Thursday, 30 May 2013

Delhi: Walking the Lost Raj

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Looking up at Delhi's India Gate in February 2011, I had Percy Shelley’s 1818 poem in mind.

In this case, however, the vanished power mocked by its own monumental remains was the British Empire.

This monumental gate was erected in 1931 as the keystone of New Delhi. A vast new capital for Britain's Indian Empire, it was landscaped over a vast area south of the old city centre in a series of razor-straight roads meeting at circular intersections in leafy neighbourhoods.

Just 16 years later, The Raj was at an end, something that the creators of New Delhi could never have foreseen.

Of course, the parallels with Shelley’s poem are inexact. We know precisely what the India Gate was intended to be: both a war memorial for the Indian dead of World War I and an enduring symbol of British power.

And the Republic of India, which found itself with a sparkling new capital at its centre (quite a going-away gift) has maintained New Delhi’s ceremonial core.

From the India Gate, housed at the centre of a vast circular park, a grand ceremonial avenue, the Rajpath, stretches west. Along its length is placed the National Museum, the soaring imperial Secretariat Buildings, and at the end the imposing President’s Residence (once the Viceroy’s humble abode).

Unusually for a tourist, at least according to every tuk-tuk driver I passed that day, I walked the entire route from my accommodation at the Taj Mahal Hotel to Connaught Place, the commercial hub of New Delhi.

Along the final approach to Connaught Place (whose two concentric circles are actually officially named Rajiv Chowk and Indira Chowk), there were many many people who wanted to sell me things.

But I good-naturedly strolled on, declining all offers, even passing a demonstration about education issues at one stage, until I arrived at the heart of New Delhi. Bustling, noisy, vibrant – all the usual India-related clich├ęs applied.

To escape the rush and summon up a finale to my reflection on the lost Raj, I retreated to the 1911 Bar within the art deco Imperial Hotel. This opulent fever-dream of Empire was completed, ironically, just over a decade before India gained its independence.

Though grand, the bar (named for the year New Delhi was designated as India’s new capital) was also a little playful. It was dominated by a vast horseshoe-shaped timber bar topped with marble, fronted by comfortable leather-backed chairs.

Above was a remarkable glass canopy bearing colourful designs reminiscent of the art nouveau era. Among the leather sofas along the walls were sepia photographs of maharajas and nawabs. On the wall beyond was a long painting of an idealised scene of Indian life along a riverbank.

The bar's specialty cocktail sounded a little dangerous: Chak de Phatte, containing vodka, rum, tequila, gin, whiskey, curacao and (incongruously) Sprite.

One senses that this place was as much a fantasy in the 1930s as it is now. As I sipped my risky drink, I wondered if Ozymandias would have approved of such a flighty evocation of a golden age that, perhaps, never existed?

Perhaps he would, as long as his face was on the label.

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled to New Delhi courtesy of Thai Airways and received discounted accommodation at the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Imperial Hotel.