A city of extreme contradictions, Delhi has remained at the centre of Indian history for centuries – from the Mughal Empire to the British Raj to the bustling capital of the world’s largest democracy. Little wonder then that it has a history that is as colourful as it is interesting.
Delhi’s remarkable journey through time can be seen in the city’s majestic government buildings, in the graceful colonnades of Connaught Place, in the ancient beauty of its time-worn monuments, in the names of its tree-lined roads and in the grandeur of its university offices.
Yet few know the actual story of how Delhi became the capital of all of India.
A constellation of seven settlements – Siri, Tughlakabad, Jahanapanah, Ferozabad, Dinpanah, Shergarh and Shahajahanabad – that transformed into a sprawling city, Delhi served as the capital for many rulers between the 12th and 19th century AD.
The reasons for the city being a choice capital are obvious even now. The Delhi ridge and the river Yamuna, the two characteristic features of the city, offered it both natural sustenance and protection. Flanked by these two geographical features and dotted with flourishing centres of commerce, Delhi was the obvious choice for ambitious Northern rulers.
Add to this the city’s central location in the Gangetic plain and it’s not difficult to understand why Britain moved the capital of its colonial empire from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.
In fact, in a letter to the Secretary of State for India (sent from Shimla to London on August 25, 1911), the then-Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, pointed out that it has “long been recognized to be a serious anomaly” that the British governed India from Calcutta, located on the eastern extremity of its Indian possessions.
He also argued that the rising importance of elected legislative councils meant that the British Raj needed to find a more centrally located capital.
However, these weren’t the only reasons why the British were in such a rush to move from Calcutta to Delhi. The main reasons was that a burgeoning opposition to colonial rule had made Calcutta far less hospitable.
The commercial and literary hub of India, Calcutta had become the epicentre of the nationalist movement since the late nineteenth century. In a bid to weaken this opposition, in 1905, the colonial government cleaved the powerful province of Bengal into two portions.
However, this decision only inflamed anti-colonial sentiments, leading to not just a call for a boycott of British goods but also to bombings and political assassinations of British officials in Calcutta.
Such was the outpouring of public outrage that by 1911, the British were compelled to announced the reunification of Bengal as well as the immediate move of the capital to Delhi. Lord Curzon (the former viceroy who had taken the decision to partition Bengal) even made a speech to the House of Lords in which he singled out the reason behind the change of capital to Delhi.
“They desire to escape the somewhat heated atmosphere of Bengal,” he told the House.
As for the announcement, the British decided that it would be made by King George V during his visit to India in 1911, the first by a British monarch.
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The Delhi Durbar of 1911 caused a flurry of construction. Roads were repaired and restoration work was started on the Red Fort. Similar to the present-day Kumbh festival, the imperial extravaganza saw massive tent cities being created for visiting princes and personages, each reflecting the artistry and craft traditions of their provinces.
Historical accounts have it that, on the day of the Durbar (December 12, 1911), more than 100,000 people were present. King George V and Queen Mary made a ceremonial entry into Delhi, before taking their seats in the Mughal-style pavilion that had been specially made for the occasion.
It was only after the coronation of the Emperor-King that an imperial farman was read out, one that announced the transfer of the seat of the government of India from Calcutta to “the ancient capital of Delhi.” Thus, for the first time since Shah Jahan made it his capital in 1648, Delhi found itself at the centre of power again.
However, it would be 20 years before Lord Irwin finally inaugurated the new capital – New Delhi – on February 13, 1931. The reason was that the erstwhile Mughal capital was ill-equipped to house the new administrative capital of the British Raj
As such, two young architects, Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, were given the charge of redesigning the new capital. The collaboration began with a promise:
“Delhi is all right!!” Lutyens enthusiastically wrote to Baker. “I start 27th March!! It is a wonderful chance.”
The duo’s first step was setting up a temporary seat of the government in the Civil Lines area. The next year, the Viceroy’s Lodge and Secretariat buildings were constructed on Raisina Hill (an elevated hill to the south of Shahjahanabad) in New Delhi — imposing and easily visible reminders of British authority.
However, the pace of development was soon to be severely hampered by the severe cost restrictions imposed by the onset of World War I. Yet the city continued to buzz with activity for the next two decades.
The North Block, the South Block, the Church of Redemption, the Parliament House, India Gate, the Connaught Place — all helped form a new map of the city. Interestingly, four million British pounds were spent to shift the entire colonial administration from Calcutta to Delhi.
In 1931, ‘New Delhi’ was finally inaugurated as the capital of undivided India. Today, the cosmopolitan city continues to be the seat of power for independent India’s democratic government.
Here is an interesting anecdote about Delhi’s history to end this story with:
Zauq, a renown poet of 19th century Delhi and the literary mentor of the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was offered a rather lucrative job in the Deccan. Though tempted by the riches on offer, the poet finally declined the proposition with the wry comment, “Kaun jaaye par ab, Zauq, Dilli ki galiyan chhod kar!” (Who, after all, O Zauq, can leave the alleyways of Delhi!)