Delhi, many would say, is a city of contradictions. The past, the present, the urban and the rural coexist rather peacefully within this bustling metropolis. However, in 1947, when the city became the capital of an independent country, much of what we see of the city today, was large expanses of agricultural and forest land. The Mughal-era Shahjahanabad and the British-built New Delhi was much of what comprised the city. However, a rapid influx of refugees during the Partition resulted in the city being expanded far and beyond to make space for its new inhabitants.
The task of preparing a plan for the expansion of Delhi was assigned to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) that was created in 1957. Delhi’s master plan designated a cluster of villages on the city fringes to be urbanised for the sake of housing the refugees. The ‘urban villages’, as they are called today, carry unique cultural identities and historicities within them, lending the city a distinct character and heritage.
As we celebrate World Heritage Day on the theme of rural landscapes on April 18 this year, here is a look at five historic villages tucked away in the city’s growing urban topography.
Located between Asiad village and Hauz Khas in South Delhi, Shahpur Jat housed the Panwar Jats who were previously living in Siri Fort built by the medieval-era ruler Alauddin Khalji. The village was issued a legal notice in May 1966 so as to be identified as an urban village. Presently, the past of Shahpur Jat village is visible in traditional havelis and the remains of the Siri Fort that dot its terrain. However, decades of urbanisation has led to an erasure of the historic rural character of the region, which is now mostly known for its chic boutiques and cafes.
Densely packed with irregularly shaped buildings and narrow alleys, Chiragh Dilli is located south of the Outer Ring Road, close to Greater Kailash. The urban village traces its history to the eighteenth century when a village developed here around the mausoleum of Nasiruddin Mahmud Chiragh-Dehlavi from whom it derived its name. The settlers of this village were disciples of the Chishti order saint. His mausoleum here continues to attract the faithful in hordes. Before giving in to the rapid urbanisation in Delhi post-Independence, the settlement of Chiragh Dilli was predominantly dependent on agrarian economy. In the past few years, the village has come under scrutiny for the rampant unauthorised urban construction that has not only led to an erasure of its rich legacy but has also raised concerns of hygiene and safety.
The area where the modern residential neighbourhood of Saket is located today was previously a rural settlement known as Hauz Rani. Historian Sunil Kumar, who has carried out an extensive study of this area, notes in his work that the village drew its name from a 12th century reservoir present there which is known to have been built by a queen. While nothing is known about the queen who built it, the reservoir grew in popularity in the 13th and 14th centuries when Delhi was under Sultanate rule. “By the fourteenth century, many local residents came to believe that it was the famous Chisti mystic saint Nizamuddin Auliya whose association with the hauz lent significance to the queen’s reservoir,” writes Kumar. During this period, a bustling rural settlement grew around the reservoir which was of both religious as well as economic importance to its residents.
By the 1960s when the Hauz Rani village was largely encroached upon by the residential neighbourhoods of Saket and Pushp Vihar, not only did it undergo a change in its geographical character, but also the demographics of the place was altered significantly. While most original residents of Hauz Rani were Muslims, the newcomers were mostly Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. When the neighbouring residential areas were being constructed, the residents of the village provided most of the labourers for construction. “Greater earnings went hand in hand with lower self-esteem as Hauz Rani residents recognised their status within a social hierarchy where the professional and business classes of the neighbouring residential areas were far and away the more privileged group,” writes Kumar.
One of the oldest villages to have undergone urbanisation, Masjid Moth gave away most of its land for the construction of South Extension II between 1951 and 1960. The village traces its origins to the 16th century when a mosque by the name ‘Moth ki masjid’ was constructed in the area by the prime minister of Sultan Sikander Lodi. The mosque’s name translated as ‘lentil mosque’ and is believed to have been built by the proceeds from the harvest of a single lentil. While the mosque continues to be revered as a heritage site, the village has been transformed into an upmarket residential neighbourhood, home to some of the wealthiest businessmen of the city. Political scientist Ajay K Mehra notes in his work, “Urban villages of Delhi ” that in its journey from a village to being part of a metropolis, Masjid Moth has undergone several significant changes. “They have feeling that, not only the village, but also they as individuals have been simply reduced to a mere adjunct to the neighbouring urban pocket. There is a feeling of loss not merely of independent economic status, but also of an independent identity,” he writes.
Situated on the other Ring Road near Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Munirka was originally a Jat village. The large number of Lodi-era monuments dotting its landscape is reflective of the medieval past of the urban village. The notification for the urbanisation of Munirka was issued in March 1954, making it one of the earliest villages to be urbanised. The upmarket neighbourhoods of R K Puram and Vasant Vihar went on to occupy most of its agricultural lands. Mehra notes in his work that “after acquisition of the agricultural land of the village, agriculture ceased to be the main economic activity and the habitation ceased to be village”. “At the same time, the integration with the city in terms of lifestyle and psyche was not complete till the beginning of the 1990s,” he adds.