Delhi’s Coronation Park, a neglected site from India’s colonial past

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By Webdesk

New Delhi, India – In the north of India’s capital lies a vast 21-hectare area intended as a memorial to nearly 200 years of British rule in India.

Located in the Burari area of ​​New Delhi near the border with the neighboring state of Haryana, the landscaped site is dotted with monuments, paved paths, plants and trees.

A large tri-color Indian flag at the entrance welcomes visitors with free entry.

The Coronation Park takes 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 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 revolt against their rule and an attempt to place a Mughal emperor on the throne of Delhi in 1857, Queen Victoria decided to take the title of Empress of India in 1876.

“She did not come to India, but in January 1877, a coronation Durbar [imperial court] was held. It was then called an Imperial Assembly. 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-meter high sandstone obelisk stands right on the spot where Durbar’s coronation was held in 1911 [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

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

Liddle says the reason the Durbar was held in Delhi was because the British realized that a majority of Indians considered the city to be the real historical capital of India.

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

The park has marble statues of George V and the Viceroys of the Crown who headed the British administration in colonial India. The statues were brought back in the 1960s from other parts of what was later called New Delhi, the capital of independent India.

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

“The pillar [obelisk] that you see in the middle of the park is a reminder of the actual location of the [1911] Coronation Durbar.”

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

Coronation Park, Delhi
Plaques were missing from all the statues in the Coronation Park [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Liddle told Al Jazeera that the colonial statues were scattered around the new colonial capital and were “vandalized, exposed to the elements and damaged.”

INTACH therefore proposed to the Delhi government to preserve the artifacts that have been lying there since the 1960s at the historic site in Durbar and to develop and construct a park around it. It also proposed setting up an interpretation center to help visitors learn more about the history and importance of the site.

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

Coronation Park, Delhi
A deformed statue resembling Voldemort from the Harry Potter series [Nadim Asrar/Al Jazeera]

The imposing central pillar was covered with graffiti. A torn sticker from a telephone company advertisement was pasted onto the Urdu version of the plaque, obscuring part of the text.

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

Except for a few guards hired by a private agency, there were no officials around. There was no interpretation center to help people understand what they see. The building intended to house the center was empty.

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

Coronation Park, Delhi
A girl meditates in the coronation park [Nadim Asrar/Al Jazeera]

An open-air gymnasium and children’s playground have been built on one of the park’s corners, which are mainly frequented by residents of densely populated neighborhoods that otherwise have no open space for recreation.

Coronation Park, Delhi
Residents use the outdoor gym in the park [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Many of the visitors on Tuesday were exercising and running up and down the steps of the imposing 70-foot sandstone obelisk.

One of them hit 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 exercises next to the statue of George V in the park [Nadim Asrar/Al Jazeera]

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

When told it was a British era monument, his cousin who trained with him exclaimed, “Why is it here? It must 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 in the park [Nadim Asrar/Al Jazeera]

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

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

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

“There’s this strange idea that if we preserve colonial buildings or artifacts or create an interpretation center that talks about colonial facts and spaces, we’re celebrating colonialism in a sense. That is not the case,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Our goal is primarily to preserve works of art. There is no doubt that the images are works of art. Second, we need to understand colonialism. What was the period? Who are these people? What happened in India then?”

Al Jazeera contacted a spokesperson for the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the government agency that manages the park, but received no response.

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