© Anisha Shekhar Mukherji



The city of Delhi sometimes reminds me of an onion—imperfectly taken apart, many layered, veined and maimed. The layers are not coherent or even tightly packed—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, Delhi has been a royal urban centre almost continuously for more than 3000 years. The legendary epic Mahabharata[1] refers to Indraprastha, on whose site it is said, present-day Delhi sits. Indraprastha was the capital of the kingdom of the Pandavas—the five brothers, each embodying a virtue, and their arrogant and beautiful wife, Draupadi. The Pandavas lost and won Indraprastha again. Their descendants followed. And that has been the fate of Delhi through the ages—to be lost and won successively as the capital of 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, large 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. And that has remained the form of Delhi, even today.

22976_Purana Quila

F-1075_Suraj Kund


As you move from one part to another, there is a lack of continuity in the city. This mystifies visitors and leaves the people of Delhi with no single identity to clutch on to. How could Delhi be described to a stranger? Would it be relevant to talk of the tree-lined broad avenues of British Imperial New Delhi? Or the narrow, dense, streets of Shahjahanabad thronged by people and wares, dominated by the 17th century Red Fort and a multitude of mosques?


Would a visitor recognise the fussily flamboyant houses in Greater Kailash, hiding behind high walls, as the same Delhi? And if left alone, in the wastelands between the city’s former edges and the suburbs now enveloped in its uncaring embrace, could he say where he was? And, of course, he may still not have seen the familiar DDA walk-up flats and their taller clones, scattered seemingly endlessly. Yet, somewhere within all this, appearing and disappearing as if in a dream, he might come across strange apparitions—ghosts of former Delhis.

View of The Red Fort from the Ring Road

In truth, Delhi is not one, but many cities—shaped by, and resulting in, a unique density of human interaction. Yet, despite the wealth of Delhi’s historic archaeology and architecture, we only register a few of these cities, in fact just a few prominent parts of these cities. The many versions of Venice imagined through the character of Marco Polo by the Italian writer, Italio Calvino in his Invisible Cities,[2] are familiar to most professionals working in the field of urban design. But the different cities of Delhi despite being visibly heterogeneous, seem to evade the imagination of its citizens—even those who are designers, planners or architects. From tourist brochures to airport signages to government hoardings, we only see pictures of either a shiny new Delhi or of 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 these two widely reproduced views of the city drawn by British artists just before and after the momentous events of 1857.[3] The exaggerated profusion of flamboyant domes in these drawings literally turns Delhi into an ‘onion city’.

delhi and surrounding countryside, 1857, A.Maclure

Delhi before the siege, 1857, J Luard


The Postcard Delhi and the Peopled Delhi



Like the 18th and 19th century foreign visitors who produced many such images for family, friends or market agents in Europe eager to see the mysterious East, we continue to portray a picture of Delhi substantially different from the real one. Recorded versions of Delhi’s architecture by European residents of that time, even when more 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’[4], 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’ version of Delhi—viewed from the outside; focused on a particular period of this city’s long and complex history; reduced to a few dominant forms reproduced incessantly; and disallowing people in the frame unless they are seen to embellish it or keeping them to the bare minimum merely to provide some 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. As much in the songs, legends, stories, court-histories and memoirs which document the life within its historic architecture; as in the many ordinary and extraordinary people who inhabited it. So, the miniature paintings and writings in the official court-history of Shah Jahan—the Mughal Emperor who, in 1648 CE established Shahjahanabad as one of Delhi’s long line of capital cities—meticulously details not just Shah Jahan’s personal life and his Empire’s political and administrative events, but also the manner in which different parts of Shahjahanabad were used and accessed. We see the complex spatial uses of the then Delhi’s buildings, gardens and chowks, including the environs of its Qila-i-Mualla or Exalted Palace. We see how they are lived in and how they get transformed at different times of the day and year—the ceremonial weighing of the Emperor in the Diwan-i-Am amidst his entire court; the Princes’ riding in on horses within the same space on their wedding celebrations, reminiscent of the spectacle of present day bridegrooms; the Yamuna river-bank at dawn peopled by residents of the city for darshan of the sun and their Emperor, and lit up with floating diyas on celebratory evenings. They give us multiple views of the efficient and overlapping uses of built and open space in the Indian tradition that was followed even by arguably the richest ruler of the medieval world.[5]


The writings of travelers from other parts of the subcontinent, such as Dargah Quli Khan from Hyderabad, who visited Delhi with his patron, Nizam Asaf Jah I, during Emperor Mohammad Shah’s rule (1720-48 CE), give us insights into other, living aspects of Delhi. 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.[6]

It is difficult to associate such bustling inclusive activity, with the repressive Delhi of today. Indeed, it was a varied, creative and spirited populace which gave Delhi the many Dillinamahs composed throughout its history as well as its energy and the multitude of 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, Meer Taqi Meer (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’.[7] 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.’ [8] The willingness to accommodate the different kinds of people who made it their new home, and the recognition of the value such 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, economy and the familiarity of a friend.

Ghanta Ghar ki char gharhi,

Charon me zanjir barhi.

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![9]

Ghanta Ghar and its clocks four

With big chains that hang before;

When the clocks ring

See the Ghanta Ghar swing

Full-pelt –

And look ahead, there’s Nai Sarak!

Nai Sarak and close at hand,

Look ahead at 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’s sands were flowers strewn

Look ahead, a railway pontoon!

The railway bridge is all afire

Look ahead, gardens galore![10]

Historic Delhi versus Contemporary Delhi

But as physical remnants of earlier times disappear from our cityscape everyday at an unprecedented rate under the onslaught of modern ‘development’, so does memory recede and affection fade. The monuments that still remain, hidden behind purdahs of railings, lawns, walls, malls, flyovers and highways, cannot literally be approached by most people—forget about being understood, appreciated or sung about. The last time that historic Delhi was perhaps altered at this scale was when the British mowed down or refashioned so many parts of it after the Great War of 1857, both to gain control as well as to alter the memory of its inhabitants. Today, it is not any obvious conquerors but its own residents and government, who are occupied with removing all but a few traces of the former cities of Delhi.

The pleasure of the sudden unexpected glimpses of the fragments of these older cities and their diverse activities may soon vanish for all time. As for instance, the unique Flower Markets on the streets of Chandni Chowk, Mehrauli and Connaught Place, which vividly celebrate our spatial heritage of using urban space in multiple, efficient and sustainable ways. They do not just allow people to meet and interact while earning a living, but also preserve older memories and sensibilities towards the many-layered activities that go into making a city. But the authorities in Delhi instead of encouraging or promoting them—unlike those in cities like Jaipur or Mysore which recognise the vibrancy, freshness and beauty that such markets lend to their citizens, and their attractiveness for visitors and travellers—plan to relocate these to a huge centralized market in Ghazipur on the outskirts of the National Capital Region.[11] Who knows but that the marigold flower-market on the pavements 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.[12]

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 providing even basic improved sanitation and living services in one of the most celebrated historic cities of the world. It says much for the power of its original town-planning that, despite this neglect, it is the police stations in Shahjahanabad rather than the modern planned parts of Delhi which have the lowest crime rate today.[13] It also says much for the power of our brainwashing through borrowed notions of “modern development” that despite this fact, and despite the greater levels of social interaction, safety, and climatic comfort in our historic architecture, we cannot move beyond academic studies to derive any lessons from them in building newer parts of our cities. Not just Shahjahanabad, but most of the historic cities of Delhi and their remaining population have now been reduced to ghettos, and are often given the official status of ‘urban villages’. Engulfed by the expanding modern Delhi, they are yet not counted as significant partners in its development. 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. The only difference perhaps being that they lack the building crafts which made practically all the older Delhis proportionately beautiful.


The form that planned new development in Delhi has taken (and continues to take) 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 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. An ordinary man, covering many kilometres in suffocating public transport, does not retain the will to perceive the former Delhis, smothered in the pursuit of life in Delhi today.

26_Delhi and Vicinity coloured to show land acqusition proposals (dt 1912)

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’[14], 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’,[15] 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 modern town-planning that other industrialised cultures have already made. Indeed, the more we promote a uniform and elite society derived from the western world, the less understanding we will have of our own cities and people.

mosque at jn stadium

As we deny self-respect to ‘the common man’; as we harass those most vulnerable; as we mouth platitudes about entrepreneurship in a free society yet keep silent while our officials and our police routinely beat up and confiscate wares of poor people desperately eking out an honest living in our cities;[16] as we physically evict hawkers and street-vendors on any pretext ranging from ‘beautification’, traffic easing, the Commonwealth Games—despite injunctions in our Constitution and a Supreme Court Order[17]—we are in danger of forgetting even our history of independence and our reasons for existing as a free nation.

Dillinamas for Today

An old Indian proverb notes the three necessities that go into the making of a city—badshah (emperor), dariya (river) and badal (cloud). Today, the dariya has shrunk into a parody of its former size as it moves further and further away from Delhi, the badal is capricious and both the badshah and the empress have bowed out. What has remained, and will continue to remain, are its people. It is only by involving these people, by being considerate of their thoughts and wants, and by refreshing their collective memory, that we can forge a living identity with the complex cities of Delhi.

How does one begin to do this? Is it feasible for all of us, rich and poor, to come together and be partners in the conservation of our past and future resources? In the capital of a country which must address issues as varied and urgent as poverty, health, education, and defence across thousands of kilometres of land amongst a huge population? It is. And an obvious way to do this is through one of the most visible and comprehensive symbols of our identity. We are fortunate in having Delhi as the capital of our nation, which in the sheer diversity of its historic architecture is unrivalled anywhere in the world. If we act now, we still can utilise the presence of these manifest and diverse remnants of our past to our good fortune. They can increase our sense of local and national pride, yield a better quality of life, optimise resources, and generate sustainable economic options.

How? The prominent remnants of the former Delhis, the big and famous monuments, frequented by visitors and under some form of Government protection, can be easily re-integrated into our cultural and ecological context. To give one recognisable example, instead of making manicured, water-guzzling lawns in front of the World Heritage site of Delhi’s famous Lal Qila, the Red Fort, we could instead plant orchards of pomegranate or 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, can yield revenue for maintenance and be self-sustainable, apart from contributing to a better quality of air and water. Local populations can stroll here during the day. Schoolchildren can picnic here. Visitors to the Fort can take a breather before and after their visit. Crafts-demonstrations, street-performances, pavement book-stalls, and story-telling sessions can be held here; thus restoring the historical public use of these areas.[18]


            A similar philosophy can direct how we treat other historic structures, whether they border main roads, are part of a specific living space or are famous enough to be on the tourist list. These can be developed as the focus of community facilities so that they punctuate the monotony of travel. They can also afford living landmarks for people who pass them on their way to and from work. Or they can become the focus of open spaces and parks in residential colonies so that they can be used actively by families living around. The conservation of these historic structures has thus an implication not just on their repair and maintenance but also on their beneficial use by communities living around them, and indeed by all the people of our country. If we wish to create more humane cities and societies, we must simultaneously accommodate our past creations, as well as the positive spirit that gave rise to them and the human skills that built them. Bereft of this humanity, we reduce the past—however grand—to nothing more than an empty stage set. And we imperil our present and our future. Finally, it all boils down to how we see ourselves as a nation. As the Gandhian and historian Dharampal, wrote more than forty years ago:

We appear to have forgotten, that we can look back and learn from our own past, and based on that experience, construct our own unique identity within the context of our own affairs as well as that of the rest of the world. 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. [19]

It is only when we relook at the linked human past of our immediate and larger worlds that we can compose fresh and varied Dillinamahs for the future—individual yet understandable to all of us, citizens and visitors. And only then can we realise the promise of the different cities of Delhi, contained together, yet growing and green.



This essay—though substantially different from—is based on an earlier one I wrote for a friend, Isabelle Chaise, more than ten years ago, when I was studying for my Masters in Architectural Conservation in England. A journalist and a writer, she had asked me to write about ‘my city’, for her fledgling publication on the Arts that aimed to include different views of the world, with people of various nationalities writing about their cities. The Publication did not eventually materialize. But the view of ‘Delhi as an onion’ perhaps because of my distance from the city, may not have come to my mind had Isabelle not asked me to write. Acknowledgements are due to her for the genesis of this essay. Also to Snehanshu Mukherjee, who catalysed and clarified this piece of writing, as he does so many things; to Lieutenant General Chandra Shekhar, PVSM AVSM, for making me critically relook at the form and structure of the essay; and to Anubha Kakroo who first recited the delightful poem on Ghanta Ghar to me, when we were studying at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. And to her mother, Dr Santosh Kakroo, a scholar of Hindi—who remembered it from her years as a child in Kamala Nagar.

[1] Believed to have been composed around 1200 BCE with its last recasting about 200 BCE

[2] (Italian: Le città invisibili), published in Italy in 1972 by Giulio Einaudi Editore, 165 pp (first English edition), ISBN 0-15-145290-3

[3] ‘Delhi and surrounding countryside, 1857,’ A. Maclure, (P137, OIOC British Library); ‘Delhi Before the Siege, 1857,’ John Luard

[4] The Golden Calm, Ed. M. M. Kaye, p. 12, Introduction, Lt.-Col. John Mildmay Ricketts MC.

[5] For a detailed spatial analysis of the Red Fort, see The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, OUP 2003,

[6] 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.

[7] 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

[8] Jaya, An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata, Devdutt Pattanaik, p. 114, Penguin Books 2010.

[9] Courtesy: Dr. Santosh Kakroo and Anubha Kakroo.

[10] English Translation: Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

[11] See Red Earth – Walk – Flower Markets of Delhi,; or

[12] 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.

[13] ‘Jama Masjid is safest, Dwarka most crime-hit’, Dwaipayan Ghosh, TNN, Sunday Times, November 23, 2008

[14] Preamble and Definitions, Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas, Washington, 1987

[15] Principles and Objectives, 1, Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas, Washington, 1987

[16] See for details, Finding Delhi, Loss and Renewal in the Megacity, Ed. Bharati Chaturvedi, Penguin Books India, 2010

[17] ‘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 vendors

[18] 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

[19] 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.


One comment

  1. Pragya

    wonderful collage of mystic of Delhi unfolding various layers…

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