On the chilly but clear morning of December 12,1911, Delhiites made a beeline for a maidan near Burari to witness the biggest tamasha of the British Raj — the Delhi Durbar.
Before 1911, Delhi had hosted two durbars, in 1877 and 1903, to commemorate the coronation of ruling British monarchs. The first time a reigning King attended the coronation durbar was in 1911. The event, however, became historic for another important reason.
It was here that King George V announced the shifting of the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi, a decision known only in the top echelons of the British regime till then.
Back then, Delhi was a modest commercial provincial town. It had been gifted to Punjab by the British for the latter’s support during the 1857 mutiny, its glorious Mughal past forgotten. The shifting of the capital put Delhi back on India’s political map and changed the course of its history. British India’s imperial capital today remains the political nerve centre of the country.
The Durbar : The durbar arrangements started a year in advance. The site for the durbar was in northwest Delhi— where the previous two durbars had been held. A city of tents came up across 25 square miles, sprawling from present day Civil Lines to Timarpur, Jahangirpuri, Shalimar Bagh, Ashok Vihar, Model Town and Shakurpur.
At the centre of the camp was the King’s pavilion, spread over 85 acres. Camps of officials and Indian princes were located in order of precedence. The camp had its own railway, connecting it to the amphitheatre where the durbar was held. Sixty four kms of new roads and 80 kms long water mains were constructed.
On December 12, the royal couple reached the amphitheatre in an open carriage and were seated inside an elaborate two-tier shamiana. The ceremonies included a 101-gun salute, parades, obeisance by rulers of princely states, distribution of medals to military officials and the proclamation.
The long task of building an imperial city from scratch began after the King left. Twenty years of frenetic construction later, New Delhi was unveiled.
Coronation Park to cricket pitch
As parks go, the Coronation Park in Delhi has a unique history to it—a history not known to the city’s common man, yet entrenched in the stone statutes that dot the park.
On December 11, 1911, the coronation ceremony of King George V and Queen Mary took place here amid much fanfare and was witnessed by thousands.
Today, the same park in north Delhi’s Burari has become a cricket playground for children blissfully unaware that this was where the King had announced at the elaborate durbar the plan to shift India’s capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Four days later, on December 15, he had laid the new capital’s foundation stone.
“Although they (British) intended to build the capital city there, the site was later rejected. A major reason was that the place was swampy, malaria-infested,” says AGK Menon, Delhi chapter head, Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
The park was recently in the news for the fact that during the Congress plenary session at Burari, PM Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s helicopters had landed at the spot where thousands had witnessed the coronation ceremony.
For years after Independence, the place was occupied by paramilitary forces and later used for political/religious congregations. Sometime in the early 1970s, King George V’s statue was brought here from India Gate. A coronation pillar, too, was built later.
All that remains today is a tall obelisk atop a crumbling platform near an enclosed shabbily maintained garden with broken statues on pedestals.
But thankfully, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Delhi Durbar, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), in charge of the park, has roped in INTACH for the park’s redevelopment.
The development plan includes: conservation and rearrangement of the statues at the commemorative zone, an interpretation centre amid landscaped garden and a forest area. “The park will be refurbished before December 2011,” said a senior DDA official.
A throne for the King
The thrones used by King George V and Queen Mary during the 1911 Delhi Durbar are on display separately at Marble Hall Gallery and the Gifts’ museum at Rashtrapati Bhavan. While the King’s chair, made of silver, weighs about 640 kg, that of the queen, also made of silver, weighs about 540 kg. These chairs were designed specially for the durbar by Calcutta-based firm H.M. Mint. The company’s name is inscribed on the throne of George V.
The thrones also have the names of both the King and the Queen and date of Delhi Durbar inscribed on them. “The art section of the President’s Secretariat has a professional conservator who preserves the chairs. Their original colours have been retained,” says Archana Datta, OSD (PR) to President of India.
But the conservation of these thrones is quite a task. “Every time we need to take these chairs to the conservation laboratory at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, we need a dozen people to lift them. We also have a special trolley to carry them,” says KK Sharma, deputy director, arts, president’s secretariat. Sharma says these chair were used by Indian Presidents till the 1960 at ceremonies held to receive credentials of foreign envoys. “But the queen’s chair has never been used,” adds Sharma.
Apart from the Thrones, the Marble hall Gallery also has a model of the Crown of King George V that dates back to 1930. It was made by Nannai Mall Contractor as inscribed on crown with date 10. 10. 1930. “Made of brass, it weighs about 200 kgs,” says Sharma.