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Notes on the Geography of Northern India: New Delhi

In 1911, bothered by political troubles in Bengal, the British decided to relocate their Indian capital to Delhi.  George V made the announcement himself while in India that year.  What to call the new city?  "Imperial Delhi" sounded good: the viceroy, Lord Hardinge, wrote that the name showed "the unfaltering determination to maintain British rule in India." The times were changing, however, and by 1926 the city was officially named the very self-effacing "New Delhi." Five years later a mere 15 Indian princes bothered to attend the inauguration.

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We begin with the desolate Plain of Barwari, on the northern fringe of the city. (It's just inside the city's ring road at about 1 o'clock.) This is the site of the Coronation Grounds used in 1877, when Victoria was named Empress of India. The site was used again in 1903 to commemorate the accession of Edward VII and again in 1911, when George V announced the move of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. The column marks the spot where George and Mary sat.

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The previous picture was taken in 1980; this one in 2006. Not a lot of change.

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The plaque on the obelisk.

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This is one of the places where statues from the British Raj go to die. This King George was originally positioned in front of the India Gate in central New Delhi.

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He needs the elevated base to keep the ermine clean.

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Oh, the trouble packing! And walking!

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He stands surrounded by acolytes, or in some cases merely their plinths.

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Curzon surveys the scene of the 1903 durbar, which he delighted in organizing in minute detail.

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Lord Willingdon, a governor of Madras and later a viceroy. He actually was just about this tall and thin.

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Of all people, why it's Guy Fleetwood-Wilson, at one time the Member for Finance on the viceroy's council. He also wrote Letters to Nobody and Letters to Somebody, back in the days when officials actually wrote their own memoirs.

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While New Delhi was under construction, the government operated from temporary quarters. This was the Secretariat, in the Civil Lines north of Delhi. Temporary isn't always what it seems, however, and the building is still used by government offices, including the registrar of voters.

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Though temporary, the building had its pretensions.

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So did the nearby Maidens Hotel, still in business though now fairly marooned on the northern side of the city.

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Now that we're sufficiently elevated, we may proceed to the Viceroy's Palace, now Rashtrapati Bhavan (Government House). Sorry: this is as close as we'll get. Take my word for it:-at 630 feet, its facade is exactly as long as Buckingham Palace's.

In 1922 the Prince of Wales saw a model of the palace and exclaimed, "Good God!" A commander-in-chief of the Indian army, appalled by the expense, said that he was "tempted to curse and swear" whenever he passed it. Gandhi merely dismissed the pile as a White Elephant.

The building, designed by Edwin Lutyens, is laid out on an H-plan. The copper-covered dome rises above the rotunda of the Durbar Hall, the audience room that once housed the viceroy's throne. Behind the dome lies a Moghul Garden; behind the garden, eight tennis courts; behind the courts, another garden. (During the British period, the staff of 2,000 included 418 gardeners.) Behind the camera is Rajpath, the former Kingsway, so the viceroy might look from his throne down a processional avenue and, symbolically, at the Indian Empire. The echoes of Versailles and the United States capitol are strong: the grand vista even terminates in a memorial arch akin to the Arc de Triomphe and the Washington Monument. Today the building is the lonely residence of the President of India.

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One long block north of Rashtrapati Bhavan is the Cathedral Church of the Redemption, or the Viceroy Church, which, unlike the Viceroy's Palace, has kept its English name. Completed in 1935, the first services were held the next year, by which time India was well on the way to Independence.

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The plan, cruciform with two vestries projecting from the east end, was by Henry Medd, a protege of Lutyens. The church is said to strongly resemble Palladio's Church of Il Redentore in Venice, but it also resembles the Hampstead Garden Suburb Free Church, which Lutyens had designed two decades earlier.

The budget was too tight to face the building with stone. Medd went on to become chief architect to the government of India during the war, but by then it was too late for grand monuments even in brick.

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Probably grander than any other church in British India, the church is also almost lifeless, perhaps because it was built at a time when thoughtful Englishmen knew the end of empire was near but also because it is almost devoid of the memorials that plaster the walls of the many churches that served British communities in India for generations.

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The view from the entrance of Rashtrapati Bhavan back down Kingsway, now Rajpath, with the war-memorial India Gate in the distance. The pair of buildings, called simply the North Block and South Block, house the government of India secretariat and were designed by Herbert Baker on the same general lines as the Union Buildings he had earlier designed for Pretoria. These ones, however, maintain the Indian tradition of parasol-topped turrets, chhatris. Lutyens called them "stupid useless things"--yet he, too, added them to his buildings in New Delhi.

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Entrance to the North Block.

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Over the door is a poorly proportioned alfiz. (For a more elegant one, see Spain, Corboda: the Mesquita.) It carries an inscription that from the British perspective was sternly encouraging but from the Indian perspective was intolerably smug: "Liberty will not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to Liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed."

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George V had said that he wanted the planners to proceed "with the greatest deliberation and care so that the new creation may be in every way worthy of this ancient and beautiful city." His encouragement must have seemed a bit late in the day to anyone following the career of Gandhi--or even reading E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. The planners went ahead anyway and laid out not only administrative buildings but a commercial center called Connaught Place, named for the duke who was the King-Emperor's uncle. W.H. Nicholls, the architect of the Imperial Delhi Committee from 1913 to 1917, wanted a great plaza, anchored by a new railway station. The railway authorities declined to build the station, however, and the whole undertaking began to drag and shrink. Nicholls had desired a ring of buildings of at least three stories, to balance the great diameter--1,100 feet--of the central plaza. (Apparently he was thinking of John Wood's Circus in Bath, or perhaps John Nash's Park Crescent in London.) As completed in 1931 by Robert Tor Russell, chief architect to the government of India, the ring rose only two stories. For a time the shops were stylish, but by 1981, Connaught Place had acquired this patina of decrepitude. Andreas Volwahsen, author of Imperial Delhi (2002), writes of the rings that "it is only a question of time before the last vestiges of Neo-Palladian architecture and imperial building are lost beneath cheap restaurants and new office blocks." Perhaps he was a little pessimistic, though "only a question of time" is susceptible to many definitions.

For more on the history of New Delhi, see R.G. Irving, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi, 1981.)

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Twenty years later, in 2002, Connaught Place hadn't changed much, but the central park was now largely occupied by a subterranean shopping center. Volwahsen refers angrily to "an indescribably hideous underground shopping center [that] takes up a part of the earlier green area...."

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Indian goods still predominate.

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Global brands have invaded only a bit.

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Adidas and Coke.

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An old-timer, here since 1939.

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Original cabinetry.

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And here's a block that's been finely redone. But note who's the occupant: why, it's EMAAR, the Dubai real-estate developer.

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The outer rings have seen less faithful updating.

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Drawing back a bit.

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To make Connaught Place cohere, Nicholls had planned a ring of 7 blocks, with facades 177 feet long linked by archways and a continuous cornice. It never happened. Meanwhile, as this picture suggests and as Volwahsen lamented, highrises began to invade the city.

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Somewhere down below, some of the old bungalows of the British civil servants survive.  They too were designed by Russell--some 4,000 residences for civil servants of every rank--but the influence of Lutyens is very strong, because he had designed the first bungalows, intended for the most senior civil servants.

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A view of those bungalows from above.

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A surviving bungalow with poor prospects for survival. Land values are too high for single-story buildings.

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Hard to pretend that nothing's changing.

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Early morning in a New Delhi pedestrian underpass, with waste baskets arrayed as lane dividers.

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With Japanese funding, the first few miles of the Delhi Metro opened in December, 2002. Another 30-odd miles were under construction, mostly above ground though buried here, at Connaught Place.

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By 2006, three lines were open. Take a look?

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The station at Rajiv Chowk, under Connaught Place.

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All in all, a very good system.

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Three riders, three cellphones.

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And what do you suppose this might be? Surely it's some important government building.

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Another view.

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Having trouble?

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It's the Shipra Mall.

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The interior, with a bigger-than-life image of India's own Big Brother, the actor-turned-pitchman Amitabh Bachchan.


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