SAMENA Program: Delhi, old and new

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A narrow residential lane in Chandni Chowk. Photo: Vedica Kant

Delhi, old and new.

New Delhi, the capital of India, is a slightly schizophrenic, multi-layered city. Its name itself is a topic of discussion. Why is it ‘new’ Delhi? Is there an ‘old’ Delhi? Can you use the name Delhi and New Delhi interchangeably? These questions in themselves hint at Delhi’s convoluted history. The great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1529 – 1666, famous for building the Taj Mahal) moved his capital from the city of Agra to the area of Delhi, building a new capital in his name, Shahjahanabad, in 1639. This city remained the capital of the Mughal Empire till 1857 when the British took over as the paramount power in India and moved their capital to Calcutta. As the geographic spread of the British Empire grew the British decided that perhaps Delhi would be a more logical central location for a capital than the eastern Calcutta. In 1911, at an assembly of royalty and aristocracy from across India, the ‘Delhi Durbar’, the British Monarch George V laid the foundation stone for what was to be the new capital. New Delhi. In 1947, the independent Indian state also adopted Delhi as its capital incorporating and embracing both its colonial and pre-colonial legacy. It was this mixed heritage we were exposed to during our summer immersion in Delhi.

Chandni Chowk

Shahjahanabad’s most famous landmark was its central crossroad, Chandni Chowk (Moonlight Square) and this name continues to be synonymous with old Delhi. With over 400 years of history, you would expect Chandni Chowk to be a well-preserved heritage site aimed to generate cash flow from tourists. Instead it is a chaotic, overwhelming network of narrow lanes (in Hindi, a ‘galli’) housing both residential and commercial buildings. As we toured the old city we went from galli to galli, each with its own specialty: from one specializing in making “parathas” (think stuffed, deep fried pita), to one that was a wholesale market for gold. Originally designed for a few thousand people, the Chandni Chowk area today holds more than 2 million people. To the western eye its narrow lanes would not seem wide enough for two North American students to walk shoulder to shoulder, respecting each other’s personal space, but here they are navigated by pedestrians, rickshaws, motorbikes and animals all going about their daily business. It is an example of how built infrastructure and urban planning in India can’t keep up with it growing population.

Rashtrapati Bhavan, formerly the British Viceroy’s residence. Photo: Kanishk Raghuvanshi

Lutyens’ Delhi  

A stark contrast to Chandni Chowk, is the British-planned New Delhi. Our immersion exposed us to this part of Delhi, which is also called Lutyens’ Delhi, after the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869 – 1944), who was largely responsible for its design and planning. New Delhi was envisaged to be a testament to Britain’s imperial might and ambition. Even today, the city’s wide, tree-lined avenues and imposing buildings, with their Indo-Saracenic architecture, retain their grandeur. This part of the city is not yet overcrowded in the way that Chandni Chowk is. This is in no small measure because the independent Indian state adopted the entire built infrastructure of Lutyens’ Delhi. Rashtrapati Bhawan, the home of the President of India, was formerly the Viceroy’s House and its adjacent buildings which used to house the British Secretariat now house the Indian Prime Minister’s office and other key ministries. When faced with the chaos and overpopulation in the unplanned areas of Delhi, the Lutyens’ zone seems like an oasis of calm. It is difficult, faced with this contrast, not to become a slight imperial nostalgic in appreciation of how well the plan of New Delhi has held up and how foresighted the British planners seem from the vantage point of today’s crowded megapolis.

Yet, as we continued to engage with Delhi over the course of our immersion we also better understood the politics of India and of urban planning. Questions as to why urban planning in India is so poor, and why certain historic parts of the city are better preserved than others are complicated and deeply tied to issues of political power, government structures and corruption. Engaging with the many layers of Delhi’s historic urban fabric brought these into sharp relief for us.