“At the very moment when the pale sun of a winter’s afternoon died behind the domes of Imperial Delhi,” wrote the Times correspondent on February 12, 1931, “the ‘Last Post’ was sounded today in salute to the Indian troops who gave their lives for the Empire in the Great War.” The occasion was the dedication of the India War Memorial, later renamed India Gate. This “magnificent arch”, he continued, “is not only a tribute to the Indian dead but is the gateway to the new capital”.
The correspondent enthusiastically described the arch as a “greater cenotaph”, ten times larger than the monument in Whitehall, and with “a stately road driven through it”. Complementing the arch, one hundred sixty yards to the east, where six roads came together to define the terminus of the new city, was erected the King George V Memorial. It too, as the architectural historian A.S.G. Butler wrote, deserved comparison with a British counterpart, in this case the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. “Though it is only 73 feet high, and enriched by the play of water instead of elaborate figure-sculpture and Gothic ornament, it is at least the equal of the other in magnificence.” Both memorials were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was also responsible for the overall layout of the city and the striking Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) on Raisina Hill.
How did this ensemble come to be, and to be so centrally placed on the ceremonial axis (now Rajpath) of the new capital? The original Delhi plan of 1913 included a vague reference to some kind of ‘commemorative column’ marking the eastern end of this axis. The scale of India’s casualties during the Great War quickly shifted opinion in favour of a war memorial. Like many memorials erected in France and elsewhere in the aftermath of the War, including one at Neuve Chapelle in northern France for the Indian dead of the Western Front, the New Delhi memorial was inscribed with the names of soldiers who died between 1914 and 1919. Although honouring nearly 70,000 Indian soldiers who fell in defence of the Empire, the Delhi memorial has inscribed along its walls the names of those men, some 12,516 in number, who fell in operations along the Northwest Frontier and in the Third Afghan War, and had no known grave.
India Gate, like most of Lutyens’s work, favoured abstract composition and sought effect by proportion.
In its architectural style, the Delhi memorial evoked less the plain plinth of the Whitehall cenotaph than such arches as the Gateway of India in Bombay, erected to commemorate the visit of George V in 1911, and the Napoleonic Arc du Triomphe in Paris. The Times correspondent saw in the memorial and its setting “a little of the Mall (in London) and a little of the Champs Elysee,” but a great deal of what “the genius of Sir Edwin Lutyens has bequeathed to Delhi”. A form from Roman times onwards and associated with the commemoration of triumph, the arch in Lutyens’s hands became a powerful vehicle for the memorialisation of the dead. Most solemnly evocative, perhaps, is his Thiepval Memorial, on a hilltop in the Somme valley of France, with radiating arches inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers, and seemingly endless rows of graves stretching into the distance. The Delhi memorial, like most of Lutyens’s work, avoided applied sculptural representation in favour of abstract composition and sought its effect by sheer proportion. The monument stands 139 feet tall, with the main tunnel bridging the roadway 30 feet in width. Seven small setbacks between the base and the frieze increased the sense of height, while smaller lateral arches and concave recesses in the attic relieved the massiveness of the main facades. Every element played its part, even the flat round slabs prominently placed on the front. If these were joined at their centres by imaginary lines, so Butler writes, they would meet at the peak of a triangle 50 feet above the summit. The eye, by this means, “is enticed up while it is, at the same time, drawn down by the tall verticals of the archway”. From the top an eternal cloud of white smoke was to ascend into the sky above. The white marble statue of the monarch, likewise, stood alone under its baldachin, enlivened only by surrounding pools and jets of water in abstract geometric patterns.
The contrast with India’s other major war memorial, at France’s Neuve Chapelle, is rather striking. The design of this memorial was entrusted to Sir Herbert Baker, Lutyens’s Delhi collaborator and the designer of the secretariat blocks on Raisina Hill. The secretariats themselves, by contrast with the Viceroy’s House, make clear the difference between the two architects. In a masterful design, Lutyens transformed European classicism into a profoundly original aesthetic. Baker, on his part, was committed to an architecture of representation. As he himself put it, he ‘grafted’ elements of ‘Eastern’ design, such as chhatri pavilions, jaali screens, and chhajja cornices, on to a secretariat building shaped by Western classical forms. The design for the Neuve Chapelle memorial similarly sought to incorporate elements drawn from ‘Indian art and history’. The memorial, as Baker wrote in his Architecture and Personalities, in addition to the names of the dead, consisted of a circular space contained by a high stone wall, “carved with symbols like the railings of the Buddha’s shrine at Bodh Gaya and those surrounding the great Sanchi topes. In the centre, opposite the names, is an Asoka Column raised high and guarded on either side by sculptured tigers.”
Viceroy Lord Irwin, inaugurating the India War Memorial, defined its purpose in the following terms: “It is not therefore for ourselves that we have made this visible remembrance of great deeds but rather that those who after us shall look upon this monument may learn in pondering its purpose something of that sacrifice and service which the names upon its walls record.” Already, however, by the time of the inauguration, Indians had begun to question their support for the Empire’s cause. The very issue of the Times that announced the memorial’s inauguration also headlined “discussion of the possibility of Mr Gandhi’s meeting with the Viceroy”. One week later, the ‘naked fakir’ of Churchill’s imagination strode up the steps of the Viceroy’s Palace. Sixteen years later India was independent.
As time passed, the statue of George V was taken down, leaving an empty cupola behind. India Gate, by contrast, retained its intended purpose as a shrine and a memorial to India’s war dead. Indeed, with an Eternal Flame installed in 1971, it became the site of India’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a tribute and a continuing reminder of the military sacrifices of the country’s jawans. Whatever ‘the larger purpose’, such a monument, like others of the era, was meant to serve, it acknowledges the concrete, human fact of individual lives lost in war, now over the course of an entire century.