Pomp and Ceremony at the Delhi Durbar

16 December 2010

I had the pleasure of recently working on the re-launch of one of our most popular resources, Empire Online, which was published last month.

The resource has been upgraded to meet the specifications of our latest resources, including full-text searchability and registered user functions such as 'My Archive'. User experience of Empire Online has also been enhanced through additional features such as an image gallery, interactive maps and chronology.

I particularly enjoyed working on the creation of the image gallery, which encompasses stunning visual material from the collection. A wonderful addition to the gallery are illustrations of the Delhi Durbars, that serve as valuable visual records of this trilogy of iconic events that occurred within British colonial territories during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The word Durbar, of Persian origin, signifies the administrative chamber or assembly of the monarch. Indeed, the three Delhi Durbars were three mass gatherings that each marked the coronation of a different British monarch and symbolised imperial governance in the sub-continent. All three Durbars were set in Coronation Park, designed specifically for the Durbar of 1877 that celebrated Queen Victoria’s proclamation as Empress of India. The location reflected an important shift of Imperial command from Bengal to Delhi and the transition of power from the East India Company to the crown. Whilst the ceremony strengthened British imperial claim in India it served as a stark reminder to Indian nationalists of their population’s status as subjects of the British Empire and was therefore a catalyst for the independence movement that eventually forced the hand of the British in 1947.

The illustrations showcased within ‘Delhi and the Durbar’, 1912, feature a range of indigenous peoples in attendance at the Durbar, dressed in decorative attire, that echoed the grandiose splendour of an occasion that was itself indicative of an Empire at the height of its power. Many of these individuals featured in their elaborate outfits would have been the wealthy nobility and landed gentry, Maharajas and Princes. However, the Durbars, especially the final two, were also well attended by vast crowds of locals.

Imperial Assemblage at Delhi 1st January 1877

Elsewhere in the collection, the illustrated book ‘The Delhi Durbar, 1903’ is a fascinating read of that year’s Durbar, describing the various exhibitions and festivities on show and includes the official wording of the Imperial Proclamation of King Edward VII. This was probably the most elaborate of the three pageants, organised by the British Viceroy to India, Lord Curzon. He duly took centre stage, passing through the crowds atop the elephant of the Maharaja of Benares, described within the book as “one of the finest specimens that India could provide”. The event drew attention from the world’s media and further supplanted in the consciousness of not only those in India, but also worldwide, the notion that Britain was the leading power of the time.

There was to be no fourth Durbar due, initially, to the abdication of Edward VIII and later as a result of discontent among taxpayers about funding such extravagant ceremonies in distant locations that they derived little benefit from. Eventually, attentions were drawn elsewhere as resources were ploughed into the war effort and subsequent Indian independence extinguished any pretentions of future imperial pageantries.

In addition to the Durbar illustrations, the Empire Online image gallery features a broad range of photographs and illustrations relaying the territories, peoples and events that characterised the era of modern colonial empires.

Empire Online shares many thematic links with Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration and Cultural Exchange that has also been recently published. Users at institutions that have access to both resources can search both, returning a wide range of material that supports learning in the area of World History.

Performing Horse. India. Turn of the 20th century