In the winter of 1911, Delhi was just another dot on the political map of British India, a modest provincial town and small commercial centre still recovering from the scars of imperial retribution after the 1857 uprising. On December 12, 1911 the city hosted the Delhi Durbar – the
biggest tamasha of the British Raj – near Burari. Though Calcutta was the capital of British India then, Delhi had hosted two Durbars before, in 1877 and 1903. It was, however, the first time that the royal couple, King Emperor George V and Queen Mary, was present at the coronation celebration.
A city of tents, with a railway network of its own, had come up over an area of 25 square miles in the northwest part of Delhi, to be called Kingsway Camp later. Apart from the presence of the royal couple, the Durbar was special for another reason. It was here that King George V announced the shifting of the Capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi, a decision known only to the top echelons of the British regime till then.
As the Durbar ended, the long task of building an imperial capital began. The government machinery, however, shifted to the new Capital by March 1912. A temporary capital with modest buildings came up at Civil Lines, including a circuit house, council chamber and office of the Commander-in-Chief.
Edwin Landseer Lutyens, known for designing country houses in England, was entrusted with the job of planning the new city. Along with his old friend Herbert Baker and a team of architects, Lutyens set about the task of finalising a site for the new capital.
The new capital was supposed to come up at the site where the Durbar was held and a foundation stone was laid by George V.
Lutyens found the site swampy and prone to flooding, apart from being too ‘flat and boring’. He roamed around Delhi’s countryside and finalised the area near Raisina Hills. Its undulating surface meant the buildings would be built at a height, making them imposing. The area was largely uninhabited except for villages such as Malcha.
After the proclamation of Delhi as the new capital, it took 20 years of planning and construction for New Delhi to come up. The axis of the city was formed around the three grand buildings – Government House (Rashtrapati Bhavan), Secretariat and Council House (Parliament House) – at one end and the All-India War Memorial (India Gate) at the other end of the central vista.
On February 10, 1931, Viceroy of India Lord Irwin inaugurated New Delhi at 11 am. The decision to shift the Capital of India changed the course of Delhi’s history. But in the two decades it took to build the Capital, the fate of British Empire itself had changed. By 1931, a transition of power was imminent and within 16 years, New Delhi was going to become the seat of power of an independent India.