The Indians who built New Delhi

Teja Singh Malik was among the most prominent Indian engineers


KHUSHWANT SINGH has written about the Indians who had sensed the opportunities that the ‘capital shift’ from Calcutta to Delhi would bring. They joined the exercise as contractors, architects and engineers.

Among them were Khushwant’s ancestors, whom he describes as experienced businessmen who went on to become the first residents of the new capital.

The British, Khushwant wrote in a newspaper article, gave them due credit by inscribing their names on stone slabs in the alcoves of South and North Blocks.

The South Block, he wrote, has five names starting with his father, Sobha Singh, and the North Block has a list of architects and engineers including his father-in-law, Teja Singh Malik, who was the first Indian head of the central public works department.

Khushwant, however, complained that the Indians who built the new capital have largely remained unsung, with governments in independent India not doing much to remember them.

In his book Not a Nice Man to Know, he writes that his ancestors had land in Shahpur district of Punjab and that they had worked on constructing railway lines in Punjab, including the Kalka-Shimla railway line. Sobha Singh’s first contract in Delhi was to level the land for Dilli Durbar. It was said that he controlled so much land in the city that he was called “aadhi Dilli ka malik (owner of half of Dilli)”. He went on to construct some of the capital’s iconic buildings, such as South Block, the All India House, Scindia House, Regal Building and a number of blocks in Connaught Place. He was knighted by the British.

Teja Singh Malik was among the most prominent Indian engineers. He, too, was knighted for his services. Like Khushwant’s kin, there were many others who left their homes in Punjab and came to Delhi looking for opportunities in the new capital. Baisakha Singh was the contractor for North Block and also some of the official and private residences. Narain Singh was part of the team that made arrangements for the Coronation Durbar and laid the roads. Dharam Singh got the contract to supply stone for the project from the quarries in Dholpur, Agra and other places. Lachhman Das, who was from Sindh, worked on the Council House, which later became the Parliament.

There was also Seth Haroun al-Rashid from Karachi, who largely worked on the Government House, which later became the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Malvika Singh, married to Sobha Singh’s grandson, writes in her book New Delhi: Making of a Capital, that over the 17 years it took to complete the project, these pioneering men amassed huge fortunes and became the first families of New Delhi.