Delhi, the Forever City



All cities are irregular patchwork quilts, stitched together by history, by policy decisions, by community initiatives. Delhi is representative of many Indian towns. A fragment of it enfolds the magnificent sixteenth century garden-tomb of Humayun, flanked by an expanse of green that served as a nursery a hundred years ago for plant and tree species to be used for British New Delhi, and by a quiet upper-class neighbourhood. Across a highway is an 800-year-old settlement around the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya, Delhi’s patron saint, visited by thousands throughout the year, and bordered by a vintage canal.

Only 28 per cent of the population of India is urban, but in 2011 urban dwellers resided in over 1,600 cities, of which 53 had populations above 1 million. Mumbai is home to 18 million people and Delhi 16 million. A century ago, Delhi’s population was only 200,000!

Many site names are a millennium old, and there are material remains from the twelfth century. The ‘city beautiful’ is described in terms of landscapes, sociability and cultural expression in epics from the fourth century, and again in accounts of cities founded by Islamic rulers, who blended West and South Asian traditions. The pride of the craftspeople resulted in enduring works of architecture, and the skill of the engineers can still be seen in the water channels they created.

European colonial towns on the coast began as fortified settlements, then expanded to become open towns with spacious private homes, straight avenues and buildings constructed in the contemporary European neo-classical style. From this point begins the growth of hybrid towns—administrative cities, district headquarters, hill-stations—a concept invented in mid-nineteenth century India. Such towns contained formal areas for transitory British officialdom, neighbourhoods of mansions housing upper-class Indians, and in the interstices, low-rise and compact neighbourhoods of the middle class and the shanty towns of the poor. Even if the rural poor knew that the streets of these cities were not paved with gold but carpeted with unyielding tar, they were seen as potential shelter and observation points, from which all manner of livelihoods could be conjured up to keep hunger at bay. The city beautiful was often crowded by starving immigrants driven there by famine or unemployment. As wheeled transportation increased, thoroughfares became chaotic, with pavements occupied by the poor, by movements of people increasingly distanced from their places of work, by the impatience that is a manifestation of perceived social superiority. Dickens would have seen the resemblance to industrializing Britain.

What a difference between the European port towns and the inland ones! These had vestiges of the past, some in ruins, others in astonishingly sparkling condition, some deserted, some occupied. The scale of the markets and mohullas (inward-looking neighbourhoods) was human; there were pleasant gathering-points at platforms around banyan trees and at wells. British political control was indicated on the map by ragged red patches interspersed with 600 ‘native states’, which escaped conquest thanks to prudent, self-restraining decisions made after the 1857 Uprising and harsh countermeasures. As tourism began to develop in the late nineteenth century, these states—in Saurashtra (now part of Gujarat), Rajputana (now Rajasthan), the Himalayan kingdoms, Hyderabad and Mysore—became the most popular destinations.

Perhaps the most visited city in British India was Delhi. Few towns have been described in as many languages, in almost anthropomorphic terms, in poetry and prose, sketched and painted, as Delhi in the days of the great Mughals, in its years of misfortune in the eighteenth century, in the calmer decades of the early nineteenth century and during the Uprising of 1857. Such anger at the rebels’ ‘disloyalty’ followed the Uprising that much of Delhi’s Mughal citadel was deliberately destroyed, and more destruction would have occurred but for the Viceroy’s intervention.

Soon after, a combination of a conciliatory policy and the anxiety to map the historic architecture of the country led to the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861. Delhi—a compact seventeenth century city—was surrounded by 45 square miles of fields thickly dotted with the ruins of earlier capitals, which were favourite picnic spots for transient British officials. The comparison with Rome was frequently invoked, as was the spirit of Rose Macaulay’s descriptions of ruins. Twenty-first century Delhi encloses these 45 square miles and stretches beyond. The example of Delhi can help us understand the Indian urban predicament, as well as the sense of fulfilment, in fitting modern towns in and around historic areas.

Delhi changed more after 1912 than ever before. Two demands were made on it simultaneously: that all India government institutions be celebrated through monumental architecture; and that the countryside south of the existing city be transfomed into the new capital of the British empire. This new town would be meticulously designed in terms of regional planning and sanitation, with airier dwellings and carefully chosen avenue trees—a model city of which the ancient Romans would have been proud. Edwin Lutyens was commissioned to do both, in the light of his impressive record of designing celebratory architecture and garden suburbs.

The extremes of climate were softened by the skillful use of water channels, appropriate vegetation and breeze-generating avenues. The Public Works Department had an unending series of tasks, however, with government departments proliferating, its personnel needing homes and services, and the compact city unrolling into a sprawling one. Each intervention meant making a choice between alternatives.                

Preserving 800 years of history was the first challenge. In planning the new capital, no Viceroy wanted a riot on his hands because of the accidental bruising of an old shrine or place of worship. A very detailed survey of the land was begun in 1914 and took eight years to complete; its success was evident in the fact that there was no protest about any sacred site being bulldozed. This augured well for the future.

From 1931, New Delhi was inhabited half the year as a winter capital. This generated the image of its antithesis. Delhi became Old Delhi, suggesting a genteel shabbiness in contrast to the whitewashed trimness and uniform lines of tree-lined avenues in New Delhi. But Old Delhi had an atmosphere for which nostalgia grew, from the 1970s, for a gentler way of life and for the mellifluous sound of Urdu, the language shared by India and Pakistan. The older city now was affectionately referred to by its original name, Shahjahanabad. Heritage walk impresarios packaged different aspects of the city’s culture throughout the year to waft the younger generation into a past that was to them a foreign country. The major turn came a decade ago when the new underground railway enabled people from New Delhi to reach the heart of the old city without battling heavy surface traffic. It was another world—lanes and culs-de-sac with evocative names, elusive fragrances and the cadences of Urdu. Heritage hotels and atmospheric restaurants are now confidently multiplying. Gentrification has begun without pitching the local people out of their homes. A second layer of heritage has been overlaid on the older one under the Archaeological Survey’s trusteeship.

The view of ‘heritage’ becomes increasingly clear as the distance grows.  Today, nearly a century after the apprehensions about older ruins, the New Delhi that was then built has itself become the object of care, enumerated and graded to prevent possible destruction. The foray into the verticalization of buildings by developers and speculators was met with cries of protest, and in 1974, an Art Commission was set up on the lines of the one in New York to regulate future buildings. The centre of New Delhi remains open and low-rise, as designed by Lutyens and his team. In fact, after a generation of labelling the work of Lutyens and his associates as hybrid, there has been a steady wave in their favour from the 1980s.

A totally unexpected crisis was the Partition of 1947–48, with a bleak landscape of mansions, echoing with memories of Muslim families who had left hastily for Pakistan, metamorphosing into tiny shelters for dozens of dazed Hindu refugees who set up new markets and new trades. Partition was understood in its anguished detail only by those who suffered, for they chose never to speak of it. Others only understood when survivors or their families wrote about it—50 years after the event. But the sadness of loss seen or remembered did not harden into hatred. The old city became noisier and more aggressive, the peace of the lanes was shattered, but, through all the cacophony, there were echoes of wit and merriment, the old street-cry, the rhyming couplet. Relations beween Dilliwalas that had sedimented over the centuries could not disappear in spite of all the social bouleversements. And though it took decades before the conditions of life improved, improve they did.

Beyond New Delhi, across the Western Ridge east of the Yamuna River, the city expanded, firm in its belief that every inhabitant should have a roof over his or her head. The Delhi Development Authority has a record in Asia for public housing—for government employees from the seniormost to office attendants; for refugees at subsidized rates; and for providing new homes for squatters, to give them a sense of security and optimism and also to remove dismal shanty-housing. Terms from western planning theories were discussed and tried out. These included zoning, ring roads, American-style neighbourhoods, graded housing continuing the imperial tradition, and British green-belt details to soften the city’s edges, which repeatedly became more porous as the city grew and included more villages. The word ‘colony’ was tellingly used as an synonym for ‘neighbourhood’!

Today we can see the last frontier: over 200 villages that have melted into the urban fabric through a curious pattern of land acquisition based on Punjab agrarian laws, where the closely-packed village settlements remained unchanged while their fields were flattened into urban housing estates. This is the last part of the landscape to be seen as heritage—typical north Indian villages, homes built shoulder-to-shoulder, with shady lanes and muted sounds. They are immediate invitations to artistic enterprises and boutiques, interspersed with tiny eateries. The erstwhile farmers became rentiers, letting out rooms to university students. Echoes of Paris faubourgs arose but with the flamboyance of India.

It is all too easy to look underfoot and see that the road to Greater Delhi has been paved with unintelligible official regulations, subversive colonization from below and daring acts by real estate predators. It is equally important, however, on Indian Independence Day, to lift one’s eyes to the clear blue sky, alive with the soaring and dipping of hundreds of kites flown from rooftops in Shahjahanabad, down to the spacious lawns leading out from the iconic President’s House, where dozens of vendors serve street food from all over India, and to wend one’s way at dusk to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, to lose oneself in Sufi music, with words that have echoed down through 800 years, in the fragrance of red roses.