We thought of a series on Delhi that does not talk only of the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad, the Mughalia, aka Mughlai delights and the lip-smacking Chaats of Chandni Chowk or the grand ruins of the seven Delhis and the wide open spaces and broad roads, but a series that also looks at the way Delhi has evolved. We wanted to explore the logic of the city and of the forces that have shaped the idea of the city itself. It was this idea that made us approach people who have engaged with the city with love and care for decades and we requested them to write for Kafila.
This series is titled Dilli hai jiska naam and the links to the previous posts can be found at the end.
This is the seventh post in the series by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
Onion City: Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
Apparitions of different Delhis : A medieval structure engulfed by the expansion of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, 2010 (Photo: Snehanshu Mukherjee)
Delhi often reminds me of an onion. Imperfectly taken apart, many layered, veined, maimed. Its layers are not coherent or visibly bound. Scattered stray wisps forlornly curl at the edges in some corner, many centuries lie bunched together in another. Yet within them lie hidden vapours of many pasts, rising unbidden to sting you into an awareness of a different time.
Celebrated in tradition, song and history, the region of Delhi has been an urban centre almost continuously for more than 3000 years. The legendary epic Mahabharata refers to Indraprastha—the capital of the kingdom of the five Pandavas, each embodying a virtue, and their beautiful wife, Draupadi—on whose site it is said, present-day Delhi sits. The Pandavas lost and won Indraprastha again. And that has been the fate of Delhi through the ages—to be lost and won successively by different rulers. Archaeological fragments and architectural remains of later dynasties, who built their cities here, may still be seen—from those of the Tomars in the eleventh century to the Mughals in the nineteenth century CE—vast palaces, intricate temples, looming gateways, arched bridges, domed mosques and tombs. In actuality each ruler demarcated a portion of land, within the larger area of what is now termed Delhi, as his city. So, effectively, the various cities of Delhi consisted of separate stakes of land with their own city walls, forts and supporting fabric. Sometime these cities encompassed and integrated the older ones. Sometimes they appropriated, ousted or ignored them.
And that has remained the form of Delhi even today. As you move from one part to another, the lack of an identifiable continuity mystifies visitors and residents. How would you describe Delhi to a stranger? Would you talk of the tree-lined broad avenues around India Gate? Or the densely thronged streets of Shahjahanabad, dominated by the Red Fort and a multitude of mosques? Or the fussily flamboyant houses in Greater Kailash, hiding behind high walls? Or the seemingly endless scatter of the DDA walk-up flats and their taller clones? Or the wastelands between? Or within all this, appearing and disappearing as if in a dream, the strange isolated apparitions of former Delhis?
In truth, Delhi is not one, but many cities—shaped by, and resulting in, a unique density of human interaction. The many versions of Venice imagined through the character of Marco Polo by the Italian writer, Italio Calvino in his Invisible Cities, are familiar to most professionals in the field of architecture and urban design. But the different cities of Delhi seem to evade our collective imagination. From tourist brochures to airport signages to government hoardings to its Wikipedia page, we see pictures of either a shiny new Delhi, or a mere handful of Delhi’s historic structures shorn of their context and meaning. This is very different from the reality of Delhi. In effect, such representations are no different from the exaggerated views of the city drawn by British artists just before and after the momentous events of 1857, where the extravagant profusion of flamboyant domes literally turns Delhi into an ‘onion city’.
Stock images of Delhi on its Wikipedia page
An imagined Delhi, with a profusion of onion domes planted on simplified versions of its prominent buildings. (Delhi and surrounding countryside, 1857: A. Maclure, Courtesy: OIOC British Library)
The Postcard Delhi and the Peopled Delhi
Much like the 18th and 19th century foreign visitors who produced postcard images for family, friends or market agents in Europe eager to see the mysterious East, we continue to portray a picture of Delhi primarily meant for advertisement or public relations, which happens to be substantially different from the real one. Indeed, versions of Delhi’s architecture recorded by or for European residents of earlier times, even when accurately rendered, are also similar in other ways to how we regard our city today. For instance, the almost 80 architectural drawings illustrating the Reminiscences of Imperial Dehlie by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, ‘executed by native company artists working to Sir Thomas’s commission’ are almost without exception, only the outside views of grand buildings. When they do include a few internal views, rarely do they depict any activities or people in them. Conversely, the drawings of Indians in the Reminiscences are generally without the context of their architectural background.
This is the postcard view of Delhi—focused on a particular period, reduced to a few dominant forms, and with selective inclusion of people in the frame to provide scale and atmosphere. But the real Delhi lives beyond the façades of its obvious architectural monuments. Beyond the Jantar Mantar, Lal Qila, Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb and Bahai Temple; beyond its obvious historical eras, and beyond the images of the conventionally exotic or the stridently new. In the documents of the life within its architecture, as well as in the many un-documented lived parts of the city. It is through the eyes of its citizens, and through what they have created, that we get multiple views of our city, rather than just a stock image. If we wish to view the real Delhi, to see the complex spatial uses of buildings, gardens and chowks that have contributed to its shared urban experiences—and that we can use to build a shared urban experience and learn from even today—we cannot limit ourselves solely to the outside view or to a single time-frame. We need to turn our lens inwards as well, and take multiple exposures that actively include inhabitants in the frame. Through the many creations that tell us not just about imperial life, grand events and political and administrative landmarks but also the manner in which everyday parts of our city may be used, accessed and adapted by the many people who inhabit it.
These reveal to us that a city can be designed to transform in ways that have overlapping inclusive forms and functions and can be shared by many groups of users, instead of exclusive areas reserved for the aspirations of a few. The writings of even temporary residents to the city, such as Dargah Quli Khan from Hyderabad, who came to Delhi with his patron, Nizam Asaf Jah I, during Emperor Mohammad Shah’s rule (1720-48 CE), give us insights into such collective living aspects. They tell us about jugglers on the streets, hakims in front of the Jama Masjid, expeditions to the temple of Kalika Devi, picnics in baghs. They describe not just visits to grand edifices, but also those to the grave of a local Afghan nobleman, Mir Musharraf, on the celebration of his Urs, amidst aromatic gardens and pavilions, canals and trees. To the forecourt between the Chowk Saadullah Khan and the Red Fort, alive with dancers, story-tellers, astrologers, doctors, dry-fruit sellers, and more. To the shops around the Chowk Chandni selling cloth, gems, perfumes, wine cups, glass huqqas, and china-ware. And to the many coffee-houses amongst these shops patronised by poets.
It is difficult to associate such bustling inclusive activity with the repressive and divided Delhi of today, and therefore to understand that it was its varied, creative and spirited populace which gave the city energy and its unique architectural layers—a fact recognized even by invaders. When the Persian Nadir Shah sacked Delhi in 1739 CE, he not only took the city’s fabled material treasures as booty, but also the hundreds of craftspeople who practiced their trades here. After this plunder, Delhi’s celebrated poet, Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810 CE), in his famous lament of the desolation of Delhi, ‘once a select city in the world’, extolled it as a place ‘where only the chosen lived of every trade’. The Mahabharata describes Indraprastha, perhaps the oldest capital in the Delhi region, as ‘the envy of all Bharata-varsha, for it was a prosperous city with fields and orchards and pastures and markets and river-ports’ and adds that ‘Priests, warriors, farmers, herdsmen and artisans from all over came to make this their new home.’ 
A willingness to accommodate different kinds of people who made it their new home, and the recognition of the value these people lent to the city, gave the past Delhis a sense of kinship. So, this poem sung half a century ago by children, celebrates an association with not just the city’s prominent buildings but also the urban activities that made it beloved. And with the rivers, gardens, orchards and fields that nourished Delhi. Rejoicing in a fresh landmark discovered at the end of each stanza, the poem zooms out from the centre of the city with ease and economy, and the familiarity of a friend.
Ghanta Ghar ki char gharhi,
Charon me zanjir padi.
Jab Ghanta Ghar bajta
Aisa hilta be-dharak
Agey dekho – Nai Sarak!
Nai Sarak ke aley daley
Agey dekho Kagaz Wale!
Kagaz Walon ne uraya chila
Agey dekho Lal Quila!
Lal Quila ki gahri khai
Agey dekho Yamuna Mai!
Yamuna Mai pe bicha bajra
Agey dekho Shahar ShahDara!
Shahar Shah-Dara hua abad
Agey dekho Ghaziabad!
Ghaziabad me bikta papad
Agey dekho Shahar Hapur!
Shahar Hapur me khara sipahi
Agey dekho Ganga Mai!
Ganga mai pe biche the phool
Agey dekho rail ka pul!
Rail ke pul pe lagi thi aag
Agey dekho baag hi baag!
Ghanta Ghar and its clocks four
With big chains that hang before;
When the cocks ring
See the Ghnta Ghar swing Full-pelt –
And look ahead, there’s Nai Sarak!
Nai Sarak and close at hand,
Look ahead the Paper-Sellers stand.
The Paper-Sellers flew an ‘air-boat’;
Look ahead, there’s the Red Fort!
The Red Fort and its deep moat below,
Look ahead at the Yamuna flow!
On the banks of the Yamuna was spread bajra;
Look ahead, there’s Shahar ShahDara!
Shahar ShahDara settled well – and hard
Ahead, there’s Ghaziabad!
In Ghaziabad they sell papad;
Look ahead, there’s Shahar Hapur!
In Hapur a soldier stands,
Look ahead at the Ganga’s sands!
On the Ganga were flowers strewn
Look ahead, a railway pontoon!
The railway bridge is all afire
Look ahead, gardens galore!
Historic Delhi versus Contemporary Delhi
But as remnants of earlier times disappear from our cityscape at an unprecedented rate under the onslaught of modern ‘development’, so does memory recede and affection fade. Hidden behind railings, walls, malls, flyovers and highways, the extant fragments of many parts of our city cannot be accessed—or appreciated by most of us occupied with remaking the geography and history of Delhi. The last time that Delhi was perhaps altered and appropriated at this scale, was when the British mowed down and refashioned so many parts of the city after the Great War of 1857. Or when they embarked on large-scale dislocation of existing habitation before the building of British Imperial New Delhi.
The layers of built-scape and natural geography of our city, do not just afford us unexpected glimpses of a different time but also house many diverse activities. So, for instance, the unique pavement Flower-Markets held every morning till some years ago on the streets of Chandni Chowk, Mehrauli and Connaught Place, were a vivid celebration of a spatial heritage that fostered spontaneous interaction as well as a supplementary livelihood for many people. They also preserved sensibilities towards the multiple sustainable activities that go into making a city. But instead of encouraging them—unlike cities like Jaipur or Mysore which recognise the vibrancy and beauty that such markets lend to their citizens, and their economic, social and cultural value for residents, visitors and travellers—we ban these pavement markets in the heart of the city, and remove them to centralized depots in far flung areas. Who knows but that the marigold flower-market on the pavement of Khari Baoli, is perhaps a continuation of the activities in the markets destroyed after Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi, when it is recorded that:
The Chandni chouk, the fruit market, the Daribah Bazaar, and the buildings around the Masjid-i-Jama were set fire to and reduced to ashes…The ruin in which its beautiful streets and buildings were now involved was such that the labour of years could alone restore the town to its former state of grandeur.
Indeed, how many of us would recognise this description of ‘beautiful streets and buildings’ as that of Shahjahanabad? Certainly not the successive authorities of independent India who have not invested in appropriate sanitation and other services here, reducing many of its parts to ghettos. It says much for the power of its original urban-design that, despite this neglect, it is the police stations in Shahjahanabad rather than those in the modern planned parts of Delhi which have the lower crime rate. It also says much for the power of our brainwashing that despite this fact, and despite the greater levels of social interaction, safety, and climatic comfort in such habitation, we cannot move beyond academic studies to derive any lessons in building newer parts of our cities. It is also revealing that the much ignored squatter settlements—which constitute within themselves other, less lauded cities of Delhi, and house some of its most productive residents—follow a street-pattern reminiscent of traditional indigenous cities even when they lack the building crafts which made the older Delhis proportionately beautiful.
The planned new development in Delhi is a variation on ‘the bungalow theme’ first introduced in the Civil Lines and then in British Imperial New Delhi. It is a theme of isolation and of separation—between different parts of the city; between the street and the building; between older structures and contemporary ones; between traditional building practices and current mechanized ones. Such a model of development only works with a colonial scale investment of resources, and a dislocation of entire communities. And it causes—as planned—separation and differences between societies and individuals. As a result, Delhi has evolved into isolated rings, maneuverable only on the backs of machines, dissected by wastelands of empty roads and desolate greens, pushed out further and further to satisfy the diet of developers. After covering many kilometres in suffocating public transport, most of its residents do not retain the will to perceive the former Delhis, smothered in the pursuit of life in the NCR today.
Delhi and Vicinity, coloured to show land acquisition proposals (dated 1912) (Courtesy: CPWD)
The contrast in density and efficiency between indigenous and imposed planning notions (Courtesy: DUAC)
As far back as 1987, the fact that historic cities ‘are being threatened, physically degraded, damaged or even destroyed, by the impact of the urban development that follows industrialisation in societies everywhere’, as well as the belief that: ‘to be most effective, the conservation of historic…urban areas should be an integral part of coherent policies of economic and social development and of urban and regional planning at every level’, has been enunciated and publicized in the Washington Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas. Unfortunately, we neither realise this from our own experience, nor from such mistakes in town-planning that other industrialised cultures have already made. Indeed, the more we promote a uniform and elite society derived from an enclosed self-centred view of the world, the less understanding we will have of our cities and people. Richard Sennet in his exploration on Building and Dwelling, cautions us how:
the closed era of the internet consists of a small number of monopolies, producing the machines and the programs engaged in mass mining of information. Once acquired, monopoly programming becomes ever more personalized and more controlling…The cities we live in today are closed in ways that mirror what has happened in the tech realm…The office park, the school campus, the residential tower set in a bit of green are not friendly to experiment because all are self-contained rather than open to outside influences and interactions…The closed cite is therefore a problem of values as well as political economy. 
This problem of values and a centralised political economy is glaringly visible in the ways in which we deny self-respect to ‘the common man’; mouth platitudes about entrepreneurship yet keep silent while people are beaten up or their wares confiscated; evict street-vendors and other citizens on any pretext ranging from ‘beautification’, traffic easing, the Commonwealth Games or the proposed political rebuilding of the Central Vista. In doing so we promote an exclusive bureaucratized city, a stage-set which defeats our very reasons for existing as a free nation. As the Gandhian historian Dharampal, wrote more than forty years ago:
What do we as a nation—without leaning on others’ ideological or material crutches—want? Do we have ingenuity or not? Can we make our own points—as against aligning with one sort or another? Do we have a point to make as Indians?…For all this to happen, a profound alteration in our attitude towards our people and our past has to take place. We must enable our people to feel more self-assured, confident, hopeful, proud of their talents and capacities, and encourage them to regain their individual and societal dignity.
To achieve this state, they need to acquire a better awareness—especially as children and youth—of the human past of their localities…of the linkage of each and every locality with the immediate region, of the region with the country, and of our country with other countries of the earth, and the earth’s linkage with the cosmos. These efforts would require new texts of well-told stories of localities, regions, countries, the world, and the…universe. 
Street Scenes of an earlier Delhi, peopled by different activities (Courtesy: DUAC)
Songs, Anthems, Litanies
Chehre pe saare shehr ke gard-e-malall hai
Jo dil ka haal hai vohi Dilli ka haal hai
Malikzaada Manzoor Ahmad
The city’s face is covered with the dust of regret
The state of my heart is the state of Delhi
Dil-o-Dilli agar hain dono kharab
Pa kucch lutf is ujde ghar main bhi hain
Mir Taqi Mir
My heart and my Delhi may both be in ruins
But still there are some delights in this ravaged home
If we could bring together poets from different times, this may have been the repartee between Malikzaada Manzoor Ahmad (1929- 2016) and Mir Taqi Mir, ‘that quintessential Dilliwalla’ (as Saif Mahmood terms him in Beloved Delhi) who died almost two centuries ago in 1810. Mir lived in a Delhi where the influence of a badshah (emperor), dariya (river) and badal (cloud)—three necessities that an Indian proverb apparently ascribes to the making of a city—was still visible. In the Delhi of Malikzaada Manzoor Ahmad’s verse, the dariya is a parody of its former self, shrunken and made poisonous by effluents. The badal is capricious. And both the badshah and the empress have bowed out.
However, what has remained, and will continue to remain, are the people who inhabit a city. It is only by involving these people, by being considerate of their thoughts and wants, and by refreshing their collective memory, that we can acquire a better awareness of, and forge a living identity with the complex cities of Delhi.
To do this, we have to actively re-integrate the remnants of our past in our everyday use. When we talk about the remnants of our past, we are not just talking about the manifest physical remnants—whose sheer diversity in Delhi is unrivalled anywhere in the world—but also the structure of society and governance which generated these. The current structure of governance is the cause for the kind of society and city we have today. And this affects us in unstated as well as direct ways. As Lakhmi Chand Kohli writes in a story about a family that is compelled to relocate from Okhla to ‘that bald expanse of land which later grew and became known in the city as Dakshinpuri Colony’: ‘When the city changes, the first to come to know of it is the house’. To therefore change our homes and our city for the better, we have to make a fundamental change in the centralized notion of governance and city-planning we are now following. This evidently cannot be done by keeping people out. It is with the aid and collaboration of all citizens, and by giving primacy and access to them—both in how we envision policies for the development of our city, as well as in the conservation or building of actual physical spaces and structures—that we can get a better quality of life, optimise resources, and generate sustainable economic options for each of us. This means not just devising the city to make room for people with different income groups and orientations, instead of pushing them to the periphery, but also making room for people in decisions that will affect the form and orientation of their city.
It is above all, a philosophy that underlines a thoughtful social, spatial and ecological response, which can form the springboard to how we construct or conserve our cities. To give one instance, instead of the decision to make manicured, water-guzzling lawns in front of the World Heritage site of Delhi’s famous Red Fort—established in 1648 CE along with Shahjahanabad, one of Delhi’s long line of capital cities—that need to be ‘un-peopled’ and barred by gates and fences and uniformed officials to allow the lawns to flourish, we could include people in how we envision the place to be pleasant and useful. We could instead plant orchards of pomegranate and citrus trees to yield fruit, shade, and verdure to the Fort’s foreground, without compromising its security needs and without consuming huge amounts of precious water. These orchards, much like they used to in Mughal times, would yield revenue for maintenance and be self-sustainable, restore the place to public use, and contribute to a better quality of air and water. Local populations could stroll here during the day; schoolchildren could picnic; crafts-demonstrations, street-performances, pavement book-stalls, and story-telling sessions could be held here.
Thus, if we wish to, with sense and sensibility, realise the promise of the many Delhis around us, we need to be considerate about all the people who come to live here. And include all of them in our imagination and experience—layered, growing and green, so that there are still some delights in this city we call home.
In the shade of a solitary tree, outside the Red Fort(Photo: Author, 2018)
Acknowledgements: To Isabelle Chaise, whose invitation to write for a publication on the Arts when I was studying for my Masters in Architectural Conservation in England, led to my first tentative view of ‘Delhi as an onion’ (a leitmotif I have subsequently revisited and shared in my writings); Snehanshu Mukherjee and Lieutenant General Chandra Shekhar (PVSM, AVSM) for helping me to critically relook at the structure of the city; Anubha Kakroo for reciting the delightful poem on Ghanta Ghar to me, when we were studying at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi; Dr Santosh Kakroo, a scholar of Hindi—who remembered it from her years as a child in Kamala Nagar; the Dillinama Project, for prompting me to do additional research and re-view Delhi from the angle of its multiple layers; and to the CPWD Archives and the DUAC Collection for archival maps and images.
 Believed to have been composed around 1200 BCE with its last recasting about 200 BCE
 The Golden Calm, Ed. M. M. Kaye, p. 12, Introduction, Lt.Col. John Mildmay Ricketts MC.
 Muraqqa-i-Delhi, The Mughal Capital in Muhammad Shah’s Time, Dargah Quli Khan, pp. 21–5, Eng. trans. Chander Shekhar, and Shama Mitra Chenoy, Deputy Publication, New Delhi, 1989.
 Dilli jo ek shahar tha aalam mein intakhaab; rahtey the muntakhib hi jahan rozgaar ke, Eng.Trans. S. Kalidas with Sohail Hashmi, The Hindu, February 6, 2011
 Jaya, An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata, Devdutt Pattanaik, p. 114, Penguin Books 2010.
 Courtesy: Dr. Santosh Kakroo and Anubha Kakroo
 English Translation: Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
 These have been moved to a huge centralized market in Ghazipur on the outskirts of the National Capital Region. See Red Earth – Walk – Flower Markets of Delhi, redearthindia.com; or www.thegendaphoolproject.com.
 Tazkira of Anand Ram Mukhlis’, Eng. trans. eds. H. M. Elliot and J. Dowson, The History of India By its Own Historians, The Muhammadan Period (Vol.VIII), p. 88, Kitab Mahal Pvt. Ltd. 1969.
 ‘Jama Masjid is safest, Dwarka most crime-hit’, Dwaipayan Ghosh, TNN, Sunday Times, November 23, 2008
 Preamble and Definitions, Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas, Washington, 1987
 Principles and Objectives, 1, Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas, Washington, 1987
 Building and Dwelling, Ethics for the City, pp.10-11, ‘Introduction: Crooked, Open, Modest’, Penguin Books 2019
 See for details, Finding Delhi, Loss and Renewal in the Megacity, Ed. Bharati Chaturvedi, Penguin Books India, 2010
 ‘Hawkers have a Fundamental Right to Trade’, J. Venkatesan, 20 October 2010, The Hindu. This front page report states that Justice A.K. Ganguly and Justice G.S. Singhvi have noted that ‘the fundamental right of the hawkers, just because they are poor and unorganized cannot be left in a state of limbo’…and that ‘when citizens by gathering meager resources try to employ themselves as hawkers and street-traders they cannot be subjected to a deprivation on the pretext that they have no right.’ See also http://anishashekhar.blogspot.com/2010/11/happy-diwali-commitee-reappears.html
 Dharampal, as quoted by Claude Alvares, Preface, pp. xiii-xv, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, Other India Press and SIDH (Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas), 2000.
 ‘Afterword’, p. 342 and ‘Mir Taqi Mir, p. 137, Beloved Delhi, A Mughal City and her Greatest Poets, Speaking Tiger 2018, Saif Mahmood
 ‘The house that remained the same’, pp. 110-13, Trickster City, Penguin Viking 2010, Translated form Hindi by Shveta Sarda
 For a detailed spatial analysis of the Red Fort, see The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, OUP 2003,
 As shown in old maps of Delhi; see for instance the 18th century map of the Fort (Add.Or 1790, OIOC, BL), the mid-19th century map of Shahjahanabad (X/1659; OIOC, BL); ASI 1904 map
Anisha Shekhar Mukerji has worked on a range of architectural and conservation projects, authored several works including her latest on the Red Fort, she is visiting faculty at the School of Planning and Architecture.
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