The background till independence


Delhi remains one of the oldest surviving cities in the world today. It is in fact, an amalgam of eight cities, each built in a different era on a different site – each era leaving its mark, and adding character to it – and each ruler leaving a personal layer of architectural identity. It has evolved into a culturally secular city – absorbing different religions, diverse cultures, both foreign and indigenous, and yet functioning as one organic entity. It was known for its riches – both material and cultural – foreign travellers were hypnotised by it – books have been written on it since time immemorial, poets have loved it and Kings and Emperors have fought over it.
Delhi has a history of resilience – plundered, looted and destroyed several times over by central Asian and Persian rulers – the city always returned to its cultural sophistication and intellectual sensitivity – a tribute to the undying spirit of the citizens of Delhi.

 An inscription on one of the walls at Diwan – I – Khas in the Red Fort describes Delhi as
"If on earth there be a place of bliss
It is this, it is this, it is this"

Mir Taqi Mir, a poet from Delhi, wrote:
"The streets of Delhi are not mere streets;
They are like the album of a painter"

The streets of Delhi have also flown red with blood – it has seen massacres of the innocent, yet the same streets have also seen the joy of freedom.

Delhi : A Transition through Time - As you walk along the narrow bylanes of this city of dreams, tread softly. Every crumbling wall has a story to tell. Every yesterday is replete with history. Rulers have come and gone. The city has lived through wars and resurrection, repeatedly rising from the ashes.

Cradling civilisations since times immemorial Delhi goes back hundreds of thousands of years back into time.
Stone tools belonging to early stone age were discovered from the Aravalli tracts in and around Anangpur, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Campus, the northern ridge and elsewhere - evidence that the Early Man lived here.
Excavations at Mandoli and Bhorgarh in east and north-west Delhi respectively have thrown up remains of chalcolithic period dating back to 2nd millennium BC, 1st millennium BC as well remains of 4th-5th century AD have been traced here.

The excavations of the ancient mound of Indraprastha, capital of the Pandavas, located withing the fold of the sixteenth century Purana Qila revealed evidence of continuous habitation of the site for almost 2500 years.
According to the Mahabharata, the Pandavas founded their capital Indrapratha in the region known as Khandava-prastha.
Delhi was also witness to the glories of the Maurya Empire during 3rd century BC. The Ashokan edict engraved on a rock in East of Kailash as well as remains found in Purana Quila excavations belonging to the Mauryan period point to Delhi's importance during this era. 

The first city of Delhi, Lal Kot was founded by the Tomar ruler Anangpal, in the 11th century. It was extended to Qila Rai Pithora by King Vigraharaja IV (Circa 1153-64). Qutbuddin Aibak became Delhi's first Sultan in 1206 and laid the foundations of the Qutb Minar, India's tallest stone tower at the site of the first city of Delhi subsequently the kings of the Sultanate dynasties, Khaljis, Tughluqs Sayyids and Lodis continued to build. New cities as Delhi grew.

The second city around Siri by Alaud-Din Khalji (1296-1316); Tughlaqabad, the third city built by Ghiysud-Din Tughlaq (1321-51); Firozabad, the fifth city of Delhi, is now represented by Kotla Firuz Shah, founded by Firuz Shah Tughluq (1351-88).

It was Humayun who laid the foundations of the sixth city - Dinpanah. This was destroyed and reconstructed as the Purana Qila by Sher Shah Suri. However, it was the Mughals who took Delhi to the zenith of architectural glory.

While some construction activities did continue during the reign of Akbar (1556-1605) and Jehangir (1605-27), it was Shah Jehan (1628-58) who built the seventh city, Shahjahanabad which remained the Mughal capital until 1857.


The old city of Shahjahanabad, a compact high-density settlement, had its foci in the Red Fort(above) and Jama Masjid (below), the two major building complexes, and in the bursting business street of Chandni Chowk(left). The city was walled by high masonry walls, punctured by strategic entrance gates linking it with other major towns in the region. Winding streets from these gates meandered into the close-grained built-form, creating a hierarchy of streets leading upto the major ceremonial and commercial thoroughfare of Chandni Chow)


This principal artery, aligned in the east-west direction of the old city, address the main entry to the Red Fort, a walled, military/civic complex within the walled city. The sky-line was, however, dominated by Jama Masjid (left), placed symbolically atop a hill and complimented by a large urban open space befitting the scale and prestige of the city. The surrounding built-form was originally divided into introverted clusters reflecting the socio-economic structure and supporting a high degree of functional mix.

The northern parts of the town were settled by the British in the mid 19th century, where they established their churches, banqueting halls, bungalows and civil lines. The introduction of the railways in the late 19th century, coupled with the British presence, induced new trade and developments around the north and the west of Shahjahanabad. The traditional, dense, built form of the old city with central courtyards and narrow streets was counter pointed by the new prototype of the European Style bungalow with vast green spaces around structures, elaborate compound walls and wrought – iron gates. With the decision to establish a new capital, the British found a location south of it, leaving a large buffer open space between the two.

The site chosen was a sparsely populated area, sloping up gently from the Yamuna river and Purana Quila towards the west, culminating in a mound called Raisina Hill. The new site enjoyed “aspect, altitude, water, virgin soil”, and afforded an excellent view of Shahjahanabad and other remains of the older Delhi’s.

The British in 1911 shifted the capital of India to Delhi. The eighth city of New Delhi took shape in the imperial style of architecture. From then to now Delhi continues to throb with vitality and hope.


From 1912 to 1931 British architects Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker were responsible for the construction of New Delhi as Britain's new imperial capital of India. The challenge they faced was to produce an architecture that successfully combined local traditions with a statement of colonial power. New Delhi's urban plan, with its emphasis on wide, straight roadways radiating like the spokes of a wheel from major imperial landmarks, was a direct expression of British control. But Lutyen’s design for the Viceroy's House (1912-1931), though inspired by neoclassicism, also paid homage to Delhi's Mughal architecture in its use of red and yellow sandstone, its dome, and in other details.


Lutyen’s plan for New Delhi, conceived and constructed between 1912 and 1931, was very much the genre of Versailles and L’ Enfant’s Washington. Characterized by formally laid out axial movement net-works, strongly articulated terminal vistas and a low-density, low-rise physical fabric, New Delhi was the prestigious capital of Britain’s Indian Empire, accommodating its governmental and other auxiliary functions.

The plan establishes two major visual corridors, one with the Jama Masjid of Shahjahanabad and the other with Purana Qila, an even older fortification of Delhi, culminating in the Capitol Complex. Along the Purana Qila axis, in the east-west direction, is the major ceremonial green called the Central Vista with the King’s Way penetrating the Capitol Complex between two major office blocks, and terminating in the ViceregalPalace. The integrated mass of the Capitol Complex provides a visual climax to this dramatic linear open space, criss-crossed by lateral roads and punctuated by India Gate and a small but very ingeniously designed pavilion to shelter the statue of King George.


The formal nature of the New Delhi plan as often complemented by structures disposed symmetrically in space. The buildings are aligned in axis to movement lines and centrality is maintained in the placement of domes, spires and other elements in relation to building mass and plazas. This is particular true of the Central Vista, where very strict geometry is also observed on both sides of the green.

Even though the New Delhi plan was alien in spirit to indigenous planning practices, Lutyen’s attempted an interesting mixture of architectural styles blending Indian and European vocabularies. Innovative detailing using Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic elements abound in these buildings. Aware of the fact that local laborers had to be employed in the actual construction process using materials and techniques familiar to them, the designers adopted a vocabulary that was familiar to them. The careful blending of alien elements expressed in red and pink sandstone has resulted in a unique style that at once has the gravity of European Classicism and the humane charm of indigenous architecture.

Lutyen’s and his team of architects borrowed freely from Indian architectonic elements using them not only as appopriate building components, but also to create a contextual continuity. Purana Quila, which terminated the Central Vista on the east in the original plan, is characterized by a unique element, the Chhattri, which is a cupola like structure that accentuates the sky line. Adaptation of this chhattri in the Capitol Compex provides an example of how a simple architectonic element was used by Lutyen’s to create symbolic and physical continuity.


 Apart from the chhattris, stone trelliswork, sun shades balconies supported by stone brackets, characteristic door and window details, cornices, mouldings etc, are executed in combinations of red and pink sandstone in the Central Vista buildings. In Lutyuen’s own buildings concrete or masonry structures are often clad with stone, or stone is used directly as structural material. However, the scale of structures is broken by the use of carved stone depicting European and Indian symbolic elements such as elephants, snakes, shells, bells, fruit forms, leaves and so on, at appropriate places. Compound walls, benches, lamp posts and other urban furniture elements are also used to create textures and rhythms which break down the scale to a human level.

The consistent use of sandstone, with the visually heavier red stone at the base of buildings and lighter pink stone on the upper parts, is another dominant factor that lends visual cohesion to the entire group of buildings. The warm hues of stone complement the vast green background in the Central Vista. The sandstone, available in plenty even today, is a versatile material used traditionally for structures and is easily amenable to ornamentation. In post-independent India, major government buildings have come up on either side of the Central Vista and most conform to the general colour scheme.

In the Capitol Complex, water is used as a landscape element in a formally laid out garden for the ViceregalPalace and in the Office Court on Raisina hill. Two large fountains placed symmetrically below the office blocks mark the beginning of water bodies that flank Rajpath on either side. These are less than a metre deep and terminate near India Gate with another two symmetrically placed fountains. A small water body surrounds the chhattri further east of India Gate, axially placed on the Vista. A gaint lake at the eastern end of the Vista which was a part of Lutyen’s original plan was never realized.

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