The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 21, 2001

Meandering through the lanes and bylanes of Old Delhi
Review by Ashu Pasricha

Delhi: Development and Change
by I. Mohan. A.P.H. Publishing, New Delhi. Pages 177. Rs 500.

MANY thousands of years ago man emerged from a shadowy background of which we know little to become a farmer: from living as an animal he appears to have become gradually something more than an animal, indeed beginning to exercise quite un-animal-like powers of choice and judgement. And yet man was, and still is, in a wide sense, an animal amongst other animals, in a setting of natural phenomena.

As Carlo Cipolla sreminds us, there are nine planets in the solar system which we know, although this may be only a small part of a system of galaxies of unbelievably large dimensions that we are just beginning to discover; one of these nine planets is the earth, and it seems to be the smallest of these nine, but has a relatively high density; this earth planet is covered with a thin film of matter which weighs perhaps one thousand-millionth of that of the planet itself, a hardly detectable phenomenon in planetary terms, and yet this thin film of living things is to us the fundamental circumstance of our existence.


Man is but a part of this film matter, a very recent arrival in it, too, and although he has vastly superior powers and abilities to those of his older fellow animals and plants: like them, too, he cannot live without water. Even at his most mobile, he is firmly attached to the earth; like the birds he may use it as a platform for flight, but to it he must return. Despite his fertile inventiveness he is lost without the products of the earth, for food, for manufacture: he cannot survive without vegetation, without the products of successive layers of the earth’s crust, without the rain, the sun, the wind that form his changing and yet changeless setting just as much as they form the setting of all other animals and plants.

Man is part of the ecology of the earth: a system of relationships between the earth, its atmosphere, its climate, its vegetation, and its inhabitants of all kinds, which is of great and beautiful complexity, and which is yet an everyday experience for all men.

The occasion to ponder over this subject is the book "Delhi: Development and Change" by veteran scholar and bureaucrat I. M. Mohan. This is the history of Delhi, the capital of India. Starting with Indraprastha of the Mahabharata legend, the city’s history usually takes a giant leap of almost 2000 years into the eighth century AD. When the Tomara Rajputs moved into the hills of south of Delhi to found the settlement of Anangpur and later the fort of Lal Kot.

Little is said of what was happening in the Delhi area during the thousands of years before the terrible Mahabharata war (if the war ever happened, that is) and what transpired during the centuries between this war and the coming of the Rajputs.

There is, in fact, enough evidence available to weave a connected account of Delhi’s ancient past. This evidence reveals that the history of Delhi is not simply a story of cities built at different sites at different times but a history of many settlements, some urban, many rural in nature. In its earliest part, it goes back to a distant time before cities or settled villages had emerged.

As ancient and modern boundaries do not coincide, it is a good idea to be liberal in demarcating the region that we intend to look at. This will include not only modern Old and New Delhi but also neighbouring areas such as Faridabad district of Haryana and Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pardesh. The selection of this broader area can be justified on geographical grounds and has the advantage of giving us a wide canvas to work on.

Ever since the human settlements started, the concept of living in groups started which when it became overcrowded; led to the formation of streets with residential and commercial areas and consequently the street width was so much reduced and encroaching on open land started questions arose about the merits and demerits of streets and ultimately to urban renewal.. On account of poverty and lack of employment the residents started opening shops on the front portion of their houses, a tradition that still exists in the developing countries, which created chaos and the authorities became more vigilant. Whether it was 3000 BC of Mohenjodaro city or in present-day cities, the emotional concepts of living along streets remains unchanged.

Every street acquired a status, the memory of which never diess, which give the concept of preserving the cultural heritage for which the higher courts are intervening. One example is the great Galib residence at Ballimaran. The Delhi government has been asked by the courts to preserve it despite the commercial set up there. It is revealed from the map of the Walled City that maximum conservation sites exist in the area. Imagine the fate of Queen Razia who once ruled Delhi, her grave lies in a small room-sized area on a street near Turkman Gate and is preserved. Over the grave of poet Zauk, toilets were built in the Nabi-Karim area of Paharganj. When it came to the notice of the apex court it immediately ordered the removal of the encroachment on the grave of the great poet.

The author has seen tram service moving along Nai Sarak and in other areas of the Walled City until the early sixties. The Metro that is under construction will pass through part of this area.

The pedestrians generally feel difficulty in moving along corridors. The author proposes slow and fast traffic flows and their separation and pedestrians given more prominence.

The word kuchas, katras, chajjas and phatak are familiar adjectives for localities in the Walled City. The katras are named after the male buffalo calf. Gateways are called phataks and are as old as 500 years and more. But could these be retained? Almost for all areas urban renewal surgery has been proposed. As per zonal plans, it is desirable to prepare an integrated scheme and provide space for car parking and greenery.

The various streets are named after the activity that took place earlier. Among these are Chandni Chowk, Ballimaran, Shardhanand Marg, Maliwara, Farashkhana Lalkuan, Nai Sarak, Churiwalan, Turkman Gate, Sitaram Bazar and Matia Mahal. In the adjoining areas, Paharganj and Sadar Bazar are quite famous. Those are so well linked with historical events that even small doors may require protection. The eatables sold from the vends here are different in taste and name. An analysis of the distribution of shops reveals several interesting facts.

Written in a style aimed at accuracy as well as clarity, the book will be of interest to historians, students of history, general readers, in fact anybody who is interested in Delhi’s development.

Apart from providing for the first time an account of Delhi’s history that is both scholarly and interesting to the general and non-specialist reader, the book also demonstrates how the history of an area is not only what historians prise out of literary and archaeological sources, but also includes the different ways in which the past is remembered and recreated by people.