Understanding Delhi During 1803 – 1860

[A Book Review of: Delhi between Two Empires 1803 – 1931: Society, Government and Urban Growth by Narayani Gupta, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1981.]


Ashu J

Research Assistant, Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi, New Delhi



Revolt of 1857 was a rebellion in India which ran from May 1857 to July 1859 against the rule of East India Company. The revolt is still known by different names, including Sepoy Mutiny, the Rebellion of 1857, the Revolt of 1857, Great Rebellion, Indian Insurrection etc. There are many books written on British authority in India and one such book is “Delhi between two empires 1803-1931: Society, Government and Urban Growth” by Narayani Gupta. The main objective of this paper is to review “Delhi between two empires 1803-1931” by Narayani Gupta. However this paper will be reviewing only the first-three chapters of this book since my special interest lies in 1857. An effort has been made to plot unbiased as well as chapter-wise information about what Gupta is focusing throughout these chapters. Nevertheless, an attempt has also been made on understanding and conceptualizing ideas that has been put forth by Gupta. By the end of this essay I’m able to endeavour explicit conclusion including my own personally opinion concerning what author has consolidated within these chapters.


KEY WORDS:  Colonial History, 1857, Indian Mutiny, Rebellion, Narayani Gupta




Revolt of 1857 was a rebellion in India which ran from May 1857 to July 1859 against the rule of East India Company. The revolt is still known by different names, including Sepoy Mutiny, The Rebellion of 1857, The Revolt of 1857, Great Rebellion, Indian Insurrection etc. However, because of my special interest in 1857, this paper will be primarily focusing on reviewing the first three chapters of this book titled “Delhi between Two Empires 1803 – 1931: Society, Government and Urban Growth” authored by Narayani Gupta. Apart from that article will primarily looking into the different aspect regarding what Gupta has tried to incorporate within this text and also including my own view of what Gupta has mentioned in the following chapters.



The British Peace and the British Terror.

This chapter begins with giving a brief description about the location i.e. Shahjanabad and about the history of the place where Gupta describes of the three main episodes that remained a watershed for the history of Shahjanabad and she also put forth an enormous description about the places like Faiz Bazaar, Chandni Chowk etc. Gupta mentions of the episodes like Revolt of 1857, 1911-12 and 1947. The book also takes us to the insight into how the British entered Delhi and about their authority. A special attention was given to the Delhi College and the students which later become pioneer official working with British East India Company for instance Ram Chandra, Dr. Mukand Lal, Maulvi Zauddin, Mohammed Hussain Azad, Maulvi Zakaullah, Pyare Lal, Nand Kishore and so on. Emergence, role and the working of the societies like Baptist Missionary Society and Royal Asiatic Society was also highlighted within first chapter itself.


Later Gupta remark about the conversion of the Ram Chandra and Doctor Chiman Lal from Hinduism to Christianity for which she mention “From the British side, the Baptist Missionary Society (from 1818)...a body of Muslim chokadars and Chaprasses whose service, however, were not required” (pp. 09). According to my point of view these sentences indicated Hindus fear of their non existence or in order words it can be also seen that Hindus were eventually afraid of losing their hegemony over other.  On the other hand to a greater extent this can be viewed as manipulative approach of Hindu leaders to provide heat among the natives from such conversion which hardly affected society. Similar tension is also highlighted between the Jain and Hindus in 1816 and 1834 as well. The above statement was also justified from the incident where Gupta mentions of the festivals (Ram Lila and Eid) practiced in two different spots in order to reduce any clash between the so called Hindus and Muslims, whereas the reaction of Bahadur Shah stating that Ram Lila must pass from his palace so that he can also enjoy the event1. This particular incident signifies Bahadur Shah’s zeal and respect towards ritual activities irrespective of caste and creed.


What drive this chapter to the next portion is the detail on how the cow-slaughter generated tension among the Hindus and Muslim during 1800s and also highlights the grain riot during 1837. An emphasis has also been made on giving a clear statistical data on the number of officers working in the govt. offices and how they cleverly been able to tackle such tension in order to safeguard their own interests. This particular interest can be viewed as a way of earning sympathy and this been concert from the description that despite governing British officials invested their own money for the maintenance of city, road repairs and other miscellaneous expenses. British officials worked really well not only in improvising the city roads from Sahbulaka-Bad to Chidiyakhana but also in providing immense contribution on understanding as well as eradicating Indian diseases and problem of public health. This chapter even talks on how the native opposed the tax charged for maintaining such sanitation facilities (pp. 20).


This chapter also furnishes how officials controlled the entrance to the city, where Gupta mention a letter of General Burn informing Lawrence that “I have so allowed some ten men, women and children .one bania, one punsaria and one halwai per street…” And also talks about the Indian officials who were permitted to enter city with the help of protection ticket while Muslims remain outside the city and their properties were confiscated. Later Muslims were allowed to enter under several terms and conditions. Willingness of British officials on making Delhi a metropolitan city is also portrayed within this chapter for which Gupta brief on British authority adopting necessary changes that was incorporated for making city a metropolitan. She also mentions of demolition of fortified walls of Delhi and other building such as Kucha Bulaqi Begum, the Haveli Nawab Wazir, and the Akbarabadi Masjid, the palaces of the Nawab of Jhajjar, Ballabgarh, Farrucknagar and Bahahdurgarh. Also about the concession made to the Hindu temples and preservation other architectural or historical interest.



Portrait of the City.

This chapter focuses on the accounts of Ghalib elaborating how artisans and shopkeepers were hindered after the revolt. Moreover an emphasis has also been made indicating Delhi’s recovery from such a heartbreaking incident and about Delhi becoming a trade oriented centre beating Cuttack and Madras with respect to the production of jewelleries. An attempt has also been made in this book to portrait the willingness of the people in reconstructing Delhi back to one of the beautiful place after the revolt. This willingness on the other hand was taken as an advantage by few rich sections of the society. Detailed information was given on how the traders flourished soon after the 1857 revolt and which further facilitate East India Railway to put forth its railway services at an accelerated speed.


A clear cut image has been plotted by Gupta in this chapter which gives meticulous information regarding the overall development of the Delhi. The activities of officials and traders has been adorably expressed in this chapter where she put forth the reference quoting that city as controlled by khatris, baniyas, jains and sheikhs of Delhi. Besides this a well structured and comprehensive data has been given regarding the railway lines starting its first service in within Delhi and with the of this railway lines a big relief program was organized to control famine in Delhi. This introduction of railway not only lubricated trade by making Delhi as a centre of distribution for Punjab, Rajasthan and North-Western Provinces but also changed the overall life style of the people in the city. Apart from that she also highlights whirling of financial and retail trade activated of the city which was controlled by the Khatris, Baniyas, Jains and Sheikhs of Delhi.


As far as the things are concern she also pinpoint the construction and beginning of the railway lines within the city and on how this eventually paved way to some sort of relief to the people during the famine. Gupta also talks about on Delhi emerging as a distribution centre for Punjab, Rajasthan and North-Western Provinces due to the running of rails and a special emphasis is also give on spotting the benefits that has been rendered by the rail to the merchants and other business classes which ultimately resulted in the influx of population of merchants, bankers and trader in Delhi. Thus Delhi was facing a steady growth in the population. Gupta is also vigilant in incorporating the sex ration of Delhi and about the precise proportion of males compare to the females.


Nevertheless a detailed and elaborated data has been plotted on the number of houses that has been constructed before and after the revolt of 1857, where she highlights of 25,000 houses in 1846 and by the end of 1853 it reaches to around 38,000. Apart from that, a statistical analysis has also been given regarding the Hindu and Muslims and Intramural and Extramural within this chapter. On the other hand, this chapter also accounts on the rate of immigration and number of men working in Delhi right after the revolt. However this chapter is not restricted to population but it also talks about the trading activities inclusive of both public and business sectors.

However, second chapter deliberately talks on Jama Masjid emerging as an area of religious debate. Separate places were assigned for poverty striven such places were Mori Gate, Farashkhana, Ajmeri Gate, Turkmam Gate and Delhi Gate. This chapter highlight the introduction of railway lines from South-East to North-West and Bhahadur Shah’s tension on such proposals. Furthermore this chapter assimilate details on the occupation of Daryaganj and the conversion of Fort for military purpose and later by transferring it to the Archaeological Department. Another section of the chapter deals with the purchase of land made by natives and British officials. However the British officials were buying land in order to meet their administrative demands. This chapter illustrate example of some native like Dr. M.A. Ansaric buying a large house in Daryaganj (pp. 58). The affect of world war one on the population, renting pattern of Delhi and about the decline of Sadar Bazaar as well as shifting of Cantonment into city is also highlighted in this chapter (pp. 61).


In short, Narayani Gupta was capable of providing intricate information on Sadar Bazaar, Sabzi Mandi and other areas. Next portion of this chapter talks about the development of industries and factories in Delhi due to the introduction of railway, about mechanization and foreign competition between industries. Accounting the importance of railway that connected Delhi with Karachi, Punjab, Rajasthan and United Provinces for trade concludes this chapter.



Recovery and Realignments.

This chapter deals with explaining the overall condition and particularly on the changes that had been made by the British authorities from 1860s onwards.  The major setback of these changes has been illustrated in this chapter following the closing down of Delhi College, Jama Masjid closed for worship and also Fatehpuri Masjid sold to Lala Chunna Mal. Apart from that concise information has been given on the policies incorporated by the Municipality. This chaper also includes the name of notables who were working for the Municipality like Lal Sahib Singh, Lala Baldev Singh, Lala Shiv Sahai, Mal etc. Gupta also highlights the impact of the rivalry between the Jains and Hindu after the revolt of 1857 (pp. 73). Moreover include details on Rathjatra and Mohurrum procession. Gupta deliberately emphasis on the rigidity due to the Queen’s proclamation and also between religious groups on the celebration of their respective festivals, like Jain’s Rathjatra, Hindu’s Ramlila and Muslim’s Mohurrum including on how Sisganj Guruduwara paved the way for the growth of Sikh population by 1930s.


This chapter also talks about the fear of the officials and loyalist after 1857, which has been categorized as a fear of criminal and dangerous classes and moreover Gupta is capable of explaining how this term “Criminal and Dangerous Classes” has been used in the sense of minors, of violence and tension. Within chapter Gupta also talks about the reasons for such fear that she describes as the fear of insecurity due to opening of entrance gate because of the introduction of railways, apart from railway mildness of police system and shortage of grains were the majors problems for the distress during that point of time. Further resulting to grain riots of 1877.


Nevertheless Gupta had given a precise data (pp. 80) on the expenditures spend on maintaining of police, whereas she also apex on the order of cutting down wages on policing and also about recruiting the gujars and jats (who were by profession thieves) into police service. However this chapter also includes an elucidation of the intolerance of poor section of the society. An emphasis has been made to indicate on how authority established poor house for the weaker sections like that of chamars, beggars, etc. so that they can earn their livelihood. Both Municipality as well as rich people supervised this upliftment.


Gupta evaluate the result of the famine that lead to the conversion of many lowers castes into Christianity during 1860s2. Throughout the chapter, Gupta describe Delhi as “Dark City” because of no lighting system in the streets and how buildings were constructed without roof in order to tackle the problem of darkness and also about the expanding the working of Indian municipality during 1860s. By 1871 everything was rationalised and Delhi was given the status of first class municipality. Later, Gupta plot that these developments were meant for only improving military exigency, commercial and civil administrative needs. She blathers on the construction made by the municipality and also of the rich class involved in the funding of public buildings. Although this development was restricted to the improvement of the British authority but on the other hand there was some effort was made on the betterment of standard of living like in 1863 special medical committee was pronounced. Similarly with the treatment of water and adaptation of other sanitation measures were introduced. Municipality also constructed hospitals by replacing dispensaries and spend around 70,000 rupees. Gupta also indicate on the massive changes that has been incorporated by public work which drastically aided in remodelling of the markets and about the new policies that has been taken for the construction of roads specially metalled roads in Delhi.


In order to conclude this chapter Gupta cite that European officials and Indian loyalists made mutual ritual genuflections and their attitude was not long lasting. Also talks about the commonality between the Delhi commissioner and Calcutta magistrates. Finally conclude this particular chapter by highlighting misuse of office by municipal officials and even though British officials were aware of such misuse but hardly interfered it in.



To conclude it can be said that within the very first chapter Gupta primarily focused on different kinds of rules and regulations that had been incorporated by the British East India Company instead of looking into the account of the society and affect of such policies on the natives. This is for a great extend can be considered as a drawback while reading this book, since it hardly been able to highlight the condition of the natives within the society. Oh the other hand this book is capable of providing detailed geographical description of the Delhi city and also about the growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims during 1800s.


As we move to second chapter, Gupta highlights the aftermath of the Great Rebellion. She meticulous provides information regarding the development of Delhi after the revolt. However, this chapter is largely concentrate and relied on Ghalib’s account. This chapter precisely talks on the trade, railway and population structure of Delhi. Nevertheless, a well elaborated comparison has been made on what all was happened before and after the revolt. Apart from that neat and clear information statistical information has been incorporate within this chapter. Personally from my point of view I’m utmost galvanized with descriptions that has been incorporated by Gupta.


In third chapter, Gupta deliberately talks about the people like Lal Saligram, Lala Chunna Mal, Lala Mahesh Das and so on. To a great extend third chapter precisely talks about such people and about their occupations. Within this chapter author is over exaggerated with the religious tension and as I feel third chapter is largely out of track because of delineative information provided by the author in a greater depth. According to me third chapter is hardly arranged chronological, there is no fixed slot has been provided for events resulting in the messing up of the events with one another.


However, this particular book provide a complete information of 19th century although there are some places where the author herself is off track but if someone is looking for a geographical information of Delhi during 1800s than one can definitely rely on this.



1.     Mentioned in Waqa-e-Sri Ram by Sri Ram Mathur.

2.     82 weavers’ chamars, 13 middles and Muslim caste and 27 high caste Hindus joined Christianity.

3.     Gupta, Narayani (1981): Delhi Between Two Empires 1803 - 1931: Society, Government and Urban Growth, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.




Received on 23.02.2017

Modified on 06.03.2017

Accepted on 29.03.2017

© A&V Publications all right reserved

Research J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 8(1): January - March, 2017, 27-31.

DOI: 10.5958/2321-5828.2017.00004.3