Northen Ridge

Northen Ridge

The Residency Period

British Started Spreading in India

The British began trickling into Delhi in the late 18th century. By then the East India Company was already firmly entrenched in Calcutta while Delhi was merely regarded as a northern outpost of little importance. Lieutenant William Franklin was dispatched to Delhi by the directors of the East India Company ‘to survey the then unknown heartlands of the empire of the Great Mughal’. Franklin’s account was published in 1795:

The environs are crowded with the remains of spacious gardens and country-houses of the nobility. The prospect towards Delhi, as far as the eye can reach, is covered with the remains of gardens, pavilions, mosques and burying places. The environs of this once magnificent and celebrated city appear now nothing more than a shapeless heap of ruins British Occupying Delhi.

This was the twilight zone in the history of Delhi when Mughal power was fast plummeting while the Company’s star was on the ascendant. The clincher came with the Battle of Delhi when Company troops led by General Lake defeated the Marathas on the banks of the Yamuna. Here’s Oswald Wood’s account of the British occupation of Delhi: On 11th September 1803 the Mahrattas were defeated and three days after, the English entered Delhi as the real masters of the Mughal. The arrangements made for the maintenance of the King Shah Alam were ‘that a specified portion of the territories in the vicinity of Delhi situated on the right bank of the Jamna should be assigned as part of the provision for the maintenance of the Royal Family. That these lands should remain under charge of the Resident at Delhi and that the revenue should be collected and justice should be administered in the name of his Majesty Shah Alam under regulations to be fixed by the British Government…’

The Coming Up of Residency

In one fell swoop, Shah Alam was reduced to a figurehead with the reins of Delhi firmly in the hands of the British. The emperor promptly granted Dara Shikoh’s Library near Kashmiri Gate to the British and that’s where the Residency came up. The first resident of the Delhi territory was Sir David Ochterlony. The early representatives of the Company in Delhi were nothing like the arrogant, racist, stuffed shirts that one commonly associates with the British Raj. Men like Ochterlony and William Fraser embraced many Indian customs, habits and often had a haremful of Indian wives. Delhi in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was innocent of racial and cultural prejudice. Without Victorian memsahibs to curl the upper lip at ‘natives’, Delhi was full of eccentric yet learned Scotsmen who genuinely loved and respected India. This period, though shortlived, was perhaps the only time when Indians and the British struck a bond of affection.

The Northern Ridge, the Civil Lines and the area around Kashmiri Gate became the centre of much hectic building by the British. It’s such a surprise for the first-time visitor to find British Architecture in a sea of Mughal monuments. Hire a taxi, find a good guidebook and charge into North Delhi for some close encounters of the Raj kind.

British Residency

The Residency stands along Lothian Road and has been for many years part of the Delhi College of Engineering. It also has an office of the Archaeological Survey of India. Given the fate of most government buildings in India, it is no surprise to discover that the erstwhile Residency has fallen on hard times. Signs of this are discernible even as you approach Lothian Road, one of Old Delhi’s most impoverished parts.

Till about 65 years ago, this road was a thriving and fashionable shopping area frequented by the British and Anglo-Indians. Unfortunately, when Lutyens’ Delhi came up in the 30s, most of the area’s middle class migrated to the new metropolis.

The residency is a yellow-coloured mansion surrounded by a compound wall. Neem and ashok trees line the front, partially obscuring it from view. Its front is formed by a flat colonnade of classical pillars and chiks (wickerwork slats) are fitted between them for shade. A small flight of stairs leads up, through a shady verandah, to the front door. This edifice is not very remarkable in itself. What makes it so is the fact that it was built on the site of Dara Shikoh’s (Shahjahan’s favourite son) library.

When Shah Alam granted the British the ruins of the library, Sir David Ochterlony saw no reason to demolish it – he just carried out repairs and ordered a colonial façade to be built around it. This came to be the Residency. Ochterlony, its first occupant, lived here like a nawab surrounded by khitmatgars and 13 Indian wives. He dressed like a nawab, smoked the hookah and hosted lavish nautch parties.

Unfortunately this first symbol of British power in Delhi is in a state of disrepair now. The government even contemplated demolishing it in the 1980s but it was saved due to the efforts of conservationists. Noted travel writer William Dalrymple records his disappointment and disillusionment at the fate of the historic edifice: ‘Dusty filing cabinets stand where the nautch girls once danced. Doors hang loose on their hinges. Everywhere paint and plaster is peeling. So total is the transformation that it is difficult to people the empty corridors with the bustling Company servants, glittering Mughal omrahs (noblemen) and celebrated courtesans.

Lothian Cemetery

Netaji Subhash Marg runs past the Red Fort, down a hill and under Lothian Bridge, a railway bridge. Just after it, Lothian Cemetery lurks on the right, its gate beneath a grey crenellated tower. Graves are scattered within the compound and its assortment of gravestones includes a grand sandstone one to Thomas Dunn, erected by James Skinner.

British Magazine

Netaji Subhash Marg branches off into a Y-junction as you travel farther from Lothian Cemetery. Take the branch on the right called Lothian Road. You’ll soon find an arched ruin in the middle of it – these are remains of the British Magazine. This huge ammunition storehouse was deliberately blown up on May 11, 1857 when the nine men defending it could not hold out any longer. To prevent it from falling into the hands of the Indian freedom fighters, who had mutinied in Meerut the previous day, Lieutenant Willoughby determinedly set it afire. The bang was said to have been heard at Meerut, 50km away. Over the central gate is a memorial to Lieutenant Willoughby and his fearless men. In the southeast corner of the rear are the steps by which the survivors escaped.

Telegraph Memorial

The grey pillar beyond the Magazine is the Telegraph Memorial from which the Anglo-Indian operator warned the British army of what was going on.

Flagstaff Tower

This would have remained just an ordinary watch and hunting tower if the 1857 Mutiny had not happened. What makes it historically important is the fact that British women and children – survivors of the Delhi massacre – gathered here on the fateful day of May 11, 1857 before fleeing to Karnal. The tower stands tall on the highest part of the Northern Ridge just where Flag Staff Road intersects Magazine Road. Flagstaff Tower was one of the first substantial buildings to be constructed by the British on the Ridge. It was probably built when the army cantonment was moved in 1928.

University office

To the west of the tower, along Vishwavidyalaya Marg, is a large house now used as the office of the University of Delhi. It was built for the Coronation Durbar in 1903 for use by the Viceroy, and was used as the Viceregal Lodge till New Delhi was inaugurated in 1931.

Vice Chancellor’s office

The University of Delhi Campus has some lovely buildings from the Residency period. The vice-chancellor’s office was used as a circuit house or official guesthouse for the British officers in the Civil Lines area. Did you know that it was in a room in this building that Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India, proposed to Edwina Ashley, the future Countess Mountbatten? A plaque has been put up in the room to commemorate the event.

Mutiny Memorial

On the way down from the Ridge, along Rani Jhansi Road is a strange Gothic tower that is a poor copy of the Prince Albert Memorial in London. This is the Mutiny Memorial – an octagonal, tapering tower built to commemorate the British and the Indians who fought on their side in 1857.

In panels around its base are recorded the 2,163 officers and men who were killed, wounded and went missing between 8 June and 7 September 1857. Against a list of the encounters in 1857 are three columns: killed, wounded and missing. All the officers and soldiers have further been categorized as Native and European

The Mutiny memorial was renamed Ajitgarh on the 25th anniversary of India’s freedom and aptly converted into a memorial for the Indian martyrs who rose against colonial rule. A new plaque on the site attempts to set the record straight:

The ‘enemy’ of the inscriptions on this monument were those who rose against colonial rule and fought bravely for national liberation in 1857. In memory of the heroism of these immortal martyrs for Indian freedom, this plaque was unveiled on the 25th anniversary of the nation’s attainment of Freedom, 28th August 1972.

Coronation Durbar Site

North of Old Delhi, way beyond any residential colony, is Delhi’s very own junkyard of history. Most of the statues erected by the British have been unceremoniously dumped in this park. Getting here needs some doing but a visit can be quite rewarding for true-blue Raj fans. Drive past the Civil Lines and Kingsway Camp to reach the Coronation Memorial site, now no more than an abandoned park with wild grass and weeds.

This was the site of the three Durbars enacted in Delhi and a lone obelisk is a poor memorial to that. It was here in 1911 that King George V was declared Emperor of India and announced the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. If you look closely you can still see a statue of him rise ghost-like out of the bushes nearby, where it was dumped after being removed from the canopy near India Gate. It depicts King George V in the coronation robe he wore on the occasion. Other imperial dignitaries can be spotted keeping the King company. Do go and say hello to Lord Willingdon and Lord Hardinge who were lovingly been placed on red sandstone plinths.