Updated: May 17, 2021 10:27:11 am
India Gate means many things to people in Delhi. To some, it is a reminder of family picnics and late night drives for a cup of ice cream. For others, it is all about resistance, the space that gave birth to many mass protests from the farmers’ protest of 1988 to Nirbhaya in 2012 and the ani-CAA agitation in 2019. Then there are those both from and outside Delhi who associate this stretch of land with the ultimate display of political and military might every year on Republic Day. In the archetypal imagery of New Delhi, India Gate and its surroundings would perhaps best capture the essence of the city.
By India Gate, the reference here is to Rajpath, the ceremonial boulevard that runs from the Rashtrapati Bhawan all the way down to Vijay Chowk and India Gate, and ends at the 16th century fort, Purana Qila. When it first came into being in the early decades of the 20th century, it was named by the British as ‘Kingsway’ in honour of King George V who visited this new city during the Delhi Durbar of 1911 and proclaimed the shift of the capital from Calcutta to the erstwhile centre of Mughal power. New Delhi was designed with plan and precision and a clear cut imperial mission in mind. “It was a city built, not by erasing the Indian past of Delhi. The idea was to put a new capital which was in a series of older capitals in the city, to draw that connection with the Indian past,” says Swapna Liddle, historian and author of the book, ‘Connaught Place and the making of New Delhi (2018)’
Interestingly, despite the British imprint on New Delhi, an independent India embraced it wholeheartedly and made it truly their own. Nowhere is this democratisation of the British built capital as visible as that in the vast expanse of land on Rajpath, around India Gate.
The making of New Delhi and Kingsway
After the announcement by George V, the immediate concern was to decide on the site for the new capital. The east bank of the Yamuna river was considered briefly, but rejected on grounds that it would be too cut off from the rest of the city. The area north of Shahjahanabad, which included the site of the Durbar, was also considered. Yet again it was dismissed since large parts here were already built up, that too in a haphazard fashion. Also it was prone to flooding.
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Finally, the area that the town planning committee settled upon was south of Shahjahanabad. Although it was not very built up, it contained the remains of many old tombs and other structures. Most importantly, an elevation in the middle of the site, better known as the Raisina Hill, gave it a view of all the previous cities of Delhi. One could see the 17th century Shahjahanabad, the 14th century Ferozabad, Purana Qila, Humayun’s Tomb and the shrine of Nizamuddin from the Raisina Hill. “The British claim to the mantle of Indian sovereignty would be complete if the Viceroy’s palace could look out over the palaces of the dynasties which did not last. An elevation was therefore desirable- and this was provided by the Raisina Hill,” writes historian Narayani Gupta in her article, ‘Kingsway to Rajpath: The democratisation of Lutyens’ Central Vista” (1994)
Around the hill was to be laid out the first British built town in India. The architecture, as was decided after much deliberation, was to be European and imperial, but studded with noticeable Indian elements. The strongest proponent of an Indian inspired architecture was the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. It was of political importance, he believed, that Indians be made to feel part of the process of making the new capital, rather than simply pay for it.
Hardinge, in fact, was also responsible for one of the most important decisions of the planning of New Delhi – the precise location of the Viceroy’s residence, and consequently, the ceremonial avenue that led out from it. Edwin Lutyens, one of the chief architects of the city, had planned on having the Viceroy’s House look down the avenue that led from it to the back of Jama Masjid. This plan was abandoned in favour of having the Viceroy’s House sit atop Raisina Hill and Kingsway leading from it to end at Purana Qila. With a view of Jama Masjid to the left and Safdurjung’s Tomb to the right, the view from the house of the Viceroy would comprise of all objects of historic interest in the city.
Then there was the issue of what was to be done with the large number of historical ruins strewn upon the chosen site. “Many of these ruins were historic remnants of older cities of Delhi- ruined mosques, tombs and palaces,” writes Liddle in her book. There were also the huts and houses of the villagers whose land had recently been acquired under the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. Between 1911 and 1916 close to 300 families had been evicted, a majority of whom came to occupy what is Jangpura today.
Consequently, the town planning committee had to take stock of which of these structures could be demolished, and which among them had to be retained. A list of mosques, temples and tombs was prepared. Liddle in her book notes that “forty-five structures were listed under the remark, ‘should be preserved’. These included the architecturally important structures like Safdurjung’s Tomb, Humayun’s Tomb and Jantar Mantar.” It also included few structures like graves, and places of religious worship which were in active use.
Then there were 33 buildings notified as ‘not to be destroyed unless destruction is imperative’. Structures of cultural importance were included in the list such as the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, the Hanuman Mandir on Baba Kharak Singh Marg. Finally, 160 such buildings were listed as ‘need not be preserved’. “This included several temples and mosques, against some of which it was noted that the owners were willing to take compensation in return for the structure,” writes Liddle. She adds that the list also included Agrasen’s Baoli and an unoccupied Bhairon Mandir near the Purana Qila. Over the phone, Liddle explains that among the structures demolished, a majority were remnants of Shergarh, the city built by Shershah Suri located around the Purana Qila.
There is something to be said of the imperial strategy involved in town planning in terms of how the roads were laid out to make connections with the remnants of the older cities. Liddle in her book cites a speech given by Lutyens in 1933 in which he acknowledged Hardinge’s role in determining this and other details of the city’s plan: “His command that one avenue should lead to Purana Qila and another to the Jumma Masjid was the father of the equilateral and hexagonal plan.” “It is interesting to note that Kingsway ran absolutely parallel to Chandni Chowk in Shahjahanabad,” says Liddle.
Equally noteworthy is the way these roads came to be named. While the most important road was named ‘Kingsway’, the one bisecting it was called ‘Queensway’ (changed to Janpath). On one hand you had important roads being named after British monarchs like ‘Prince Edward Road’ (changed to Vijay Chowk), Queen Victoria Road (changed to Dr. Rajendra Prasad Road), and ‘King George’s Avenue’ (changed to Rajaji Marg). On the other hand, and sitting right beside these were the names of Indian rulers and ruling dynasties like Feroz Shah road, Prithvi Raj road, Lodi road, Aurangzeb road; once again emphasising upon the link between the British capital and the history of India.
The architectural magnificence of New Delhi has frequently been showered upon with lavish praises. Historian William Dalrymple in his classic ‘City of Djinns’ described his impression of the British built city in the following words:
“It was superb. In the dusk, as the sun sank behind the Viceroy’s House, the whole vista would turn into the colour of attar of roses. I would realise then, without hesitation, that I was looking at one of the greatest marriages of architecture and urban planning ever to have left the drawing board.”
Recognising the splendour of the British capital, the Delhi government in 2019 had decided to nominate the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone for UNESCO world heritage tag.
Yet, in the years immediately after the new capital was inaugurated in 1931, New Delhi’s scheme came under constant fire. “Indian nationalists saw it as yet another imperial scheme to be criticised, particularly on grounds of extravagance,” writes Gupta. She adds that “Lord Willingdon, who succeeded Lord Irwin as Viceroy in the critical year 1931, called New Delhi a ‘ghastly mistake’.
Author Nirad C. Chaudhury, who saw New Delhi in the 1940s, is supposed to have declared: “The only part of New Delhi which had handsomeness was the Central Vista.”
The Central Vista was conceived on the same lines of the Champs-Elysees in Paris or the National Mall in Washington DC. It was the central, ceremonial road, dramatically leading out of the House of the Viceroy.
Gupta in her article describes the Vista as it appeared at the time when the British rulers were in office: “In the 1930s and 40s, when the Viceroy was in residence for five months of the year, and the Secretariat and Imperial Record Office were in commission, the Vista was kept free of traffic. After office hours, a great serenity- and a great vacuity- reigned over the imperial centre. The parks were used by a few riders and pedestrians, but on the whole it was underused: A Champs-Elysees without people. At the War Memorial Arch, a fire kept burning; and smoke drifted out of the domed opening at the top.”
Speaking about the lifelessness and the lack of ceremonies on Kingsway despite it being a ceremonial avenue, Liddle says, “by the time of the inauguration of New Delhi, the colonial state was definitely on the back foot.” “The British felt threatened by the Indian nationalist movement. Perhaps they did not feel confident to have events where a lot of Indians could congregate together,” she says.
The making of Rajpath
It is only after Independence that a new spell of life was breathed into the central vista, its name now changed to Rajpath. “It was part of the same policy that removed statues and busts from various street crossings. The unimaginative policy of effacing history by changing place names has long been part of the nationalist project, irrespective of political parties,” says Gupta in an email interview, about the name change to Rajpath.
In an independent India, New Delhi had to become the most appropropriate image for the international gaze. Gupta in her article refers to a conversation between Nehru and Gandhi’s disciple Sushila Nayar that best exemplifies what the former visioned as the role of the British imperial city. “The Viceregal House and other similar buildings should be used as hospitals,” wrote Nayar to Nehru emphasising on the fact that people expected Congress leaders to set standards of simplicity. Nehru, after much deliberation wrote back, “we do not want any pomp and splendour, but a state has to keep up with a certain dignity as a state.”
The significance of the Central Vista in this new project of an Independent India is best understood in the way the Republic Day ceremony was decided to be held here. “That the highlight should be a procession headed by the new President along Kingsway, viewed by hundreds of people in the city and from neighbouring villages, who stood on wide, flanking lawns, was significant in many ways. It meant that the government of independent India accepted the Central Vista as the centre of Delhi,” writes Gupta in her article.
Thereafter, while the celebration of Independence Day at the Red Fort marked the victory of the nationalist movement, that of the Republic Day and the Beating Retreat at Rajpath marked the arrival of India as a strong and stable sovereign state on the international scene.
If on one hand the government of free India incorporated Rajpath to display its political might for a week, on the other the people of the country adopted the space to display its democratic zeal the rest of the year. Many would flock to the lawns surrounding India Gate for leisure activities like picnics, boating, visiting a children’s park and more. Food stalls, ice cream carts, and vendors selling trinkets emerged and became part of this landscape.
Ashok Mathur (52), who grew up in Roshanpura in Old Delhi says, “Back in the 1970s and 80s there was not much recreational activities for middle and upper middle class families apart from cinema and picnics. We indulged quite a lot in picnics on the lawns of India Gate, typically during the summer evenings.” “There would be the typical English speaking crowd carrying fancy chairs and baskets, and then there would be the Old Delhi residents who could be easily spotted with their biriyani deghs.”
“One wonderful phenomenon I had started observing here in the last 15 years or so, is that a lot of Muslims from Old Delhi had started picnicking on these lawns around the India Gate. This just showed that they were breaking out of their socio-economic shackles and mixing with other demographics,” says Mathur.
Yet another activity with which the lawns of India Gate and Rajpath came to be closely associated was that of resistance. The big rallies and processions of protestors aiming for the Boat Club had taken on a ritual character in the post-Independence years.
Ekta Chauhan, who grew up in South Delhi’s Khirki neighbourhood and is currently doing her PhD in heritage studies, says that she will always remember Rajpath as a place for democratic expression of dissent. “I participated in the protests demanding justice for Nirbhaya in 2016 with my mother. We would pack snacks, make slogan boards and go to India Gate in the metro. In a week our throats and feet were swollen but our spirits remained high,” she says. “Last time I was there was in January 2021 for the anti-CAA protests where we sat in the cold weather and sang songs celebrating India’s secular spirit, its diversity and our dissent.”
“The British said they were building New Delhi as a reinvented Raj that would be more acceptable to Indians. The problem was on the ground, there were limits to how responsive a colonial state could be to Indian people,” says Liddle. “The promise that was there in this city was realised only after Independence, when it truly became part of India.”
Liddle, S. (2018). Connaught Place and the making of New Delhi. Speaking Tiger.
Gupta, N. (1994). Kingsway to Rajpath: The democratisation of Lutyens’ Central Vista. In C. B. Asher & T. R. Metcalf (Eds.), Perceptions of South Asia’s visual past. essay.
Dalrymple, W. (1993). City of Djinns: a year of Delhi. Harper Collins.
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