NEW DELHI Every conquering people of India used Delhi, because of its strategic location between the Indus and the Gangetic Plains, for the site of their capitals, from the ancient Hindu Indraprastha to the Turko-Afghan Sultanate of Tuglaqabad to the Mughal Shahjahanabad to the British Empire's New Delhi. And every ruler of India has manipulated architecture to leave his imprint on the city, giving the present city of Delhi the distinction of being the seventh capital. Following nearly a century and a half of struggling to tame "ungovernable" Calcutta, British India's premier city, the British shifted their capital to New Delhi after 1912. Their decision to employ an Indo-Saracenic visual language for the new capital's architecture was a demonstrated desire to encapsulate India's imperial past in its modern center of power, and to legitimize the Brtish Raj in India.
Delhi's ancient Hindu heritage no doubt remains remote and shrouded in mystery, although archaeological excavations (the most recent conducted in 1991 at Anangpur, near Suraj Kund) reveal human habitation dating back to the late Stone Age. Indraprastha, mentioned in the great Aryan epic Mahābhārata (c. 1000 b.c.), is believed to have been located on the western bank of the Yamuna River, near the Purana Qila (Old Fort), where the Afghan Sher Shah established his capital. Excavations at Indrapat (near Purana Qila) have yielded painted gray earthenware dating back to 1000 b.c. The Aryan residents of Indraprastha used clay to make pots, made ornaments from precious stones, and lived in houses built from mud bricks, wattle, and daub.
Delhi was destined to play an increasingly prominent role as the capital of Muslim conquerors from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The Islamization of Delhi commenced with its conquest by Muhammad of Ghur in a.d. 1193, followed by invasions by rival Turko-Afghans, until the Mughal emperor Babur captured the city in 1526. The Turko-Afghan period, remembered as the Delhi Sultanate, left several important monuments, including the Qutab Minar, the tomb of Ilutmish at Mehrauli, the Ferozshah Kotla, Nizzamuddin (named after a Sufi saint), Kotla Mubarakshah, the tomb of Sikander Lodi, and his fortress in the Lodi Gardens.
Mughal imperial Delhi enjoyed a cultural renaissance during the reign of Shah Jahan (1627–1658), known for his monumental architecture, with intricate designs of inlaid jewels and semiprecious stones. He envisioned a magnificent new capital in Delhi that would harken back to the splendor of his ancestral Persia, and in 1648 Delhi was renamed Shahjahanabad, serving as the twin Mughal capital along with Agra, about 110 miles (177 km) to the southwest. At Agra, Shah Jahan built the famous monument in white marble, the Taj Mahal, as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal; and at Delhi, he built the Red Fort in red sandstone and the Jama Masjid at Bhoja Pahadi. The Nahar-i-Bist (canal) linked the Red Fort with Chandni Chowk (Silver Street), a crowded commercial district that continues to offer goods to local residents and tourists alike.
The British understood the historical significance of Delhi when they shifted their capital from Calcutta. Among British India's officials, it was widely believed that Delhi's imperial associations would not only provide "a sense of historical continuity" but would also secure "permanency" for British rule in India. Viceroy Lord Hardinge kept the decision to build a new capital there top secret until the coronation durbar of King George V at Delhi's historic Red Fort on 12 December 1911. On that occasion the king himself made the announcement.
New Delhi's planning committee, appointed to determine the site for the new capital, selected municipal engineer John A. Brodie, Captain George Swinton, chairman of the London Country Council, Edwin Landseer Lutyens, a country house specialist, and Henry V. Lanchester, as a consulting architect. They decided to construct the new capital south of Old Delhi, in the area around Raisana Hill.
Covering an area of 3,200 acres (1,300 hectares), New Delhi was initially designed to accommodate a population of 65,000. British art critic Sir George Birdwood reminded the architects, "It is not a cantonment we have to lay out at Delhi, but an Imperial City—the symbol of the British Raj in India—and it must like Rome be built for eternity." Lutyens and his associate Herbert Baker initially called for a tightly knit, high-density city with broad boulevards and high-rise buildings reminiscent of the Champs Élysées or Bombay; but they were opposed by other British officials who felt that in hot and humid India they must have space, greenery, and low-density bungalows on spacious parcels of land, ensuring distance between the English and the Indians, which had become the objective of British urban policy since the Great Rebellion of 1857. In New Delhi, the British produced mixed architectural results in their efforts to reflect British "achievement" while incorporating Indian tradition. Still, by blending European classicism with Indo-Saracenic motifs, they attempted to provide historical continuity to the new imperial capital of India.
Although New Delhi was planned adjacent to Old Delhi, the two cities were separated by open spaces and a railway embankment. New Delhi was accessible from Old Delhi through only two underpasses: the Minto and Lady Hardinge Bridges. New Delhi was laid out in a geometric pattern over a triangular base formed by Connaught Place (the commercial district), the government complex (housing the two secretariat blocks and the viceroy's palace), and India Gate (that housed the statute of King George V, now removed). The centerpiece of the New Delhi plan is the use of a broad processional avenue, King's Way (now Rajpath), linking India Gate with the vicerory's palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan). The central secretariat complex is planned to dominate the skyline of New Delhi. The two secretariat blocks are separated by the viceroy's palace in the middle, the three buildings occupying the highest land of Raisina Hill. The residential areas for lower- and middle-income employees were placed to the north of King's Way; senior British officials were provided bungalows with generous land to the south. In contrast to the old high-density walled city, New Delhi had a density of only twenty-five persons per acre.
It would take the Indian government two decades to complete the new capital before finally shifting all its offices from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1931. The capital had been conceived in the pomp and circumstance of the coronation durbār; it would be inaugurated in the throes of Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha campaigns; and it would serve as the capital of British India for a mere fifteen years. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, declared New Delhi "un-Indian." What Nehru objected to, and what other Indian leaders have dutifully objected to since, was the grandiose monumentality of its official buildings, created as the urban centerpiece of British rule of India.
In retrospect, the British had been correct in selecting the southern site around Raisana Hill, for New Delhi has expanded unabated since the 1980s, and the city's population in 2004 topped 10 million. New Delhi's rapid growth and the centralization of resources have served to induce the development of new towns on its periphery: Ghaziabad, Noida, Gurgeon, and Sonepat. New Delhi in the twenty-first century is a capital under siege from its own population, although its government has so far succeeded in protecting Lutyens's remarkable architectural vision.
Metcalf, Thomas. An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
David Anthony Washbrook