The making of New Delhi

The imperial capital of New Delhi forms one of the most enduring architectural legacies of colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent.

Published : Dec 21, 2017 12:30 IST

India Gate. It was originally designed as a war memorial dedicated to the Indian soldiers killed during the First World War and other wars such as the Afghan War. The nearby canopy used to serve as a memorial to George V.

India Gate. It was originally designed as a war memorial dedicated to the Indian soldiers killed during the First World War and other wars such as the Afghan War. The nearby canopy used to serve as a memorial to George V.

THE imperial capital of New Delhi forms one of the most enduring architectural legacies of colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It had come under British control by 1803 and more firmly so after the suppression of the 1857 rebellion.

However, the decision to make it the new capital was only taken in 1911. The process of setting up the new imperial city was not a simple architectural or urban planning exercise; it emerged out of intense debates relating to the changing strategic interests of the British Empire in India. It also involved intense discussions regarding the site of the new capital, choice of architects, style of architecture, layout of the city, acquisition of land and design of individual buildings—all of which played an important part in the making of New Delhi. The whole process was further complicated by the outbreak of the First World War, time and cost overruns, and differences between the two leading architects, Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker.

Why was a decision taken to shift the capital from Calcutta to Delhi? Nationalist opposition to colonial rule was building up in Calcutta, which had been the seat of the British administration for around 150 years. Further, Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal—the creation of a new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam with the “Muslim city” Dacca (Dhaka, now capital of Bangladesh) as the capital—had caused a huge uproar, leading to a boycott of foreign goods, the development of a movement for swadeshi enterprises and, later, bombings and political assassinations. Calcutta was becoming a less hospitable home for the British. There were at least two primary ideas at the heart of the discussions surrounding the transfer of the capital. The first was to reunify Bengal and in some way assuage the hurt nationalist sentiments. Connected to this was the second idea of giving Bengal the same status and autonomy as the Madras and Bombay presidencies. It was argued that “the Supreme Government should not be associated with any particular Provincial Government” and that in the long run the provinces should have a larger measure of self-government.

The author Jag Parvesh Chander points out that Sir J. Jenkins (Home Member of the government) provided a “masterstroke of invention” by proposing an idea that involved revoking the partition of Bengal, redrawing its provincial boundaries and transferring the imperial capital to Delhi. However, the plan was kept a top secret until the Coronation Durbar of 1911, held in Delhi, where King-Emperor George V announced the transfer of the seat of government from Calcutta to the ancient capital of Delhi and the creation of a new governorship for Bengal. Lord Curzon and, interestingly, many Europeans were angry with the “unhappy desecrators of Calcutta”. The newspaper TheEnglishman even warned that those going to Delhi would suffer from “the swamps and heat, the boils and blains, the snakes and insects” and much more.

Why Delhi?

Why was Delhi chosen? It was an ancient city associated with Hindu mythology and sacred legends. It had a more central location and was closer to the summer capital, Shimla. Some even argued it had a better climate. More importantly, Delhi had been a seat of power under the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals, and the government wanted to build on this symbolic association too. The historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee says that Calcutta lacked the grandeur of Delhi. Further, the 1857 rebellion had shown the symbolic importance of Delhi and the emotional connect people had with it and the Mughal emperor. Interestingly, during the Coronation Durbar, George V and Queen Mary even appeared before the Delhi public from a jharokha (overhanging enclosed balcony) at the Red Fort—trying to appropriate an imperial symbolism and a practice only reserved for emperors—to reiterate their supremacy over the subcontinent.

Imperial ideology and architecture

The Delhi Town Planning committee was formed, and Lutyens (who had designed a garden city and country homes in England) was appointed as the consultant to draw up a master plan. Viceroy Lord Hardinge himself was involved in the planning of the new capital in a major way.

The historian Percival Spear says the architectural committee of Lutyens (an architect), John A. Brodie (an engineer) and S.C. Swinton (a municipal issues expert who also had knowledge of Indian architecture) chose a site on Raisina Hill, south of Shahjahanabad, reversing an earlier decision to build the capital on a site north of the Mughal capital. They saw the new site as an Indian Acropolis, with the proposed Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) as the Parthenon. The architect and heritage expert Lucy Peck says that the Viceroy’s insistence that the capital should be completed in four years made Lutyens rope in Baker, a friend and architect who had designed colonial buildings in South Africa. Baker could only join in 1913, by which time most of the decisions had been taken. It was agreed that Lutyens would design the Viceroy’s House and the overall layout of the city, whereas Baker would take care of the twin secretariat buildings (now North and South blocks).

The historian Thomas R. Metcalfe argues that New Delhi was not simply meant to provide housing and office space for bureaucrats and was charged with symbolic meaning from the very outset. There were many opinions on the proposed architectural style. George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy advocated an Indian style executed by an Indian architect. The debate eventually narrowed down to the three principal actors: Hardinge, Lutyens and Baker. All three were agreed on the need for an architectural style that would manifest Britain’s imperial position in India.

The debate was about what such imperial architecture ought to consist of. Broadly speaking, Lutyens and Baker preferred European classicism (modelled on or deriving inspiration from ancient Greece or Rome), whereas Hardinge preferred at least a part of the “Eastern”, or more specifically the Indo-Saracenic, style associated with Delhi and its neighbourhood. With Hardinge’s mediation, Lutyens and Baker eventually settled for a Western-style classical architecture with details being filled up with Indian motifs. This, however, happened after much debate and deliberation and even a scuffle, which soured relations between the two architects and friends.

Lutyens was known for his uncompromising adherence to European classicism. Metcalfe says, to him, the line of descent of architecture was straight and clear: it emerged from the Greeks, who passed it on to the Romans from where it went to the Italians, who in turn handed it over to the French and to Christopher Wren (the famous British architect who was fond of the Graeco-Roman style and designed English churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral). Lutyens did not have any great respect for Indian architecture, which he regarded as mere “spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect as there is in any art nouveau”. Baker, like Lutyens, was not fond of Indian architecture.

However, as Metcalfe says, for him the design was not going to be either Indian or Roman or English but purely imperial; it should be able to capture in stone the spirit of the British Indian Empire. “The new capital must be the sculptural monument of the good government and unity which India, for the first time in history, has enjoyed under British rule.” To him, as Metcalfe clarifies, Indian architecture was not politically expressive. It did not have the “constructive and geometric quality necessary to embody the idea of law and order which had been produced out of chaos by the British Administration”. European classicism, therefore, had to be given pride of place in New Delhi as it had been in Pretoria, South Africa.

Lutyens and Baker found sufficient common ground to create a harmonious set of buildings on Raisina Hill. However, they fell out on the location of the secretariat buildings in relation to the Viceroy’s House. Rejecting the original plan of locating them a little below the Viceroy’s House, Baker insisted they be moved up onto the acropolis; it should form “one high platform expressing the importance of the unity of the viceroy with his government”. This meant pushing the Viceroy’s House further back away from the edge of Raisina Hill, which Lutyens reluctantly agreed to. The gradient leading up to the hill had to be gentle so that there was a harmonious and balanced effect to the altered architectural scheme.

However, Baker, who oversaw the construction of the slope, allowed for too steep a gradient. This created an architectural anomaly that still haunts New Delhi. As one moves from India Gate towards Raisina Hill, the Viceroy’s House disappears after a point of time, leaving only its dome visible. When Lutyens discovered this, he tried his best to remedy it but failed. He called it his “Bakerloo”.

Leaving this and some other issues aside, British officials were massively preoccupied with the making of the new capital over the next two decades. During this period, most of them who had migrated from Calcutta lived in cramped temporary quarters in the Civil Lines, an area that had been the site of British settlements after the capture of Delhi in 1803. The construction work was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1919), and the bulk of the work, therefore, took place in the 1920s and 1930s. The new city was formally inaugurated in February 1931. Some schemes and aspirations, however, such as bringing the Yamuna back to its original place and the creation of riverside parks and drives, never materialised.


The art historian Vidya Dehejia says features such as monumental classicism, vast ceremonial avenues, open spaces, geometrical symmetry and a grand central axis characterised New Delhi’s outlay plan.

The heart of the new imperial city was the Viceroy’s House located on the top of Raisina Hill and flanked by the twin secretariat buildings. The viceregal estate and the crescent (which is an architectural arrangement of buildings along an arc or curved street) behind the Viceroy’s House, Willingdon Crescent (now known as Mother Teresa Crescent), contained residential accommodation for important functionaries.

The main streets were supposed to have beautiful vistas at their ends. King’s Way (now Rajpath, or “Avenue of the State”) was the principal imperial axis and was supposed to connect Purana Qila (or Old Fort, associated with the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri and the Mughal emperor Humayun) to the Viceroy’s House via the war memorial arch (India Gate) and Victory Square (Vijay Chowk). Queen’s Way (now Janpath, or “Avenue of the People”’) crossed the principal axis at right angles, connecting the central commercial hub Connaught Place and a host of important buildings with South End Road (now known as Rajesh Pilot Marg). Further beyond Connaught Place in the north was the Jami Masjid, the grand congregational mosque of the 17th century Mughal capital, Shahjahanabad.

Vidya Dehejia points out that streets in residential areas were structured around roundabouts which were mini gardens that functioned as traffic circles. Rules of official hierarchy were followed, and residences were allotted on the basis of official status. A lot of thought also went into the greening of the new capital. The municipal forest officer P.H. Clutterbuck’s list of Indian trees became the basis for planting of trees along the avenues. W.R. Mustoe, Director of Horticulture and an expert from Kew Gardens, selected trees that were sturdy, shade-giving and long-lived. The historian Philip Davies points out that each of the major avenues had a distinct botanical identity such as tamarinds on Akbar Road, neems on Aurangzeb (now A.P.J. Abdul Kalam) Road and Arjun trees on Queen’s Way. Mustoe, along with the architect Walter Sykes George, landscaped a Mughal-style garden inside Government House at the insistence of Hardinge.

Buildings on King’s Way

Important buildings on King’s Way included the Viceroy’s House, the twin secretariat buildings and the Council Chamber (now Parliament House). The Viceroy’s House was originally designed as a monumental Government House. However, as Lucy Peck clarifies, the changes following the colonial government’s Montague-Chelmsford Reforms (1919), which expanded the administration’s representative machinery, meant that a separate structure was required for the legislature. The Viceroy’s House was, therefore, reduced to serving as the residence and office of the Viceroy and was also used for formal state functions.

Built mostly between 1921-29, the Viceroy’s House is an intensely horizontal two-storeyed building and, at the time of completion, formed one of the largest residential buildings in the world, larger than the Palace of Versailles in France. The upper main floor is made of cream-coloured sandstone and marked by long colonnades linking solid battered-wall pavilions. The ground floor is a monumental platform in red sandstone interrupted by arched openings and square windows. Brought from western Uttar Pradesh, red and cream sandstone were a standard feature in earlier Mughal buildings. They protected structures from scorching summers—the “violence” of the Indian sun as Lutyens would say—and torrential rains.

The central feature of the building is the massive central copper dome (50 metres, or 164 feet, above the ground) which rises on a cream sandstone drum enclosed by a railing like the one at the Sanchi stupa. There are chattri s, or kiosks, on either side of the drum while water flows through a series of circular stone basins, sometimes in a stepped formation. Water channels, pools and fountains (including on the roof) like those in Mughal monuments and a three-levelled garden adorn the building. In front of the building is the famous Jaipur Column—the Maharaja of Jaipur parted with the bulk of the land—built on the pattern of famous pillars in Europe but with some Indian symbols like a bronze lotus crowned by a glass six-sided Star of India.

The Viceroy’s House has 340 rooms, the most famous of which are the Throne Room (which lies right below the central dome and is now known as Durbar Hall) where investitures and durbars took place; the Ballroom (now called Ashoka Hall) specially noted for the ceiling containing an equestrian portrait of Fateh Ali Shah, the second of the seven Qajar rulers of Persia, hunting with 22 of his sons; and the Banqueting Hall (now called the State Dining Room), which once had pictures of Governor Generals and Viceroys.

The twin secretariat buildings were constructed between 1914 and 1927. Like the Viceroy’s House, they are built in cream and red sandstone—the red forming the base while the cream is used for principal floors. European-style features include columns and domes, particularly the Renaissance-like dome at the centre of each building. Indian architectural elements include the use of red sandstone, jali s (perforated screens), chajja s (eaves/shade-giving cornices) and decorative elements such as chhatri s (canopies that appear on the roofline), carved brackets and elephant heads on pillar capitals. Arches used in the construction are circular as opposed to the pointed Indian arches. Metcalfe says that besides picking up architectural elements from both the East and the West, Baker was also concerned about climate and decoration. Features like spacious colonnades, open verendahs, chajja s, jali s and small high window openings increased the circulation of air, reduced the amount of sunlight within buildings and brought the outdoors close at hand. These features, except for the colonnades, gave the building an Indic appearance.

The square area in front of the twin buildings has the four Columns of the Dominion of the Empire presented by the Commonwealth countries Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Each red sandstone column is surmounted by an Asokan-style pillar capital containing a chakra, a bull, a lion and an inverted lotus. The columns are topped by bronze ships signifying the maritime might of the British Empire. It was assumed that India would become a dominion as well.

The Council Chamber is located slightly away from the main imperial axis and was planned later. It was originally supposed to be located within the Viceroy’s House, but the Montague-Chelmsford reforms created the need for a new building. Baker was entrusted with its design, and it was to house three chambers: the Council of State (now the Rajya Sabha), the Legislative Assembly (now the Lok Sabha) and the Chamber of Princes. A proclamation of George V in 1919 established the last chamber as a forum for the rulers of the princely states of India to voice their concerns and aspirations. It survived until the end of the British Raj.

The Council Chamber is designed like a coliseum with lobbies connecting three semicircular chambers to a central chamber—where Jawaharlal Nehru made his “Tryst with Destiny” freedom at midnight speech—with a suppressed small dome. The whole structure is surrounded by a painted and plastered colonnaded verandah. Later, a floor was added to the building. The structure is bound by a stone railing reminiscent of the Sanchi stupa. The stone posts outside the building look like the Mughal lamps in Agra.

The site between Victory Square and India Gate is like an imperial avenue or a ceremonial boulevard and is dotted on both sides by huge lawns, pools and rows of trees. Containing six big fountains, the boulevard is now the site of the Republic Day Parade. Victory Square is like a spacious plaza containing six big fountains. This is where the “Beating the Retreat” ceremony is held every year to conclude the Republic Day celebrations.

India Gate, completed in 1921, was designed by Lutyens as a hexagonal space with an arch-shaped war memorial—which the heritage expert Swapna Liddle says looks similar to European memorial arches, notably the Arc de Triomphe in Paris—at the centre and roads radiating out of it. It was dedicated to the Indian soldiers killed during the First World War and other wars such as the Afghan War. The India Gate complex contains a canopy that was originally designed as a memorial to George V, who died in 1936. It carried a statue of the monarch until 1968 after which the statue was shifted to Coronation Park. There was some talk in the past about putting Mahatma Gandhi’s statue under this canopy. However, this was eventually ruled out. The area around the war memorial was called Princes Park, and important ruling families were allotted land to build houses along the sides of the hexagon. The notable ones among them include Hyderabad House, Baroda House (which has the offices of the Indian Railways), Patiala House (now a district court complex), Jaipur House (now the National Gallery of Modern Art) and Bikaner House.

King’s Way was supposed to end near Purana Qila in a lake where the silhouette of the monument would appear. However, Lady Willingdon (wife of the then Viceroy) insisted on creating the National Stadium between the fort and the memorial arch. Work on the structure started in 1931 under the supervision of Robert Tor Russell, who was consulting architect to the Government of India after 1919 and the chief architect of the Public Works Department (PWD). The main entrance to the stadium is dominated by five large arches, and the structure is topped by five dwarfed chattri s installed at the suggestion of Lady Willingdon—much against the wishes of Lutyens. The historian Laura Sykes says Lutyens never forgave her for redecorating the Viceroy’s House in shades of her signature mauve; he called her “a mauvais sujet ”.

Buildings on Queen’s Way

Queen’s Way and most of the buildings located on it were designed by Russell. At one end of the street lay the commercial hub called Connaught Place—named after George V’s uncle, the Duke of Connaught, who visited Delhi in 1921. Said to be modelled on the Royal Crescent in Bath in England, it was planned as a two-storeyed open colonnaded structure with shops on the ground floor and houses on the first. This area forms part of the Delhi ridge and was earlier dominated by keekar trees and overrun with jackals and wild pigs. When Connaught Place was finally completed around 1935, it looked like two concentric circles of buildings interspersed with three roads, the Inner, Middle and Outer Circles.

The complex had an array of shops and establishments catering to affluent and powerful British and Indians. Wengers—named after the Swiss couple Wenger—for example, designed in 1926, became the first bakery and confectionary shop to introduce French bread, Swiss chocolates and margarine pastries to the imperial city. In its early days, it also served as a popular venue for expatriate weddings, ballroom dances and official dinners. Besides shopping and dining, Connaught Place provided entertainment facilities such as cinema theatres, including Regal (designed by Walter Sykes George and inaugurated in 1932) and Plaza (designed by Russell and inaugurated in 1933, it has a classical facade of columns). Other theatres, including Odeon, Rivoli and the India Talkie House, came into being around 1938.

The Imperial Hotel was designed as a luxury hotel in the 1930s and it eclipsed the hotels in the earlier British hotspot, the Civil Lines. It was built by F.B. Blomfield, one of Lutyen’s associates, and inaugurated by Lord Willingdon in 1936. Silver tea service, tableware from London, Italian marble floors, Burma teak furniture, original paintings by Thomas and William Daniell and James Fraser on the walls, a vision of undulating green lawns and turbaned waiters in red—all helped create the aura of an early 19th century English manor in the heart of imperial Delhi. Close to the Imperial Hotel are the eastern and western courts, designed as hostels for legislators. There are currently plans to replace the transit hostel at the western court with a residential guest house for Members of Parliament.

Further down Queen’s Way were a museum housing a collection of paintings by Sir Aurel Stein (now the National Museum) and the Records Room (now the National Archives), which was originally established as the Imperial Record Department in 1891 in Calcutta. It was shifted to Delhi and located at the intersection of King’s Way and Queen’s Way in 1926. The street ended at South End Road, which together with Lodhi Gardens formed the southern boundary of Lutyens’ Delhi.

Willingdon Crescent & Gole Dak Khana

Willingdon Crescent continues to form the western boundary of the presidential estate and runs between Teen Murti Bhavan and Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital (previously Willingdon Hospital). The Teen Murti complex was designed by Russell and was originally called Flagstaff House. It was the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, and, later, of the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Later, after the three statues memorial was installed at the traffic roundabout in front of the complex, the building was renamed Teen Murti Bhavan. The British sculptor Leonard Jennings built this memorial to commemorate the Jodhpur, Hyderabad and Mysore lancers who had fought gallantly in Syria, Palestine and Sinai during the First World War.

At the other end of Willingdon Crescent is another busy traffic roundabout, which houses the Gole Dak Khana (literally, round post office) in the centre and Sacred Heart Cathedral New Delhi on one of its sides. Nearby are located the Gole Market (round market) and Willingdon Hospital. The Gole Dak Khana was designed by Russell and built in the 1930s. Originally known as Alexandra Place, it was the seat of the PWD and reportedly also served as the Viceroy’s camp post office in the 1930s. It was upgraded to a general post office in the 1960s. The church near the roundabout was one of the first Roman Catholic churches in Delhi and its construction was supervised by Father Luke, who worked closely with Lutyens.

The earlier churches in the city, including St. James near Kashmere, or Kashmiri, Gate, St. Stephen’s in Shahjahanabad and the Cathedral Church of the Redemption near the Viceroy’s House, were Anglican. The British architect Henry Medd (Russell’s successor) designed the church building, which is based on Italian architecture. There were other civic facilities near this roundabout. Willingdon Hospital was started in 1932 for government staff with 54 beds.

The Gole Market was designed by G. Bloomfield as a 12-sided structure built around an open circular courtyard, punctuated with six semicircular arched gateways leading into the market, and had wrought iron lamp posts and benches.

Lutyens designed the staff quarters on the viceregal estate and the National Archives. Baker designed a few bungalows, and a particularly warm one on Akbar Road became known as “Baker’s Oven”. However, the PWD with Russell in the lead designed most of the other bungalows and official housing. Lucy Peck says that the houses south of the imperial axis looked grand, while those in the north-west near the Gole Dak Khana were humble clerks’ houses with front verandahs, several rooms and a backyard.

Whatever the size of the house, Lucy Peck points out, the basic pattern remained the same: the main road gave access to the front of the house and there was a service lane at the back. Feroz Shah Road had, she further says, a rare type of housing: a modest version of “palace facades” of 18th century urban England. Here, narrow houses were built to look as if they were part of a “grander seeming” scheme or a single magnificent edifice. There was shared accommodation for single men at the P.T. Chummery Quarter complex near Hailey Lane, and there were modest houses for the posts and telegraph staff near Kasturba Gandhi Marg. Travancore House at the Kasturba Gandhi roundabout, originally built as a princely house, had a butterfly design, that is, a colonnaded structure with two wings.

The imperial capital also had a provision for new churches. Arthur Shoosmith (1888-1974) designed St. Martin’s Garrison Church, and Henry Medd designed the Cathedral Church of the Redemption and Sacred Heart Cathedral New Delhi. Three and a half million bricks went into the construction of the Garrison Church (completed in 1930), which, soldiers claimed, looked like a fortress—with buttresses, parapets, straight lines and few windows—and would have been easy to defend in an emergency. The inside resembles a basilica with its high circular dome and curved arches reaching up to the vaulted roof. The Cathedral Church of the Redemption stands north of the Jaipur Column and west of Parliament House at North Avenue. On February 23, 1927, Viceroy Irwin laid the foundation stone at the spot that would be the central dome, the exact centre of the church. Opened to public worship on Sunday January 18, 1931, it is built in white dholpur stone sandwiched between a roof and a plinth of red sandstone. Smooth and polished ashlar masonry was reserved for the moulded courses and the elegant columned porches.

The empire and its short-lived capital

Metcalfe says that the British also chose an imperial style because that was the medium through which Europeans apprehended empire. Its “eternal principles” and “ordered beauty” were fit to embody in stone the spirit of the empire more than any other style of architecture. Further, by connecting their monuments to the ideals and empires of a cherished classical antiquity, the British sought to enhance the moral worth, at least in their own eyes, of their political handiwork. Metcalfe points out that such an architectural style was not tied to any specific geographical setting, and its elements could be reproduced in any tropical dependency. He also argues that what had been worked out in Pretoria and refined in Delhi could be carried to such places as Kenya, where Government House (now State House), Nairobi, built by Baker in 1925, was but a minor variant of the design experimented with before.

At the laying of the original foundation stone of Delhi, Viceroy Hardinge said: “Many capitals have been inaugurated in the neighbourhood of Delhi… and assuredly none ever held promise of great permanence or of a more prosperous and glorious future.” Ironically though, only 16 years after the city was inaugurated, Lord Mountbatten handed over the reins of sovereignty to an independent India. As Philip Davies says, it is a curious fact of history that empires in decline often undergo a resurgence of cultural vigour before their demise, and the British Empire, like those of Spain, Rome or Austria-Hungary, was no exception.

Shashank Shekhar Sinha has taught history in undergraduate colleges at the University of Delhi. He does independent research on tribes, gender, violence, culture and heritage.

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