The Raj Re-Visited - A Study Trip to India's Capital

Contributed by Dr Robert Carr

The Raj Re-Visited - A Study Trip to India's Capital
The Raj Re-Visited - A Study Trip to India's Capital
Delhi's Hanuman Mandir
It's always a pleasure to leave a chilly, winter's London, not least for the warmth and welcome of India. This time there was a measure of anxiety associated with such a visit: I was responsible for a bespoke study tour and, with it, 18 teenagers' welfare. There is always the further assumption I would be bringing them all back in recognizable form.

Having introduced British India to my college's History curriculum, I had long been keen to promote a passion for the subcontinent. The cumbersome research-based coursework of A Level tended to evaporate initial student goodwill however. Without access to classroom computers and without a department budget for resources, presenting Nineteenth Century British India proved a testing task. An enlivening trip was clearly required. Identifying a half-term break, I drafted a week's itinerary which sought to trace the decline of the Mughal Empire and the rise and consolidation of British rule, i.e. the Raj.

Ironically, London's rush hour gridlock almost jeopardised our eventual evening departure. Our sun-blessed arrival in India proved more auspicious. Our local facilitator, Mr Kumar, found us amongst the crowds outside airport arrivals and had us seated on a generation-old bus for a journey into the past. While an assured 30m Hanuman looked down favourably upon us from outside his temple, we had already passed evidence of the Raj. The southern outskirts of Delhi are littered with high-walled cantonments and army colonies which had been designed by the British to fortify the city.

We arrived (and were based) at Pahar Ganj - an unpretentious downtown district which offered students an insight into Indian culture - exotic and otherwise. The group experienced its chaotic streets, sweetmeats, cinema, Shiva temples and henna artists. Pahar Ganj also offered a bovine dawn chorus, dozens of stray dogs and, inevitably, poverty and begging children.

Our first trip was to the splendidly opulent Akshardam Mandir. This temple complex constitutes a feat of both ingenuity and wealth, thus serving as a statement of modern, dynamic India. During the visit, we undertook a 15-minute boat-ride exhibition which narrated the contributions made by India to science, technology and spirituality. It seemed an appropriate starting point for British students getting to know the country. Thereafter, we concentrated on our curriculum needs and, specifically, the effects of 1857's Indian Mutiny or, locally-speaking, the Great Rebellion. To judge such effects, we needed to identify what formal British rule came to replace.

Like the British, the Mughals were an outside force who invaded much of the subcontinent. Like the British, they left cultural signs of dominance - not least Islam. It was, then, Humayun's Tomb which served as a very grand statement of Mughal control in the late Sixteenth Century. At this point, Delhi served as the empire's capital and when Emperor Humayun met with death (by falling down a flight of stairs) his body was later interred in a magnificent mausoleum.

The Raj Re-Visited - A Study Trip to India's Capital
Humayun's Tomb
Humayun's Tomb was the first garden-tomb on the subcontinent and served as an inspiration and template for Shah Jahan's celebrated Taj Mahal, built in Agra a century later. Arguably, both Humayun's Tomb and the Taj symbolized the supremacy and confidence of the Mughal dynasty. However, a further Delhi site, Safdarjung's Tomb, hinted at the decline of the empire. Built in 1754, Safdarjung's Tomb is regarded as 'the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture'. While the tomb is undoubtedly pretty and the palm-lined lawns make for an aesthetic excursion, it is evident from the plaster carvings and the sandstone and buff exterior that cheaper materials have been used in its construction. A further sign of change can be seen in the site's onion domes: the Mughals had clearly succumbed to foreign influences. Indeed, 1803 brought a further sign of decline as Shah Alam II came to rely on the British to retain a pretence of power. An alliance was struck with the East India Company in order to hold up the Delhi-based empire against the encroaching Afghan, Sikh and Maratha kingdoms.

When it came, the Mutiny - or Rebellion - was a sign that the balance of power had tipped too far into British hands. The East India Company had become masters of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The company governed on behalf of the emperor who, in effect, ruled over no more than the Seventeenth Century walled city known as the Red Fort (Lal Qila). While this becomes the site of Nehru's declaration of Indian independence in 1947, for us it was a romantic exercise in imagining a fortress home to an emperor's court, marbled mosques, a floating palace, hammams and even a gladiatorial square for elephant combat. When an ageing Bahadur Shah became the mutineers' reluctant figurehead in 1857, he fled to Humayun's Tomb before being banished to Burma once the British re-asserted control.

The Raj Re-Visited - A Study Trip to India's Capital
St James' Church, Old Delhi
Just beyond the Red Fort, we visited St James' Church which houses the graves of British victims of 1857. The church is a miniature version of St Paul's Cathedral yet, while it is a classical Christian design, it is painted bright yellow - a typical British gesture to blend in with Hindu surroundings. A troop of monkeys appeared perfectly at home in the churchyard and utterly upstaged our academic intentions!

Post-Mutiny, formal British rule of India was established: company control was replaced by the Crown. It was not until 1911, however, that King George announced a shift of the Raj's administrative centre away from Calcutta to Delhi. In order to forge a new imperial capital, the British relied, in particular, on the architect Edwin Lutyens. We duly visited the Raj's power centre, the Viceroy's House. This term is something of an understatement for a 70,000 square metre palace adorned with an imposing dome and classical columns.

The Raj Re-Visited - A Study Trip to India's Capital
India Gate - the entrance to New Delhi
Today the empire's epicentre is better known as Rashtrapati Bhavan (home to India's president) which still benefits from the magnificent Mughal Gardens. Although the gardens are designed along Mughal traditions, they are almost entirely planted with English cottage flowers! Nevertheless, they served as a tranquil repose following an episode of unwanted attention from young men who followed us to the Viceroy's House from India Gate some 1km or so below.

The Raj Re-Visited - A Study Trip to India's Capital
Lutyen's Bungalows for Britain's civil servants
Arguably, India Gate is New Delhi's most prominent landmark yet its purpose was to commemorate the 62,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for Britain in World War I. It looks very much like the Arc de Triomphe and, similar to French intentions, the British created a capital with generously wide and straight avenues in order to better contain the risk of violence or revolution. One such avenue is Prithviraj Road which lay at the heart of Lutyens' residences for Raj officials. Here I was privileged to have tea with my students and Shukla Nath whose family owns a smart, sprawling white bungalow set amidst lush lawns, vegetable gardens and wildlife-filled trees. Not only is the Nath home a verdant oasis of calm, it is one of the subcontinent's most sought after and priciest pieces of real estate.

The Raj Re-Visited - A Study Trip to India's Capital
Students at ITO Bridge's Elephant Slum
A final, perhaps frivolous, excursion was our National Railway Museum visit. The steam engines appeared attractive, even pretty, and we enjoyed a miniature train ride round the grounds. However, post-Mutiny rail expansion was a means to better control India by transporting troops and weaponry to any trouble spot. On the other hand, it was here we saw a Nilgiri Hills train carriage and I hoped that it was perhaps the one that had carried my grandparents to their honeymoon destination at Ooty, a romantic hill station.

In this way, for all of us, Delhi managed to combine some personal reflection with generous doses of colour, noise, sunshine and warmth. There was some education along the way but, I have to concede, that India generated its own learning curve. This is what makes India, and this is what makes for the best trips. Furthermore, the students got back safely, in good health, determined to return to a better understood subcontinent.

Delhi was an inspiration. Not only did it trace the clash and congruence of empires, it exemplified the architecture of control. The friendly people we encountered showed us that while power can change hands, there is a distinct Delhi spirit which has persisted and perhaps drawn on the best bits of the British and the Mughals. Arguably, a lesson for us all.

Plymouth in British Empire
Safdarjung's Tomb
Further Reading
City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi
by William Dalrymple

Dr Robert Carr teaches History at the Lycee Francais and is Director of Studies at New London College. He also designs low-priced, Delhi-based package tours via Central Adventures Pvt, India.

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