SOON AFTER INDIA’S Independence in 1947, New Delhi became host to a growing number of foreign embassies. It was now a capital of international importance. At that time, the outer limits of New Delhi were Teen Murti in the west and Sujan Singh Park in the east. The Government decided to build an enclave for the embassies beyond these limits.
It was the first major extension of Lutyens’ new city. Uninhabited scrublands in the west, not too far out, were cleared to provide space for chanceries and residences for the diplomatic community. A meeting of engineers, architects and town planners was convened by India’s first chief of protocol, Inder Sen Chopra, to discuss the layout of the area and to decide on the question of including markets and residences for the local population within this area.
An important issue was the naming of the enclave. Someone suggested that it be called simply “Diplomatic Enclave”. This was quickly rejected. A brash, young Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer in the protocol section, still in his twenties, suggested that the place be named after Kautilya, the advisor to Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Empire in the third century BCE.
The name Kautilya Nagar also found no takers. It sounded a bit pedestrian; the “nagar” designation was more suited for the refugee colonies that had sprouted across Delhi after Partition—Kamla Nagar, Shakti Nagar, and others.
The young IFS officer must have been disappointed, but he had studied ancient history. He remembered that Kautilya’s other name was Chanakya.
“How about Chanakyapuri?” he piped up.
“That’s it,” said Mr Chopra, “It sounds much better.” Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who also wore the hat of foreign minister, liked the name Chanakyapuri, and the matter was swiftly settled.
That young IFS officer went on to become one of India’s most respected foreign secretaries, from 1982 to 1985.
MK Rasgotra is still with us. Sprightly and energetic, you would not know that he is now 97. He lives in a modest-size bungalow that happens to be the most elegant residence in Vasant Vihar.
New Delhi has one of the nicest diplomatic enclaves in the world because it was built from scratch. Older capitals like London, Moscow and Paris did not have that luxury. Shantipath, the central vista in Chanakyapuri, is one the widest roads in the country with trees and attractive low-rise buildings on both sides. It reminds one of the boulevards of Europe. The enclave is an oasis of greenery and open spaces in an otherwise congested Delhi.
Fortuitously, Nehru encouraged countries to build their embassies as models of their own architectural practices. It was a challenge that a number of countries took up with enthusiasm. One of the few that have been designed by an Indian is the Belgium Embassy. The late Satish Gujral was responsible for it.
China got itself the largest compound. Old-timers will remember that those were the days of “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai”! The departing reigning power, Britain, too, took a similar size plot across the road, but decided to sell part of it to the Holy See (the Vatican) and Norway. I have no idea whether or not “the nation of shopkeepers” made a profit on the deal! The residences for the junior staff in the British compound seem to have been modelled along the lines of the subsidised council houses in London, functional and mundane.
The US Embassy was the work of Edward Durell Stone, professor of architecture at Yale University, who had designed Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center in New York. He took his inspiration, unwisely, from the architecture of the Mughal period, marble and lattice. The building is quite ugly. The French Embassy next door, too, would not win any prizes.
There is a consensus among connoisseurs of such things that the most elegant building in Chanakyapuri is that of Finland, designed by a husband-and-wife team, Reima and Raili Pietilä. The couple wanted the building to be very Finnish, an extension of the country’s national identity to New Delhi. They had earlier designed the Finnish pavilion at the Brussels World Fair, and subsequently, the official residence of the country’s president. In proportion to the size of its population, Finland has produced more great architects than any other country.
The development of Chanakyapuri began in 1949 and it was the first major extension of the new city beyond Lutyens’ Delhi. At last count, New Delhi had 152 resident diplomatic missions, more than Moscow, though less than Washington and London. Most of these are in Chanakyapuri, spread over a thousand acres of land that includes schools, parks, hospitals as well as residences
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The Swedish Embassy next door also has its admirers. It came up at the time when Alva Myrdal was ambassador in New Delhi, and she insisted that the building should be no higher than the trees in the compound. A remarkable woman, she won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1982 while her husband, Gunnar, had won the Nobel for Economics in 1974. Surprisingly, the Embassy of Norway, the other Nordic country, is quite nondescript. Mercifully, it is tucked away in a far corner.
The Embassy of Japan is a modest establishment. After its defeat in 1945, Japan went into depression and also lacked financial resources. West Germany had suffered the same fate. The two former Axis powers are next to each other on the main drag, Shantipath. East Germany, the Soviet-controlled dictatorship incongruously named German Democratic Republic, had a plot of its own until the country went off the map in 1990 when it reunited with the other Germany.
Oddly, Afghanistan and Sudan also have plots on the prestigious Shantipath along with the big boys. More understandably, the Pakistan High Commission is also located here.
The development of Chanakyapuri began in 1949 and it was the first major extension of the new city beyond Lutyens’ Delhi. At last count, New Delhi had 152 resident diplomatic missions, more than Moscow, though less than Washington and London. Most of these are in Chanakyapuri, spread over a thousand acres of land that includes schools, parks, hospitals as well as residences.
Many of these Delhi-based missions are also accredited to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Pakistan does not allow representation from New Delhi. Its ego is bruised when a country establishes an embassy here but not one in Islamabad.
Delhi’s socialites crave invitations to embassy dinners. Those from the Western countries are preferred to those from Third World countries. One eats a lot of chicken at these soirées since beef and pork are never served to guests for obvious reasons.
You accept invitations at your own peril. One is seated at one long table with the host and hostess in the middle or at the two ends. You might find yourself next to the spouse of a foreign service functionary or someone doing business with the country. The person will struggle with a fork and knife, incapable of small talk and impatient to go home!
Since there is no more space in Chanakyapuri, the new missions are compelled to operate from elsewhere. Houses in Vasant Vihar and Shantiniketan are popular locations since they are close to the two international schools and the Government offices.
Four years ago, the Cabinet approved plans for building a second diplomatic enclave in Dwarka, a colony beyond the airport. Eighty acres of land has been set aside for this purpose, but there is little enthusiasm for moving out that far. This being Delhi, the Government’s land
acquisition is mired in litigation.