Delhi, the fields beneath… Narayani Gupta

How exactly does ‘urbanisation’ happen?  What happens to what was there before?  If planning is haphazard and infrastructure lags how can these issues be dealt with later?  Can we compare this process across continents?  And how might things have turned out otherwise?  Professor Narayani Gupta’s talk on the history of urbanisation in Delhi and London, highlighted Delhi’s ‘urban villages’, among other things, as offering a unique perspective on these problems

Prof. Gupta was talking as part of the Nehru Memorial Library’s Cities in History series hosted by Janaki Nair.  Gupta’s Delhi between Empires is one of my favourite books on the city and the talk demonstrated that sharp intelligence, erudition and capacity to inspire in abundance.  These are my notes from the talk which don’t do it justice but are better than nothing.  Hopefully NML will make the video of the event available online before too long!

The talk’s title is taken from a 1980 book by Gillian Tindall on Camden Town, The Fields Beneath (now also the quite appropriate name of a trendy coffee bar).  I’ve read Tindall’s history of Bombay but didn’t know she’s worked on London.  Tindall’s interest in peri-urban sites ‘away from the more interesting places’ still feels very contemporary.

It is apparently impossible to get a contour map of Delhi!  The ridge, where the Aravalis enter Delhi is around 500 foot high and 3 miles wide.  Some of this height must have been lost, as an illustration from some British sketches of the ridge at Qutab Minar in 1780 shows it as two to three stories high.

Gupta describes the cities of Delhi as generally occupying a triangular space between the ridge, the river and the plains to the south.  She noted that London gained it’s charter in 1075 and that the Delhi sultanate started in 1192.

Delhi’s seven cities would be better called citadels as the boundaries of their surrounding towns have never been determined.  Very little information has been preserved from before Shahjahanabad.  Most progress was likely made in the 14th Century.  Delhi’s city of that time, Tughlaqabad, is described as reaching from Mehrauli to Daryaganj through a landscape of dams, fields and gardens.  There were also said to be qushq (क़ुशक़ / قشق ) or hunting lodges in a number of locations.  At this time London too was surrounded by tenant farmers.

The medieval governance of both London and Delhi was a negotiated power sharing between sovereigns, feudal lords, and to a very lesser extent the ruled.  By the 16th Century Queen Elizabeth was introducing restrictions on building, however 16th Century Delhi is described as a vast, deserted ruin.  With the decline of the Delhi Sultanate these were times of war and raiding for north India, consequently many urban villages are centred around protected monuments, as Gujjar and Jat communities used them both for keeping cattle and for protection in times of war or raids.  Barbur arriving from Afghanistan was struck by the difference in what he saw to Timur‘s earlier impressions of the area.  Barbur’s views on water in north India at this time have been published and are available.  Barbur noted that the people in north India were ‘able to shift towns in a day’, packing everything up and moving to a new site.  He noted that the area was ‘greatly wanting in charm’, and that the people lived behind thorny plants and refused to pay taxes!  His writings also record the lack of water and the use of tanks and wells.  The earlier system of canals had collapsed without a strong central government to maintain it.  Barbur viewed Delhi as a sacred city – this theme of urban sacred geographies was to continue – the relationship between sacred geographies (past and present) and urban development seems rich ground for further work.

– [In London for example, while the Thames was earlier worshiped, with Christianity crosses were erected at four grounds around the city, later becoming infrastructure hubs of Kings Cross and Charing Cross.  Similarly the London skyline and view corridors around St Pauls still exert a powerful influence on real estate developments…] –

Baoli at Nizamuddin

Political status inverse to productivity of fields?

By the end of the 19th Century Delhi was highly fruitful and produced food in abundance for the common people.  While London in the 1660’s was being redesigned by Wren, Mughal architects don’t seem to have worked at the city scale.   Mausoleums, havelis, gardens, but not districts or cities.

– [There was a recurrent theme of _lack_ in the Delhi-London comparison that I found confusing/troubling.] –

In 1696 Ali ? Khan developed a water system.  Petra Choli.

The core of Shahjahanabad was safe and zamindari grants were given to nobles and rajas.  In the 19th Century the Scottish and British residents Octorlony, Fraser, Metcalfe and Rao acquired territories in what would have been rural Delhi.

Used to be a wall across south Delhi but not much was left of the Mughal wall.  Afghans, Moghuls, Marathas causing trouble – in 17th Century walls again go up – around Chirag Dilli and Hazrat Nizamuddin, for example.  At the same time Britain was engaged in a 20 years war with France but London was not troubled by the same level of conflict.

Capillary building in London along arterial roads.  1774 a buildings law was passed to stop individual houses becoming to individualistic!  By 1800 London was expanding outwards into Somerstown and the East End (where rural origins are still apparent in many place names).  By 1820 (London) and 1807 (Delhi) both towns were at peace – Pax Brittanica.

Debate about heritage – aesthetic versus monetary value.  In UK political economy of conservation and house prices protects architecture, in India this link doesn’t seem to have been made yet.  Similarly re names of areas, while UK harks back to past, India seems keen to move forward – with the exception of the independence struggle.


More later…