Delhi 1803-2012: A Brief Biography

Delhi, Or Dilli has been a city and a capital for a long time and even when it was not the capital, during the Lodi and early Mughal period, and later between 1858 and 1911, it continued to be an important city. We are of course talking of what is historically established and not of myths and legends. During this period there have been 7 major and several minor cities within the territories now identified as the National Capital Territory of Delhi (NCR-Delhi). New Delhi is the eight city. This piece marking the hundred years of the shifting of the colonial capital to Delhi from Calcutta in 1912, will talk about both Shahjahanabad and New Delhi. We will see how  Shahjahanabad the once most powerful and rich city of its time and the last capital of the Mughals was gradually  ruined, plundered and virtually reduced to a slum  while next door arose, a new enclave of Imperial grandeur known now as New Delhi.

Pre 1857

The might of the Mughal Empire, one of the most powerful empires of the medieval world, had begun to erode rapidly after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707.  Wars of succession, attacks on Delhi by Nadir Shah, Suraj Mal, Abdali and the Marathas and the breaking away of large territories like Hyderabad and Awadh helped the British consolidate their position and by 1803, after defeating the Marathas, they become virtual rulers of Delhi. The Mughal King was now a pensioner of the British. David Ochterlony, who lived like a decadent Nawab with his 13 wives, was appointed the British Resident of Delhi in 1803 The Library of Dara Shikoh was modified into his residence.

In the immediate pre and post 1803 period, a process of realignment began to gather momentum and the movers and shakers of the time, people such as Chhunna Mal, Begum Samru and Bhawani Shankar etc. began to line up with the British.  The British and their lackeys became more powerful and arrogant with each passing day.

Urdu was rapidly replacing Persian to emerge as the lingua franca of Delhi, The Delhi college set up in the 1690s as Madrasa Ghazi-ud-Din was transformed into the Delhi College and became the first centre in Delhi to offer English as a subject, thus earning the ire of a large population of the city that saw this as an unwelcome incursion.  Altaf Hussain Hali, a disciple and associate of Ghalib and a major social reformer was to comment that one had to study English, not for knowledge (our languages fulfilled that task adequately) but in order to qualify for a job (in the new dispensation). Maulvi Zaka Ullah and Deputy Nazir Ahmad two members of the Delhi College faculty translated the British devised Indian Penal Code into Hindustani and by the early 1830s Urdu became the official language of the courts. Another member of the faculty of the college Maulvi Mohammad Baqir bought a small press in 1837 and started Dehli Urdu Akhbar, probably the first newspaper in all of north India. Telegraph and photography also began to make their presence felt in the same decades.

Resentment against the Company, had been building up gradually, both among the peasantry, suffering under the rising taxes imposed by the company and among a section of the elite that saw the British as enemies of India.  On 11th May 1857, the soldiers of the Light Bengal infantry revolted in Meerut and arrived in Delhi, the British were thrown out and Bahadur Shah Zafar re-instated as Emperor of India. The City was free for three months, the British recaptured Delhi in mid September 1857 and the city was set on a course that was to change it forever.

Post 1857

In 1858 the British Crown took over from the east India Company and India formally became a colony of the British. Despite their claims the British were far from magnanimous in victory, a systematic massacre was unleashed upon Delhi, thousands were bayoneted, hung on the gallows strung up across the city or tied to cannons and blasted.

The British were now inside the fort. Afraid of another rebellion, they decided to clear a belt of 500 yard width in front of the Red Fort of all habitation; the residents were given 24 hours to clear out. In the eyes of the British the Muslims, co-religionists of the deposed king, were enemies and so hundreds were driven out of the city and not allowed to return for many years. This is the beginning of the communal divide that destroyed the unity that had been the strength of the revolt.

Akbarabadi and Kashmiri Katra Mosques were demolished. The King Edward Park, now the Subhash Park, came up on the site of the Akbarabadi Mosque.  Shops outside the Fatehpuri mosque were bought by Lala Chhunna Mal and the Mosque turned into a godown, Jama Masjid became a soldier’s camp and the Zeenat-ul-Masajid became a bakery for the British officers. With the loss of traditional patronage arts and crafts went into a decline, poets and artists left Delhi in search of new Patrons, Ghalib lost his court pension and died in extreme penury. Many Delhi traders began to curry favour with the new masters, requesting a Rail Link to Calcutta for better trading opportunities, after much persuasion the British agreed and the railways arrived in the mid 1860s. The Lothian Railway Bridge divided the city in two parts, to its south lived the natives while to its north in Kashmiri Gate and beyond lived the British and their hangers on. Land was taken over for the railway station. The original residents settled the new areas of Karol Bagh, Pahar Ganj, Sadar and Bara Hindu Rao. Lala Chhunna Mal and his cohorts bought a lot of property papers from the oustees and became major real estate owners. Opposite the main gate of the railway station, a new road was carved out, through Bagh-e-Jahanaara. The Jahanaara Sarai was demolished to build the Town Hall. Opposite the Town Hall the British cut a swath through the heart of the city and created the Nai Sarak. The traditional Lal Quila-Masjid Fatehpuri East-West Axis was now changed  to the Railway Station- Town Hall North South Axis.

The British were able to defeat the rebellion in Delhi by mid September and in 1876 Victoria declared herself Empress of India.


Between the 1877 Delhi Durbar, held after Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India and the 1903 Coronation Durbar in 1903 Delhi, and we are still talking of Shahjahanabad, gradually began to change but not necessarily for the better.

In 1874, the first Municipal body for Delhi, set up in 1863, acquired  all villages surrounding the walled city  for future urban growth. This laid the ground for setting up of the Lal Dora villages in the early 20th century making it possible for acquiring large tracts of land for building New Delhi and the alienation of all the agricultural lands from the villages of South, west, east and north Delhi by the DDA in the 1960s and later. The white civilian population  lived north of the Lothian Bridge and the army inside the Red Fort. When the supply of piped water began in the 1890s, through the setting up of the Chandrawal waterworks, a rudimentary waste water disposal system was also put in place. Two storm water drains replaced the Mughal era drains. The Saleem Garh drain to exclusively handle the  waste from Kashmiri Gate area and the Red Fort Cantonment to the Jamuna while the other carried the waste water from the native quarters. This practice of drawing water from upstream for consumption and dumping waste at a point downstream of the intake has been followed till today. The dumping  of all the filth of the city in the river, without first cleaning the water, has killed the Jamuna in the last 111 years. The British, with no interest in protecting our environment, started it, but why have we not changed the practice?

Constant efforts to downgrade the status of Delhi continued throughout this period, such as, Delhi was made a part of the Punjab. Though the Muslim nobility and artisans that were forced out or had fled from the city were not allowed to return for many years, the population of the city began to grow with the influx from Punjab and the North west Frontier province. Trade, commerce and manufacturing activities began to expand. The Delhi Bank of Lala Chunna Mal set up in 1850 and destroyed in 1857 was reborn in 1859 under Chhunna Mal’s patronage, and many Loyalist sahukars and traders bought shares in the enterprise. By 1896 Delhi was the seventh largest town in India and by 1896 it was the richest town in all of Punjab. Delhi was fast becoming too important and could no longer be ignored.

The 1903 Durbar and Beyond

Curzon was Viceroy of India between 1898 and 1905. It is during his term that the 1903 durbar, the grandest of the three Delhi Durbars, was organised. His term saw the revival of the post of the Director General of the ASI and the development of a systematic policy of conservation, preservation and documentation of heritage. Curzon’s interest in conservation led to the preservation of many monuments of Delhi that had been badly damaged, through deliberate destruction, systematic encroachment, willful neglect and wanton vandalism.

Curzon used the occasion of the Durbar to spruce up the Red Fort. He succeeded in retrieving the marble tiles inlaid with semi precious stones that had been removed from the wall behind the throne and sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. An Italian expert was engaged to use Mughal miniatures as his guide to replace the tiles in their original location. Remarkable as this act was, it was poor compensation for the virtual obliteration of 80% of the buildings that had existed inside the Red fort prior to its occupation by the British in 1857.

Issues of education, language and of city governance came to the fore during this period.  Unhappiness with colonial domination found expression through opposition to missionary activities in schools run by them, British soldiers were pelted with stones in 1903 for walking into the Jama Masjid without removing their shoes. A majority of educated Hindus and Muslims continued to support Urdu as a language of public discourse. The Hindu College shifted from Kinari Bazar to Kashmiri Gate close to St Stephens college and thus was born the more than 100 year old rivalry of the two colleges.. The Mohammedan Education Society held their annual conference in Delhi coinciding with the Durbar. Many theatres had come up and Parsi theatre was getting established as a new form of entertainment. Many of these halls were to later become venues for political meetings, before getting reincarnated as cinema halls.

The Delhi municipality had grown from its earlier insignificance into a body that had begun to engage itself with everything to do with the city. It intervened actively in the shifting of the cantonment from Daryaganj to beyond the north ridge, in the alignment of the railway, in acquiring lands around the city for future expansion and in demanding the erection of several bridges across the railway tracks for safe passage for the residents.

Delhi was growing, it was growing fast and the decision to ignore the eternal capital was everyday becoming a little more impractical.

Capital Returns 

Delhi expanded rapidly from the 1890s onwards and soon emerged as the commercial capital of Punjab. Income from taxes was increasing rapidly but it was still not enough to meet the costs of water supply and drainage works that had been planned for more than a decade. The provincial and imperial treasuries getting rich through taxes collected from Delhi spent precious little on civic amenities. Many of the members on the municipality represented sectional interests, banning certain castes from taking water from Municipal Taps, refusing  to tax traders or property owners, while taxing vegetable sales and pushcarts.

Electricity arrived when the city was being spruced up for the 1903 durbar and in its wake came the electric tram. By 1907, the tram had connected Ajmeri Gate, Pahar Ganj, Sadar and Sabzi Mandi to Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid. At its greatest expansion the tramways spread across about 14 miles (24 kilometers), connecting Tees Hazari and Sabzi Mandi to Sadar, Bara Hindu Rao and Pahar Ganj via Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid, Chawri, Lal Kuan, Katra Badiyan and Fatehpuri.

The Daryaganj Cantonment was shifted to an area north of the Northern Ridge. Large tracts of land were taken over, a large number of trees were felled and agricultural lands acquired to build roads,  to lay down railway tracks to the durbar site, to build new railway stations and Polo Grounds and for locating the Tented City that had to come up for the 1911 Durbar. Throughout the period between 1877-1911, the municipal authorities quibbled on who should maintain the roads laid out for the durbars. Multiplicity of authority and fights over jurisdiction is something that continues to be a part of the life of Delhi even today

On 11th December the grand durbar was inaugurated, action replay for King George V who had been crowned earlier in London on 6th May 1910. George V announced on December 12th that the capital will return to Delhi.  On the 15th, two foundation stones, one by the king and the other by the queen, were placed into the coronation pillar at what is now known as the coronation park. Despite the fact that they had punished Delhi for the rebellion and had moved the capital away from Delhi, they knew that not ruling from Delhi prevented a certain legitimacy that they were desperately seeking and so within 50 odd years of moving the capital out of Delhi, they had to return. We must also remember that even when they ruled from Calcutta the Durbar was always held at Delhi.

Capital Building

Much is being written about 100 years of New Delhi and it will help if we have a better idea of some dates before we proceed any further.

As King George the Vth rose to speak on 12th December 1911 at the Coronation Grounds, very few people had any idea of what he was going to say and so the announcement to shift the Capital to Delhi came as a great shock to many. Many people in Calcutta would have been unhappy about losing the commercial and political advantages of living in the capital. The builders and contractors of Delhi must have celebrated, but there are no records of large scale jubilation in Delhi coinciding with the decision. On the 15th of December, three days after the announcement to shift the Capital, King George V and Queen Mary laid the foundation stones of the new Capital at Burari, the site of the Coronation Durbar. The stones only carry a date 15th of December 1911 and nothing else.

The two stones were fixed into a pillar, known now as the coronation pillar and stayed there till they were removed at dead of night in 1921 and in great secrecy carried in a bullock cart to be installed at the site of the New Capital on Raisina Hill. The secret operation was carried out because the British were afraid of the Civil Disobedience and Khilafat Movements that were then sweeping across the nation. It is ironic that the biggest empire of the time was building a capital in its biggest colony but was afraid of someone making away with the foundation stones.

In any case the announcement did not mean that Delhi became the colonial capital from the next day. The capital formally shifted only in 1912 and four viceroys between 1912 to 1929 namely, Harding, Chelmsford, Reading and Irwin had to stay at the Viceregal Lodge, currently the office of the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, because the Viceroy’ house, the Rashtrapati Bhawan of today, was still being built. Any how the capital was shifted in 1912. The Land where the Durbar was held was found to be unsuitable as it became water logged during heavy rains. The site finally chosen belonged to the Maharajas of Jodhpur and Jaipur, Raisina Hill belonging to Jodhpur was acquired shortly after 1912 and construction began in 1913, but Jaisinghpura, property of Jaipur, where Connaught Place is located, was acquired in 1925 and construction could begin only in 1928.

So in short, decision to shift the capital made in 1911, capital shifted in 1912, construction of  Viceroy’s House began in 1913, work on Connaught place began as late as 1928 and the name” New Delhi” was finally decided in 1927. More dates and less confusion as we go along.

The City Rises

By the late 1920s work was in full swing, a city was coming up, there were railway tracks running close to where the Baroda House was to come up later and the tracks went on through the area where the North Block, the South Block and the Viceroy’s house, now the Rashtrapati Bhawan, are located. The tracks were laid to transport the huge quantities of stone brought to the construction site directly from the stone quarries in Rajasthan.

The city that began to rise on the plains stretching down from the Raisina hill was coming up on land that had been leveled and cleared of all traces of earlier settlements, graves, mausoleums, wells and villages were removed.  The New City was unlike any other city that had ever existed in this ancient land. Atop the hill was the Palace of the Viceroy: the representative of the emperor and offices of his minions who also lived off the avenues that radiated on either side of the office blocks, then there was this vast emptiness filled with a straight avenue with water channels on either side and rows of trees. At the other end of the broad avenue was a large statue of the King under a canopy, Royal, dignified and aloof. Between the residence of the Deputy and the likeness of the king was a memorial to those Indian soldiers, who had died for the king: The India Gate.

The statute of the King was surrounded on all sides, but at a respectable distance, by the offices of the representatives of feudal lords who had survived because they sided with the Empire: Hyderabad, Baroda, Patiala, Jaipur, Bikaner, Jam Nagar, Jodhpur, Kapurthala, Travancore, Faridkot, Mandi, Bahawalpur and what have you. Farther still were the residences of the less senior bureaucrats. The avenue was deliberately and consciously kept broader than the Champs Elysees in France and the memorial to the Indian soldiers killed in faraway battle fields defending the interests of Empire in the first world war, was supposed to be a reply to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The British Empire was already tottering by the early thirties, the civil disobedience movement and the Salt Satyagrah had mobilized millions across India, the first roundtable conference between Mahatma Gandhi and Irwin had led to release of political prisoners and remission of fines. The Imperial Administration was clearly on the retreat and yet it wanted the Viceroy’s House to be larger than the Buckingham Palace and higher than the Jama Masjid. The Grandeur of Empire was certainly delusionary but, except perhaps for the British, it was deluding no one.

New Delhi 30 and 40s

The decades of the 30s and 40s of the 20th century saw New Delhi coming into its own, an identity created by Baker and Lutyens, that had little to do with Shahjahanabad, now increasingly and disparagingly called Purani or Old Delhi. The only links New Delhi had with Purani Delhi was through the Harding (now Tilak) and Minto Bridges. New Delhi had to be antiseptically clean, and so all wholesale trade and other messy businesses had to be kept out of sight and this was ensured through locating the New Delhi Station at Pahar Ganj, the interstate bus terminus near Ajmeri Gate and the wholesale markets of grains, pulses, vegetables, fruits, cooking oils, pickles, dry fruits, paper, hardware, sanitary ware, timbre and building materials with in or close to the old city. The old had to remain dirty and unkempt to ensure that the new could preen before the world in its latest finery.

The area covered by roads radiating from Raisina hill and now known as the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone, though Lutyens did not design any of these bungalows, is the quintessential New Delhi.  This was a strange city; no industry, no trades, no crafts, it did not produce anything. Though a few very rich industrialists like the Birlas and the Dalmias, members of the Viceroy’s council and the national assembly lived in New Delhi, it was essentially a city of bureaucrats. The junior babudom lived in colonies like Havlock Square, Jones Square and Raja Bazar Square, between Gole Market and Reading Road. There were just two markets, the Gole Market and the Connaught Place. The lower clerks, drivers, peons, and others lived in the old city and the old villages scattered through south and west Delhi, as did others that kept the city alive.

As the capital grew, new hotels like the Imperial (the venue for partition talks between the British; the congress and the league), The Claridges and The Fonseca came up in New Delhi. The last was replaced by Taj Mansingh in 1978.

New colonies  came up, the colony for senior officers were named Maan Nagar and Shaan Nagar, while the sprawling colony for babus was called Vinay Nagar, There was reaction to the continuation of the class divide of the colonial period in the names that were chosen despite the attainment of freedom and the declaration that we were a democratic republic and so Maan Nagar and Shaan Nagar became  Rabindra Nagar and Bharti Nagar while Vinay Nagar was broken up into Sarojini Nagar, Qidwai Nagar, Netaji Nagar, Laxmi Bai Nagar and Nauroji Nagar, no one bothered about the name of the colony of class four employees and that continues to be called Seva Nagar. Lodi Estate for senior officers and Lodi Colony for clerks and section officers came up in the 40s, the Lodi Gardens came up in 1936 to the south of south-end Road.  Sardar Shobha Singh, one of the major builder contractors of New Delhi, built large houses and tenements on these lands and named them after his father and thus the Sujan Singh Park came into existence in 1945, one of the last major constructions of New Delhi before India became independent. Delhi of the forties changed forever with the arrival of freedom and the aftermath of Partition. Large parts of the areas to the south, east and west of New Delhi also changed forever, what remained almost unchanged, for a few years at least, was the erstwhile Imperial Capital.

Change-The Only Constant

With independence came partition and with partition came a total transformation in the life of all of Delhi, New Delhi included. The celebrations for freedom were soon forgotten as senseless violence, that only humans are capable of, gripped the two new born nations. Delhi and Lahore saw some of the worst of this madness of rioting, arson and killings,

Muslims were the targets in large parts of North India and tens of thousands from Shahjahanabad and from the Delhi villages sought refuge in Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb- the two camps set up for Muslim refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Sikhs pouring into Delhi from what was now West Pakistan were settled in camps across the city or took shelter where they found it. These camps later developed into areas like Nirankari Colony, Tilak Nagar, Ramesh Nagar, Ashok Nagar, Moti Nagar, Rajinder Nagar, Patel Nagar, Lajpat Nagar and Karbala etc from the early fifties. The camping site of the refugees from East Pakistan eventually became Chitaranjan Park in the 1970s. Delhi had taken a life of its own, no one was planning it any longer and it grew to accommodate the shelter less. The area that was New Delhi began to change rapidly, Chankya Puri came up as the diplomatic enclave. The Ashoka, The Janpath Hotel and The Lodi Hotels came up to cater to the rising number of visitors to the capital of Independent India. New markets like the Ghaffar Market, Khan Market, Shankar Market,  Meher Chand Market, Sarojini Nagar Markets  came up to meet the requirements of an ever expanding population.

The 50s and 60 is also the period when the Central Government got down to the serious business of institution building, Lalit Kala Academy, Sahitya Academy, The UGC, Academies of Research in Sciences,  Agriculture, Social Sciences and Historical research were set up and architects like Habib Rehman and Achyut Kanvinde played a leading role in developing a new architectural vocabulary for an independent and confident nation. Buildings and offices like Krishi Bhawan, Rail Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan, Vayu Sena Bhawan, Shastri Bhawan, Vigyan Bhawan and the National Museum slowly but surely began to change the contours of Imperial Delhi. More fundamental changes in the appearance of Delhi were in the offing.

From City to Megapolis

From the 70 to the present is a period that has seen Delhi and its environs undergoing major transformations. The cumulative effect of the building activities of CPWD, DDA, private builders and those who live off the pavements for they have nowhere to go has created a city that defies all logic, it is organized chaos, an unlikely assemblage of clashing architectural styles, Roman pillars rising from Kathiawari balconies and Spanish tiled roofs sitting atop baroque arches, the architecture is as much of a mix as are the residents of this city.

Private builders had begun to promote large residential colonies from the mid-50s and Hauz Khas, Green Park, South Extension, Defence Colony, Kailash Colony, Model Town, Kirti Nagar, Maharani Bagh, Rajouri Garden, Friends Colony etc had  mushroomed around both the Old and New Delhis by the1960s. Land prices began their unending northward journey; the Central Government stepped in to build the sprawling R.K. Puram for its own employees, it also set up the DDA with the express objective of providing affordable housing to Delhites.

The DDA launched co-operative housing schemes and self financing schemes for the middle and upper middle classes and Janakpuri, Dilshad Garden, Rohini, Peetampura, Kalkaji Extension, Alakhnanda, Munirka, Patparganj, Vasant Kunj, Dwarka Mayur Vihar etc came up, builders launched expensive colonies like Mansarovar Garden, Greater Kailash,  Vasant Vihar. A large number of illegal colonies too sprang up, at times on encroached lands at times on land kept aside as green areas and gradually the planners began to lose direction.

In the mid 70s Sanjay Gandhi, l’enfant terrible of Indian politics, appeared on the scene with his coterie and then began a phase of bulldozing of entire localities, always the poor from Old Delhi and the poorer quarters. Though this was decried and subsequent governments avoided such high profile actions, removing the poor and throwing them in far off corners of the city where they would not be seen has become the defining trend of Delhi’s growth and development.

Two mega sporting events, the very successful 1982 Asian Games and the unremarkable  Commonwealth games  and the Metro have done much to add to the glitz of the city  but unfortunately Delhi is increasingly becoming a city that has no place for the pedestrian, for those on bicycles, for the old, the infirm, the handicapped and the differently-abled. Delhi has expanded at the cost of its original residents, the villagers; the callousness that the city fathers have exhibited about the needs of the villagers is also reflected in the city’s attitude towards the weak and the voiceless.  Unless concerns about pollution and environment and making the city disabled and aged friendly begin to engage us in a fundamental manner, there is little chance of Delhi living up to its history of an eternal city.

[This article first appeared as a series of ten short pieces in HT Next, a Hindustan Times publication for school children.]

5 thoughts on “Delhi 1803-2012: A Brief Biography”

  1. we really need more of such accounts…….we also need to look urgently at post-partition urban Delhi, making of community enclaves, inter-group relations (as the anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose had done for Calcutta), and so on……but this is good reading too….


  2. What were the names of roads like KG Marg, Ashoka Road etc around connaught place during british rule? When were these names given to these roads?


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