Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Image of the City.....from the Delhi Metro

Delhi is the site of various cities built over its thousand year history. It is common to refer to the ‘seven capital cities’ that have been laid and populated at various times in Delhi.

“As we rode over the bridge, the first view of the city was the finest and most solid sight of eastern magnificence that we have seen. Such gateways, and the enormous Palace with its two miles of walls and battlements round it, and old mosques without end rising from among the other buildings. The streets too look busy, and though the King is no longer the rich King he used to be, the city looks as if pains were taken to keep up the buildings worth preserving.”
 Lady Fanny Eden, 1838
Delhi Gate to the Red Fort, Old Delhi - 1895

Once upon a time, this was the first glimpse that travelers got of Delhi, the walled city of Shahjahanabad. This was the first ‘image of the city’ they formed, and the first experience they had. Through the ages, Delhi, the city of seven capitals, has always provided just such a spectacular and distinctive visual experience to her users and her visitors. Perhaps, nowhere else in the world have the inhabitants of a city gotten so used to living with quite so much built heritage of so much antiquity and so much variety.
The Jama Masjid, Old Delhi - 1875
The Jama Masjid, Old Delhi - 2005
source: author
Delhi is not mired in its past. The ‘image’ of Delhi, both visual and experiential, has constantly changed over time. There is huge potential to make the connections between the most ‘contemporary’ of Delhi’s images and experiences, those connected to the newly opened Delhi Metro, with the others of her vast and varied past.

Today, Lady Eden’s first experience of Shahjahanabad, may well be getting off the metro at Chandni Chowk station and emerging directly and rapidly into the heart of a bustling and thriving city, instead of gradually from a far away distance. Today, she may not have the time to gradually orient herself to the walls, gateways, streets, chowks, shops, homes and landmarks that help create a coherent picture of the city to a user’s mind.

Emerging upward from an underground station or descending downwards from an overground one, the bewildering speed of rapid transit is replaced by the cacophony of everyday living. And yet, every part of the city of Delhi retains or has developed its own unique character. Every metro station opens into its own unique part of the city where the experience provided is not one that can be reproduced elsewhere – or indeed in any other part of the city.
Tram in Old Delhi
source: LIFE Magazine via

The image varies from the ancient forts and settlements of Islamic Delhi to the distinctive retail and wholesale markets of the modern one. One can see, for example, how Mehrauli’s centuries’ old festival of the Phoolwalon ki Sair leads into the story of Gurgaon, birthplace of Guru Dronacharya from the Mahabharata, and then as we go deeper, the malls and commercial hub of Gurgaon, the ‘Millenium City’.

In addition to narrating the story of Delhi’s past, the Metro can become part of the story of the present and the future by providing an interface for modern day artists, artisans, designers and craftsmen to create and present thought-provoking interpretations of the city to her citizens. The Metro station becomes more than just a station, presenting these stories using diverse media, each station can transform itself into a dynamic exhibition space, a museum or a gallery, a cinema hall or at its most basic, a display hub for information educating visitor and resident alike.
Wholesale Flower Market at Lado Serai, Delhi

Every metro station can be thus be contextualised and given its own identity, part of the identity of the area that it serves, the first orientation and glimpse they get of that particular part of the city and perhaps the lasting impression they carry and remember of Delhi as a whole - a spectacular city beautiful in her variety and richness – an impression just like the one Fanny Eden formed more than a hundred and fifty years ago when she visited in 1838.

Author: Shahana Dastidar
Note: For more information, please write to the author at urbanruralfabric(at)

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