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Last Updated: Monday, 21 January 2008, 10:00 GMT
Where statues go to die
Toppled statues - Lenin, Saddam, Stalin

By David Cannadine

Statues to the mighty are erected as permanent monuments. But those regarded as heroes by one political regime are often denounced as villains by the next, their statues left unloved or toppled and carted off to the wilderness.

Whenever I get my hands on a copy of the newspaper that my American friends persist in calling the London Times, I almost invariably turn first of all to the obituary pages and the death notices. This is partly to satisfy myself that I'm still here, but I do so primarily to read about the lives and careers of the recently-deceased, and to find out the age at which they actually passed on.

As I get older, this becomes an increasingly significant (and discouraging) consideration, and I suspect I'm far from being alone in finding this to be so. Chris Patten once remarked that when he read the obituary pages, he always averaged out the ages of those whose deaths were reported, and then he subtracted his own accumulated years from the figure he had calculated, so as to get a rough idea of how much time and how many years he himself had got left to go.

Truly, I felt, this was the final graveyard of the British Empire

Earlier this month, on 2 January to be precise, the Times printed an obituary of a remarkable and unusual man named Nigel Bathurst Hankin. It was nothing like the extended treatment recently lavished on Benazir Bhutto or which Sir Edmund Hillary has just received, I doubt if many readers of the Times would even have heard of him, and Hankin had lived most of his long life abroad, in India, where he had died last November at the age of 87.

But I remember him vividly as I was fortunate enough to meet him about five years ago.

Nigel Hankin had been born in England and brought up by his grandmother in Bexhill. He had served in the British army during the Second World War, and he told me that he had fought in north Africa. From there, he was transferred to India, en route to Burma, in 1945. But the war ended before he got beyond Bombay, and two years later, India was independent.

Nigel Hankin
The late Nigel Hankin, atop of a 'baoli', a deep-cut well in New Delhi
But Hankin had fallen in love with the country, and unlike many British civil servants and military men, he resolved to stay on, joining the newly-established Indian army as a captain. He later ran a mobile cinema, and then worked for the British High Commission, where he would show diplomats and visitors the sights of what he would call "working Delhi", as distinct from "tourists' Delhi".

During the 1960s, he began work on a glossary of Indian English, which he eventually published in 1992, under the far from brief title of Hanklyn-Janklin: A Stranger's Rumble-Tumble Guide to Some Words, Customs and Quiddities, Indian and Indo-British. Here one can learn that a female educator is a "teachress", that a young man who whistles at a woman is an "eve-teaser", and that an "ear cleaner" is an "urban itinerant professional gentleman identified by his small red turban into which are tucked his instruments: tweezers, probes and buds of cotton wool".

Hankin who never married was fascinated by Indian life, and he never considered returning to Britain. He came back in 1982 to visit his brother, but he found the place so dull that he returned to India after only three months. When asked why his native land failed to lure him back, his reply was cryptic and revealing: he "missed the chaos".

Yet although Hankin learned the local languages, and was well known in the streets and markets of "working Delhi", he never assimilated into the Indian way of life, but always remained a detached (though sympathetic) observer. Although he'd lived in the country for more than 60 years, he always breakfasted on cornflakes, eggs and bacon, which were brought to him by his devoted man servant, and his dinner invariably began with soup.

Earthly power is transient, and that imperial dominion is ephemeral.
David Cannadine
I met Nigel Hankin early in 2003, when my wife and I were visiting New Delhi. I was merely a tourist, but my wife was there to gather material for a lecture she had to deliver later that year in London, which explored the similarities and the differences between the political cultures of India and Pakistan, as they had evolved since 1947 out of Britain's partitioned Indian Empire.

In one terrible way, their politics have developed along similar lines (across the last half century): dynastic leadership and hereditary power, modified by murder and assassination, as the killing of Benazir Bhutto has recently reminded us. But in other ways, India and Pakistan are very different countries, with very different politics: in India, the military is subordinate to a thriving and disputatious democracy; in Pakistan, it is very much the other way round.

Like many visitors to Delhi, my wife and I were taken on a tour by Nigel Hankin. He didn't bother with the obvious sights, such as the Red Fort or the great palace Sir Edwin Lutyens had designed, which had once been known as Viceroy's House. Nor did we spend time navigating the wide avenues and enormous roundabouts that are so characteristic of New Delhi, and which invariably remind western visitors of the layouts of Paris or Washington.

Instead, Hankin took us to the unprepossessing house where Indira Gandhi had lived - and died - while she was Prime Minister, and we even stood in the garden, on the very spot where some members of her bodyguard had struck her down. And then we went off to Delhi's wholesale market, where we made our way through the dingy alleys and jostling crowds to the stalls where powerful herbs and eye-watering spices were being sold, and we emerged, coughing, wheezing, spluttering and most impressed, into the sunlight outside.

Dehli market
'We made our way to the stalls where eye-watering spices are sold'
But Nigel Hankin hadn't done with us yet. Over lunch, I happened to mention that one of my historical interests was imperial ritual and ceremonial, and that afternoon, we were borne off to a large open space, on the edge of Delhi, which had been the setting for the great Durbar, or "imperial assemblage" of 1877, when the British Viceroy, Lord Lytton, had proclaimed Queen Victoria to be Empress of India.

A quarter of a century later, in 1903, Lord Curzon staged an even more stupendous Durbar on the very same spot, to proclaim King Edward VII Emperor of India; and the climax of such imperial pomp and circumstance came in December 1911, when King George V and Queen Mary appeared in person to be crowned as Emperor and Empress - an extraordinary extravaganza that was caught on film, some of which was shown as the opening sequence of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, when it was televised as The Jewel in the Crown.

This was the place in which my wife and I now found ourselves, on a hot January afternoon, guided there by Nigel Hankin. But although he showed us photographs of viceroys and ruling princes and richly caparisoned elephants, it was almost impossible to imagine that this neglected, overgrown, obscure piece of ground had once been the setting for such confident display and colourful spectaculars. On the contrary, it conveyed the very opposite message: that earthly power is transient, and that imperial dominion is ephemeral. And as we followed Hankin, through the weeds and undergrowth, to the remotest part of the site, we came upon a most astonishing scene: a dozen immense statues, rising up from the bushes and the brambles, like the chessmen arrayed for that terrifying contest towards the end of the first Harry Potter film.

It took only the briefest of inspections to establish who these men were: many of them had been British Viceroys, among them Lord Halifax and Lord Willingdon, and there was also a statue of the King-Emperor George V himself who, like the Viceroys who had represented him, was clad in full imperial fig. Originally, these statues had been placed on the traffic islands where the great avenues of New Delhi had intersected, or at the end point of some appropriately grand imperial vista.

Delhi Durbar
Edward VII's Coronation Durbar, 1903, in Delhi.
But following Indian independence, these symbols of imperial rule were no longer deemed acceptable, and they were banished to this obscure and distant setting where I happened upon them: a job-lot of statues of superannuated imperial personages, forgotten, unloved and un-cared-for, whom no one in free, democratic India wanted to see any more as they drove or walked along the streets of New Delhi. Truly, I felt, this was the final graveyard of the British Empire.

The statues I encountered on that hot and dusty Indian afternoon had been placed by the British in New Delhi to be permanent monuments to men whose lives and deeds they deemed worthy of everlasting commemoration. But in India as elsewhere, those who are regarded as exemplary heroes by one political regime are often derided and denounced as villains and aliens in the next; and this is especially so when empires fall, and when dictators are vanquished.

Following the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and in Russia, statues of Marx and Lenin were toppled and felled from their podiums, and consigned to dismembered oblivion. And when American forces captured Baghdad in April 2003, some of the most graphic and symbolic images that made the news were of US marines and Iraqis tearing down a forty foot statue of Saddam Hussein. As these examples suggest, such visible forms of commemoration are no guarantee of immortality. Instead of yearning for a statue, it's probably better to settle for an obituary in the London Times.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I also recall going on a fascinating visit around Delhi led by Nigel Hankin in 1989, at a time when I was living and working in Nepal. The tour included a visit to the site of the 1911 Delhi Durbar with its discarded statues including the massive statue of George V that had previously stood atop a plinth on Kings Way, now Raj Path, near New Delhi's India Gate. Nigel's analysis of the "statue graveyard" differed somewhat from the conclusions drawn by David Cannadine. Whilst it's true that the site outside Delhi contains many statues, it also has many more empty plinths, prepared in expectation that unwanted statues from all over newly independent India would soon be making their way there. However, Nigel was quick to point out that many Indian towns and cities actually felt rather affectionately disposed towards their rather bombastic imperial relics and were reluctant to be relieved of them. Hence the empty plinths in New Delhi, and the numerous imperial statues that remain in their original locations around India.
Gareth Wardell, Selby, North Yorkshire, UK.

What a fascinating article. It reminded me of one of my highlights of Budapest - their fabulous statue park, where astride a hill above the city all the former Soviet statues are collected. Period music plays and you are free to sit on the feet of Stalin. The best bit has to be the housing estate around the park - what an eerie way to wake up, draw the curtains and look out on Lenin saluting you.
Vicki, London, UK

I met Nigel Hankin on a trip to Delhi in 1999. He was a very special person who brought Delhi alive. Once off the tourist trail India is an intriguing place you have to go back again and again. Nigel's tour into the Old Delhi markets was the catalyst for me.
Bob Pritchard, Brockham Surrey

The sight of a statue of Lord Willingdon would look well here in north Burnaby where a main street is Willingdon Avenue, and is about to be widened in 2008. Is the actual statue available/transported to us on the west coast of Canada ? What about the unwanted statues et al in the Indian city ? All emails will be promptly answered. .
Peter Dickinson-Starkey, British Columbia, Canada.

Kolkata still has quite few Statues relating to the British Raj. Maybe the big one Of Victoria, Empress of India is too big to remove!! One day the Indians will regret they have lost this touch with the past when the statues have withered away
Geoff Allen, Hamilton New Zealand

The Fremont District of Seattle, Washington, USA, has a statue of Lenin, standing amongst symbology of flames and guns, brought over from Russia by a U.S. Citizen who saved it from the scrap heap. It has become a local art piece of social capital. It is worth a drop by and a look see.
Jay Gorrendsun, Seattle, USA

I would like to dispute the following in your otherwise excellent column: 1. "In one terrible way, their politics have developed along similar lines (across the last half century): dynastic leadership and hereditary power, modified by murder and assassination, as the killing of Benazir Bhutto has recently reminded us." While it is true that both Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv were assassinated and Shastri's death in Tashkent is considered mysterious, Indian political scene cannot be described as something "modified by murder and assassination". Now there are good reasons as to why India and Pakistan went on to such different political trajectories, not the least of which is an early death of Jinnah, and the long stable leftist statist tenure of Nehru.
2. "Like many visitors to Delhi, my wife and I were taken on a tour by Nigel Hankin." - obviously the phrasing "many" really is limited to posh British tourists.
3. Your wording here seems almost too empathetic, too guileless, and too nostalgic. "But in India as elsewhere, those who are regarded as exemplary heroes by one political regime are often derided and denounced as villains and aliens in the next; and this is especially so when empires fall, and when dictators are vanquished." It seems to imply that derision is simply a function of regime change. I know it is hard for you to believe but Britain really led a deeply pernicious economic regime in India which led to the deaths of millions - yes millions - of small farmers. By being a trading monopoly it dictated artificially low prices, mandating cultivation of Indigo at expense of food crops led to repetitive starvation as money from Indigo -courtesy trading was meagre, and by levying exorbitant taxes -it introduced deep impoverishment. India wasn't always as poor and it is important to keep that in mind. Secondly, the scars from the program of divide and rule are still being felt in India. There is of course more. While you are wonderfully empathetic to your own mortality and the statues of rapacious dictators- it would do you good to be empathetic to the untold misery of many who died with that obituary in London Times.
Spin, CA, USA

This story took a fascinating point of view and opened up the faults of our human lust for power in the crumbling statues of the past. His incorporation of modern day Indian culture with the stories of its past show how the world is evolving and leaving the sores of history behind it. By tying together his first person account of India to his everyday routine in England we too can find how we fit into this world of power that is forever changing and shaping the global community.
Sommer Ann McCullough, St. Charles, IL USA

I lived for 9 years close to the park where the statues are. I may add, had it not been for the paramilitary garrison camping close to the park, the remaining statues would have gone to be used as marble in the people's houses. David would have noticed the many empty pedestals there. Also, a tall stone monument does sit there. Perhaps it can help the kings and leaders realise that using public money for stone in monuments is better than using marble. It might help their legacy to continue for more years and would save us ordinary folks some money.
Rohitesh Sharma, Campbell CA US

It is grotesque to equate tyrants such as Stalin, Lenin, Saddam or Hitler, responsible for the systematic extermination of close to 70 million individuals with British Viceroys of India. That your writer does so is more of a reflection of current British education, of which your writer is a product, than of historical balance. It is the Indian elite, a failed and shameless institution, that has contempt for the Raj; ordinary Indians have a nuanced opinion for an age when they lived under a rule of law, were treated by respect and kindness. So much so that 1.8 million took up arms, and sacrificed their lives, to defend the British in WWII. It was the Raj that introduced concepts of citizenship, rule of law, rulers elected by citizens and accountable to them - concepts of modernity utterly alien to pre-Raj Indian culture.
Munawar Karim, Fairport, NY

I suppose it is human nature to desire immortality. Many people long for this, unattainable as it is, and I know some who actually fear the thought of not being remembered once they pass on. The usual method of signifying a great person's life is to bury them with a tombstone commemorating how special they were to the people who knew them. However, few people are so well-known that they become immortalised forever, and if so, they very rarely have a statue. And those that do have a celebratory statue will certainly not have erected it themselves. Going with the India theme, Mahatma Gandhi has a statue commemorating his life and work. It is placed outside his museum, and was erected by his followers and the people who loved him. Indian culture often portrays honourable figures in statue form - Hinduism uses idols as a major form of constantly reminding its believers of the gods they believe in and worship. I believe immortalisation works better through word of mouth passed from generation to generation, rather than by seeing a carved image of someone you never knew. That kind of commemoration is neither interesting nor potent and over time it becomes a waste of space and materials. No wonder these things get swept under the proverbial carpet.
Sophie, Manchester, Britain

Interesting article. I visited Lithuania a few years ago, they have a theme park dedicated to statues of their former Soviet leaders. It is a very interesting tongue in cheek take on what to do with fallen. In the end, those who crave immortality through the construction of statues are the ones who never really had goodwill as a principle. They fatally seek self-aggrandisement through lifeless concrete. Immortality is achieved, not by imposition, but by conciliation and goodness and humility and simplicity. Then, and only then, can anyone perpetrate one's legacy in the mind of people. And to live in the heart of the beloved is not to die...
Victor Osa-Asemota, Madrid, Spain

I was glad to be able to share Prof David Cannadine's "Point of View" in text with my family who had missed the broadcast. Thank you all. We found his comments on 'intimations of immortality" fascinating and it reminded us of our own encounters with the changing parade of statues and monuments in Zimbabwe and Kenya. We are now surfing to find a copy of "Epaminondas". Best wishes, Caroline Thornycroft
Caroline Thornycroft, Frome Somerset UK

Having worked in South India over 45 years ago and travelled to many English speaking countries I have always had an interest in the "Anglosphere", and the use of the various versions of our common language and culture. 0n a visit to New Delhi I obtained a copy of Yule & Burnell's "Hobson-Jobson" 1903 (3rd ed. 1979), and when I heard in 2003 that a new edition of Nigel Hankin's "Hanklyn-Janklyn" had been printed, I ordered a copy which now sits proudly on my bookshelf alongside it's predecessor. This was further emphasised by Dr. Manmohan Singh (PM of India) in his acceptance speech to the University of Oxford 8th July 2005 of his Honorary Degree. We have so much more to share within the "Anglosphere" than toppled statues, but they too, need preserving as part of our common history.
Michael Stamford, Grimsby, England.


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