Stories in stone

The statue of Memnon, the Ethiopian king who fought in the Trojan war some 3000 years ago, in ancient Thebes gave out a musical note at sunrise. He was believed to be the son of the goddess of dawn hence the correlation with that early hour.

There may be musical fountains in Delhi but not statues. The unmusical ones however are any number, especially of statesmen, politicians and administrators. Though Ghalib’s statue was installed at Jamia Millia Islamia, the one of Akbar could not be put up at Agra in 1956 (the 400th year of his coronation) because of religious sentiments.

Some of the old statues have disappeared. For instance, the statue of Queen Victoria that stood in front of the Town Hall (a present from the Skinner family in 1887) was replaced by one of Swami Shraddhanand. The statue is now at the Delhi College of Art in Tilak Marg. There used to be a bust of the queen in Victoria Zenana Hospital (now Kasturba Gandhi Hospital) in the entrance room but one hasn’t seen it for some time. Among the missing statues is one of Brig-Gen John Nicholson (1821-1857), idolised as “Nikil Sen” by the Indian soldiers under his command, who could not pronounce his name. He was shot during the assault on Lahori Gate in the Great Revolt and a plaque marking the spot where he fell can be found in a narrow lane in Khari Baoli. According to author Christopher Hibberts, at Nicholson’s funeral (after whom the cemetery is named) the men of the Multani Horse threw themselves on the ground and wept, refusing to take part in any further action. R. C. Wilberforce, who gave this eye-witness account, went on to say that they plucked the grass around the grave and marched back to their frontier homes. Nicholson’s statue stood in front of the Kashmere Gate till the 1950s when it was sent on request to the general’s home town Belfast, where it still stands.

The statue of Lord Reading (pronounced Redding) has disappeared and the road named after him is now known as Mandir Marg. He was Viceroy from 1921 to 1926. Lord Willingdon’s statue was on the road leading to Willingdon Crescent, now Mother Teresa Crescent, where the Dandi March statue is situated. Lord Chelmsford statue is believed to have been erected somewhere else than on the road leading to New Delhi station. Some however think it is at the spot where the statue of Dr Mujhe now stands. The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 and the Chelmsford Club are reminders of the Viceroy.

George V’s statue that stood at India Gate and where a statue of Gandhiji was proposed to be erected is now at the Coronation Park in Kingsway Camp where the durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911 (when Delhi became the Capital again) were held. Lord Hardinge’s statue is also there. He was Viceroy from 1910 to 1916 and was associated with the building of New Delhi. Besides the Coronation Pillar and an obelisk, Sir Guy Fleetwood Wilson’s statue survives but otherwise the park (now renovated) has only empty pedestals on which crows, kites and smaller birds occupy the high perch, which they only vacate when the Nirankari Samagam is held nearby or urs pilgrims camp on their way to Ajmer.

The busts of Napoleon which were a prized collection of Sir Thomas Metcalfe are said to have been taken away to the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun. Metcalfe was a great admirer of the “Little” French emperor, despite the fact that he was the British Resident at the Mughal court from1835. He was allegedly poisoned before the so-called Mutiny. Lord Northbrook (1872-76), who hosted the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) during the 1875 visit, erected a fountain in Chandni Chowk. Some say he wanted to have his statue up there but the move was opposed not only by the British hierarchy but also the Muslims and Sikhs.

The Muslims said the spot marked the place where the bodies of two sons and a grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar lay rotting after they were shot at the Khooni Darwaza by Lt. Hodson. The Sikhs said it would be an insult to their Guru Teg Bahadur, beheaded by Aurangzeb at the Kotwali nearby. So the Viceroy contented himself by building a memorial fountain. Curiously enough, Lord Mountbatten’s statue was not erected although he was the last Viceroy and the first Governor-General of Free India.

Quite a few of the Raj statues went missing after being dumped at the Mathura Road fair ground, now known as Pragati Maidan, and at least one of expensive marble was thought to have been broken into pieces and sold just as the Taj marble was planned to be sold after the mausoleum’s proposed demolition during the time of Lord William Bentinck (1828-1835). Prof. Sydney Rebeiro has a rare map of Delhi (somewhere in his papers) showing the placement of the old statues, which a researcher was intensely trying to locate in his quest for Delhi’s Raj heritage.