While Lutyens, Baker and their retinue of architects, town planners, contractors and builders were creating the area that was to house the governmental structures of New Delhi, they also had to keep in mind the fact that a large number of British (and Westernised Indian) officials would be moving to this new city. For them, accommodation was already being built—many bungalows that still form Lutyens’s Delhi, for example—but a commercial complex befitting their status would be appropriate too. For a high official to live in New Delhi and have to go to Chandni Chowk to shop would have been inconvenient. And Chandni Chowk and its environs, while the ultimate in exotica, were bereft of much that was fashionable.
What resulted, therefore, was Connaught Place.
The Delhi Town Committee’s Chief Architect, WH Nicholls, was the man who came up with the idea of creating an arcade that would function as a commercial hub for New Delhi. Modelled on the Royal Crescent in Bath (in England), this would be a set of colonnaded buildings, all double-storeyed. The ground floor would house commercial establishments, such as shops, restaurants and cinemas; the first floor would be given over to residences. The land—between Old and New Delhi—for this commercial centre was acquired in 1928; by then Nicholls had left, so his successor, RT Russell (who designed many of the most important residential buildings in Lutyens’s Delhi) was given the task of designing this complex.
Between 1929 and 1934, construction proceeded on the commercial complex. It was named after the Duke of Connaught (who was uncle to King George V, and who had visited Delhi in 1921). Certain changes were made over time to the design of the complex. For example, the seven radial roads that fan out like the spokes of a wheel from the centre of the complex were originally supposed to be covered by archways. This idea was eventually dropped. What remains today is a vast circular area, consisting of two concentric circles of white-painted buildings, which form three distinct sections: the Inner Circle, the Middle Circle, and the Outer Circle (they’re actually officially and popularly known as that too). Between the concentric circles run major roads, which intersect with minor radial roads after every block of buildings.
The first shops—a gentlemen’s tailors, a toyshop, bookshops—began opening in Connaught Place in 1935. In 1932, Connaught Place’s first cinema (Regal, then also a venue for ballet and theatre performances, and concerts) had opened, to be followed a year later by another cinema, Plaza. By the end of the decade, more cinemas: Odeon, Rivoli and the Indian Talkie House—had opened. (Nearly all of these still exist, although they’ve been taken over by big companies and turned into multiplex cinemas).
In the large open space in its centre, Connaught Place originally had the aptly-named Central Park. This is still around, and is occasionally used for concerts and performances of dance and music. More well-known is Palika Bazaar, also in the centre. This is an underground marketplace, crowded with small shops that primarily deal in electronics and DVDs, especially of Indian cinema.
Till a couple of decades ago, Connaught Place was the hub of Delhi’s shopping and restaurants. Today, ever since more malls and markets (Khan Market, Greater Kailash, etc) have mushroomed, the number of people coming to Connaught Place—or CP, as it’s universally known—has fallen. You’ll still find the old restaurants here (including ones dating back to the 40s); you’ll still come across delightful finds in the old bookshops; and Palika Bazaar is the place to go if you’re looking for the DVD of an obscure Hindi film. Plus, there are vendors who sell odds and ends (especially very cheap clothing) in the shelter of the arcades.
Even if you don’t care to come to CP to shop or dine out, it’s worth a visit just for a feel of how so many elements come together in this one space. The white-painted Georgian arcades, with their very colonial arches, are delightfully old world; the plush new office buildings towering behind them are very modern. Thrown into this cocktail is everything from cinema to food (roadside stalls, KFC, Pizza Hut, and CP’s oldest restaurants)—to books, handicrafts, souvenirs, banks, airlines, travel agents, and more. It’s quite an experience.
Note: The official name of Connaught Place is now Rajiv Chowk, after India’s late prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Except for the Delhi Metro (for which the hub is the Rajiv Chowk Metro Station), nobody really refers to it as anything but CP or Connaught Place.