Eye-witness to the Final Crowning Glory of the Raj

A century ago, my grandmother attended George V’s Coronation Durbar as Emperor of India, an extravaganza worthy of the Moghuls

Features History
Elephants bear the Maharaja of Pataila's priests and the Sikh holy book at the Delhi Durbar of 1911

Unless Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee next year surprises us all, the Royal Proclamation Delhi Durbar of 1911 will have been the greatest spectacle the world has seen since the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Its scale, drama, beauty and pageantry may never be surpassed. In a ceremony borrowed from the Moghuls, the British and their best-loved colony together created a show that astounded the world to celebrate King George V’s coronation as Emperor of India. After much grumbling, Asquith’s government had allotted a vast budget for the extravaganza, from which the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, received a million-pound grant (in today’s terms approximately £500 million) for the Indian end of the expense. He was to produce, in a series of animated moving tableaux, a reflection of the glory of an empire at the summit of its powers. Most important of all, he was to reinforce in public the loyalty of India’s ruling princes, the nawabs and maharajas. Complete with elephants, horses, camels and marching bands, and accompanied by nearly 500 princes and thousands of civil and military grandees, the Durbar lasted for more than ten days.

Under Hardinge’s wand a great tented city, over an area of 25 square miles of once-barren marsh north of Delhi, was erected in just four months, complete with its own post office, light railway, hospitals, electricity and farms, to accommodate 250,000 visitors with their travelling servants and Indian ayahs (maidservants). Among the encampments were the luxurious gardens and silk-lined tents of the royal and viceregal entourages and — grandest and most glamorous of them all — the vast carved gateways and exquisite shamianas (tents) of the maharajas

After the first five days of festivities, on December 12, came the great Durbar Day. From dawn the air was alive with the sound of bands and bugles. The King, with the Empress Queen at his side, left his camp in an open landau to pass between long corridors of magnificently uniformed soldiers lining the route. As the cavalcade entered the giant grass amphitheatre, the royal couple, attended by 12 princely Indian pages, were greeted by the triumphant strains of a 2,000-strong military band playing Handel’s march from Scipio. Adorned with an emerald and diamond crown and coronation robes under a gold and crimson shamiana, the King solemnly received India’s ruling princes as they came forward one by one to pay homage. Then, moving to a larger even more glorious canopied cupola, the King Emperor announced from his throne of solid gold to 120,000 cheering spectators that Delhi would henceforth be reinstated as the capital of India. 

Among the guests during the Durbar was my grandmother, then 23, whose diary of the event I recently discovered in a secondhand bookshop in Norfolk. Her record of a fortnight that marked the apogee of the British Raj and the personal story she told of her travels in India fascinated me. Her Irish background with its colonial parallels gave her an instinctive understanding both of the love affair between Britain and India and of the ambivalence that shot through the Indian psyche as longing for independence clashed with admiration for the mother country.

Particularly noticeable was the contrast between the close friendships of Queen Victoria and George V with Indians (King George refused to hear the word “native” spoken in his presence), and the patronising attitude of officials, who frequently treated the ruling princes — who ran a third of India semi-independently — as foolish adolescents. As the size of the British community living in India grew, so did the life of increasingly segregated institutions: the tennis and polo clubs and the tea parties so well portrayed by E.M. Forster. But to my grandmother arriving in the country for the first time, Indians were equals.  

Did the Coronation Durbar succeed in its aim of stemming the tide of nationalism and entrenching British power? My grandmother witnessed the astonishing loyalty that had swept over the country during the King’s visit. With his deep respect for the maharajas, the King had soothed sensibilities bruised by the colonial government’s high-handedness, reaffirming Britain’s promises in the most uncompromising words: “Ever to maintain the privileges, rights and dignities of the Indian Princes, who may rest assured that this pledge is inviolate and inviolable.” 

In return, the princes communicated to the prime minister their own pledge, their indissolubly linked destiny and their loyal and loving homage to the Crown. The King’s historic visit, they wrote, marked the beginning of a new era. India was proud of its place in the empire. To prove itself worthy it would seek to quell internal animosities and would freely cooperate with England in working out its future. 

But it was not to be. The plan for London to hand over through the princes a devolved power structure, in which democracy and the rule of law would eventually be secured, never materialised. The princes were not to hold the key to India’s future. Significant numbers of the rising middle class resented their colonial status. And great changes were coming. The First World War was three years away, the Russian Revolution six, and with them the overthrow of every European empire except the British. In 1915 Gandhi would return from South Africa to campaign for the removal of foreign powers from India. The massacre at Amritsar in 1919 would leave an indelible stain on the Raj.

The princes faded so entirely from the scene that their days of glory now seem as distant as those of the Moghuls. Their palaces have become museums, schools or crumbling ruins. Some went abroad, some into business or government service. In 1973, after three years of struggle, the Indian supreme court upheld a constitutional amendment which terminated the princes’ concessions that had been granted in 1947 in return for their peaceful accession to the Indian Union.

Of the tented city, which was dismantled in a fortnight, and of the great Durbar arena, vestiges survive today in Coronation Park, an uncultivated tract full of trees and teeming with birds and wild animals. You can still find one of the 16 stations, abandoned and mysterious. Nearby, stone and bronze figures of proud provincial governors stand on their plinths. Other plinths lie empty, still awaiting their statues, which remain in their original settings in the cities where after Independence the new administrators, respectful of India’s heritage, resolved to keep them. In the heart of the park, above crumbling stone steps, towers a red stone figure of George V. To visit the park, to see the curve of the old amphitheatre and to commune among its relics in all their forlorn glory, is to grasp the sheer scale of the Delhi Durbar and of the empire it celebrated.