Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The City as a Place of Learning and Healing

It was 33 degrees centigrade at 7.30 am.

But, as we crossed the Yamuna, we noticed a perceptible drop in the temperature. Even in its denuded, smelly state, the river exercised this effect on the climate.

What must it have been like living in Delhi, I wondered, in the time of Shah Jahan? In the Red Fort, right on the banks of the river? Ringed around by trees and orchards, within and without. And green fields extending beyond the expanse of the Yamuna?

Of course, as always, the emperor and his family would have had the best of it. And further north along the Yamuna, the noblemen with their large havelis amidst their garden-orchards, would also have been close to the cool breeze.

The river, in fact, permeates the very conception of the Red Fort. Court-histories of Shah Jahan record that: "he envisioned that streams of water should be made to flow through the proposed fort and that its terraces overlook the river.But, as I reflected on the inevitable benefits of privilege, I realised such a location was not merely a simplistic situation of using power for personal benefit. It also accommodated a larger public function. A dense collection of small, private dwellings or buildings would have in practical terms, blocked the river breeze and the river view — as well as public spatial access to the banks.

It was the low-density of built structures ranged within trees and gardens along the Yamuna, and the provision of open public spaces, that made the river-front permeable. Just behind the enclosing city walls, the urban landscape as well as that within the Fort featured many orchards amidst which were set a very few buildings. In contrast, it was the western end of the Red Fort and the city, farthest away from the river, which had a relatively denser built-mass. This device of constructing a small proportion of built structures close to the river, helped to reduce temperatures in two ways. It increased the bio-mass in the vicinity of the Yamuna, and it channelised the micro-climate created by the Yamuna deeper into the city. This configuration may be seen as another version of the ‘jali motif’ — the perforated screens that interspersed and connected what seemed to constitute the continuous facade of the imperial pavilions along the river banks. Such urban and architectural planning ensured that the breezes and cooling effect of the Yamuna were not just confined to the imperial palace-pavilions, or colonised by those lucky enough to be located next to the river.

Not that the Yamuna riverfront was taken over entirely by private, or even by imperial functions. The Red Fort commanded a swathe of the central river-view towards the eastern end of the city, and its high fortification walls did come between the main Chandni Chowk street and the Yamuna. But on either side of the Fort, the view opened up through public gardens. There were many public ghats too. Flanking the banks on the city-edge beyond the Red Fort, their airy pavilions and chattris stepped down along wide steps to the river itself. And the sandy embankments at the foot of the river-front walls of the Fort were also open to the public. Even 200 years after the founding of Shahjahanabad, despite the appropriation and apportioning of many gardens and open spaces, and the incursions into its physical and social fabric by the British, a fair number of these still remained — as shown in records such as paintings of the river-facade of the Fort from as late as the 1820s, or the detailed 1846 map of Shahjahanabad, or photographs of the city from a little before or around 1857.

It seems incredible to me that in all my under-graduate years at the School of Planning and Architecture, I was unaware that the Yamuna flowed practically under our noses — located as we were on its erstwhile banks, just a few kilometres south of the Red Fort. In the late 1980s and early 90s, the intimidating width of the Ring Road and the looming bulk of the Indira Gandhi Stadium, effectively obscured all sight or sense of the river. On the few instances when I did venture beyond them, as during a memorable bicycle relay-race at our college festival, I was concentrating much too hard on evading the traffic (and ensuring that we did not lose our lead!) to even register the proximity of the river.

That I missed this vital component of Delhi may have been merely my lack of personal association with it, growing up as I did in far-flung army cantonments all over India. But neither do I recollect the river — the very reason for continuous inhabitation in the region of Delhi from pre-historic times — figuring in the academic design exercises set to us by our galaxy of distinguished faculty, which included many very famous architects. We did go far afield within and outside Delhi to study various architectural and natural contexts. We were also frequently dispatched to the ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla in our neighbourhood, to observe and analyse its buildings. Indeed, we could scarcely escape the sight of them right from first-year — especially those of us who had places assigned next to the windows, and spent a good portion of our time gazing out from our class studio on the third-floor. But the Yamuna did not have any presence or role in developing our design thinking.

I wonder why?

Was it because it had already been rendered invisible and superfluous in the planning of the city? Is that why the Yamuna continues to evade the collective imaginations of generations of graduates and practitioners from reputedly one of the premier institutes of architecture and planning in the country? And so, does it mean that the first step in making the Yamuna and other rivers relevant again, is to make them visible? To create free and public access, and release their banks from colonisation by large buildings, tarmac, high fences, barred stretches, and noxious use?

And how about the rest of the city, away from the river?
If we look at Shahjahanabad, pre-1857, we see that even those of its parts located away from the Yamuna, were devised with an ever-present awareness of the river and its canals and feeder channels. And with a sense and sensibility that made water a central part of planning and living in the city; that ensured that topographical routes, natural courses and routes to the river were not interrupted, built upon or polluted.

Trees lined Chandni Chowk and Faiz Bazaar: the two most ceremonial and important streets in the central east-west and southern part of Shahjahanabad, where the maximum amount of traffic and activities were centred. Canals drawing from the river-system flowed down their length. Large public gardens — which were essentially orchards — were located adjacent to these streets, and formed the grand finale around their junction with the imperial chowks right in front of the Fort. These acted as heat sinks: cooling tempers, shading the ground, recharging ground-water levels, filtering dust, and creating places of beauty.

Neither were the poorer people rendered invisible, or pushed only to the outskirts.

They were a part of each precinct and neighbourhood, making the city a place of mixed land-use and mixed-income groups. Availability and ownership of space in Shahjahanabad was not reduced to a single denominator of wealth. It revolved around an overlapping basis of multiple affiliations. The home of each nobleman or prosperous trader or important official did not just house their families, but also incorporated around them various other homes and families with whom there was a mutually dependent relationship of patronage and service.

Neighbourhoods, mohallas and katras were organised according to shared trades and professions, and accommodated many income and skill levels related to those communities of trades. Just as within the walls of the Fort, space was organised not merely for imperial use but for a multiplicity of interlinked functions from karkhanas to kitchen-gardens to courts of justice. And for active users, including administrators, soldiers, attendants, craftspeople.

Large havelis — around which smaller habitations clustered — disposed throughout different precincts instead of being concentrated in just one part of the city, repeated the same urban motif of social and spatial permeability. Architecturally, these havelis echoed on a smaller scale the pattern of buildings within the Fort, set around and within fountain-courts or gardens of orange, pomegranate, and other fruit trees. Fountain-courts and small orchards similarly formed the theme around which smaller homes in the city were arranged.

Like an Escher painting, as you zoom in and out of the city and Fort, different variations and scales of this interlinked pattern reveal themselves, simultaneously simple and complex. Tried and tested in the Indian subcontinent from Harappan times, this pattern was composed of sequences of walled courtyards-verandahs-halls-pavilions: a fluid building typology with some of its finest examples visible within the Fort, as analysed and described at length in The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad.

It is not as if the Fort and the city lacked formal ordered and structured avenues, forecourts and gardens. But these were not segregated into manicured, superficial showpieces. They instead allowed and encouraged multiple functions by varying users. As one moved into the residential areas from these avenues and public gardens, greater degrees of architectural freedom and territorial adaptation of spaces were permissible. The French traveller, Francois Bernier, was an inhabitant of the newly established city in the mid 17th century. He condescends to grant ‘that the capital of Hindoustan is not destitute of handsome buildings, although they bear no resemblance to those in Europe’.But it is really this lack of resemblance that seems to get in the way of his appreciating the logic of the city.

He avers that ‘there are no streets like ours of S.Denis', and '[t]hat which so much contributes to the beauty of European towns, the brilliant appearance of the shops, is wanting in Delhi'.And so he cannot shake off his disapproval of the shops here, where:

‘For one that makes a display of beautiful and fine cloths, silk and other stuffs striped with gold and silver, turbans embroidered with gold, and brocades, there are at least five and twenty where nothing is seen but pots of oil or piles of butter, piles of basket filled with rice, barley, chick-peas, wheat, and an endless variety of other grain and pulse, the ordinary aliment not only of the Gentiles, who never eat meat, but of the lower class of Mahometans, and a considerable portion of the military.’4

Bernier also observes that the ‘two principal streets of the city’ have ‘open shops, where, during the day artisans work, bankers sit...and merchants exhibit their wares’; that the ‘houses of the merchants are built over these warehouses, at the back of the arcades; and that the ‘rich merchants have their dwellings elsewhere'.He writes about ‘the five streets apart from the two principal ones’, amid which are ‘dispersed the habitations of Mansebdars, rich merchants and others’... [i]ntermixed with these different houses is an immense number of small ones, built of mud and thatched with straw, in which lodge the common troopers, and all that vast multitude of servants and camp-followers’.6

And he notes that the ‘dwellings of the omrahs, though mostly situated on the banks of the river and in the suburbs, are yet scattered in every direction'.Himself dependent on the influence and patronage of a nobleman to whose household he was attached, he cannot shake off his disapproval of such a layout, of the many 'wretched mud and thatch houses’that are seen throughout the city.

Leaving aside his conviction about the superiority of streets and cities of in his own country, what does the record by Bernier as an independent, outside observer, tell us? To me it reveals a number of things about the physical form and social structure of the city:

• How it is designed to be inhabited by the rich and poor alike;

• That it is the richer inhabitants who travel out (to their large estates, private gardens and baghs in the suburbs), while the very heart of the city makes space for the poor;

• That there is an endless variety of people who throng the market in front of the Fort and the 'royal square’ adjoining it — the same space, where at night are encamped the Rajas who are assigned guard-duty for the Fort, and where the royal horses are exercised in the morning; 

• That the main entrance streets of the city have markets — not empty promenades or un-peopled vistas;

• That these markets do not just display expensive 'lifestyle' stuff (as in the malls today) but also basic grain and staple food for all, that include the less affluent;

• And that these markets additionally accommodate artisans too, the mainstay of the economic system and the industrial base of the city — i.e. they make space for skills and knowledge as well as goods. In other words, the economic, technical, industrial, commercial, recreational aspects of the city are seamlessly integrated.

Such an urban character — democratic despite a political dispensation governed by a monarchy — is worth applauding and emulating. All the spatial and architectural clues of an inclusive city are here: multi-functional flexible spaces catering to mixed-land use and mixed income groups; a proliferation of public open areas used differently by various people at different times of the day. A city that makes the rich (who can afford it) travel out to the periphery of the city and keeps the centre accessible for the less rich while creating opportunities usable by all classes and kinds of people; a city that organises market and support activities on main travel nodes. A city that celebrates the river it draws life from; that gives back to the earth to stands on.

A humane, equitable and ecologically responsible city.

Yet, like Bernier, our references for urban models are increasingly based only on those that generate an impressive public appearance and show, or are characterised by imposing and awe-inspiring regularity. The Dutch educator and architect, N J Habraken, in his masterly analysis in The Appearance of the Form, explains the different world-views and ‘fundamental collective images concerning shared space’.These govern both the role, and therefore, the form of public space. In Western contexts, these are generally inviolate and cannot be questioned. Thus, predetermined geometries and fixed boundaries define and present public space with authority. In many Middle-eastern and eastern cultures, however, public space is an arena as well as an outcome of negotiation. There is less obsession with creating form. Instead the emphasis is on a complex web of relationships and usage, which in turn generates and accommodates particular social and territorial patterns.

To put this in context, imagine for a moment that the India Gate vista leading up to Rashtrapati Bhawan has colonnades and arcades hosting a variety of goods for the rich and the poor; space for formal markets and spontaneous pop-ups; for craftspeople to work; for tailors, watch-repair stalls, food stalls. Not prim lines of trees but dense orchards and scaled public spaces — free and open for street vendors, musicians, story-tellers, artistes and orators to practise and perform.

Imagine the city as a place of learning and healing. Imagine the effect of the simple expedient of planting many native fruit, medicinal trees and shrubs. Big garden-groves lining the wide dusty roads. Of planning for people rather than vehicles. Of cleaner air and happier citizens. And withal, more bird and animal life, cooler temperatures and less road rage, I daresay— even in May.

If that flight of imagination seems utopian, naive, or just plain difficult, we can instead invest in an effort of memory. Of a lived summer not so long ago. An uncertain summer, when despite the ominous fear of the virus and the devastation and havoc especially wrought on the poor, the streets and skies were unprecedentedly welcoming of vegetation, birds and animals.

And if we are to continue to imagine transformations, why then, as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sing: ‘I'd rather be a forest than a street’.10 

And if not, I’d rather get the forest into our streets and our cities.


p.406, The Shahjahanama of Inayat Khan, Begley and Desai.
pp. 248-9, Travels in the Mughal Empire, 1656-68Francois Bernier. First Published London 1891, Reprint Asian Educational Services AES, New Delhi, 1996
p. 245
p. 246
p. 247
p. 246
p. 34, ‘Sharing’, The Appearance of the Form. Awater Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2nd edition, 1985.
10 From "El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)”, a 1970 cover by Simon & Garfunkel (with English lyrics by Paul Simon, on the album Bridge over Troubled Water ) of "El Cóndor Pasa’ — the 1913 orchestral musical piece composed by the Peruvian com- poser, Daniel Alomía Robles, based on traditional Andean music.

Shahjahanabad in c.1846-47 (X 1659, OIOC, BL)

 River front with pavilions and ghats, north of Red Fort (53/30, OIOC, BL)


  1. Very well researched blog,tracing the history of the effect of Yamuna on climate and design.

  2. Gen Surender Verma, Noida

  3. A brilliant piece Anisha ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘Truly , learnings that can pave the way for the future ! A city ‘within the forest ‘ is the way to go ๐Ÿ‘And respect for the river by you ๐Ÿ™