Imperial Delhi: How the British built a ‘New Delhi’ at the cost of the old
In complete control of the Capital after savagely quelling the 1857 rebellion, the British built a new city with the seat of power on the Raisina Hill.
Kashmere Gate, which stands near the Bada Bazar in north Delhi, bears the scars of cannonballs that rained down on it more than a hundred years ago.
During the ghadar (mutiny) of 1857, Indian sepoys and citizens rose against the East India Company and seized Delhi. For three months, the rebels held the city against the British cavalry, who fired canons at the gate, attempting to breach its walls and lay claim to Delhi. As summer gave way to September, Kashmere Gate fell to the British, and with it, the rest of Delhi.
The sacking of the city that followed marked the end of Mughal Delhi and the inauguration of the Delhi of the Raj. Today, in the modern Delhi, those who look find stray remnants of the city’s most recent reincarnation all around them: in government buildings, in the colonnades of Connaught Place, in the names of roads or the grandeur of university offices. But the pockmarked walls of Kashmere Gate, Delhi’s modern ruins, also attest to loss and violence, showing that the transition from one version of Delhi to the next has usually followed a fight.
The British Terror
As its name suggests, the Khooni Darwaza (Blood Gate), an archway near the better-known Delhi Gate, has witnessed the horrors of several Delhis. In 1659, Dara Shikhoh’s head was displayed hung from the arch of the gate after his brother Aurangzeb had him executed. More recently, in 1947, hundreds of refugees were killed here in the post-Partition riots. In 2002, the gate gained notoriety again after a young medical student was gang raped at knife point on the terrace of the monument.
It was near the Khooni Darwaza that a British captain shot dead Bahadur Shah Zafar’s two sons, and one of his grandsons, for their participation in the 1857 campaign. The quelling of the rebellion was savage, and calculated to strike terror. In Kucha Chelan alone, a locality near Jama Masjid, more than 1,000 men were lined up and killed by a firing squad.
To punish the rest of the city’s Muslim population, viewed by the British as the main instigators of the rebellion, their houses and religious buildings were occupied, taken away, or demolished. The Jama Masjid was closed till 1862. Akbarabadi mosque was destroyed; Zinat-ul Masjid, which lies in Darya Ganj, was turned into a bakery; and the Fatehpuri Masjid, which faces the Red Fort at the end of Chandni Chowk, was sold off to Lala Chunnamal, a Hindu trader.
While Hindus were slowly let back into the city after 1857, Muslims were only allowed in only a year later. “It was such a rupture for the city…to repopulate it in a way completely different from before,” says Madhavi Menon, a professor at Ashoka University and author of A History of Desire in India. “Not only did the British not assimilate, but they tried to undo the assimilation that was India.”
As evidence, Menon points to anti-miscegenation laws passed by the British, making illegal any sexual liaison between the colonizers and the natives. Before 1857, many of the British officers and administrators had intermingled with Indian nobility, embracing local culture and becoming ‘White Mughals’, as the writer William Dalrymple called them. But after 1857, there was a physical and cultural distancing.
A new Delhi
After the British ransacked Delhi, the city’s anatomy was carefully rearranged to suit its new masters. In today’s quiet, leafy Civil Lines, the British created a city within a city for themselves.
Most government buildings and educational institutions in this area have a connection to the violence of 1857. The imposing residence of the vice chancellor of Delhi University, with its ballrooms and majestic pillars, was the vice-regal lodge, which the British attacked during the siege to save their captive compatriots.
Though Civil Lines had been a British neighbourhood since the early 1800s, allowing colonialists to live close to the cantonment at the northern Ridge, it became the centre of local British residential life after 1857. Only Brits could own property, and only Brits could buy alcohol at Spencer’s or Carlton House — shops that stood in what is now Kashmere Gate market — or enjoy a soiree at Civil Lines’ Maidens Hotel, which is one of the city’s oldest hotels.
This new city became a rival for resources to the walled city of the Delhiwallas. When a new water supply system was conceived, Civil Lines got its own open drain at Salimgarh. The whole of Shahjahanabad, with thrice the population, was serviced by a single drain at Delhi Gate.
It was also in Civil Lines that the British embarked on the project of memorialising their victory during the rebellion. Even to this day, the neighbourhood has roads named after Lothian, Hamilton and Nicholson, the British heroes of 1857. The Victory Memorial in the northern Ridge and an obelisk at the erstwhile Telegraph Office pays homage to officers and administrators who helped win the war.
The ‘mutiny’ monuments are preserved, but lie forlorn. At times, descendants of British soldiers find their way to the Nicholson cemetery, near Kashmere Gate, which the British built to bury their dead after 1857. Sachin Bansal, who runs India City Walks, which offers tourists curated city experiences, says descendants often contact them. “For one of our walks, a relative of General Nicholson joined us. These are people looking to understand history, and what part their great-great-grandfathers played,” he says.
The Durbar of 1911, attended by King George V, caused a flurry of construction, much like the Commonwealth Games in 2010. The British administration repaired roads and built temporary accommodation for the visiting princes and personages.Restoration work started on the Red Fort. Lord Curzon, the incumbent Viceroy, was critical of how the fort had been allowed to decay and ordered repairs. (This indignation did not stop Curzon from throwing a ball in the Diwan-e-Khas, the hall Shah Jahan once used to receive special audiences.)
It was only after the coronation of King George V, which took place in an open park near the Nirankari Sarovar, that the imperial farman was read out, stunning the assembly. “We are pleased to announce to our people that… we have decided upon the transfer of the seat of the government of India from Calcutta to the ancient capital of Delhi.”
Delhi found itself at the centre of power again for the first time since Shah Jahan made it his capital in 1648.
Overnight, British administrators drew up ambitious plans to turn the city into the capital of the Raj, and selected the young architect Edward Lutyens as the man for the job.
He arrived in Delhi at 1921, and promptly recruited fellow architect Herbert Baker as a collaborator. The partnership began with promise: “Delhi is all right!!” Lutyens excitedly wrote to Baker. “I start 27th March!! It is a wonderful chance.”
While neither was a great fan of Indian architecture, they blended European and indigenous elements in the structures they built. Raisina Hill, an elevated hill to the south of Shahjahanabad, was chosen as the site for the Viceroy’s Lodge and Secretariat buildings. This made the raj offices easily visible to the natives — an imposing, daily reminder of British authority.
A sense of the enormity of their project hung over Lutyens and Baker. When a question was raised on the mounting finances, Harcourt Butler argued that the new city had to be on a big scale, “something that will impress the Indians with our determination to stay here.”
The British called the city ‘New Delhi’, signifying that Shahjahanabad was now ‘old Delhi’, outmoded and outdated. “This is a continuing and frequent trope of empire, to build a new city, a new capital to prove that there is an improvement on what was there earlier,” says Menon.
From 1912 to 1931, when it was formally inaugurated, the city buzzed with activity. The bungalows around the Secretariat buildings, the Church of Redemption, the Parliament House, India Gate, the glittery arcade of Connaught Place — all helped form a new map of Delhi.
Today, Delhi continues to be the seat of power for independent India’s democratic government. Most of the structures where decisions are made— such as the Rashtrapati Bhavan, North Block and South Block — are direct inheritances from the Raj. Lutyens’ Delhi is still the address of the country’s powerful and rich elite. In 2016, a bungalow here sold for ₹450 crores, but behind the palatial VIP houses, working classes reside in slums. “That is the dilemma of post-coloniality,” says Menon. “It marks a moment in time when the colonialists leave, but does not mark any change in the conception of power. Especially if you keep getting governed from the same structures of power, same laws, same colonial mindset.”