• The making of Delhi as we know it today

    Swapna Liddle

    December 18, 2018

    Written by Swapna Liddle, Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi, as the name suggests, is a book about the making of the city of New Delhi and of Connaught Place, its iconic shopping, dining and recreational centre. It picks up the story at the beginning, when the idea of shifting the capital from Calcutta to Delhi first germinated in the minds of the British colonial rulers of India. The book examines the process through which the city was planned and built, and its eventual transformation as the capital of Independent India. The following are excerpts from the book.

    The Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad; a painting by Charles Stewart Hardinge, 1840s

    Since the early thirteenth century it had functioned, with a few interregnums, as a capital of important powers—the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. The memory of those times was strong. In 1905-06, the Prince of Wales, who would later become George V, visited India. During that visit, he was to later recall, the Regent of Jodhpur, Partab Singh, mentioned that a capital at Delhi would be desirable, ‘as being in every way more convenient and on account of its historical associations with the ancient Government of India.’ Hardinge himself was very aware of popular opinion in India. He wrote, ‘Delhi is still a name to conjure with. It is intimately associated in the minds of the Hindus with sacred legends which go back even beyond the dawn of history…To the Mohammedans it would be a source of unbounded gratification to see the ancient capital of the Moguls restored to its proud position as the seat of the Empire.’


    The Central Vista, 1951

    The Garden City

    The debate over the site and style of major administrative and ceremonial buildings tended to attract the most oficial and public attention, but of no less significance were the other components of the city’s plan. The planning of a city on what was more or less a tabula rasa, was both an opportunity and a responsibility. The exercise reflected the planners’ vision for the new imperial capital, and an understanding of the physical, social, economic and cultural needs of those who would inhabit it.

    Of the various possible models available to colonial planners, one might have been the Mughal city of Shahjahanabad. This, too, was a planned city, founded in  the seventeenth century by Shahjahan as an imperial capital. The influence this had on New Delhi was, however, limited to the question of how best to connect (or not) the Mughal and British cities, or the idea of incorporating views such as that of the Jama Masjid into the vistas of the new city. Not surprisingly, the planners instead looked to the examples of ‘modern’ towns; towns that were suitable for a European as opposed to a ‘native’ population, whose needs were deemed to be quite different.

    In Britain itself there were, as yet, no examples of comprehensive modern town planning by the government. There was, on the other hand, a new idea that was catching on in the sphere of private sector development—that of the ‘garden city’. The garden city movement was based on the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, developed in a book called Garden Cities of Tomorrow, which was published in 1902. Howard’s ideas were a reaction against the rapid urbanization of his time, which had led to haphazard development, overcrowding and squalor. The garden city, as an antidote to this poor quality of urban life, sought to combine the positive aspects of rural and urban living, by designing a city where people would be close to nature, while at the same time enjoying all the economic, civic, cultural and social amenities of a city. The idea of people living close to nature, in small manageable urban communities, was at the core of the concept.


    The Secretariat on Independence Day, 1947

    The Capital of Independent India

    New Delhi had been founded in the hope of new beginnings. Hardinge, members of his council, George V and Crewe, saw, in the transfer of the capital, a possibility for a grand gesture, to finally convince the Indian people that the British Empire was their empire, in line with the other great empires of India’s past. It was also a response to the growing demand for self-governance, as the location of the capital at Delhi was meant to free the provinces, particularly Bengal, of the thrall of a central power. Finally, it was also to bring the capital closer to the princely states, which were concentrated in north and central India, and were seen as allies and supporters of the British empire.

    This vision, considered bold by its authors in 1911, was nevertheless a narrow one. Its aim was ultimately the preservation of British imperial rule, and it could, therefore, not move beyond the old traditions and hierarchies on which that rule was based. Distinctions of race and class had formed the basis on which the city had been planned; for example, in the different zones and categories of housing. The major recreational landmarks—the Gymkhana Club, the Race Course, Connaught Place—were mainly geared towards the convenience and pleasures of the elite, overwhelmingly oficial and white. In the decade following the inauguration, this seemed a dead city to the ordinary visitor, with large empty roads, overly neat and manicured greens, and few bustling public places.

    World War II brought about changes, most obvious in the booming business in Connaught Place, but in other areas as well. A greater informality in social interactions was introduced, mainly as a result of a more mixed population. One of the consequences of the war was an increasing proportion of Indian to British oficials in various rungs of the civil service. As British oficers left to serve in the armed forces, their place was taken by Indian oficers. Fresh recruitment of Europeans to the civil service also stopped in 1941. The oficial parties, therefore, now had more Indian oficials, more foreign diplomats and army attachés, and journalists. The Gymkhana Club tentatively began to admit ‘native elite’ members in 1945.

    One fallout of this sudden increase in population during the war was the need to provide more accommodation. Housing and offices, mostly temporary structures, came up on many of the plots that had been lying vacant in New Delhi. On Queen’s Way, makeshift accommodation was erected to house the large number of American soldiers who were quartered in the city. Despite this, many had to be housed in tents. The palatial houses of the maharajas were requisitioned for oficial purposes, and the Purana Qila became a camp for Italian prisoners of war. A new addition was the several bomb shelters that were built. The landscape was changing not only because of new structures, available space was also being used for new purposes. The golf course within the Viceregal Estate was turned over to wheat cultivation, in response to the wartime ‘grow more food campaign.’

    But even greater changes were on the way, as the end of the war also made the prospect of Indian independence a foreseeable reality. On the one hand this intensified the parlays of Indian political leaders with British oficialdom in the corridors of power. On the other, it created a charged atmosphere in the city. Up till then, protests, riots and violence had been unknown in New Delhi. It had remained quiescent even during the Quit India movement, while Old Delhi erupted in protests, demonstrations, violence and counter-violence by government forces. Now, however, the flames were licking at its edges and tensions were simmering. A military parade to celebrate the Allied victory on 7 March 1946, faced an angry reception, with black flags being waved at it.

    This was the last phase of the freedom movement, which was to culminate in Independence. The transfer of power formally took place at a midnight meeting of the Constituent Assembly in Parliament House on 14/15 August 1947. Outside, a large crowd of people in a celebratory mood had gathered, for all of Delhi had kept awake to witness this historic moment. Conch shells were blown, together with shouts of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai’ and ‘Inqilab zindabad’, until all fell silent to hear Jawaharlal Nehru’s voice coming over the loudspeakers, to announce to the world that ‘At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps’, India had awoken ‘to life and freedom’.


    Agrasen ki Baoli and Connaught Place

    The Changing Face of New Delhi and Connaught Place

    Both New Delhi and Connaught Place have changed significantly in the more than seven decades since Independence. The years after Independence were a time for recovery from the tribulations of Partition, but also a celebration of the new nation’s hopes and dreams. Nowhere were these effects felt more keenly than in Delhi. The population of Delhi as a whole grew from about 900,000 people in 1947, to 1.4 million in 1951. This dramatic increase brought challenges, but it brought new opportunities too, and nowhere more so than in Connaught Place…

    Connaught Place has managed to reinvent itself, to keep pace with the times, and give the new swanky malls that have opened up around the city, a run for their money. Connaught Place offers some distinct things few malls have. Apart from the shopping, eating and movie watching, it is a public space, though its details have changed over the years. The very British bandstand was removed after Independence, to be replaced in 1970 with a system of fountains which ran for a while. Today the grassy green expanses in the middle are a refreshing oasis for visitors; a hangout for the young on most days, and for families on weekends. The corridors and pavements fronting the buildings are the place to browse among hawkers’ wares and eat street food. It is a happy, more inclusive, reinvention of a space where once only those shopping at the establishments proclaiming themselves ‘by appointment to the Viceroy’ trod. A long-standing tradition has been to ring in the New Year with a joyous party in Connaught Place, though fears that these revels will turn raucous often leads to police precautions and restrictions.

    Connaught Place, or for that matter New Delhi as a whole, have come a long way from the days of the British Raj. Contrary to what one might imagine, they are not places for those essentially seeking nostalgia. They have been reimagined to serve the needs of a democratic state and for an Indian people. That is what gives them continued relevance in the twenty-first century, and for new generations.

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    Swapna Liddle is a writer and historian. Her abiding love for the history of Delhi has translated into a PhD as well as several books and articles including Delhi: 14 Historic Walks and Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi.

    This is an extract from Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi, written by Swapna Liddle and published by Speaking Tiger. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

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