The idiom of kingship is always negotiated by successor dynasties in subtle ways on many complex levels. The Ghurids had done it when they conquered Delhi and had to deal with pre-Islamic ideas by adopting not only the Lal Kot citadel of the Rajputs in Delhi, after defeating them in 1192 CE [common era], but also by adopting the Chauhan style of coinage with Hindu iconography using the language of the Hindu rulers. Sultan Muizuddin Muhammad bin Sam was called ‘Sri Mahamada bini Sama’ or ‘Srimad Hammira’ – hammira being the Sanskrit for the Arabic aamir – on his coins. Sultan Iltutmish brought the iron pillar from Udaigiri and established it in the Jama Masjid in Mehrauli.
The Mughals adopted many Indic customs, including celebrating local festivals in court, jharokha darshan, calling the water of the Ganga which the emperors drank ‘aab-e hayat’ and bathing in it. Akbar issued coins with images of Lord Rama and Sita and continued with many policies initiated by Sher Shah Sur.
The Uprising of 1857 was quelled by the British and resulted in the end of the Mughal empire. The trial of Emperor Bahadur Shah II, referred to as the King of Delhi, was held in the Red Fort between 27 January and 9 March 1858. The trial was held in the Diwane-Khas where once Emperor Shah Jahan had held special court from the famed Peacock Throne and entertained foreign ambassadors and officers as well as grandees of his own empire. As a recent historian has noted, ‘Trying [Bahadur Shah] Zafar in his own palace was meant to convey a message; Delhi now belonged to the British and so did Indians.’
At the end of the trial, Bahadur Shah was proclaimed guilty of all charges against him. These ranged from aiding and abetting those waging war against the [British] state, assuming sovereignty of Hindustan and being an accessory to the murder of European officers and English subjects. Bahadur Shah was exiled to Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma (Myanmar) and died there in 1862. The royals living inside the fort were either captured and killed if they were found guilty of participating in the ‘mutiny’, often on very flimsy charges, or chased away.
By the Government of India Act in 1858, power was transferred from the East India Company to the British Crown and India became a British colony. Delhi and the ‘King of Delhi’ in exile, and even after his death, were seen as sources and symbols of the power and might of the Mughals and were systematically appropriated or dismantled. The British were also negotiating their idea of kingship. The first to bear the brunt was the Red Fort and the city of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). Many buildings were destroyed to widen roads, provide access to troops in case of another ‘revolt’, and in the interests of logistics.
Monuments are a tangible testimony of past events and represent collective cultural memories. This is brought out in the choice of the durbar location as well as the installation of memorial monuments and mutiny pilgrimage tours.
This sentiment framed the settings and ceremonies of the three imperial durbars culminating in the formal transfer of the capital from Calcutta (Kolkata) to Delhi announced during the Durbar of 1911.
The location chosen for the Durbar of 1877 was to the west of the Ridge, which had seen action and victory in 1857. It was a symbol of their domination. Delhi had seen many coronations, which the Mughals called ‘Takht-Nashini’, but this was different as the Queen Empress, now grandly titled ‘Kaiser-e-Hind’, was being crowned in absentia. It was called ‘an imperial assemblage’.
Coronations as a show of strength and power to rival the Mughals were not new. The Nawab of Awadh, Ghaziuddin Haider had crowned himself king in 1819, breaking away from the nominal sovereignty of the Mughals. This source and symbol of sovereignty was not only being challenged but adopted. The most prominent items built for the ceremony were a throne or masnad, surmounted by a canopy or chatr. The canopy was lavishly embroidered, intended to showcase wealth and power. The crown itself looked very European in style.
If the ruler of Awadh chose a European looking crown, the British rulers chose a Mughal looking setting for the durbars. The original Mughal durbar was held by the emperor in the Red Fort’s Diwan-e-Aam for the public, and for special nobles and officers in the Diwan-e-Khas. The three British durbars were public receptions in spaces where grand temporary pavilions and halls were constructed to accommodate the dignitaries and visitors.
Delhi was chosen over Calcutta, the city where the East India Company headquarters were located, for its association with power. Today, Delhi is the national capital, but it was largely unknown till the eighth century. Under the Tomar Rajputs, Delhi was one of many regional centres in India. It rose to a position of pre-eminence as a political authority under the Delhi Sultans (1192-1526). This political significance as a symbolic tool of power was consolidated by the Mughals when Shah Jahan shifted his capital here in 1648 and taken to its logical conclusion by the British.
‘Dhilli’ is the first recorded name for this city. One of the first references to Dhilli comes from 1132 CE from a hagiography of the twenty-third Jain Tirthankar, named Pasanahacariu, written by the Agravala Digambara poet, Sridhar. Sridhar refers to the ‘region of Hariyanau which has numerous villages, and whose inhabitants are ever happy, there is the large city called Dhilli, favoured by Indra’. This last phrase is a reference to the city’s association with Indraprastha and the Pandavas. Since a letter representing the hard ‘dha’ is not available in the Arabic alphabet, it is converted to the softer ‘d’ in popular speech, and the word to ‘Dehli’ in formal literature written mostly in Arabic and Persian. Both ‘Dilli’ and ‘Dehli’ were used interchangeably, with ‘Dilli’ being the more colloquial one, and ‘Dehli’ more formal. As English phonology does not have an ‘h’ at the end of a syllable, it became ‘Delhi’.
This was a city with many cities or citadels within it. Sometimes it was the defensive position offered by the Aravalli hills, sometimes the need to repel the Mongols, or just the need for water that led to Delhi being built many times over till 1947, but the popular notion — and perhaps even a romantic one — suggests the capital took shape seven times till 1857, because only that many number of citadels are still extant. Lal Kot, the first city of the Tomars, Chauhans and Aibak was followed by Siri built by Alauddin Khilji. The Tughlaq dynasty that succeeded the Khiljis gave us the next three cities: Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, and Firozabad. After that we have Dinpanah built by Humayun. The culmination of all these cities was Shah Jahan’s magnificent Shahjahanabad, where the three imperial durbars were held. The eighth city, the last one, was designed and built by Sir Edwin Lutyens.
The Imperial Assemblage of 1877
Eighteen years after the formal assumption of sovereignty by Queen Victoria, this was a visual announcement of the British domination over India and its status as a British colony with the investiture of the title of ‘Empress of India’ on the queen. It was seen as an opportune time in the ‘midst of tranquillity’, not at the end of a war which might have led to it being associated with ‘the story of treachery of rebellion’ of 1857, which was ‘the foulest event in the annals of British India’.
To present the idea that ‘the impersonal power of an administrative abstraction had been replaced by the direct personal authority of a human being’, and to make it less abstract, it was essential that an appropriate title be given, and the carefully thought of title, ‘Kaiser-e-Hind’, seemed grand enough to awe the new subjects with its association with the Kaiser-e-Room (Caesar of Rome) in oriental literature. Lord Lytton organised the Imperial Assemblage to announce that title and firmly establish it in the local imagination.
Lord Lytton had become familiar with the feudal aristocracy of India which he wanted to ‘conciliate and command’. He found that they prized their family pedigree and ancestral records, in which the favours and marks of honour given by the British, howsoever big or small, were highly prized and given the same appreciation as the far more substantial favours of the Mughal emperors. To him the durbar presented an opportunity to identify the Crown of England with ‘the hopes, the aspirations, the sympathies and interests of a powerful native aristocracy’. Thus, the ritual of a durbar or imperial assemblage seemed to him good value for money: ‘the cost of the Assemblage will really be very moderate, and the effect of it may save millions.’
The proclamation announcing Queen Victoria as Kaiser-e-Hind was read out in English and Urdu on 1 January 1877. To ensure that it was not reduced to an empty ritual, it was to ‘be accompanied by certain declarations and certain acts of grace carefully calculated to rouse enthusiasm and satisfy native sentiments’. Thus, there were pension and salary increases for the ‘Native Families’, extra salutes, commemorative banners and medals, new titles, including appointments to the newly created Order of British India, Order of the Star of India, and Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire, bonuses to military forces, and the release of sixteen thousand prisoners. The maharajas (vassal rulers) were now in the stands paying homage to the queen as their subjects did in their own princely states. It is interesting to note that the surviving Mughal royal members were living in straitened circumstances in Delhi. In 1862, a pension was fixed for some of them by the British government ranging from three to ten rupees per month.
Essay by Rana Safvi from the book Delhi Durbar: Empire, Display and the Possession of History published by DAG. Delhi Durbar: Empire, Display and the Possession of History is on display at DAG, New Delhi until November 6, 2023.