A visit to Raj Ghat, Raisina Hill, and India Gate

On Wednesday evening, I had the pleasure of visiting Raj Ghat (the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi), Raisina Hill (where government ministries and the president’s residence, Rashtrapati Bhavan, are located) and India Gate (the memorial to Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British in World War I) with two colleagues, Nitin and Pranav, and another visiting fellow at CSDS, Christina.

Raj Ghat is located in a lovely tree-dotted park on the banks of the Yamuna River. Birdsong abounds in the trees above and gaggles of restless white geese move here and there; serene tranquility pervades the park. Families walk absentmindedly, enjoying a peace that is removed from the hustle and bustle of city that is twice as large as New York (in fact, we ran into Nitin’s family by complete coincidence during our visit). Young couples escaping the scrutiny of family members are surprisingly less common here than in the other parks I have visited.

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You’ll have to excuse that the resolution of my pictures is not as high with my new phone.

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To visit the memorial to Gandhi, one must remove one’s shoes and enter an immaculately maintained walled courtyard. On the walls of the courtyard are famous quotes of Gandhi in many languages: Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, English, Zulu, etc. At the center of this courtyard is the resting place of Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi’s ashes. Beautiful garlands of flowers and an ever-lasting flame (this reminded me a little of JFK’s eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery) are placed over a black marble platform. On the front of the platform are the words  हे राम, “hey ram,” which translates as “Oh God.” These were supposedly Gandhi’s last words after being shot by Nathuram Godse, a militant Hindu nationalist, on January 30, 1948.

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Looking outwards from the entrance of Raj Ghat:

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In the same park area, there are monuments to many of India’s prime ministers, including Jawaharlal Nehru (a personal favorite), Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and P.V. Narasimha Rao. There is also a monument to Sanjay Gandhi, which is quite controversial since he was never a prime minister. Sanjay was one of Indira Gandhi’s closest advisers and was expected to be her successor until he died in a plane crash in 1980.

We did not have time to see all these monuments–I will have to return to see Nehru’s–but I did see the monument to Indira Gandhi. It is a large stone wall with a famous quote and her signature in both English and Hindi. Its name is Shakti Sthal, “Place of Power,” which is probably fitting given her suspension of India’s democracy for twenty-one months from 1975 to 1977:

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We then visited Raisina Hill, where Delhi’s most impressive government buildings are located. The Lok Sabha, India’s national parliament, is nearby–its exterior reminds me somewhat of the Coliseum. We walked up the gently sloping hill to pass by the defense and finance ministries, grand marble buildings that inspire awe in passersby. These buildings were constructed by the British; architect Edwin Lutyens made the designs for New Delhi at the beginning of the 20th century when the colonial regime moved its headquarters from Kolkata to Delhi. They look as though a European architect was trying to incorporate elements of Mughal architecture into his works. I could not help but contrast these buildings with some of the government buildings in Washington, DC, which are less impressive.

We also went by the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Indian president’s official residence; during the colonial regime, this was the viceroy’s house. It’s quite stunning but you are only allowed to go inside if you schedule a tour in advance. The President of India, by the way, is the head of state and not the head of government; he serves a largely ceremonial function, not unlike the Queen in Britain, the Governor-General in Canada, or the President in Israel. The president is indirectly elected through a complex electoral college procedure that incorporates both houses of the national parliament and the state legislative assemblies. The current president is Pranab Mukherjee, a politician from the Indian National Congress. He was elected in 2012, before the BJP wave that is sweeping the country gained steam, and will serve until 2017.

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Lastly, we visited India Gate, a monument to commemorate India’s fallen who died fighting for the British in World War I. Yes, it indeed looks like a carbon copy of l’Arc de Triomphe. Crowds of families surrounded the gates and many hawkers approached to aggressively offer their photos, necklaces, and other tchotchkes. The names of more than 13,000 fallen Indian soldiers are etched in tiny writing into the arch. Right beneath the arch is a flame for the unknown soldier, placed there after the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971.

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The entire walking stretch from Raisina Hill / Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate is a neatly trimmed lawn and pathway, called Rajpath. It is where the grand parade is held on Republic Day, January 26. It reminded me very much of the National Mall in Washington, DC.

I am really a sucker for these kinds of places, if you cannot already tell. I lived in the Washington, DC area for seven years–four in the District of Columbia when I was an undergraduate and three in northern Virginia immediately after. There are almost always hordes of tourist crowds surrounding the Capitol, or the White House, or the Lincoln Memorial, or the Jefferson Memorial, or the Washington Monument, or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But I never grew tired of returning to these places and contemplating the history made by those they commemorate–a history that shaped not only my nation’s identity but my own identity within that nation (and your identity as well, American readers). Even after seven years, I still felt a tingly thrill in walking along the Capitol building towards the Washington Monument, the White House, the many war memorials, and finally the Lincoln Memorial, passing so many Smithsonian museums along the way. So I would not be surprised if I return to Raj Ghat, Raisina Hill, Rajpath, and India Gate in the future.

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