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Delhi comes alive in this fascinating archival work combining history with cartography

Maps of Delhi, Maps of Delhi book, Pilar Maria Guerrieri, Guerrieri Delhi maps, Mughal rule Delhi, Delhi history, Lyutens Delhi, Book review, Indian Express
Map of Delhi charting out the 1857 seige. Courtesy: Niyogi Books

Name: Maps of Delhi
Author: Pilar Maria Guerrieri
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Pages: 392
Price: Rs 4,500

An architecture and planning theorist has ventured into history and cartography, and the result of this multidiciplinary project, comprising 44 maps and 22 details of Delhi, is absolutely fascinating. Guerrieri’s archival work has brought to the public domain maps depicting the development of Delhi into a megacity, and the numerous influences that have impinged on it over the centuries. This book is destined to be a standard reference for architects and planners, social and political historians, and for lay readers interested in the conflict of 1857. You don’t really have to go to the British Library and the India Office Library any more.

In the popular narrative of 1857, it is often overlooked that while Meerut was the flashpoint of the rising, it was a campaign for the restoration of Mughal power and the rallying point was the Red Fort in Delhi. Indeed, the rising officially ended with Brevet Major William Hodson’s capture of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who had fled to Humayun’s Tomb with his entourage. It decisively ended when Hodson gunned down the emperor’s captive sons outside Khooni Darwaza (on what is now Bahadurshah Zafar Marg), thus giving it an enduring name.

Legend — quite possibly British legend — has it that Hodson was forced to pull the trigger when people streamed out of the heavily populated areas on that road to liberate the princes. However, two maps from 1857 show absolutely no settlements there. The only buildings are an “insane hospital” and prison, on the site where Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan Hospital (formerly Irwin Hospital) and Maulana Azad Medical College now stand. Lunatics and convicts are unlikely to have rallied to save the Mughal Empire.


On the other hand, the maps confirm another account. After taking control of the Red Fort, the East India Company is believed to have razed a wide swath of land between Chandni Chowk and the fortress, physically separating the city from the symbol of Mughal power. And indeed, whatever stood there before 1857 seems to be history.

Mutiny fans will love ordnance maps like the 1859 Plan of the City of Delhi, executed by Major General A Wilson of the Bengal Artillery, showing the deployment of Company troops. Clearly used for military operations, it was neatly folded to fit into the pocket of a battledress. A plan of the British positions at Delhi in the summer and autumn of 1857 shows breaches, heavy gun emplacements, cavalry picquets, encampments of sappers, miners and the Kumaoni Battalion and the houses of Skinner and Metcalfe. The laconic legend, “Sadder Bazaar burnt”, and, “Bullock shed where the inmates of Mr Aldwell’s house, women and children, were massacred”, attest to the violence that Delhi saw in 1857. This is apart from the expected memorials, like the spot simply marked, “Where Nicholson fell”.

The popular joke that Delhi is a collection of villages turns out to be true. Present neighbourhoods of the city appear as villages and small fortified settlements in maps from two centuries ago: Patparganj, Madan Gir, Chiragh Dilli, Palam, Ber Sarai, Tal Katora (which now has an Olympic swimming pool). Others, like Chilla, which features in an 1871 map depicting Lord Lake’s campaigns against the Marathas, are now designated as urban villages, and are visibly unlike their posh neighbours. Other villages like Atta, now the site of Noida’s biggest shopping malls, and Nithari, infamous for the 2006 serial abuse and murder of children, first appear on a map dated 1905. There was a Hubshee Sarai in Delhi 150 years before its citizens learned to racially harass Nigerian students. And, a 1911 map at the time of the Coronation Durbar shows a possible precursor of Punjabi Bagh — Punjabi Sarai.

The map of the Durbar, an expression of colonial power, chalks out the political realities of the time. In 1910-11, there was a race course and golf links between Bara Hindu Rao’s house and Rajpur, where left-wing academics gather these days. The lands on which Delhi’s most excellent colleges now stand were occupied by the camps of His Imperial Majesty the King Emperor, his Commander-in-Chief, the Lieutenant General of Punjab and the Commander-in-Chief of the Central Provinces. The area allotted to the Maharajas of Gondal, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Cutch, Kolhapur, Gwalior and Mysore put together would have fitted into the compound set aside for the King Emperor, with room to spare. That’s the way the chapati of 1857 crumbled.

After that, there’s the slow rise of Lutyens’ Delhi, which gave Delhi the wide open spaces that it was known for until mass immigration in the 1990s. Much has disappeared. The Red Fort had a now forgotten Calcutta Gate which led to a ‘Bridge of Boats’ carrying traffic eastwards. It was replaced by the Loh Pul (Iron Bridge), over which trains from Old Delhi station still take passengers to the colonial capital of Calcutta. In 1873 Paharganj, now a backpackers’ paradise, stood on the Rajputana State Railway. About the time that Lord Irwin laid the foundation stone of the hospital which would bear his name, the vast Muslim burial grounds behind what is now India’s Fleet Street on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg was divided into a ‘Mohammedan Cemetery’, a ‘Borahs’ Cemetery’ and a ‘Sweeper Cemetery’.

A more contemporary map shows World War II structures. There was a Japanese internees’ camp on Mathura Road, where Pragati Maidan now stands. The Air Force Club was a landing training school. Most of Jorbagh, now absurdly expensive real estate, was taken up by air force offices and personnel. On the other hand, except for neighbouring gardens appearing and disappearing, nothing much has changed on the Grand Trunk Road since the Middle Ages.

The rest of the book, which depicts the rise of the eighth city of Delhi, Lutyens’ creation and the fabulously overpriced colonies and vihars of the 20th century, would interest architects and planners. Lay readers would be more interested in the earlier chapters, which hold up a mirror to the political changes which have swept over Delhi’s eight cities. Incidentally, it would be interesting to compare the temples recorded on these maps with the allegedly “prachin mandirs” which dot the landscape today. Centuries of charlatanry, which Delhi is so adept at, may be unearthed thereby.