The British never built a Kingsway in Calcutta, their first capital in India from which they ruled the country till 1912. They did build a Queensway but this was of little consequence, a shortish road passing in front of the monumental memorial to Queen Victoria, inaugurated in 192.
It was certainly not a grand imperial avenue at the heart of a grand imperial city. It was hard for the British to think of Calcutta as an imperial city, though it was the second most populous city of the British Empire. Calcutta’s history militated against it.
Once, two hundred years ago, the trader came
Meek and tame.
Where his timid foot first halted, there he stayed,
Till mere trade
Grew to Empire, and he sent his armies forth
South and North
Till the country from Peshawur to Ceylon
Was his own.
Thus the midday halt of Charnock – more's the pity!
Grew a City.
Kaiser E Hind, the Delhi Sultanate, and the History of Durbar
So it was that when Queen Victoria decided to assume the title of ‘Empress of India’ in 1876, Calcutta was not considered the appropriate place from which this announcement could be made to the people of India.
Though the British Crown had acquired its Indian territories from the Company in 1858, this was not an association that could lend dignity to the Imperial name.
Connections would have to be made with an Indian past.
The Queen’s Viceroy in India, Lytton, felt that the title ‘Empress of India’, translated as ‘Kaiser e Hind’, placed the Queen’s “authority upon that ancient throne of the Moguls, with which the imaginations and traditions of your Majesty's Indian subjects associate the splendour of supreme power.”
As a logical extension of this, the most suitable place for the proclamation was Delhi, the last capital of the imperial Mughal dynasty.
This set the scene not only for the Durbar of 1877, but became the precedent for the Coronation Durbars of 1903 and 1911, which were also held in Delhi, to proclaim the new Emperors of India, Edward VII and George V respectively.
Each time the justification given was that Delhi was in the minds of the people, the true capital of India. It had been the capital not only in Mughal times, but for most of the Delhi Sultanate, and according to tradition, during the time of the Mahabharat it was the site of Indraprastha, where the Pandavas built their capital.
The official history of the Durbar stated, with some exaggeration:
“Delhi… is associated with every era in the history of India, and in the sentiment of the people, Hindu and Muhammadan alike, it has never ceased to be the pivot of Indian rule.”The historical record of the Imperial visit to India 1911
The only royal camp that survived – ‘Kingsway Camp’
Which brings us to Kingsway. The Durbar of 1911, like the earlier ones, was held north of Delhi, in an amphitheatre located at the place that is today known as the Coronation Park.
George V, who had come to Delhi for the Durbar, stayed in a camp located at the spot where the office of the Vice Chancellor of the Delhi University is today to be found.
These two sites – the Durbar amphitheatre and the camp of the Emperor – were connected by a long road that was named Kingsway.
The tented city created for the Durbar was soon taken down. The alignment of Kingsway survived, and different stretches of it are today named Shanti Swaroop Tyagi Marg, Bhai Parmanand Marg, Lok Marg, and Vijay Nagar Marg.
The name only survived in that of the royal camp that once stood on it – ‘Kingsway Camp’.
A more lasting legacy of the Durbar was a momentous announcement made by George V – that the British capital in India would be moved from Calcutta to Delhi.
The ‘Restoration’ of Delhi as the Capital of India
The transfer of the capital was a part of the future constitutional reforms being contemplated in 1911 – that of greater provincial autonomy. It was also an attempt at a re-working of the image of the British rule in India, to project it as a successor to previous Indian empires, and make it thus more acceptable to Indians.
Before leaving Delhi, George V laid the foundation stones of the new city close to the durbar site.
The invitations sent out for this ceremony referred to it as the “Ceremony of inaugurating the restoration of Delhi as the capital of India”, emphasising the continuity with Delhi’s history.
On the occasion, the King announced that work would begin soon to build a grand capital in Delhi, one that “may be in every way worthy of this ancient and beautiful city.”
From Kingsway to Rajpath
As it happened, the city was ultimately not built at the site where the stones had been laid, because the town-planning committee chose a more suitable site around Raisina hill.
Here too, historical associations were kept in mind. Major roads therefore were aligned with historical landmarks such as Safdarjang’s tomb (at the end of Prithviraj Road) and Jama Masjid (a visual termination to the Sansad Marg-Minto Road axis).
Most importantly, as John Thompson, the Chief Commissioner of Delhi from 1928-32, put it:
“Those who planned it have made the Viceroy’s House look down the Central Vista to the walls which guard the memory of the long-vanished Indraprast. Thus the cities of Delhi, as it were, come full circle, with the palace of the last looking on to the site of the first, and the long ages that separate the two contain almost the whole of the written history of mankind."
This orientation fitted well with the sentiment on which the new capital was founded.
This road was named Kingsway. Probably deliberately not named after any particular king, but referring to all the rulers through history who had ruled from Delhi.
After Independence, a government of the people of India came to occupy the capital at New Delhi. This was not a monarchial government, but one based on democratic principles.
It was therefore considered appropriate to change the name of the main avenue of the capital. ‘Rajpath’ still referred to ‘raj’, or ‘state’, but the state was now Indian and democratic.
(Dr Swapna Liddle is a historian, and an author. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)