[Lord] Hardinge was acutely aware of the importance of planning the new city well, and was determined not to hand over the task to the Public Works Department. Instead, he wanted a “small but strong committee to deal with planning, building and organisation of the new Delhi.” This committee was concerned primarily with the general layout, while the architectural design of the actual buildings would come later.
As to the composition of the committee, two names were settled on fairly quickly. One was that of John A Brodie, a municipal engineer from Liverpool. The other was George Swinton, the chairman of the London County Council, the foremost municipal body in Britain. He had also spent several years in India, and therefore, had some experience of the country.
It took a little longer to decide the third name, that of an architect-cum-town planner. Three names were suggested. One was that of Herbert Baker, who had designed the government buildings at Pretoria, the capital of South Africa. Another was that of Henry Vaughan Lanchester, who had recently been engaged by Maharaja Scindia to advise on the improvement of a part of Gwalior town.
The third name was that of Edwin Landseer Lutyens, an architect with a background mainly in building expensive homes. He was very highly thought of by those who were familiar with his work, one of his admirers suggesting that he “be the moving genius from the outset...An exceptional man is best, and Lutyens is a very exceptional man.”
Hardinge was initially not convinced, saying, “My fear about him is that he is more of a country-house architect and has no experience of anything big.” Crewe, however, swung the opinion in favour of Lutyens, and he was picked. The committee was engaged for a term of five months. Lanchester was engaged for a period of one month as an additional consulting expert.
The Town Planning Committee’s immediate task was to settle on an appropriate site for the future capital. In an audience with the British monarch just before their departure for India, the members of the committee had been told to keep an open mind, and not consider themselves bound to the site where the foundation stones had been laid. The question of a suitable site had also started being discussed in India almost immediately after the transfer of the capital had been made public.
Though the foundation stones had been laid at the site of the Durbar, those familiar with Delhi were aware of one major drawback of the area – a very high water table and the proneness to flooding. Hardinge had begun to explore various sites to the south of Shahjahanabad, and even before the arrival of the committee, had visited Malcha (at the foot of the Ridge, in the vicinity of today’s Chanakyapuri) and Naraina, which lay to the southwest of Shahjahanabad.
Arriving in Delhi on 15 April, 1912, the members of the Town Planning Committee stayed at the Maiden’s Hotel, located in Civil Lines, and spent a very busy five weeks. Despite the increasing heat, they made several trips surveying the land around the city, and held meetings with local officials to assess the potentialities of various sites. Once their fieldwork in Delhi was over, on 20 May they fled the heat of Delhi to Simla, the summer capital, to hold a final round of discussions with officials in the pleasant weather of the hill station. On 13 June, the committee submitted its first report to the government, on the subject of a suitable site.
The team had visited and assessed a number of potential sites, and the pros and cons of each were discussed in the report.
One alternative, which was briefly considered before being discarded, was that of the east bank of the Yamuna, across the river from Shahjahanabad. The major factor which ruled this out was that the river physically separated it from the existing city. This would not be practical, since it was envisaged that the majority of the population would continue to live in the old city.
Another option was to the west of the Ridge – Naraina and its surroundings. While this was in many ways a suitable site, it was rejected on the ground that it “could not be considered to be Delhi”. The problem was that the intervening Ridge not only cut off easy communication with the existing city, but obstructed “all view of the older Delhis of the past”. Since Delhi had in the first place been chosen for its great symbolic significance as a capital of historic Indian empires, this was a significant drawback.
Another possible location was north of Shahjahanabad, which included the site of the Durbar, where the foundation stones had been laid. For many within British Indian officialdom, this was a popular choice. For those concerned with symbolism, this place was associated with the durbars celebrating the coronation of three British monarchs. Going back further, this location included the Ridge, which was associated with the Revolt of 1857, where the British forces had made their successful stand to retake Delhi and turn the tide of the countrywide revolt.
For those who were economically minded, there was the thought that this site could be converted into a suitable capital with the least expense. It already contained a number of public buildings and bungalows – the “Civil Lines”, housing a mainly European business and administrative population.
Yet the Town Planning Committee rejected the site. They rejected it on the very ground that part of it was already built up, as they pointed out, in a haphazard fashion. There was no question of adding buildings to the pre-existing Civil Lines. This could hardly be a “town-planning scheme worthy of an Imperial City”. On the other hand, purchasing the land and levelling all the construction on it to start afresh, would be too expensive.
In any case, the Civil Lines area was just a small part of the whole site. The adjoining land, the vast plain where the durbars had been held, was prone to flooding. There were also important ideological reasons that made the Civil Lines and Durbar sites unsuitable for the new capital. These were areas which symbolised the old Raj, and its confrontation with the Indian people, most notably in 1857. If the new capital was to represent a reworked relationship, these old precedents would have to be de-emphasised.
By a process of elimination, the site that was settled upon by the committee was to the east of the Ridge, south of Shahjahanabad, between the village of Malcha (on the Ridge) and the sixteenth-century fortress known as Purana Qila.
The location had much to recommend it. It was not very built up, though its southern and eastern edges contained the remains of many old tombs and other structures. Also importantly, an eminence in the middle of the site (Raisina Hill) commanded a view of all the cities of Delhi laid out beside the river. Looking eastward and starting from the left, one could see Shahjahanabad, fourteenth-century Ferozabad, Purana Qila, and further to the right, the tomb of the emperor Humayun and the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin. This was a site that could connect the new capital to the imperial past of India.
An interesting subplot of this story was an alternate plan that the government briefly considered at the end of 1912. Drawn up by a railway engineer, Bradford Leslie, the builder of Howrah Bridge in Calcutta, the plan would put the capital back in the northern site. It proposed the construction of a weir across the Yamuna, which would lead to the creation of a lake, providing valuable lakefront property.
Additional land would be reclaimed by building an embankment, alongside which would run a wide boulevard, lined with “trees, shops, restaurants, theatres, clubs, hotels, and cafes”. The proposal was rejected on various grounds, mainly health and sanitation, since the damming of the Yamuna would increase the water table and intensify malarial conditions.
While the question of a site was being settled, the creation of a suitable town plan was also being thought out. Most of the ideas informing this tentative plan came from Lutyens, who wrote to his wife, “it is my site, my layout, etc., so I am pleased”. Having made their submissions, the committee departed. Passing through Delhi on their way from Simla to Bombay, they met Lanchester there, and spent two days with him, going over the southern site and explaining the draft plan that they had made out. It was understood that Lanchester would concentrate mainly on the improvement of the old city of Shahjahanabad, and its better connection with the new capital. In passing, however, he made some comments on the committee’s plan too.
Lanchester’s intervention was to be a crucial one. Hardinge, examining the Town Planning Committee’s scheme in the light of Lanchester’s comments, began to see the weaknesses in it. A visit to Delhi at the end of July, to examine the plan on the ground, convinced him of the serious flaws in the proposed alignments.
In a letter to Reginald Craddock (who had succeeded Jenkins as Home Member) he went so far as to remark, “In my opinion there has been a singular lack of common sense in the plans of the Delhi Committee.” Craddock agreed with Hardinge, commenting, “I think Lanchester is worth all the experts put together,” and suggesting that he be given a permanent assignment and the services of the committee dispensed with.
Though this was not done, and Lanchester had to be content with his one month in India, during that period he worked furiously, in consultation with Hardinge, to prepare a series of alternate plans. In the light of Lanchester’s inputs, Hardinge rejected most of Lutyens’ suggestions.
One of the issues that had to be tackled was the alignment of the main avenue of the city (what we know today as Rajpath). Lutyens had designed this to lead from the Viceroy’s residence (now Rashtrapati Bhavan), which was located at Malcha, to Jama Masjid. This avenue terminated at the southwest corner of the mosque, which was a blank wall at the rear, hardly a very pleasing prospect for the main street of the imperial city. In addition, in the path of this proposed avenue lay the populous settlement of Paharganj.
The main axis of the new capital, as planned, would necessitate the clearing of this land. This would be not only an expensive proposition, as land prices were high, but a move that would be unpopular with its 35,000-odd inhabitants.
Lutyens’ grid plan, too, was discarded, in favour of one which incorporated a mix of straight, curving and radial roads. His suggestion that the ceremonial avenue be lined with the palaces of the maharajas, with huge frontages and imposing gates, was also considered impractical.
Among the committee’s sins of omission had been their failure to take into account some important pre-existing religious structures – two Hindu temples fell in the path of the originally proposed central avenue, and the Idgah in the middle of one of the proposed roads. It was politically inexpedient to demolish these. In the reworked plan, not only were these preserved, but other existing monuments such as Humayun’s Tomb and Safdarjung’s Tomb were incorporated as terminal points of important avenues.
Hardinge was himself responsible for one important decision – the precise orientation and location of the Viceroy’s residence, or Government House. Lutyens’ plan to have the house look down the ceremonial avenue to the back of Jama Masjid, was abandoned. Instead, the orientation of Government House and the ceremonial avenue was turned to squarely face Purana Qila, with a view of the Jama Masjid to the left, and Safdarjung’s Tomb to the right, so that the “view would comprise all the ancient monuments and objects of historic interest in one comprehensive panorama”. This was a principle on which Lanchester and Swinton agreed, though, as Swinton put it, “Lutyens, of course, has little sympathy with these remains.”
The location of Government House at Malcha had posed many problems. In the reworked plan it meant that the ceremonial avenue leading from Government House to Purana Qila would pass through a hundred-foot cut in Raisina Hill, which stood in the middle. This would cause a traffic bottleneck and in addition, the view of Government House up the vista would also be severely constricted. Eventually Hardinge accepted the suggestion, originally put forward by Brodie, to place Government House on Raisina hill itself. This solved another problem with Lutyens’ avenue – its excessive length, which according to the original plan, would be some two miles.
It was left to the Town Planning Committee to further tweak this plan. In the layout they finally submitted, the focal point was the Government House located on Raisina Hill. From here a broad avenue ran due east, to the northwestern gate of Purana Qila. Halfway down this avenue, on the level ground, lay the Secretariat buildings. Through this Secretariat area ran another avenue, intersecting with the main avenue at right angles.
At the southern end of this second avenue, a cathedral was planned. At the northern end, the railway station would be constructed, surrounded by a circular arrangement of administrative and municipal offices, post office, shops and hotels. This was the future Connaught Place, eventually built with several modifications.
Excerpted with permission from Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi, Swapna Liddle, Speaking Tiger Books.