Delhi: December 12, 1911
From Sam Miller's Delhi, Adventures in a Megacity;
North Delhi is the city's most underdeveloped quadrant, as if someone had started building here and had run out of money. It feels deserted. Its roads are bordered by scrub and marsh, sewers and sewage plants, scattered residential townships and shrinking strips of farmland. It might easily have been so different; this area could have become the centre of modern Delhi. At the heart of this North Delhi wasteland is a clue to what might have been, yet another forgotten memorial, a stone obelisk in a deserted park. The obelisk marks the site of the most momentous announcement in Delhi's history, the first step in Delhi's transformation to a megacity. For this park was the location of the Durbar of 1911, where King George V, the only reigning British monarch to visit the subcontinent, stunned his audience of princes, officials and soldiers by declaring that Delhi would replace Calcutta as the capital of India.
After the final collapse of the Mughal Empire in 1857, Delhi had been despoiled by the British and allowed to turn into a shrunken, provincial backwater. Now, it would be transformed into a majestic imperial capital, and the original intention was to build the new city, New Delhi, at the site of the durbar. But after two years of arguing, New Delhi's planners chose a site twelve kilometres to the south, at Raisina Hill, from where India is still ruled. The British had decided that North Delhi was too marshy and too flat; it was too far from the ruins of ancient empires; and the architects wanted to build a Viceregal palace on a hill-top, so it would command an impressive vista, and, most important of all, create a sense of awe among Britain's Indian subjects. The Durbar site became an overgrown reliquary known as Coronation Park, with busts and statues of long-dead British rulers, noses held high in the air, peeping through the foliage. Today the park has a large population of squirrels and pigeons, who have made their home amid the debris of empire...
For more than eight centuries, Delhi's centre of gravity had crept slowly northwards--as it were on tiny castors. From its oldest standing ruins in the far south of Delhi to Siri, and later Ferozebad, Shahjahanabad and Civil Lines. But, in the aftermath of King George's seismic announcement at what is now Coronation Park, the direction was reversed. Delhi's centre of gravity began to move southwards. After half a millennium with farm animals for company, the ruins of older empires, of previous versions of Delhi, were being swallowed back into the growing city--and the creep became a crawl…