Kailash Sankhala (1925-94), India’s first tiger man, when he was director of the Delhi Zoological Park, lived with a tiger in his quarters to observe and study its habits. It would be the primary source of his campaign to save the Indian tiger. He would later propose that zoos are not the environment for animals. It seconds what German naturalist Peter Wohlleben writes in The Inner Life of Animals (2016): “Animal senses are not configured for concrete and tarmac but for woods, moors and intact waterscapes.
”This was despite the fact that the Delhi Zoo was planned as an ecologically sound space without cages. Based on the principles of Carl Hagenbeck, the German pioneer of modern zoos, this zoo did away with conventional enclosures and allowed for moats and naturally simulated environment for animals and birds. So, against the backdrop of the Purana Qila and the Sher Shah Gate, sits the woody 300 acres of the zoo.
Habib Rahman, then the senior architect of the Central Public Works Department, designed the built spaces, including the entrance, office buildings, bridges, benches and lamps. If the steel-railing stuffy ticket counters can be overlooked, the crenulated entrance stops you in the tracks. The wafer-thin concrete roof on heavy stone pillars echoes Rahman’s mastery over the material, seen even in his other projects such as the Barrackpore Gandhi Ghat cantilever and the thin-shelled mazaars (shrines) of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in Delhi.
That’s pretty much where the “architecture” of the zoo ends. This project stands apart more as a “non-building”. The organically shaped stone walls of enclosures meld perfectly into the landscape, making them almost invisible. When it started, the zoo was divided into three zones — Indian, African and Australian. Each of these swamps had their own artificial lakes and waterbodies.
The shaded umbrella for the pachyderms are a creative take on a canopy, again showing Rahman’s engineering prowess. Almost like two mushrooms joined together, he gave scope for water to drain off its roof as well. “It’s evocative of an elephant’s back, with a tar finish on the top to make it look close to the real thing. The construction that began in 1956 was completed in stages by 1974,” says photographer Ram Rahman, about his father’s work.
He recalls moonlight picnics from his childhood. “We would enter from the Sundar Nursery side at the back and go up a mound opposite the bear enclosure and the bird pond, which has a chattri ruin,” Ram says. Today, the entrance roof has red tiles and the original bridges have lost their character, yet the zoo still affords a space for a person to do some animal spotting.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘It’s a Jungle in There’