The establishment of the British colonial regime in the Indian subcontinent was a drawn-out process. Over the course of a century, the officers of the British East India Company used a mixture of political intrigue, diplomatic schemes, and war to annex vast swathes of land. Hence, in 1857, disgruntled Indians rose in revolt against this ruthless takeover. Eventually, the British crushed the rebellion and became aware of the need to establish themselves as an unquestioned political authority in India. Enter the era of the so-called Delhi Durbars, the massive royal ceremonies held in 1877, 1903, and 1911 in Delhi’s Coronation Park by the imperial government.
Alan Trevithick, in a special issue of Modern Asian Studies on civil ritual in India, argues that these “three great Durbars, royal assemblages… were explicitly political rituals, their purpose being to legitimate and popularize British rule in India.”
Organizers of the durbar adopted the rituals of the erstwhile Mughal kings and combined them with traditional British ceremonies to create a uniquely hybrid event. Viceroy of India Lord Lytton, who Trevithick describes as “the principal architect of the 1877 affair,” determined Delhi would the location of the first durbar, despite the fact that Calcutta was the colonial capital; he wanted to stick with established ritual. Delhi had been one of the capital cities of the Mughals, and its location was in the heart of the subcontinent.
As Trevithick writes, Lytton was “a classic political manipulator by ritual means,” a fact made evident
in a memorandum on the subject of staging what he called a “Royal Assemblage.” The Viceroy, having considered the histories of various princely families, concluded that, in Indian minds, “small favours and marks of honour…are quite as highly prized and appreciated as the more substantial benefits.” In short, Lytton seemed confident that the power of ritual was uniquely appealing to “the native mind.”
Trevithick also notes that Lytton believed that “British minds, of course, were not similarly susceptible.”
The subsequent “Delhi Durbar” was an event of unparalleled pomp and show as its organizers sought to assert British political dominance. Yet, Trevithick highlights Lytton’s keenness in ensuring that the ritual pageantry wouldn’t “appear to be entirely ‘empty.’” He supports this assertion through letters written by Lytton to Lord Salisbury and Disraeli in 1876, in which Lytton argued that the durbar shouldn’t be used just to announce that Queen Victoria would be Empress of India. According to Lytton, “The proclamation, whatever the form of it may be, will do no good.” And Lytton didn’t want the pageantry to be devoid of meaning, a show for show’s sake. Rather, “it should be accompanied by certain declarations and certain acts of grace carefully calculated to rouse enthusiasm and satisfy native sentiment.” At the same time, it would do no harm to include “a few very simple and inexpensive acts of liberality.”
Trevithick observes that, in the run up to the second royal assemblage of 1903, Viceroy Lord Curzon also subscribed to the belief that the native mind was attracted to ceremonies organized around royalty. Moving away from the “royal assemblage idea,” he curated the event in a more deliberate evocation of the Indian durbar (council or formal audience at court), arguing that it would promote “a sense of common participation in a great political system and of fellow citizenship of the British Empire,” which would also justify “an expense greatly in excess of any we are likely to incur.”
Lord Hardinge’s 1911 durbar, the final of three, was the one that “reached its elaborate zenith,” as it was bigger, more elaborate, and more expensive than its predecessors. Highlighting the importance of the event, Trevithick notes that
Hardinge’s durbar was constructed around three highly visible and novel features: (1) the actual presence of the sovereign, George V, (2) the announcement that the Capital of India would be transferred from Calcutta to Delhi, and (3) the announcement that the generally unpopular partition of Bengal would be reversed.
That this third durbar was seen as a prime opportunity to assert authority in the face of growing nationalist sentiments in the early twentieth century is evident from what became known as “the Durbar Incident.” Charles W. Nuckolls, in the same special issue of Modern Asian Studies, describes it as the episode where the Maharaja of Baroda “slighted” King George V.
Nuckolls explains that Sayajirao III, Maharaja Gaekwar (Gaekwad) of Baroda, who ranked second among the semi-independent rulers of the Indian princely states, didn’t follow protocol in paying obeisance to the British sovereign. The British and Indian reactions were well recorded in media of the time, allowing Nuckolls to consider the event from a political viewpoint (in the above video, the events in question start at 2:48). He argues that it certainly represented nationalist sentiments, but were the maharaja’s actions “seditious” in nature?
After an in-depth examination of news items and other documentation, Nuckolls concludes that when Sayajirao III
failed to make a proper obeisance to the King in the Durbar, no one thought anything about it until the Baroda Resident, Colonel Meade, pointed out to the Viceroy that Baroda was a “hot-bed” of sedition. That the second in rank among the carefully cultivated Indian aristocracy would attempt a seditious act revealed to British officials a threat to their political order. They had hoped that the durbar would be a symbolic display of the Anglo-Indian tradition’s vital spirit.
However, the British were also concerned that by painting it as a seditious act, they might detract from the “durbar’s purpose by suggesting that the ceremonial order itself could not respond to infractions of the feudal code.” Hence, notes, Nuckolls, the act was explained away as “‘bad manners,’ ‘lack of courtesy,’ and finally, a simple accident caused by a badly positioned tent pole. The feudal order was left intact while the principal actors—the Gaekwar and the Viceroy—returned to their respective roles…”
And this reveals the dichotomy at the heart of the exercise. “The durbars were clearly, at one level, attempts to construct an ideological ‘smokescreen,’” Trevithick explains. “More interestingly, however, the requirements of the ritual form limited the efficacy of the rituals and frustrated the intentions of the manipulators in a very profound manner.”