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Landscapes of the Delhi Durbar, 1903: Ritual and Politics

Leo C. Coleman

Delhi Mutiny Memorial plaque with new inscriptions
Delhi Mutiny Memorial plaque with new inscriptions (1972)

The landscape around Delhi, India, is marked out by old walls and gates which once protected important
settlements and royal centers, and by the monuments of the various governments that have occupied this capital city over centuries.  The gates of what is called the “old city” of Delhi still stand, now breached by the modern
city built up since the nineteenth century. The old city, in its earlier incarnation as Shahjahanabad, was further protected by a low ridge which bound the northwestern approach to the city. The ridge also provided a redoubt, of sorts, for the British when their occupation of North India came under attack in the so-called Mutiny of 1857. It was on the ridge that the British later built a memorial to the “defense” of the city. Now visitors are reminded by plaques in Hindi, Urdu, and English that “The enemy of the inscriptions on this monument were those who rose against colonial rule and fought bravely for national liberation.”

After the bloody trial of four months of battle in 1857, the walls of Delhi could not serve to protect the city from the depredations of reconquest. Large sections of the walls were dynamited in the following years, to make way for railways and to clear defensible areas, as well as to provide space for new accommodations.  The sacred spaces of Indian sovereignty, in the Red Fort or Lal Qila, were taken over as barracks, and later transformed into ballrooms
and banquet halls for assemblages of Imperial notables.

On New Years’ Day, 1903, under the direction of the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, one of these great ceremonial gatherings was staged near Delhi on plains dotted with villages but, for the occasion, cleared, platted, and filled with tents. The event was called a Durbar, after the Persian term for a royal audience used by the Mughal Emperors of Delhi, and it was held to celebrate the coronation in England the previous summer of Edward VII as King of Great Britain and Emperor of India. Away from the modern city of Delhi, then fitfully expanding, throwing out suburbs and developing civic institutions and infrastructures (Gupta 1981), the British built a tent-city and a ceremonial amphitheater of lathe and plaster, to accommodate the celebrants and provide a dramatic backdrop for their rite of sovereignty over the Orient.

In keeping with colonial notions about utility and pomp—favoring the former and denigrating the latter—the Durbar settlements were not just decorative appendages to a meaningless ritual, but rather served as a massive demonstration of technical skill and thereby sovereign right. A power plant for producing electricity was specially imported from England, and a network of underground wires piped clean, efficient electric power throughout the
tent-city. Meanwhile, camps were arranged for Indian Princes, notables, and visitors. These were placed from four to seven miles away from the Central (European) Camps, for “reasons of space and public health” as one colonial
observer described it.

Of course, Indian participation, and presence, in this ritual of colonial display was indispensable for its spectacular effect, and the officials of the Native States, which were an integral part of the British Indian political structure, were encouraged to constitute their encampments as a kind of ethnological museum.  Some, while keeping with the colonial logic of sumptuous display, mounted their own counter- display of modern technique and efficiency.  The representatives from the state of Baroda, for instance, were housed in a splendid teak-wood bungalow, elaborately illuminated inside and out with electric light, topped by a huge dome some fifty feet high, with an electric beacon at its top that could be seen for miles. Around the Baroda encampment, ceremonial archways and large reception tents were all fitted with electric signs proclaiming the long life of the King Emperor and welcoming guests. The encampment
of Kashmir’s Maharaja, Sir Pratap Singh, was likewise fitted with electric lights, to arreported total of 120,000 candlepower.

Though the tents, electric lights, railway, and amphitheater installed for the Durbar were all taken down at the end of the event, the grid of roads and expansion of the city to the northwest remained as traces on the land. The Durbar
grounds combined the memory of British conquest with the ornaments of a longer, indigenous Imperial past and the technological imperatives of the twentieth century. It is not incidental that Lord Curzon’s appointment book for the event had bound inside the front cover a map of the position of British troops around Delhi during the battles of 1857, nor that
the Central Camp of the assemblage on the Western side of the Ridge was laid out in just the same spot where the occupying army had been housed some 45 years before.

The events of the Durbar and the shaping of the city of Delhi through such political rituals, in which particular cultural and technological resources are deployed to mark, transform, and make socially meaningful a set of relations in space and time, are the subject of my book-inprogress, “Delhi in the Electrical Age.” Based on ethnographic research in contemporary Delhi, and historical materials about the experience of the city and its transformation into a modern, techno-political space through electrification and planning, I tell a story about the modern state, its urban techniques and technologies of rule, and how people are able to participate in politics and modernity in and through the state’s rituals. We can trace a line from the plat of the Durbar camps to the rigorously ordered, separated, and meaningfully marked spaces for each rank or category of person that typified the bureaucratic regulation of space in Delhi.

To give a sense of how that bureaucratic regulation of space was experienced, the Bengali memoirist Nirad Chaudhuri provides an example of a comical encounter he had in the 1940s:

Passing along a line of buildings [in New Delhi] which looked like stables, I asked an elderly Bengali whether the clerk whose house I wanted to find lived in that row. He angrily pointed to the letter “D” carved on the top of the building and said: “Do you not see that these are D-class quarters, and the person you have come to see lives in E-class quarters?” (1987: 690).

Chaudhuri adds that “even my very superior clothes . . . did not protect me from the D-class disdain I brought on myself by being on visiting terms with a clerk who was living in E-class quarters.” Such distinctions and discriminations, drawn from the pay-grades of civil servants, thus provided the lingua franca for much of the administration of Delhi throughout the twentieth century, across changes in regime—and indeed the same is true of almost any modern city, though to varying degrees and drawing on different repertoires of distinction. It is the ritual organization, in urban landscapes and political consciousness, of such distinctions and discriminations that I am studying further as a fellow in this year’s Fellows Program at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. In particular, I am embarking on new research on the politics of urban citizenship in contemporary global cities.

This year, the Warren Center Fellows are investigating “Sacred Ecology,” human relations with the land, and with representations and projections of landscape, in which the sacred, the supramundane, and ritual practices affect both the real and the imagined terrain of human occupation. As a political anthropologist and an urbanist, this topic provides me with a framework for thinking through contemporary struggles over identity and citizenship in globalization. As global cities such as Delhi grow in population, and also become important sites of residence for a rising affluent class, how are spaces made and remade to give expression to new communities and to exclude others? Comparatively, I am also interested in how recent conflicts over mosques and other religious buildings at key sites in the United States represent struggles to understand the American political community, and how disputes over such religious sites offer another forum in which to pursue a wider public conversation about immigration and citizenship. More generally, the seminar encourages me to reflect on how abstract political and policy issues are worked out and transformed in everyday struggles to occupy a particular place, live in a community, and give meaning to place, livelihood, and identity. What role, I ask, do landscapes play in everyday consciousness, and how are new presences in them—big religious buildings for new immigrant populations or minor practices like a domestic shrine or a backyard garden growing exotic products—dealt with ritually, pragmatically, and politically?

As I develop materials to address such questions, I aim to expand our ability within political anthropology to understand political rituals as more than sideshows, or mere reflections or performances of political texts already set down. Rituals, whether the personal and private or the great public rites of political life, work with meanings and material conditions in ways which are highly formal, set apart from and yet necessary to everyday life, often though not necessarily religiously sanctioned, and by definition effective. Ritual collapses distinctions between cause and effect and intention and action, transforms space and time, and marks the physical world with its traces, its temporary occupations producing powerful sites of return, memory, and concern. The sites of memory which mark Delhi to this day, though recoded to remember different aspects of long-ago political struggles, are such because of constant and renewed ritual attention to them, connecting them with great transcendent and justificatory stories about who counts in the “we” of political communities.

Political anthropology has become, over the past thirty years or so, predominantly the study of how differences between groups of people are made and marked. Classically defined as the study of ordering institutions of a society, and of behavior in contexts defined as about power and control, and therefore political, this subfield of cultural anthropology has more and more focused on what the theorist Judith Butler has called the “ground of politics,” the making (and remaking) of the common-sense world of categories and distinctions in terms of which strategies can be formulated and tactics are effective.  Responding, indeed, to the constricted range of conclusions possible in studies of councils,
committees, and local disputes, and more importantly under the influence of Foucauldian definitions of power as “productive” (as opposed to repressive), political anthropology has focused on the apparatuses of knowledge and power through which people come to be particular kinds of bodies, selves, and subjects. Many political anthropological studies now begin with the “discursive field” of a particular expertise—whether colonial accounts of native “difference”
or scientific claims about genetics. They explore how certain forms of self-knowledge, and ways of being authentically in the world defined by power and knowledge, are made possible and others are made impossible.

Thus, caste in India has been shown to be a topic that obsessed colonial administrators, and scholars have recently emphasized how caste was transformed from a practice to a “system” by British attempts to treat it as a fixed and immu-table guide to Indian society. Caste cannot be reduced to a “colonial construction,” since an important part of this story is the work of castegroups to reorganize themselves for colonial recognition. Still, in recent scholarship caste is rethought less as an indigenous system and more as an effect of British practices of tabulation, ordering, and ranking in service of colonial control (see Dirks 2001). Likewise, the patterns of land-holding or of agricultural technique that an earlier political anthropology might have taken as the subject of a survey, attempting to understand this or that local distribution of power and political system, might now be studied through the lens of nineteenth-century practices of surveying, recording property, or legislating land-tenure, in which the “system” as we know now it was produced (see Mitchell 2001).

Yet there is a problem, now being widely recognized, with these sorts of studies. Once we recognize that such ordering social and legal institutions are the result of a past political practice—whether colonial or not—we may have “denaturalized” them but we haven’t really provided any insight into the pull that they have on people, which to my mind is the key anthropological question. The philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein once pointed out that hypotheses about the ancient origins of everyday rituals cannot explain the pull that they exert on even the most casually involved observer. Interpretations of rituals, such as those by Sir James Frazer in his magnum opus The Golden Bough,
that stress their putative origins in human sacrifices or similarly terrifying encounters with the numinous and the supramundane world of forces, imply that terrifying origins can explain contemporary dramatic power. But, Wittgenstein
argued, trying to explain the power of a ritual through its historical origins misses the most important problem of all—that of the observer confronted by something that compels, but which he or she cannot wholly understand conceptually. There must be an element, drawn from our human experience of the world, which rituals and their symbols touch, unconnected with fantastic myths of origin or retrospective attempts to ground them in “primitive” realities, and which explains their recurrent fascination. “If I tried to invent a festival,” Wittgenstein notes, “it would very soon die out or else be so modified that it corresponded to a general inclination in people.” Invented rituals and historicallyrooted ones can both be equally powerful, and interpreting either requires drawing upon all their symbolic equipment and the meanings of the performance, “including such evidence as does not seem directly connected with them—from the thought of man and his past, from the strangeness of what I see in myself and in others, what I have seen and heard” (Wittgenstein 1979: 16-18).

Thus, in trying to understand the contemporary divisions of identity and interest which mark global cities, and the violence, variously submerged and quiet, or overt and deathful, that provides the contours of identities and structures access to space, hypotheses of colonial origins or accounts of technocratic domination through planning and its exclusions, are less useful than the recurrent dramas of politics which link the past with the present in moments of interpretation. Such dramas can be quite daily and mundane, like the encounter with D- and E-Class residences recorded by Nirad Chaudhuri, but they still require our attention and interpretation. How are people organizing to meet their situation, in their present, and what forces of distinction, competition, and challenge do they feel shaping their lives? As the anthropologist Jonathan Spencer (2007) has lately pointed out, attention to ritual performances, to the symbolism of mundane objects when they are connected with important events where new meanings are made, is what distinguishes anthropological interpretation from other approaches to politics that strip it of everything unique, specific to a place and time, and treat it as an abstract play of strategy and interest. Importantly, these events in which we find the kernel of cultural meaning, including distinctions and discriminations, run the gamut from the apparently secular, such as elections, to the overtly ritual, such as state funerals (Banerjee 2008; Borneman 2003).

The British in India held a theory of power which separated the real, utilitarian calculation of everyday political control from the pageantry and pomp by which they tried to garb their rule in ancient custom and thus sway the emotions of those over whom they ruled. Commentators spoke about the technical and organizational genius of a man like Curzon, able to conjure a living city from what they took—wrongly—to be the “desert” plains of Delhi; they likewise praised his “invaluable and very un-English” ability to take himself seriously in the midst of “Oriental pageantry.” And yet the ritual practices of the colonial state were something more than window-dressing. They staged, reproduced, reinforced, and indeed motivated the very principles of colonial rule, not least the rigorous racial separation on the grounds of “fitness” for rule which made the whole enterprise possible, and which has since marked the world politics of the twentieth century and beyond (Arendt 1968). These ritual assemblages of Imperial pomp were a very British device, in both their
medieval symbolism and technical efficiency. Yet their effect and perdurance in historical and postcolonial memory cannot be explained away by any reading of them simply in terms of their connection to older models, or indeed lack thereof as “invented traditions.” An anthropological interpretation of their meaningfulness and the call to participation which was differently experienced by different actors is, at least, a start toward understanding their evidential power and factuality in the life of the Imperial state and afterlife in the postcolonial one.

In particular, the transformations that were achieved in the landscape of Delhi and in the lived experience of the city are among the most important evidence we can draw upon when considering the effects and effectiveness of these
imperial rituals. These landscape transformations for ritual practice were only partly unique to the great concentration of the Durbar; meanwhile, the electrical installations for that event are only part of a larger story of technological transformation, with many actors, that changed the tempo and style of daily life in Delhi. However, in their connection in and through the Durbar, they become a significant part of wider symbolic politics and struggles over the future.

The Delhi nationalist politician and lawyer Mohammed Asaf Ali was barely a teenager when the 1903 Durbar happened; a few years later he went to Europe to study for the Bar and was impressed by the sight of “the common use of mechanical devices and appliances. . . and the blaze of light in the evenings,” as he recounted in autobiographical notes made in the 1940s. Seeing the ways in which the British treated Delhi as a show-place and a site of only
temporary and symbolic improvements, however, he would later “make his emotional break with Britain,” and resolved to bring together the “dazzling effect” of Western technique with the “richness of poetry” of the “old” world where he
had been born and raised. The novelist Ahmed Ali, too, writing on the cusp of Independence in the early 1940s, imagined the effect that the colonial pomp of the Durbar and its occupation of the city with light, and parades, and
shows, must have had on those who witnessed it. His characters in Twilight in Delhi, set in the beginning of the twentieth century, indict the imperial power which is both founded on the violence of conquest and yet invests in such
mighty, and always temporary, displays while demanding a permanent loyalty: “Life goes on with a heartless continuity, trampling ideas andworlds under its ruthless feet, always in search of the new, destroying, building, and demolishing once again with the meaningless petulance of a child who builds a house of sand only to raze it to the ground” (Ali 1994 [1940]: 110).

In such rituals, and by living amidst the changed landscape—of imagination and memory—that they help to produce, people may come to understand themselves and others in new ways, though not necessarily in better or more civil ones. The kinds of distinctions and discriminations that Nirad Chaudhuri experienced were, in one sense, the everyday,
bureaucratic transcription of the catalogues of ethnological diversity and official rank that were a central part of the performance of the Durbar. Accounts of the ceremony are replete with lists of “Ghoorkas and Sikhs, Mahrattas and
Mahomedans,” or, on the other side, “District Officers and Magistrates, Knight Commanders and Companions of the Order of the Star of India,” as both the audience for and celebrants of the ritual. Meanwhile, however, it also provided
an occasion for technological displays that cut across these boundaries, and provided an alternative scale on which to assert oneself, if still in the service of the kinds of sumptuary distinctions drawn upon elsewhere.

Such multiple scales of identity and rank are, in the complex situation of a stately ritual, simultaneously in play as the materials with which people seek to recognize and order their own place in it. The more deeply and permanently such distinctions are crafted into the space of everyday life, and the more stern the separations, the more we enter the modern world of tabulated identities, and even the regulation and ordering of life-potentials on the basis not of humanity, but of actuarial calculations. This ordering and inscription in space is the topic of many studies of “governmentality” in Delhi and elsewhere (Legg 2007). Once we have accounted for all the permutations of all this governmental, statistical, and abstract knowledge, however, there remains that element of meaning and experience which is equally present but differently “evidenced “within the ritual and the routine, and which anthropological interpretation tries to elucidate. As the anthropologist Wendy James has put it, “it is in the public life of cities that we find ceremonial enactments at their most condensed, and most political, and most potentially dramatic—even literally explosive” (James 2003: 249). This power and potential of urban life, this concatenation of meanings and possibilities, multiplied by the number of participants, viewers, passersby and interested parties, is what makes it and its rituals important to any contemporary grasp of politics in its global extent, and which links investigations of long-ago colonial rituals to the struggles, practices, and self-understandings of the present.


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Arendt, Hannah (1968). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Banerjee, Mukulika (2008). “Democracy, Sacred and Everyday: An Ethnographic Case from India.” In Democracy: Anthropological Approaches. Julia Paley, ed. Pp. 63-96. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Borneman, John, ed. (2003). Death of the Father: An Anthropology of the End in Political Authority. New York: Berghahn.

Chaudhuri, Nirad C. (1987). Thy Hand Great Anarch: India 1921-1952. London: Chatto & Windus.

Dirks, Nicholas (2001). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gupta, Narayani (1981). Delhi Between Two Empires, 1803-1931: Society, Government, and Urban Growth. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

James, Wendy (2003). The Ceremonial Animal: A New Portrait of Anthropology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Legg, Steven (2007). Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi’s Urban Governmentalities. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Mitchell, Timothy (2001). Rule of Experts: Egypt, Technopolitics, Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spencer, Jonathan (2007). Anthropology, Politics, and the State: Democracy and Violence in South Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1979). Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough. Rush Rhees, ed., A.C. Miles transl. Denton, UK: Brynmill Press.

Professor Leo C. Coleman is the 2011/2012 William S. Vaughn Visiting Faculty Fellow from The Ohio State University.