Often when World War I is talked about, it is shown as a particularly European war fought mainly by Europeans. Yet to say this is to ignore the sacrifices and deaths of countless millions of colonial subjects, both soldiers and civilians, often forced into service for imperial powers. For India, its position as the “Crown Jewel” of the British Empire and massive abundance of manpower made it an important player in the war. Over 1 million Indians fought in Europe, Egypt, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia; over 70,000 of them would lose their lives, many hoping that their contribution would convince Britain to give them home rule.
The British Empire would not give India home rule, instead a long often bloody struggle for independence took place, finally culminating in the 1948 independence and partition but that’s a story for another day. For India’s part in the war, King George V ordered the construction of a memorial to honor the war dead; after 10 years of construction the end product was the India Gate.
The design is reminiscent of other archway memorials including the Arc de Triomphe but with less ornamentation. The purpose of this was to create a wholly secular archway without the inclusion of religious motifs that might inflame tension between India’s many sects and religions. At 42 meters it stands slightly shorter than the Arc de Triomphe but its positioning in the main “ceremonial axis” directly opposite to the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) makes it the ideal location for parades.
Directly under the India Gate is the Amar Jawan Jyoti (Flame of the Immortal Soldier) which was place there following the successful Liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. Since then it has serves as a sort of Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for Indians that have died in conflicts.
During my time working in India, I was able to help with a field trip for some of the children in Kathputli colony to visit the India Gate. Despite living their whole lives in Delhi, it is surprising to know how few of them have ever visited and saddening that many have never even heard of it. Of course given that their economic situations are so different, it’s not hard to imagine or understand this fact. Still having a day away from the worries of home was good for the children, most of whom were awed by the large structure and the beauty of the surrounding gardens. My visit to India Gate with the kids is still one of my highlights from a wonderful trip to India. The only thing better woud have been if I could have gone to see the Republic Day parade at the India Gate but security around President Obama’s visit made it difficult. Thanks Obama.