Delhi’s Coronation Park a neglected site of India’s colonial past

Visitors to the sprawling site meant as a memorial to the British rule in the subcontinent get no official help in understanding the space.

Coronation Park, Delhi
The statue of British King George V at the park in north Delhi [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

New Delhi, India – In the north of India’s capital lies a 52-acre (21-hectare) sprawl meant to serve as a memorial to nearly 200 years of British rule in India.

Located in New Delhi’s Burari area near the border with neighbouring Haryana state, the landscaped site is dotted with monuments, paved pathways, plants and trees.

A large Indian tricolour flag at the entrance welcomes visitors with a free entry.

The Coronation Park gets its name from the “coronation” of three British monarchs – Queen Victoria in 1877, King Edward VII in 1903 and King George V in 1911 – as the rulers of India.

Coronation Park, Delhi
A general view of the Coronation Park in the Indian capital [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Nearly two decades after what the British described as an Indian rebellion against their rule and an attempt to put a Mughal emperor on Delhi’s throne in 1857, Queen Victoria in 1876 decided to assume the title of the Empress of India.

“She did not come over to India but in January 1877, a Coronation Durbar [imperial court] was held. It was called an Imperial Assemblage at that time. The idea was to announce to the people of Delhi that Queen Victoria had assumed that title,” historian Swapna Liddle told Al Jazeera.

Coronation Park, Delhi
The 21-metre (69-foot) tall sandstone obelisk stands at the exact site where the 1911 Coronation Durbar was held [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

But why was the ceremony held in Delhi when Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the east was the capital of the British empire in the Indian subcontinent?

Liddle says that was because the British realised a majority of Indians thought of the city as the proper historic capital of India.

“Another announcement of a similar sort was held at the same spot for her successor Edward VII in 1903. Then in 1911, a third ceremony was held for George V and the decision to shift the capital from Kolkata to Delhi was announced,” Liddle said.

The park has marble statues of George V and the crown’s viceroys who headed the British administration in colonial India. The statues were brought in the 1960s from other parts of what came to be called New Delhi, the capital of an independent India.

“In the 1960s, there was an accelerated movement to remove colonial statues from the New Delhi areas. Some of them, most prominent being the statue of George V which stood under a ‘chhatri’ [canopy] near India Gate [in central Delhi], were removed and put in this place,” said Liddle.

“The pillar [obelisk] that you see in the middle of the park commemorates the actual site of the [1911] Coronation Durbar.”

Conceived nearly 15 years ago by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and partly completed in 1911 to mark 100 years of George V’s coronation, the park today looks neglected.

Coronation Park, Delhi
All the statues at the Coronation Park were missing plaques [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Liddle told Al Jazeera the colonial statues were scattered across the new colonial capital and were “being vandalised, exposed to the elements and suffering damage”.

INTACH, therefore, suggested to the Delhi government that the artefacts lying there since the 1960s be conserved and a park around it developed and landscaped. It also suggested the setting up of an interpretation centre to help the visitors learn about the history and significance of the site.

When Al Jazeera visited the park on an unusually pleasant and cloudy Tuesday, it found some of the statues disfigured and damaged – one of them was missing its nose and looked like Voldemort from the famous JK Rowling series. The black plaques on the statues were blank.

Coronation Park, Delhi
A disfigured statue that looks like Voldemort from the Harry Potter series [Nadim Asrar/Al Jazeera]

The imposing central pillar was dotted with graffiti. A torn sticker of a phone company’s advertisement was pasted on the plaque’s Urdu version, hiding some of the text.

Coronation Park, Delhi
An Urdu plaque commemorating King George V’s 1911 coronation [Nadim Asrar/Al Jazeera]

Except for some security guards hired by a private agency, there were no officials around. There was no interpretation centre to help people make sense of what they see. The building meant to house the centre was empty.

Nearly two dozen people were milling around in the park, enjoying a surprisingly pleasant day in the middle of the city’s brutal summer. A young girl was meditating close to George V’s statue, her hands stretched to her knees in a yoga position, and eyes closed.

Coronation Park, Delhi
A girl meditating at the Coronation Park [Nadim Asrar/Al Jazeera]

An open-air gymnasium and a children’s play area have been built on one of the corners of the park, mainly frequented by the residents of densely populated neighbourhoods who do not otherwise have an open area for recreation.

Coronation Park, Delhi
Residents using the open-air gymnasium at the park [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Many of the visitors on Tuesday were working out, running up and down the stairs of the imposing 21-metre (69-foot) tall sandstone obelisk.

One was seen punching at the platform on which the statue of George V stood.

“I am a mixed martial arts [MMA] athlete and I practice here every day,” said 22-year-old Abhay Kumar, standing next to what is considered the world’s tallest statue of George V.

Coronation Park, Delhi
MMA athlete Kumar practicing next to George V’s statue at the park [Nadim Asrar/Al Jazeera]

Amit Malik, 28, who was also working out there, said pointing towards the Urdu plaque on the obelisk, “I thought this was a Mughal park.”

When he was told it was a British-era monument, his cousin working out with him exclaimed: “Why is it here? It should be removed.”

Banwari Lal, 59, has been working as a security guard at the park for seven years.

Coronation Park, Delhi
Banwari Lal works as a security guard at the park [Nadim Asrar/Al Jazeera]

A resident of a village close by, Lal says the site, dotted with statues for decades, once served as a paramilitary camp before the authorities built the Coronation Park.

“We used to call the place ‘chabutra’ [platform],” he said, referring to the obelisk. “It had bushes all over and the statues brought there from other parts of Delhi were in ruins.”

Liddle lamented that the park was developed by a government agency which did not know how to deal with colonial history.

“There is this odd idea that we if conserve colonial buildings or artefacts or make an interpretation centre talking about colonial facts and spaces, then in some senses we are celebrating colonialism. That is not the case,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Our aim first is to conserve pieces of art. There is no doubt that the statues are pieces of art. Secondly, we need to understand colonialism. What was the period? Who are these people? What happened in India at that time?”

Al Jazeera reached out to a spokesperson for the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the government body that runs the park, but did not get any response.

Source: Al Jazeera