Thursday, March 31, 2011

Delhi – The British Raj

A journey along the northern ridge above Old Delhi gives a taste of the 19th Century British Raj, while the other side of old Delhi sits the 20th Century version with Lutyens’ India Gate and the grand former Viceroy’s Palace and Government Secretariat buildings. The ridge gives a great view of the old city and is where the British forces were encamped for the retaking of Delhi during the 1857 Mutiny. Marking the positions held is the “Mutiny Memorial” or Ajitgarh a large gothic style tower in the local red sandstone.
This was surprisingly difficult to find on my first visit in 2001 with the locals neither recognising the name of Mutiny Memorial or Ajitgarh. The “eureka” moment came with my driver asking AGAIN at some local shops and me getting out to stretch my legs to immediately see the tower sitting on the ridge about a mile away! Each side of the tower carries a marble inlaid plaque identifying the numbers of casualties from the Mutiny.

To the south east of the position the Jama Masjid is easily picked out, with the Red Fort a little further in the distance. The Fort would have been the main target for the batteries of gun on the ridge. To the south can be seen the newly opened Delhi metro and the modern city blocks rising in the distance.

A little further along the ridge is an Asoka Pillar, this being one of the two brought to Delhi by Firoz Shah from Meerut. The pillar dates from the 3rd Century BC and was originally set up here on the ridge at Firoz Shah’s hunting palace (which sadly is now no more than a pile of stones) in 1356. This one I said to have broken into five pieces due to an explosion in the early 18th Century and later had the inscribed portions sawn off for analysis by the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

The pillar shows clear signs of its more recent history having been reassembled here in the 1860’s. Some of the Brahmin script can still be seen with its message from Asoka about the importance of the welfare and happiness of the people.

More on the Ajitgarh:

Asoka Pillar photo collection:

More on the Asoka Pillars:

There are a number of parks along the ridge although none are particularly attractive as they are really just marked out among the woods and scrubland that make up the ridge. At the highest point on the ridge is the Flagstaff Tower, built in 1828 it dominated the military cantonments below the ridge to fly the British flag. The Tower became the meeting point during the Mutiny for British families before they fled Delhi in 1857.

Beyond the eastern end of the ridge is the Delhi Coronation Park. This was the site for the Delhi durbars and is a huge flat expanse of a “parade” ground. At one end is a raised stepped platform from which the King Emperor and dignitaries could view proceedings and is topped by a memorial column. Adjoining the durbar site is a compound of the busts and statues of the “great and the good” of the Raj that formerly occupied the India Gate area. There is a huge statue of the King Emperor that takes pride of place having formerly been on the now empty plinth seen at India Gate. There are a further 20 plinths but only two statues and two busts remained of the other governors, admirals, general etc. on my last visit in 2004.

Coronation Park photo collection:

Movie footage of the 1911 Durbar:

More on the Northern Ridge:

The Coronation Park was originally meant to be the area for development for a new complex of Government Buildings for the Raj for the planned move of the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi. This was changed to the current area of India Gate to the South of Old Delhi around the Raisina Hill. On the crest of the hill is Rashtrapati Bhavan, the palace of the Viceroy (and now the Indian President).The Palace was commenced in 1913 and took 18 years to complete. It has 340 room, covers 19,000 sq. metres and is topped by a huge dome for which Lutyens reputedly took his inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome. A grand avenue runs from the Palace through the centre of the India Gate complex of building, gardens and monuments. Flanking this broad avenue at the edge of the hill are the main Government Secretariat buildings. From the India Gate monument the Palace dominates the horizon, a grand symbol of the power of the British Raj.

The red sandstone and granite India Gate is the national monument of India and was designed by Lutyens to commemorate the 90,000 troops of the British Indian army who died in World War One and the 3rd Afghan War. Beneath the arch in black marble is the Indian army’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This being one of the main tourist sites in Delhi there can be a lot of hassle from hawkers here and in 2001 for me the opportunity to do some illegal currency trading! Beyond the Gate is the podium and canopy that until independence in 1947 was home to the statute of the King Emperor George V that now stands in Coronation Park. Among the road grid is laid out an extensive park with a number of grand fountains and ponds that are very popular at weekends.

More on Rashtrapati Bhavan:

More on India Gate:

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