Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Birth of New Delhi: Coronation Darbar 1911

Mir Nihal headed towards Chandni Chowk early morning on 7th December, 1911. After a long wait, the five mile long royal procession slowly emerged out of Lal Qila. From a distance he could not even identify the firangi King (the new queen told the officials flatly that neither she was going to sit atop an elephant nor would allow the King). But the great pageantry with guns booming in the background reminded him only of India’s servitude. Sitting in front of Jama Masjid, Mir Nihal remembered how in 1857, the British forces after re-capturing the city thought of blasting away the great mosque. As Nihal – a member of the fading Mughal elite - sat there, images of Delhi’s past glory flashed before him. On his way back home, he met a lame beggar, said to be the youngest son of the last emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar – these haunting scenes from Ahmed Ali’s classic Twilight in Delhi are difficult to forget.

Coronation Park
Five days later, on 12th December, at the Coronation Park George V was anointed the Emperor of India. A new crown was designed for the occasion at a cost of 60 million pounds – a matching tiara (now called Delhi Darbar tiara) was presented to the Queen on behalf of the ladies of India. After the royal couple was anointed, all the reigning Kings of British India were trooped in to do their salaam – this included the lone lady, Begum of Bhopal, who was modestly attired in a traditional dress but wore a pair of tennis shoes! Maharaja of Gaikwad Sayyaji Rao II appeared without any jewellery and turned his back on the King after a simple bow – this enraged the officials as a sure sign of rebellion by the independent-minded Maharaja.

Jharokha Darshan of English King: Lal Qila 1911, minor Indian princes were used as Royal Ushers
Just as the official function got over with the national anthem God Save the King, George V surprised everyone – “We are pleased to announce that......we have decided upon the transfer of the seat of the Government of India from Calcutta to the ancient capital of Delhi.......”
This was the defining moment in the modern history of Delhi. In 1857, Delhi was the nerve centre of revolt and British reprisal was most severe here. After 1857 Delhi was in terminal decline – a large number of Hindus and Muslims left the city - both to escape from possible reprisal and in search of better opportunities. In 1911, Lahore was more important than Delhi and Lucknow to the east was the largest city in North India. But history was on Delhi’s side. At least since 1000 AD, mostly this had been the capital of North India. Situated at the end of Indus basin and Punjab and at the mouth of Ganga-Yamuna plains; equidistant from the Northern Hills and deserts of Rajputana, this had been the most preferred location to rule the sub-continent. Also, the annulment of Partition of Bengal was viewed as a step against the Muslims, the choice of Delhi – the traditional seat of Sultanate and Mughal power - was a means to assuage that feeling.
In 1911, Delhi was a decaying old town. There was none of the cosmopolitanism or huge urban sprawl of capital Calcutta or the biggest city, Bombay. Total population of the city was just around 4 lakhs – there was serious dearth of modern professionals like doctors or engineers. Economic opportunities were extremely limited. Outside the walled city, there were only villages and some clusters - at Qutab and around Nizamuddin’s dargah. Even in the 1930s, there was nothing but agricultural fields between Safdarjung’s tomb (southern boundary of Lutyens Delhi) and Qutab. In the walled city, old Muslim and Hindu elites dominated. Kayasthas and Bengalis dominated government service and socially there were some tensions between them. Sahibs lived at Civil Lines and Daryaganj. Railway station brought some business. Mir Nihal’s neighbours were excited as the Coronation and then the shifting of capital brought more business.

A huge tent city was erected at the Coronation Park to accommodate visiting dignitaries and officials. This in many ways was a precursor to the imperial New Delhi that was going to come up. Coronation Darbar brought telephone for the first time in Delhi, substantially augmented power supply through a new power plant, led to establishment of elaborate street lighting and sanitation systems.
As the King finished his announcement, there was pin-drop silence for a moment then there was a huge round of applause. Old Delhites like Mir Nihal were not much impressed but businessmen were happy. People from neighbouring areas, particularly Punjabi traders were excited about upcoming opportunities. People in Calcutta were absolutely dismayed – on the other hand, humbling of its great rival made Bombay quite happy. The wheel of fortune turned once again in Delhi’s favour.

PS: A film was made on the entire ceremony - this was one of the earliest films made on a public event in India. This movie recorded in Kinemacolour was the first colour recording of an imperial event outside Britain. It was a great hit in New York next year. In YouTube, you can also see what exactly Mir Nihal saw on that day plus what he was not privileged to see five days later at the Coronation Park - that bit available in black and white - has got the footage of Begum of Bhopal and Maharaja of Gaikwad too.
Rare photographs of the event are preserved in Ebrahim Alkazi collection in New Delhi


  1. Little did they know that their imperial arrogance would lead to two terrible wars, and that within five decades India would be free...what a foolhardy exercise it 1911, they would never have imagined that a small, pugnacious gujarati barrister sitting in South Africa would challenge them...with bare hands, and nothing else...but the weapon to defeat them, Satyagraha, was already four years old...

  2. great post...