As the US debates Confederate statues, a powerful lesson from Delhi – let them rot

In 2007, I saw Queen Victoria caked in mud on a field in North Delhi. In 2011, she was gone.

In 2007, I saw Queen Victoria caked in mud on a field in North Delhi. In 2011, she was gone.

On a sunny morning in December 2007, 60 years after India had become independent, my friend and I challenged ourselves to find the least sought-after monument in a city known for its monuments, a statue of King George V. We hailed an autorickshaw to take us to the outer reaches of North Delhi in search of what we struggled to describe in Hindi – a field where white people had become emperors. We guessed there must be statues, and we had a general sense of its location. But we had no landmarks to offer the auto driver. Was this field not landmark enough? The auto-walla’s apathy suggested no, there was no such thing as “Coronation Grounds”.

King George V’s first trip to Delhi was in December 1911, and he must have had an easier time finding the same field where my friend and I stood in 2007, having been ditched by the fairly upset auto driver who had severely miscalculated his day’s itinerary. This empty expanse of land was the once famous Coronation Grounds that, my friend and I quickly discovered, had become a dusty field.

The 1911 Delhi Durbar (court of Delhi) was the third such durbar to be held at that venue but the first to be attended by the sovereign of British India. From December 7 to December 16, the festival took place across the city. On December 12, King George V appeared wearing a crown of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies and a robe that weighed almost two pounds (close to 1 kg). With the royalty of India’s princely states gathered around him, he declared Delhi the capital of British India (it was earlier Calcutta) and himself the emperor of the British Raj.

King George V and Queen Mary during the coronation at the Delhi Durbar in 1911. Credit: United Kingdom Government / Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY IWM Non-Commercial Licence]
King George V and Queen Mary during the coronation at the Delhi Durbar in 1911. Credit: United Kingdom Government / Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY IWM Non-Commercial Licence]

Where kings and queens stood

The Coronation Grounds had been carefully designed with statues and busts of Delhi’s former rulers, though with a significant twist – Queen Victoria stood next to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as well as her predecessor William IV.

In 2007, an obelisk remained where George had become emperor. But Victoria’s bust had fared poorly – we found her face up in mud past what had been a separate garden wall, all of which was left to rot or bake in the Delhi sun. The stone monarch had collected a bit of trash around her. About 100 meters away, teenagers used parts of other busts to mark a makeshift cricket field.

In April 2011, in the 100th anniversary year of the coronation of George V, I took some visiting American students on the same adventure. As I tried once again to describe this field where white people had become emperors, one cycle rickshaw-walla waved his hand as if to say it could be everywhere. But this time I had a smartphone, and found a nearby school that helped put us within walking distance of the grounds.

It was near 45 degrees Celsius as we walked, and a group of sweaty, fatigued and lost-looking white people draws a crowd. The students, who had been fairly accommodating for the first part of the trip, soon realised I was taking them to an empty field and began to complain. I had promised an obelisk – an already unimpressive reward for a vigorous day hike – but once we reached the grounds I discovered it was gone. The makeshift cricket field remained, but instead of a garden there was small plot of gravel and mud. This, I assumed, was the fate of Victoria’s bust.

A hundred years on, apathy had finished the anti-colonial battle. In the 1960s, India took down some of the many Victorias, Edwards and Georges the British had erected to mark their territory. Sometimes they made good museum pieces, sometimes they made good concrete, and sometimes they turned a profit – the city of Toronto was gifted a statue of Edward VII in 1968 in exchange for a large sum of money. (Sometimes they stayed where they were, in good condition.) But many of the statues were pulled down and left to gather mud, trash, graffiti and rust – a fitting tribute to the inhumane apathy with which the British had ruled over famines, education, and communalism in the name of expanding Western civilisation.

Empty plinths without their statues at the Coronation Grounds. (Credit: Nvvchar / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)
Empty plinths without their statues at the Coronation Grounds. (Credit: Nvvchar / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

Down with colonial symbols

Let them rot: this was the proposal Korean cultural critic Yu Hong-Jun made in 1995 when South Korea was trying to figure out what to do with its imperial Japanese monuments. He thought that this should especially be the case with the Japanese Government-General Building built in 1926 in the centre of Seoul: the city should destroy it enough so that the ruins would decay slowly. This would be a fitting response to the horrors of colonial rule, a reminder that its ruins live on, but also an appropriate tribute to the delusional grandeur of the imperial imagination. Seoul demolished its colonial monuments and built over them. Delhi let them rot.

On August 28, the American Historical Association recommended preserving the statues of Confederate leaders – who had fought a war in the 1860s to preserve the slavery of African Americans – and moving them to museums or other safe spaces, citing Coronation Grounds in Delhi as an ideal example of such a practice. It made the statement after plans to bring down a statue of Confederate commander Robert E Lee in Charlottesville led to violent protests by white supremacists. The suggestion also comes in the midst of a debate over colonial symbols across the world. In South Africa, for instance, a protest movement called “Rhodes Must Fall” – directed against a statue commemorating British politician Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town – started in 2015 and has since spread to other countries.

Students of the University of Cape Town cheer as a statue of Cecil John Rhodes is removed in April 2015. (Credit: Samaya Hisham / Reuters)
Students of the University of Cape Town cheer as a statue of Cecil John Rhodes is removed in April 2015. (Credit: Samaya Hisham / Reuters)

In India, South Africa, or the United States, what would be the best fate for aptly hollow memorials that are currently the subject of controversy?

Why not let such monuments remain on the ground where they fell into a heap of unsightly twisted metal? Letting the statues of colonial and Confederate leaders stand is an affront to those who still suffer the aftermath of their rule. But removing their trashed remains suggests that the end of colonialism and slavery was the end of the problem. Instead, we might let them rot – letting the memorial trash heap remain on the lawn is a perpetual reminder of their violence and their fragility. Following Delhi’s approach, we let them rust and rot, a memorial to histories we must refuse to commemorate or forget.

J Daniel Elam is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who specialises in theories of World Literature, with a specific focus on 20th century South Asian literature and political writing.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.