Lutyens' Delhi

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Lutyens' Delhi

Rajpath—the broadest avenue in the city—leads to Delhi's British capital: Sir Edwin Lutyens' imperial city, built between 1914 and 1931 in a symbolically heavy-handed design after the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. (During construction, they hit marshy land prone to floods, so they reversed direction and put the bulk of their capital a few miles to the south.)

Starting from India Gate, at the lowest and eastern end of Rajpath, nearby land was allocated to numerous princely states, each of which built small palaces, such as the Bikaner House (now the Rajasthan tourism office) and Jaipur House (now the National Gallery of Modern Art). It might be said that this placement mirrored the British sentiments toward the princes, who lost much of their former power and status during the British Raj. Here, too, are the state Bhavans (houses), where you can taste the cuisine of each state.

Moving up the slowly inclining hill at the western end of the avenue, you also move up the British ladder of power, a concept inherent in the original design. First you come to the enormous North and South Secretariats, facing each other on Rajpath and reflecting the importance of the bureaucracy, a fixture of Indian society since the time of British rule. Identical in design, the two buildings have 1,000 rooms and miles of corridors.

Directly behind the North Secretariat is the Indian parliament house, Sansad Bhavan, a circular building in red and gray sandstone, encompassed by an open colonnade. Architecturally, the Indian design is meant to mirror the spinning wheel that was the symbol of Mahatma Gandhi, but the building's secondary placement, off the main avenue, may suggest the attitude of the British toward the Indian legislative assembly.

At the top of the hill is the former Viceroy's House, now called Rashtrapati Bhavan, where the President of India (not the prime minister) resides. It was built in the 20th century, but the building's daunting proportions seem to reflect an earlier, more lavish time of British supremacy. The Bhavan contains 340 rooms, and its grounds cover 330 acres. The shape of the central brass dome, the palace's main architectural feature, reflects that of a Buddhist stupa (shrine). The execution of Lutyens' design has a flaw: the entire palace was supposed to fill the vista as you approach the top of the hill, but the gradient is too steep, so only the dome dominates the horizon. Just a few years after the imperial city was completed, the British packed up and went home, and this lavish architectural complex became the grand capital of newly independent India.

Permission to enter Rashtrapati and Sansad Bhavan is almost impossible to obtain; unless you have contacts in high places, you'll have to satisfy yourself with a look at the poshest address in town from outside. The extensive Rashtrapati gardens are open to the public in February and March (Tues.–Sun. 9:30–2:30; Heavy security is in place (no bags or cell phones, for instance), but a rare view of the impressive gardens is worth the hassle.

For an experience of imperial Delhi, stop for tea at the Imperial Hotel on Janpath; for a glimpse of Delhi's contemporary elite, browse at Khan Market. A stroll through Lodhi Gardens is a relaxing break and Habitat World or the India International Centre are good bets if you have a taste for culture.


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