process of acquisition of several villages, including Jaisinghpura and Raja ka Bazar, began — all in the service of the construction of a new imperial capital. The rulers of Jaipur, who owned the land, declared they were willing to part with their properties but it took more than a decade (1925) for the paperwork to be wound up.
The largest plot of land was Jaisinghpura, so called because the land was given as a grant to Sawai Jaisingh (1688-1743) by Mohammad Shah (ruled 1702-1748). Sawai Jai Singh built Jantar Mantar and the Hanuman Temple on this land, though popular legend places the construction in the time of the Pandavas, with Raja Jai Singh (1611-1667) and Sawai Jai Singh being credited only for carrying out repairs. The peasants and retainers, who had settled on these properties, were relocated in Karol Bagh and Pahar Ganj.
Jantar Mantar was in utter ruins by mid-1800s, or perhaps even earlier. There is a striking Company period painting of the ruins. It shows the structure in the paling light of a setting sun. The photograph was taken perhaps in 1873, by Charles Shepherd of the famous ‘Bourne and Shepherd’ duo.
The area around the Raisina Hill was finalised for locating the Viceregal Lodge, the Secretariat and the Council House. The foundation stone of the Council House, now known as Parliament House, was laid in 1921 by Prince Arthur, the first Duke of Connaught.
The area to the northeast of this central hub, consisting of land belonging to Jaisinghpura and some other villages, was chosen for a high-end market and residential complex.
WH Nichols, the chief architect of the government of India, was chosen to design and oversee the construction. Delays in acquiring the land and constantly changing briefs, like a proposal to locate the railway station in the middle of the structure, dogged the project.
By 1917, Nichols decided to go back home and Robert Tor Russel, the chief architect of CPWD, was now given the responsibility of both design and construction.
A semicircular three-storied structure, called the Royal Crescent, in the city of Bath, was the inspiration for the market, just as the India Gate was inspired by the Arc de Triomphe at Champs Elysees; and the North and South Block buildings were inspired by buildings that Herbert Baker had already made in South Africa.
Construction of the market complex began in 1929 and was completed in 1933, two years after the formal inauguration of New Delhi. The two-story Georgian style building was conceived in the shape of two concentric circles, named Connaught Place and Connaught Circus, to memorialise the Duke of Connaught who happened to be the third son of Queen Victoria and the uncle of the then reigning Monarch King George VI.
The structure was, a few years ago, renamed Indira Chowk and Rajeev Chowk. Only the Metro has adapted the new nomenclature, with the New Delhi Traders’ Association actually passing a resolution to oppose the renaming and refusing to carry out the change in their stationery and signboards.
The Connaught Place of the 1950s and 1960s and even the 1970s, despite its aura of a fashionable and expensive market, catered to Delhi’s middle class and its young.
The New Delhi Stationery Mart opposite the Plaza was where your teachers sent you to get your dissertations and theses bound. The pavement outside United Coffee House was one of the best places to buy second-hand books cheap. Bibliophiles also flocked to the corner outside Regal Cinema and the Janpath pavement outside the Indian Oil building, where the affable and excessively polite Mirza Saheb from Hyderabad opened his small stall of second-hand magazines and books that has grown into the famous Midland Books.
The Indian Oil building was also known for De Paul’s Cold Coffee and Hot Dogs. Many romances began here and many lovers’ tiffs dissolved in its bittersweet and creamy cold coffee.
Before the emergence of the National School of Drama or the Mandi House, it was also a place of choice for writers and artists, actors and cartoonists, actors and lawyers — from MF Husain to J Swaminathan, Mulk Raj Anand to Nyaz Haider.
Some of the first businesses that moved from Kashmiri Gate to Connaught Place included ED Galgotia and Sons Booksellers, Snowhite Dry Cleaners and Keventers. The latter two continue to operate from Connaught Place.
It is said that the famous Spencer’s Pastries of Kashmiri Gate moved to CP and became Wenger’s Confectioners. Wenger’s prominently displayed a board declaring boldly, “Bread not sold here”. This prompted a local wag to spin a yarn that the owners were fugitives from the French Revolution and were descendants of Marie Antoinette of France.
The Indian-owned “Nirula’s Corner House” opened its doors in 1942, as a bar and restaurant serving continental and Indian food. Other well-known restaurants like United Coffee House, Kwality and Gaylord came up after 1947. The Milk Bar, opposite the Scindia House, which was to become Ambar restaurant later, was popular with the young because it was one of the first non-expensive restaurants to have a jukebox.
The first India Coffee House was set up at Connaught Place. This was perhaps the first successful co-operative venture in the country that came into being through the coming together of the Price Rise Resistance movement (PRRM) started by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and the Coffee Workers Co-Operative, initiated by AK Gopalan, the leader of the Communist Party in the Lok Sabha.
With the declaration of the Emergency, the Coffee House, with its exchange of suppressed news and exchange of information, became such a big threat to the political establishment that Sanjay Gandhi had the place razed to the ground in the dead of the night.
The Coffee House was born again on the terrace of the newly built Mohan Singh Place after Emergency. And 40 years later, it is once again a hub of creative activity, packed with students reading scripts, debating, arguing and rehearsing their new plays.
This is just a glimpse of the changes that Connaught Place has seen in 84 years. There is much more that has remained unsaid about what happened in 1947 and later in 1967, when gaurakshaks ran amok and there was loot and arson on Parliament Street and Connaught Place. Or what happened in 1984 when every shop owned by a Sikh was looted and burnt. There is much that has to be said about issues that deal with the loss of family-owned businesses and the high-octane presence of expensive chains that have changed the face and spirit of this iconic market. There is also the tale of shoddy and ill-conceived restoration, but that is another story altogether.
Hashmi is a Delhi-based historian.