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Elephants bear the Maharaja of Pataila's priests and the Sikh holy book at the Delhi Durbar of 1911 

Unless Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee next year surprises us all, the Royal Proclamation Delhi Durbar of 1911 will have been the greatest spectacle the world has seen since the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Its scale, drama, beauty and pageantry may never be surpassed. In a ceremony borrowed from the Moghuls, the British and their best-loved colony together created a show that astounded the world to celebrate King George V's coronation as Emperor of India. After much grumbling, Asquith's government had allotted a vast budget for the extravaganza, from which the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, received a million-pound grant (in today's terms approximately £500 million) for the Indian end of the expense. He was to produce, in a series of animated moving tableaux, a reflection of the glory of an empire at the summit of its powers. Most important of all, he was to reinforce in public the loyalty of India's ruling princes, the nawabs and maharajas. Complete with elephants, horses, camels and marching bands, and accompanied by nearly 500 princes and thousands of civil and military grandees, the Durbar lasted for more than ten days.

Under Hardinge's wand a great tented city, over an area of 25 square miles of once-barren marsh north of Delhi, was erected in just four months, complete with its own post office, light railway, hospitals, electricity and farms, to accommodate 250,000 visitors with their travelling servants and Indian ayahs (maidservants). Among the encampments were the luxurious gardens and silk-lined tents of the royal and viceregal entourages and — grandest and most glamorous of them all — the vast carved gateways and exquisite shamianas (tents) of the maharajas

After the first five days of festivities, on December 12, came the great Durbar Day. From dawn the air was alive with the sound of bands and bugles. The King, with the Empress Queen at his side, left his camp in an open landau to pass between long corridors of magnificently uniformed soldiers lining the route. As the cavalcade entered the giant grass amphitheatre, the royal couple, attended by 12 princely Indian pages, were greeted by the triumphant strains of a 2,000-strong military band playing Handel's march from Scipio. Adorned with an emerald and diamond crown and coronation robes under a gold and crimson shamiana, the King solemnly received India's ruling princes as they came forward one by one to pay homage. Then, moving to a larger even more glorious canopied cupola, the King Emperor announced from his throne of solid gold to 120,000 cheering spectators that Delhi would henceforth be reinstated as the capital of India. 

Among the guests during the Durbar was my grandmother, then 23, whose diary of the event I recently discovered in a secondhand bookshop in Norfolk. Her record of a fortnight that marked the apogee of the British Raj and the personal story she told of her travels in India fascinated me. Her Irish background with its colonial parallels gave her an instinctive understanding both of the love affair between Britain and India and of the ambivalence that shot through the Indian psyche as longing for independence clashed with admiration for the mother country.

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