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The Delhi Durbar and the Proclamation of Queen Victoria

(The following is a post by Nuzhat Khatoon, South Asian Reference Specialist, Asian Division)

In Delhi’s Coronation Park on January 1, 1877, the British monarch Queen Victoria (1837-1901) assumed a new title: Qaisar-i Hind, the Empress of India. Victoria’s proclamation was the central event of the jalsah-i qaisari, a massive imperial assemblage otherwise known in English as the Delhi Durbar. Between the Library’s Asian Division and general collections, there are various publications on Queen Victoria and the Delhi Durbar. To understand how this proclamation came to pass, we should review a bit of South Asian history.

This illustration depicts some of the shān-o-shaukat (pomp and show) of the imperial assemblage in Delhi in January 1877. From Piyare Lal’s “Tārīk̲h̲-i jalsah-yi Qaiṣarī” (1883), an Urdu translation of James Talboys Wheeler’s “The History of the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi (1877). (South Asian Collection, Asian Division).

Beginning in the mid-16th century, the powerful Mughal dynasty ruled over most of what is today India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Mughal rule over India started with the first six emperors—Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb. But its maximum territorial expansion under the reign of Aurangzeb (1618-1707) heralded the start of its decline. Political competition between Mughal princes weakened the imperial system, and the emergence of the British East India Company as a political powerhouse was another significant blow to Mughal rule. In 1857, a number of regiments of Indian soldiers employed in the Company’s armies initiated a rebellion and symbolically gathered around the elderly heir to the Mughal throne, the Sufi poet Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862). This rebellion – an event known to the British as the “mutiny” and to Indian nationalists as the “first war of Indian Independence” – ultimately failed to oust the British. Its failure had two significant results: first, the British exiled the last Mughal emperor to Rangoon in British Burma where he passed away in 1862; second, the British Crown passed the Government of India Act of 1858, which disestablished the Company and gave the monarch direct imperial rule over India.

Durbar, Delhi, India: Richly adorned elephants and carriage of H.H., the Maharaja of Rewah. Photographic print on stereo card, 1903 (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.)

As a visual demonstration of British imperial rule, the Delhi Durbar was convened three times in the old Mughal capital of Delhi, first in 1877 and then again in 1903 and 1911. During the Mughal period, the Persian word darbar referred to the audience convened before royalty and the hall in which the audience gathered. In British usage, the term stood for a huge public ceremony bringing together colonizer and colonized under the auspices of the British monarch. And the overriding purpose of Delhi Durbar of 1877 was the formal proclamation of Queen Victoria as Qaisar-i-Hind. The Urdu word qaisar derives from the Arabic approximation of the Latin caesar, which itself has been adopted widely in dozens of languages across Europe and the Middle East. In one relevant example, Queen Victoria’s own grandson, Wilhelm II assumed the title of German Kaiser, or Emperor, in 1888.

Queen Victoria, full-length portrait, seated, facing front. Photomechanical print c. 1897 (Prints and Photographs Division)

The Delhi Durbar of 1877 had approximately 68,000 people in attendance alongside 15,000 British and Indian troops – a display of the colony’s military might. In addition to the Crown’s Viceroy of India, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, and British governors, sixty-three Indian maharajas (Hindu kings), nawabs (Muslim noblemen or people of high status), and other dignitaries gathered for the celebration and banquets over a 14-day period. It was the first time in the history of India that Indian royalty had come together with the same goal of paying homage to the British Crown. Many of these Indian rulers, like the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maharaja of Mysore, were the nominal heads of independent “princely states,” although the Crown exerted considerable influence in their governance. Gun salutes welcomed the dignitaries according to their ranks, and each attempted to outshine the other with magnificent royal robes and jewels. For example, the Nizam accessorized his sober black dress with a yellow turban bearing a large, sparkling diamond. His elephant carried him into the grounds on a canopied seat, or howdah, embroidered with gold thread. Each ruler received a gold commemorative banner and medal as a personal gift in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s proclamation as Empress of India. Unfortunately, these tokens given to the Indian rulers also symbolized their status of subjugation to the British Empire.

This 1915 Survey of India map shows the territories directly under the British rule (red areas) and nominally independent princely states such as Hyderabad and Rajputana (yellow areas). India and adjacent countries / engraved at the Survey of India Offices, Calcutta, 1915 (Geography and Map Division)

Although Queen Victoria did not attend the Delhi Durbar of 1877, her proclamation address as India’s new sovereign was read aloud in English and Urdu to this unprecedented gathering of British and Indian subjects. Lord Lytton then explained the gracious intentions of Her Majesty in assuming the new title of Qaisar-i-Hind and asserted its permanency. In the proclamation address, Queen Victoria promised her Indian subjects that under her rule the principles of liberty, equity and justice would prevail. She wished and prayed for the well-being of her subjects and their health and happiness, which, she stated, was the most important thing in her heart. Above all she guaranteed them religious freedom, education, and civil and government jobs. They would be placed on equal terms with all other subjects of the British Crown. She advocated the British style of education for Indians, so they could qualify for high ranking government jobs. She also emphasized that she did not intend to annex the states of the Indian rulers. Lord Lytton’s speech was so moving that as soon as he ceased speaking all of the attendees stood up and cheered. Some of the Indian rulers prayed for the queen’s long life and everlasting peace and prosperity for her Empire in India and Britain. (For further information on the content of Queen Victoria’s proclamation address, see Piyare Lal, “Tārīk̲h̲-i jalsah-yi Qaiṣarī” [History of the Imperial Assemblage], Lahore: Sarkār-i Mat̤baʻ, p. 86).

Thus with all the promises and pledges made to her Indian subjects, Her Majesty Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India with great pomp and show. These promises were short-lived. Even Indian princes who were not directly under British rule were subject to the Crown’s political control. The Durbar was ultimately a statement of imperial power and sovereignty over India, one that served as a stark reminder to Indians of their status as subjects to the British Empire.

Lord Lytton, Viceroy and Governor General i-Hind (India), Grand Master Tabqah-yi A Sitarah-yi Hind. From Piyare Lal’s “Tārīk̲h̲-i jalsah-yi Qaiṣarī” (1883), an Urdu translation of James Talboys Wheeler’s “The History of the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi (1877). (South Asian Collection, Asian Division)

The Delhi Durbar was held twice more in 1903 and 1911 to proclaim first King Edward VII and then King George V as Emperor of India. However, it was the 1903 Delhi Durbar presided over by Viceroy of India George Curzon that set the standard for truly dazzling imperial extravagance, part of which was the increased number of attendees and decorated elephants. Search for “Delhi Durbar” in the Prints and Photographs Division’s online catalog for a selection of images showing the 1903 assemblage’s grandeur.

There are many more fascinating topics related to the Delhi Durbar, such as the remarkable technological advances (e.g., motorcars, films) taking place from event to event and the figure of the Maharaja of Baroda Sayaji Rao Gaekwar III, whose reported snubbing of King George during the Delhi Durbar of 1911 made headlines in the press. For further reading, here are just a few of the many resources available at the Library of Congress and the Asian Reading Room on the Delhi Durbar:

Firozuddin. 1903. “Yādgār-i darbār: yaʻnī tārīk̲h̲-i darbarhāʼe tājposhī Shahanshāh-i muʻaẓẓam Eḍvard haftum” (Memoir of the Durbar, or The History of the Coronation of the Great Emperor Edward the VII). Lahore: Sada’e Hind Press.

Menpes, Mortimer. 1903. “The Durbar.” London: A. and C. Black.

Muhammad, Din. 1911. “Yādgār-i darbār-i tājposhī” (Memoir of the Coronation Durbar). Lahore: Yadgar Press.

Raman, Sunil and Rohit Agarwal. 2012. “Delhi Durbar 1911: The Complete Story.” New Delhi: Lotus Collection.

Wheeler, James Talboys (translated by Piyare Lal). 1883. “Tārīk̲h̲-i jalsah-yi Qaiṣarī” (History of the Imperial Assemblage). Lahore: Sarkar-i Matba.

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