There’s a buzz in the capital and it’s raising eyebrows. The concerns centre on a proposed plan to redesign and redevelop the heart of New Delhi, which could forever alter the city. This is being seen, in many quarters as an attack on the core of Lutyens’ Delhi and all that it is ‘supposed’ to have symbolised. But that is a story for another time…
The core of the capital of India often goes by the moniker ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’, after Sir Edwin Lutyens, the British architect who was in charge of designing the grand colonial capital. But mention names like Sobha Singh, Baisakha Singh, Narain Singh, Dharam Singh and Seth Haroun and you’re likely to draw a blank.
Yet it is the contribution of men like these, who were part of a large network of Indian contractors who were as pivotal as Lutyens was in raising this new city. It might surprise you to know that although Lutyens spearheaded this mammoth project, he personally designed only four bungalows in New Delhi, all of them within the Rashtrapati Bhavan estate today.
The need for a new colonial capital was felt in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when Calcutta, then the capital of the East India Company, became a political tinderbox for the British. The Partition of Bengal in 1905 had caused massive political and religious turmoil and the British were anxious to distance the seat of the Empire from the revolutionary activities fermenting in Bengal.
Delhi was an appealing alternative as it would give the British a more central seat of power vis-a-vis the regional, coastal locations of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Moreover, it was a city that had always held a great fascination for the British. It was an Imperial city. It had been the seat of the medieval Delhi Sultanate and it was from here that the Mughals later ruled over vast territories. Thus, even though the city wore a desolate look after the fall of the last Mughal Emperor, it was a prized location for the British.
Controlling Delhi would be an assertion of British power over India.
To set the process in motion, land for the new capital had been acquired under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, and the historic proclamation of shifting the capital from Calcutta to Delhi was made by King George V and his consort Queen Mary at the Delhi Durbar, on 12th December 1911. The Durbar itself was a grand event meant to reflect the might of the British Empire, and it was the ideal occasion for the momentous announcement.
New Delhi, about 10 kms from the old Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad, was built from scratch. First, the residents of Raisina Hill and adjoining villages had to be resettled to make way for the new imperial city. Next, the area had to be levelled and evened out so that roads could be laid and essential services like piped water supply and electricity set up. The planners had to even decide on which trees would be planted in the new city!
A New Beginning
Work was to start in 1911 and be completed in 4 years. However, delays, first due to World War I and then due to redesigns and cost escalations that drained budgets, meant that the new city could be inaugurated only in 1931.
Obviously, a grand undertaking like this needed people who were equal to the task, and there were many. These civil contractors, who literally built the new city from the ground up, came mainly from Punjab and North-West India. They had allied themselves with the British during the Revolt of 1857 and had been richly rewarded.
Malvika Singh and Rudransghu Mukherjee in New Delhi: Making of a Capital (2009) write in great detail about how the city was birthed, and mention five contractors who executed the bulk of the work – Sobha Singh, Baisakha Singh, Narain Singh, Dharam Singh and Seth Haroun.
Most literature on the making of New Delhi focuses on the roles of Lutyens, his partner in the project, architect Sir Herbert Baker and even the Viceroy Lord Hardinge, with the Indians relegated to a footnote. Thus, even though the city is as much their legacy as that of the British, much of what these contractors accomplished remains undocumented.
The most successful and prominent among them were the father-son duo of Sujan Singh and Sobha Singh, who had come from Sargodha in Punjab (now in Pakistan) seeking opportunities to make their fortunes. Among their descendants are noted author Khushwant Singh and actress Amrita Singh. In his book ‘Not a Nice Man to Know’ , the late Khushwant Singh writes that his forefathers were experienced businessmen with land in Shahpur district of Punjab (also in Pakistan now). He adds that they had previously worked on laying railway lines in Punjab including the Kalka-Shimla railway line, and also ran a very successful camel transportation business in western Punjab.
Sir Sobha Singh’s first assignment was to level the land for the Delhi Durbar before the announcement of the capital’s shifting. He controlled so much land in the city that he was nicknamed Adhi Dilli Ka Malik (‘owner of half the city’)!
The creation of New Delhi wasn’t smooth sailing and is, in fact, a story of false starts, relocations, redesigns and expenses far exceeding budgets. The new city was originally meant to be situated in the northern part of Delhi but the blueprint relocated the capital to southern Delhi. Jagmohan, former Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi, narrates a priceless anecdote in his book Triumphs and Tragedies of Ninth Delhi, about how the foundation stone for the city had in fact been laid in North Delhi, beyond the ridge, during the Delhi Durbar for King George V. When the venue of the new capital changed, a young Sobha Singh transported it from there to Raisina Hill on a bullock cart in the middle of the night!
The Delhi Imperial Railway, which carried no passengers, was used to transport stone from neighbouring Badarpur to Kingsway Camp, 2 km from Raisina Hill. From Kingsway Camp, the material would be taken on the backs of donkeys and via bullock cart to the site. The stone was quarried in Dholpur and its supply was handled by Dharam Singh, who was also from Punjab.
Khushwant Singh writes that Dharam Singh had a virtual monopoly on the supply of stone and marble, and became one of the wealthiest builders in Delhi. The palatial home he lived in on Jantar Mantar Road later became the office of the All India Congress Committee. Dharam Singh left the bulk of his fortune to the Guru Nanak Vidya Bhandar Trust, which maintains schools and hospitals to date.
Sujan Singh and Sir Sobha Singh built South Block, India Gate, the forecourt of Government House (Rashtrapati Bhavan), Connaught Place, Baroda House, Scindia House and the Regal Building. Baisakha Singh, who hailed from Amritsar, constructed North Block and many official residences.
Seth Haroun Al-Rashid, a prominent contractor from Sindh, was given charge of Government House i.e. Rashtrapati Bhavan. He is one of the few contractors who returned to his native hometown once his commission in Delhi was complete.
Lachhman Das, also from Sindh, worked on the Legislative Chambers and built Parliament House. Khushwant Singh describes him as a scrupulously honest man who didn’t use cheap material, paid his workers on time and didn’t cheat on his taxes. He adds that this honesty was his undoing and Lacchman Das retired to Haridwar, where he spent his last days as a sadhu.
Narain Singh, who was a part of making the arrangements for the Delhi Durbar, was responsible for most of the roads of the new city. He also laid the foundation of Parliament House and was given the title of ‘Rai Bahadur’ by the government. He also bought some land and built the Imperial Hotel, which was the site of many meetings between Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten, when they were finalizing the terms of Partition. Today, the hotel is run by Narain Singh’s descendants and houses some excellent artifacts from its early days like furniture, photographs, prints and paintings.
Interestingly, among the dozens of engineers engaged in the construction of the new imperial capital, there was only one prominent Indian, Teja Singh Malik, who was later knighted for his services.
Let’s not forget that an exercise of such monumental proportions could be accomplished in large part because of the resources India had, whether manpower or material. Khushwant Singh writes that the stone masons, also called sang tarashs, were from Delhi and Agra and were descendants of the builders of Mughal Forts. It took around 30,000 workers to build New Delhi, most of them from Rajasthan. Known as bagris, they were housed in tents and temporary accommodation on-site and around it.
Khushwant Singh adds that the men would be paid half a rupee or 8 annas and the women 6 annas for a day’s work. These workers toiled all through the year, at the height of the Delhi winter as well as the loos, which marks the blazing North Indian summer. Unmindful of the weather, they meticulously carved and laid every single stone.
In a paper on the building of New Delhi, historian Nayanjot Lahiri makes a point when she notes that Christopher Hussey, who authored the official biography of Edward Lutyens, does not mention a single Indian involved in building the imperial city. Ironically, Lutyens was known to have disliked India and everything Indian, and this lack of acknowledgment may have reflected his bias. Yet, it was these very individuals who gave form to his thoughts.
The First Bungalows of the Lutyens Bungalow Zone
In the early days, the families of the contractors lived on a street called Jantar Mantar, after the observatory constructed by Raja Jai Singh II of Amer in the 1720s. Today, this is the heart of New Delhi but in those days, it marked the boundary of the new capital. Accounts from that era mention that it was not uncommon to hear jackals howling nearby!
Sir Sobha Singh built a house for his family at the end of Janpath in the early 1900s and named it ‘Baikunth’. The house, designed by Walter George, is an excellent example of the architecture of New Delhi. Malvika Singh has written that it had five suites to house Sobha Singh’s family along with a large wood-panelled library. The ceilings were high and the central, domed hallway had a ceiling painted with clouds and angels.
The house was bought by the ruler of the Kochi princely state in the 1920s and became the Kerala State Palace. In the 1950s, the house was acquired by the Government of Kerala and became ‘Kerala House’.
Some of the other contractors too bought land in the surrounding areas and built private, commercial and residential spaces. These properties were brought at throwaway prices but today house some of the most iconic buildings of New Delhi, like the Connaught Place Market; Sujan Singh Park, the first apartment complex of New Delhi; hotels like the Imperial Hotel; and residences on tony streets like Aurangzeb Road and Curzon Road.
Interestingly, the sprawling plots and their palatial bungalows in this part of Delhi were a result not of design but a cost-cutting measure – the number of bungalows being built had to be reduced due to budget constraints and, consequently, the plot sizes had to increase to accommodate this.
The irony that the new imperial capital was completed as the sun was setting on the empire wasn’t lost on anyone. The showpiece of the empire functioned as one for just 16 years before its role changed drastically. In 1947, New Delhi became the symbol of a post-colonial, independent India and the Indians who built it. A fact that is worth remembering today.
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