City lost in an effort to square the hexagon

Imperial Delhi
July 11, 2003

The imperial intention that guided the building of British New Delhi is best summarised by the words inscribed along the arched opening of Sir Herbert Baker's North Secretariat: "Liberty will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to liberty, it is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed." This inscription, like the construction of the only complete British city in India, reveals that the imperial builders expected to rule forever, or at least longer than the 16 years the imperial powers governed from Delhi prior to Indian independence and partition.

New Delhi (built in 1911-31) is easily the world's greatest city built in the interwar years. But today this garden city is threatened by the politician-official-builder nexus. The historic setting is in danger of being obliterated by skyscrapers, and awareness at international level is urgently required.

I began this book with great interest, hoping that Andreas Volwahsen would do justice to this city, but I was bitterly disappointed. Imperial Delhi has four chapters. The first, "Transferring the capital", has full-page quotes, reproductions of memos, archival pictures and letters, all of which add little value to the text. Chapter two, "Models and inspiration for the plan of imperial Delhi", compares New Delhi with examples of urban planning such as Washington DC, the garden city of Paris and Christopher Wren's plans for London. However, the chapter includes descriptions of Bath, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Albert Speer's plans for Berlin (designed six years after New Delhi was inaugurated). The comparisons are forced and the text is limited to descriptions of the various foreign cities, hardly mentioning Delhi. A quotation in the Canberra section from Sten Nilsson's 1968 publication criticises New Delhi's "lifeless" roads, yet today more than 2 million people commute through New Delhi daily.

Half the book is devoted to the third chapter, "Elements and symbols for imperial Delhi". It connects the use of the hexagon and the hexagram in imperial Delhi to either Edwin Lutyens' links with Freemasonry, possible Jewish connections or the architects' desire to use "Indian symbols", which they "despised" but were "instructed to use". In his eagerness to prove the first point, Volwahsen uses stone screens from 16th-century Humayun's Tomb to show the link between the plan for New Delhi and "Mughal patterns", claiming that "the facings on Humayun's Tomb appear almost to anticipate the town plan of imperial Delhi". But his argument becomes ridiculous when he refers to the (distinctly square) "Mughal Garden" at the Viceroy's House as having a ground plan, "like so many elements in Lutyens' architecture...

derived from the hexagram". Volwahsen also uses the sacred Nandi bull as a symbolic element - on the evidence of a sculpture placed in the verandah of the Viceroy's House as late as 1966!

The final chapter, "Town plan and places of importance in imperial Delhi", is similarly superficial, with a list of Indian plants appearing in the section on town plans even though the text never refers to horticultural practice. Similarly, the section on "Road networks" deals mostly with soil quality. The residential buildings for the officers are not categorised in the way that they were planned. Instead three buildings are chosen, seemingly arbitrarily, and discussed superficially.

Overall, the text is characterised by long quotes from earlier books. Even descriptions of significant buildings such as the Durbar Hall are quotes and just five paragraphs of the (mere) 18 pages devoted to Herbert Baker's Secretariat buildings are not quotes. Quotations, like the illustrations, are often repeated; at least one appears three times. As for the author's arguments, they are sometimes based on incorrect premises. For example, Lutyens designed only two palaces for maharajas, at Hyderabad and Baroda, but Volwahsen speaks of the period "between 1919 and 1926 when Lutyens was building a new palace in imperial Delhi for one of the Maharajas almost every year".

It is difficult to understand the intention of this book. Some sections read like a guidebook; others have the feel of a magazine, with full reproductions of memos and letters. Sometimes it reads like a book of architectural theory or history, at other times a coffee-table book.

Roughly 70 per cent of the space is devoted to illustrations, very few of which are striking. While the production of the book is excellent, its contents do not do justice either to its title or to the city it describes.

Ratish Nanda is a historic building consultant based in Delhi, undertaking a PhD programme on Humayun's Tomb at De Montfort University. He was involved in the nomination of New Delhi to the World Monument Watch list of "100 Most Endangered Sites".

Imperial Delhi: The British Capital of the Indian Empire

Author - Andreas Volwahsen
ISBN - 3 7913 88 7
Publisher - Prestel
Price - £45.00
Pages - 303

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