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When a maharaja gifted the Jaipur Column to the new British capital

Once a testimony to imperial British invincibility and the transfer of capital, the Jaipur Column at the Rashtrapati Bhavan stands witness to a dynamic republic.

New Delhi |
Updated: August 8, 2021 9:43:46 am
The Jaipur Column is the centre of attraction at the expansive forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Written by Sunil Trivedi

As you drive on Rajpath, up Raisina Hill towards the Rashtrapati Bhavan, a tall column in the skyline comes into view. The pillar, known as the Jaipur Column, was intended to serve as a testimony to the invincibility of the British Raj. Perhaps, those who built the Viceroy House did not envisage the possibility of an end to British imperialism. The Jaipur Column along with four other columns in the adjoining North and South Blocks tell an interesting story of how the twists and turns of history are not hostage to the rulers’ perception of the future.

The Jaipur Column is the centre of attraction at the expansive forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Motorcades of the President of India and visiting heads of states and governments pass by the pillar, which also marks the beginning and culmination of the processional path from and to the Bhavan.

Pillars, columns and obelisks have, of course, been built since ancient times to commemorate victory and dominion. Their significance continued in the colonial empires, too. The British built a 152-ft pillar in their first capital of India, Calcutta, in the early 19th century to mark their victory over the Marathas and the Gorkhas. The Ochterlony Monument, named after David Ochterlony who led their forces, has been renamed Shaheed Minar. Nearly a century after erecting that pillar, the British built another column in their new capital, Delhi. Madho Singh II, the Maharaja of Jaipur, donated a princely sum of 14,000 pounds for its construction.

The architect of the Viceroy’s House Edwin Lutyens, who designed this column, took inspiration from the Roman Trajan Column; he even labelled his sketches of the column by the same name. That marble pillar has been the most celebrated prototype for commemorative pillars built by the Europeans.

At a short distance outside the main entrance of the Rashtrapati Bhavan stand four identical columns, modelled on the Ashokan pillars by Lutyens’ collaborator, Herbert Baker. Placed in front of South and North Blocks of the secretariat buildings, the columns were gifted by the dominions of Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa to celebrate the Imperial Delhi project. On top of each column is a miniature naval ship, reminding the onlookers that Britannia then ruled the waves. A little to the west of these four dominion-columns, up an incline, about 555 ft from the main gate, stands the Jaipur Column.

a Dominion column.

Together, these five columns were among the highlights of the inauguration of Imperial Delhi in 1931. They appeared like architectural odes to an empire built to last. But forces of history were chipping away at the very foundations of the empire, of which the Jaipur Column was a new ornament. It was erected to commemorate the foundation laying of Imperial Delhi by King George V and Queen Mary on December 15, 1911. It would be completed after about two decades.

From its base to the top, the Jaipur Column is 145 ft tall with an average diameter of six-and-a-half feet. British oak-leaf patterns cover the entire pillar, which stands on a cube-shaped white pedestal resting on a double base of red sandstone. On each of the four sides of the pedestal are presented themes of imperial domination. At the very top of the column is a bronze lotus, an Indian motif that Lutyens incorporated in the design of the Viceroy House, too. From the lotus emerges a six-pointed Star of India, made of glass. The Star was installed as a reminder of the Order of Knighthood issued by Queen Victoria to honour Indian princes and chiefs, along with British officers and administrators, who served the empire in India. Inside the column, a steel tube runs through, tying the lotus and the star to a block in the foundation.

A statue of Viceroy Hardinge, the “founder” of New Delhi, stood at the base of the Column, facing east, surveying the vista up to the War Memorial Arch (now India Gate) and beyond. It was removed after Independence and shifted to Kingsway Camp, the site of the Coronation Durbar of 1911.

With the Viceroy’s House eventually becoming Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Jaipur Column ceased to be a symbol of imperial supremacy. Conceived as an ornament to the “temple of imperial power” in the words of Lutyens scholar ASG Butler, today this impressive pillar defines the path to the sanctum of a robust republic, the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

After Independence, the Jaipur Column stands witness to the Change of Guard ceremony that takes place in the forecourt every Saturday. The seniormost regiment of the Indian Army, the President’s Bodyguard, entrusted with the ceremonial duties of the President of India, dressed in their traditional best with swords and lances, are also part of the parade which is a visual treat.

If you go closer to the Column, you can see in the bas-reliefs on the north and south faces of its pedestal, the obverse and reverse sides of the Great Seal of the Empire. The map of the capital (as it was planned then) is on the eastern side. An inscription runs through the base of the column. “The classic inscription at the base of the Jaipur Column,” Robert Grant Irving, the renowned historian of the Empire’s art and architecture, noted, “was a noble epitaph for British rule and fitting counsel for the future masters of India.” It reads:

“In thought faith,
In word wisdom,
In deed courage,
In life service,
So may India be great.”

(Sunil Trivedi is officer on special duty (research) with the President’s Secretariat)

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