Category: Toponymics

Capital Toponymics : Radials and the C-Hexagon Mystery

Earlier this year, my colleague picked me up and we set out for a meeting with our client (closest parking to the client’s office was Patel Chowk Metro station (2005, Yellow line, has the Metro Museum)). I had looked up the directions on Google Maps (California), so I told her “Straight on Mathura Road (part of NH2, actually leads to the town of Mathura), then flyover, then turn onto Zakir Hussain, then Ashoka straight-straight-straight”, demonstrating my TN State Board muggu skills wonderfully.

It takes *much* longer than 14 mins, especially if there's a protest against the Land Acquistion Act (2015) on Ashoka Road.

The route on which I caught the C-Hexagon bug.

As we drove past the Delhi Golf Club (1931, 220 acres), she asked if we should text our client an apology, since she was sure we’d run into a fair bit of traffic during that time on the C-Hexagon. “…What’s that? Just get on India Gate like I said and then Ashoka“, I smugly insisted. Silence for a few seconds, and then…”C-Hexagon! C-Hexagon IS India Gate!” she remarked, stunned that I didn’t know that most essential name in Central Delhi’s driving dictionary.

Fear not, my Jamuna Park days are far behind. While it’s impossible to live in Delhi, and not know of India Gate and its radials, I’d never paid attention to the fact that Google Maps famously refers to Delhi’s most famous set of roads with the most soul-sucking, emotionless of names – the C Hexagon.

Really, the number of times I've gone from googling

Why is called C-Hexagon? Why does the upper portion of the hexagon show the name at a certain zoom level while you have to zoom it more to see the C-Hexagon at the lower portion. Why does Google not understand just *how* annoying it can be to not have answers…

My lovely colleague had only been in Delhi a few months (and only in the post-Google Maps era), so she’d gotten used to calling those roads the “C-Hexagon”, while I’d navigated India Gate to travel to Ashoka Road’s most popular landmark – Andhra Bhawan (fronted by statue of stone statue of Tanguturi Prakasam, the first chief minister of Andhra State, serves excellent, unlimited, full-meals for INR 120), every weekend in the pre-Maps era, so of course I only ever thought of it as the India Gate circle (wrongly) and “India Gate ke paas” (rightly).

While this’d make for an interesting post in itself (Capital Toponymics: How Google Maps has changed the way we refer to streets in India), I’m really despondent keen to write about the C-Hexagon, the amount of time I’ve spent trying to read about hexagons, and the radials around the India Gate, of course.

Try this with me: Pull out your smartphone, get on to Google Maps, zoom out to India, and then zoom into New Delhi. As you get closer and closer, and keep zooming into the words New Delhi, you’ll see that the black text turns a dull grey as you hit the limit of the zoom functionality. Where will your fingers rest at this final stage?

Stamps showing Rashtrapati Bhawan, Central Delhi.

Stamps showing Rashtrapati Bhawan, Central Delhi.

At the heart and soul of Delhi’s power, the pinnacle of political might, a stark reminder of the nature of our democracy, at the most visible symbol of the likely crumbling of mighty empires: Your fingers will rest on Raisina Hill (acquired under the “1894 Land Acquisition Act” to begin the construction of the erstwhile Viceroy’s House) on which stands Rashtrapati Bhawan, the secretariats and Parliament of India (4000 acres totally, designed by Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker). Leading to, and surrounding Raisina Hill lie the radials that make up the India Gate arrangement.

Now, to fully understand the import of the India Gate roads, you need to know four facts:

1) Our story begins with this map of Delhi from 1807. As you can see, it bears little resemblance to the Delhi of today. At that time, Akbar II was the Mughal emperor of India, but his reign was largely at an end, and he governed little beyond the Red Fort. After this death, and some minor succession issues, Bahadur Shah Zafar II took over as the Mughal emperor.

Delhi, 1807. Where have all those canals gone now! I use the Nizamuddin marking to identify where India Gate would currently be. Try it yourself!

Delhi, 1807. Where have all those canals gone now! I use the Nizamuddin at the centre-right of the map as a point to try to identify where India Gate would currently be (left and above). Try it yourself!

2) After the failed Revolt of 1857, and the exile of Bahadur Shah Zafar II (road named after him in Central Delhi, following from Tilak Marg), the then British East India Company was abolished and the rule of India passed to Queen Victoria. The capital of the British Raj was then situated in Calcutta, and Delhi continued to exist as a city dominated by Mughal-era architecture, and little else, in what used to be called Shahjahabad.

Delhi, 1893, showing Shajahanabad.

Delhi, 1893, showing Shajahanabad.

3) In 1911, in a surprise announcement, the British announced their decision to shift the capital of the British Raj from Calcutta to Delhi.

The three visual axes of the Raisina Hill complex.

The three visual axes of the Raisina Hill complex.

To facilitate the construction of the residences and goverment buildings required for this purposes, Edward Lutyens was chosen as the head of a team of architects who were charged with building the central administrative area of the city. The architectual slides I’ve relied on are available at this link:

Once Lutyens’ Delhi was close to being finished, the roads and buildings in the areas were named after British Governor-Generals, and architects.

Delhi in 1927.

Delhi in 1927.

4) The India Gate radials, and most roads in Central Delhi, had their names changed around the time of India’s independence. The changed names likely were chosen to reflect the names of popular freedom fighters, and notable figures in India’s history (except Copernicus!!). There is, as far as I can tell, no clear record of when and how these names were changed and neither is there evidence as to the method of choosing names for each of the radials in particular.If I had to wager on the method, I’d stick with an executive order that changed names, though I haven’t searched the legislative archives as closely as I should. These are the specific name-changes that have occurred, though I’ve found no official record of the change, as such.

Radial Earlier Why chosen
Zakir Hussain Marg Wellesley Road Perhaps to commemorate Dr. Zakir Hussain, educator, freedom fighter, and first Muslim President of India.
Shahjahan Road Originally chosen by Edward Lutyens Perhaps to commemorate Shahjahanabad, which housed the later Mughal emperors. If this is the case, then it should have been the current Tilak Marg which should have been named Shahjahan Road.
Akbar Road Originally chosen by Edward Lutyens No particular reason I can think of except for his historical significance.
Ashoka Road Originally chosen by Edward Lutyens No particular reason I can think of except for his historical significance.
Kasturba Gandhi Marg Curzon Road Perhaps picked to honour her work as a freedom fighter, and as the spouse of Gandhi.
Copernicus Marg Lytton Road I have no idea why we have a Copernicus Marg in India. There is, as far as I can tell, no Copernicus connection to India, and I can’t find a specific mention of his work or his theories in any books on Indian history. This is a mystery to me.
Tilak Marg Hardinge Road There is no clear reason as to why Tilak was honoured with a name on the radial, except perhaps for the fact that he died before independence.
Purana Qila Road Originally chosen by Edward Lutyens Perhaps named for the Purana Qila which lies at the one end of the road, and is the oldest fort among all forts in Delhi, and apparently the oldest known structure of any type in Delhi.
Sher Shah Road Originally chosen by Edward Lutyens Perhaps named for the Sher Shah Suri Gate, the South Gate to Shergarh, which lies opposite the Purana Qila complex.

Looking at all the names of the radials, I’ve surmised that they were named after deceased persons, either because of their history or their contribution to the freedom struggle. The one piece of evidence I have regarding the timing of the name-change, is that they took place between 1948 and 1964.  It is clear that the names had not been changed until after the death of Gandhi in 1948, and definitely by the time of Nehru’s death in 1964, as seen from these extracts from Google Book searches that describes each funeral routes. Note however, that Dr. Zakir Hussain died in 1967, so its likely that Zakir Hussain Marg was renamed sometime *after* 1967. For all others, I see no reason to doubt the assertion that their names were changed pre Nehru’s death in 1964.

Gandhi's Funeral Procession Route - 2

Nehru funeral procession route

In any event, I’m sure the knowledge is buried deep in the annals of a book in some library somewhere, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to find answers to the Copernicus/ Kasturba question anytime soon. 😦

So in summary:

1) There’s no articulated reason for re-naming the roads after independence.

2) There’s no logic to the arrangement of the names – except for Sher Shar Road and Purana Qila Road. Similarly  Shahjahan Road should ideally have taken the place of Tilak Marg, given that the latter leads directly to erstwhile Shahjahanabad.

3) I can’t think of a reason why Kasturba Gandhi gets a road, and why Rani Lakshmi Bai doesn’t (the former died closer to independence that the latter). If they weren’t going for the token woman, I can’t imagine why this particular person was chosen to be honoured. Similarly I don’t see the reason for choosing Copernicus as a means of honouring scientific spirit. I can only imagine the person in charge of choosing the name had a fondness for the first articulator of the heliocentric model.

4) There isn’t a definite place to look to find the exact timings of the name-changes of roads. I’m assuming the capital’s post-office probably has details, but none available for the layperson to satisfy her curiosity.

Here's an interesting fact:

The National Library of India in Kolkata, is the largest library in India by volume and India’s library of public record.

As an aside, not only roads, but buildings, and even libraries had to have their name changed.

Pandara Road, famous now for its north-indian food restaurants, was perhaps named for a 'Vanniar' caste Tamil chieftain from Sri Lanka - Pandara Vanniyan.

Pandara Road, famous now for its north-indian food restaurants, was perhaps named for a ‘Vanniar’ caste Tamil chieftain from Sri Lanka – Pandara Vanniyan.

As a further aside, though Pandara Road (between Zakir Hussain Marg and Shahjahan Road) is now famous mostly for its excellent north-indian restaurants Lutyens probably named the road in honour of Pandara Vanniyan (a Tamil ‘vanniar’ caste chieftain who fought the British in Sri Lanka)!

II. The C-Hexagon Mystery

So as ycu can imagine, from the time I learnt of C-Hexagon’s existence, I’ve tried to find out why *that* name has been given to the road arrangement. As you’ll see from the below images, Lutyen’s Delhi was to be an arrangement of hexagons, with the India Gate / War Memorial being at the centre of it all. One obvious answer is of course that the C-Hexagon refers simply to the “Central Hexagon”.

Taken from here:

Hexagons in Central Delhi’s roads.

C for Central.

C for Central.

I have some wild suggestions as to what the “C” could refer to (Core, Constant, Commonwealth, Capital), and give me a couple of hours with a thesarus and I could come up with more.

None of these theories, however, explain the logical reason behind the name “C-Hexagon”, and I can’t find any mention of this phrase in websites and blogs that refer to Lutyen’s plans for Delhi, as well in in maps of Delhi from a couple of decades ago.

More interestingly, I’m not actually certain which authority publishes the definite / official map of Delhi (perhaps the Survey of India) but their map of the NCT Delhi wrongly labels India Gate as Connaught Place, so I’m not certain these are the folks to rely on. See: Survey of India, Map of NCT Delhi, 2012 (I can’t seem to be able to insert the actual map, except as a screenshot below).

Seriously, even I know better.

You had ONE job, Survey of India.

In any case – the C-Hexagon is bound to remain a mystery unless some enterprising reader can reach out to pals at Google Maps and ask them for an explanation, until which day I will continue to remain puzzled by it everytime I drive by, as hopefully, will you.