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The 1911 Durbar was British India’s last great imperial occasion

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, Theatre on Monday, 30 April 2012

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This edited article about the Durbar of 1911 originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 697 published on 24 May 1975.

1911 Durbar, picture, image, illustration

The last great Durbar in June 1911 by Graham Coton

The people of Delhi were no strangers to those great state ceremonies known as Durbars, which had been held in their city from time immemorial. They had seen them held to celebrate the conquests of barbaric Indian princes, and they had seen them held under British rule. Most of them had been impressive affairs indeed, particularly the one that had been held to celebrate the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1877. But even that particular Durbar had not stirred their imagination as the one that was now about to be held. It had nothing to do with the breathtaking pageantry that had been arranged, or with the fact that every arm of India’s fighting forces would be there to represent India’s military strength. Nor had it anything to do with the fact that the whole twenty five miles of Bawari Plain, just outside the city, was now covered with a sea of tents of every imaginable size and description, including one particular encampment reserved for the Indian princes, which consisted entirely of tents that were so large as to be able to include drawing rooms as comfortable as those to be found in the fine houses of any major capital. All this was familiar stuff, interesting and colourful enough in its own way. But hardly guaranteed to raise the emotional temperature of the city to the state of fever it was now in.

What then made this particular occasion such a special one? To find the answer we have to go back to the June of 1911, when King George V had announced at the time of his coronation that he intended to hold a Coronation Durbar at Delhi in the December of that year. Moreover, he would attend it himself, accompanied by Queen Mary, the Queen Empress.

It is difficult now in these times of mass communication, when Royalty is seen frequently in newsreels or on the television, to realise what this news meant to the people of India, who, for the first time in their lives were going to see a white King Emperor and Queen Empress. And as if this were not enough, the King was going to speak to the people himself.

By some mysterious means the news flashed with incredible rapidity throughout the country, so that there was not a single village that was not aware of the forthcoming Durbar. What was even more surprising, as the months passed, a rumour began to circulate that the King was to make an announcement that would affect the people of Delhi. Although no one was able to trace the source of these rumours, they were certainly not without foundation, as everyone was to learn at the closing stages of the Durbar.

For the people of Delhi, the months leading up to the Durbar were ones of feverish activity. Roads were remade, new gardens and lawns created, and a vast army had toiled endlessly, preparing the ground for the canvas city that was soon to spring up on the Plain. Never in the history of the city had there been so many people working with one object in mind – to make the Durbar of 1911 the truly historic occasion it eventually became.

On December 7, the Imperial city of Delhi was ready to greet its royal guests. All the tents had been erected housing a hundred thousand inhabitants who represented nearly every province and district of India, and some fifty thousand troops were settled in their lines to the north of the encampment. The bands of the various regiments controlling the crowds were playing, and the Indian princes who were to be introduced to the royal couple, were already waiting in a special pavilion set aside for the occasion. Outside the Selimgarb station, eight hundred and fifty Indian veterans, some of them wearing their Mutiny ribbons of red, white and blue, stood in front of another magnificent array of soldiery representing every arm of India’s fighting forces. The stage was now set for the most impressive piece of pageantry the world has ever known.

The clocks of the city were beginning to strike ten as the royal white train steamed slowly into the station and drew up at the platform. As it halted and their Majesties alighted, there was the rattle of musketry fire, followed by the roar of cannon thundering out a salute. After the introductions and inspections, the King mounted a waiting magnificent bay horse, and the Queen was escorted to a state landau in charge of postilions dressed in royal scarlet. Behind them was their mounted escort of Indian princes, their costumes covered with dazzling gold ornaments and priceless jewels.

Trumpets blasted and the procession set off in all its glittering splendour, passing through street after street on its way to the imperial camp. For hour after hour, the princes and ruling chiefs, attended by their retinues paraded through the city heading towards the Bawari Plain which as covered with a teeming mass of humanity awaiting the arrival of the royal couple. On the way there was a brief respite from the marching when their Majesties paused to receive an address of welcome from the representatives of British India, which included judges and other high officers of state. The cavalcade then proceeded to the Plain, where, for the first time, the princes ordered their standard bearers to unfurl their banners, most of them covered with elaborate emblems worked in rich silks. With the royal couple now comfortably settled in their pavilion, the bands ceased playing and marched away, and the princes retired finally to their respective camps. The first day of the Delhi Durbar was over.

The actual ‘Great Day’ as it had become known, did not occur until four days later, when the royal couple were to be proclaimed Emperor and Empress of India in the amphitheatre which had been used previously for the Durbar celebrating Edward VII’s coronation, for which the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, had put on an impressive display which had included a procession of elephants, camels, horses and falconers with hawks on their wrists. On this occasion, the Indian princes, most of them dressed in gold, with jewels sparkling in their head-dresses and shoulder knots and sword hilts, were the centre of attraction as they made their way, one by one, to their places in the amphitheatre. A clock suddenly began to toll out eleven, and a hushed silence fell over the vast gathering.

Suddenly in the distance could be heard the skirl of the bagpipes and the rolling of drums, signalling the arrival of the Black Watch. Briskly, the kilted Highlanders came marching into the arena, followed shortly afterwards by a regiment of Sikhs, who were also part of the guard of honour. More regiments arrived and took their place in the arena. And then at last came their Majesties in their coronation robes and wearing imperial diadems which glittered and flashed in the noonday sun as they stepped from their landau to the accompaniment of a hundred thousand cheering voices. Six little Indian princes stepped forward to bear their trains as they mounted the dais from where they would receive homage from the gathered princes.

Those who were lucky enough to have attended that occasion, left the arena at the end of the ceremony, to carry with them the memory of a never to be forgotten spectacle which included a royal speech delivered under a canopy of crimson velvet, massed bands playing a coronation march specially composed for the occasion, and batteries of artillery firing off salvos from afar. Most of all they remembered the surprise item of the Durbar, a final statement from His Majesty, in which he announced that the capital of India should be transferred from Calcutta to Delhi. When they heard that Delhi was to be restored to its ancient position of ‘Mistress of India,’ the audience burst into deafening cheers, and on this happy note the Durbar of 1911, ended.

It was the last great state occasion of that nature to be held.

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