The Ridge is symptomatic of the best and the worst of Delhi, all the yearning for immortality distilled as vignettes of power, beauty, and faith. Let us imagine a future where a shared awareness of all of these moves us to rejuvenate our heritage, make it not just lived but also alive, writes Anubhav Pradhan
That nobody belongs to Delhi even as everybody lives in it is by now an old maxim. Unlike Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, Delhi is not supposed to have its adherents, it is not supposed to excite loyalty and pride as these other Indian cosmopoleis do. Delhi, we have been told time and again, is an unloved city, a bare, brute of a city where people come to earn their futures and retirements but never to belong and be one with. Delhi is down in the pits, it’s polluted, congested, unsafe, and segregated because none of the many people who live in it actually care for it.
How, then, does one locate love for this city? What does it mean to belong to Delhi if it’s so broken that no one identity emerges from it? To me, Delhi’s charm and strength lies precisely in its being broken, being many pieces which combine to form a rough, abrasive whole. Of course, the city is far from being a melting pot, nobody can go so far as to ignore its parochial biases, but it still seems big, and perhaps, big-hearted enough to accommodate various kinds of people from different regional, religious, even national backgrounds within its folds. After all, loving a city is not too unlike loving a person, and for a city like Delhi, it is often love and hate in equal measure: A compound of attraction and revulsion at all levels, in much of all that you do.
Such is the Delhi I know and love. Delhi means everything because in vital ways it means nothing, no one big idea or image to shadow all the many meanings and associations which emerge from it. Delhi is a lot of strife, an immense amount of struggle and violence and tussle between people and groups and ideas, but it is also a lot of faith and beauty and love. It has for long been the seat of power and has seen the clash of arms and men, but it has also remained a holy city, a centre of knowledge and learning to which countless seekers have flocked for sanctuary, wisdom, and absolution. The city is not one, it has never been one, and through the course of many brutal cleansings and rampages, it has become a pastiche of memories as bitter as sweet. To be in Delhi and to love it is to forever be torn between the past and the future, to live as much with shadows as with visions.
Nothing in Delhi is as emblematic of this as the Ridge. In thinking of cities and their histories, we often forget to think of land, the bedrock, literally, of their foundation. Delhi, too, is usually imagined in terms of the panorama of sultans, rajas, padshahs, begums, and commissioners who ruled it, the men who commanded it into being, and cut through rock and earth to make it the city it is today. In thinking of these men and their works, we forget the very basic fact of land, the topos, so to say. Very few of us realise it, and even fewer think about it, but Delhi is actually a riverine valley: From Surajkund to Tughlaqabad, from Lal Kot to Shahjahanabad, the many settlements and cities which have been considered Delhi and part of Delhi lie within the valley of the Yamuna.
The Ridge is intrinsic to this story. Part of the Aravalli mountain system, it is 2.5 billion years old, older than the birth of even reptilian life on earth. Much eroded by the passage of time, these ancient mountains still direct the channel of the Yamuna, a river younger by many millions of years. They undulate through the diverse cacophony of the city to provide the core of our urban forest cover, approximately 7,777 hectares demarcated as the Northern, Central, and Southern Ridge Forests. Beyond maps and notifications, however, the rest of these hills in Delhi lie covered under a mass of construction, monumental and otherwise, though namesakes such as Raisina Hill, Anand Parbat, and Dhiraj Pahari still speak of the enduring stamp of this peculiar topography in shaping the contours of contemporary Delhi.
The Northern Ridge — Kamala Nehru Ridge in official parlance — is the smallest of these three forests. At 87 hectares, it is awkwardly hemmed between the leafy avenues of Civil Lines and the University of Delhi on one hand and the busy bustle of Malka Ganj and Pulbangash on the other. Management of its tangle of shrub and tree is divided between the DDA, the North MCD, and the Delhi Forest Department, though the Archaeological Survey of India also has a stake over structures from over two millennia of human history. Hindu Rao Hospital, one of the biggest municipal hospitals in Delhi, occupies a substantial portion of one of its south-western spurs, while a meteorological station and two massive water storage and supply units lie strategically across its narrow length.
With these diverse stakeholders surrounding and literally inhabiting it, the Northern Ridge is as many meanings as these agents and agencies. To the well-heeled residents of Civil Lines and Kamla Nagar, the Ridge is an all-weather walking track, a place to meet and exercise away the idle morning hours of otherwise busy days. To the many generations of students who have had the privilege of studying in the University of Delhi’s North Campus, the Ridge acts as a shady bower, offering free play for their amours. Its green darkness is also said to give sanctuary to peddlers and dealers of assorted intoxicants, and certain pockets are regularly described as too dangerous for all but the visitations of ghosts and spirits.
Given this human presence, faunal diversity here is not as high as in the other two Ridge forests, and by far, broods of notorious rhesus macaques are the primary representatives of animal life in the Ridge. Enclosed as it is by walls and motorways, the Northern Ridge is still as much a vital part of the Yamuna’s ecosystem as its central and southern counterparts. It is closest to the river, and is known within living memory to have had fish and crocodiles in its water bodies. Its floral diversity includes such indigenous varieties as babul, karil, ber, bulahi, dhak, and jangli karaunda, though for the most, these are overwhelmed by the proliferation of vilayati kikar. Peacocks roam its thorny undergrowth, and deep in its heart, the more exotic call of migratory birds may still be detected.
In many ways, the Ridge is a place of romanch, the likes of which are difficult to find in Delhi. Its charm, enduring and intense, lies in its being so much all at once. It is as much a gentrified forest as an obscure jungle, as much of the past of sultans and soldiers as of the tenuous future of an aggressively aspirational city. An observant walker may well discern exotic birdsong through the metallic hum of high tension transmission wires. Khooni Jheel, dead with the careful neglect of our times, has a rich legacy of amphibian life woven with the Mutiny of 1857. Down the Flagstaff Tower to the Mutiny Memorial, the legacy of that great uprising is stamped indelibly on the Ridge, and in the magical gloom of twilight, a visitor may be forgiven for sensing the shades of generations gone by amidst the golden flicker of fireflies.
Of course, to say that ownership of a place like this rests with all of us is to repeat a tiring truism. Public spaces are public goods, and open to all, regardless of class, caste, and creed. The problem of the Ridge, as the problem of much intangible heritage, is not as much of ownership and access as of imagination and participation. The DDA declares the Ridge open to the public in its magnanimity, but it does not involve them in its management. The ASI maintains half a dozen monuments representative of almost all architectural epochs in the history of Delhi, but it does not bother welcoming visitors to these sites. The North MCD furthers a colonial legacy in running Hindu Rao Haveli as a public hospital, but displays no awareness of the centrality of this structure during the Siege of Delhi. Various Government agencies, stakeholders across a broad spectrum of class and occupation use the Ridge and lay claim to it, but almost always in isolation of each other.
What is lacking, therefore, is a collective, shared imagination of the Ridge as part of the city at large. We all know what the Ridge is legally, in terms of borders and its status as urban forest. We know the range of uses it serves, the many meanings that it evokes. Yet, as a city, as citizenry, we seem unsure of how to claim ownership, the extent to which we may belong. These multivalent purposes and interpretations, they exist and overlap, but are not inclusively reconciled. Over and beyond what it is, can we move to collectively evolve a common, comprehensive vision of what the Ridge can be?
I believe we can. In a city infamous for air pollution, the Ridge acts as a vital carbon sink. By virtue of being a green, wooded space, it also accrues health benefits to hundreds of citizens who come here for their daily constitutionals. Yet, this aspect is almost never taken into consideration in valuations of the worth of the Ridge to the city. The current governance model dictates that the Ridge must be protected as a forest because it is so. It does not bother to engage with citizens to creatively conduct such an assessment of this urban ecosystem, to convince people that in a city starved of space for development, this piece of land must be conserved for the city’s future.
The health of the Ridge is vital to the health of the city, but this symbiotic thinking seems absent in governance imaginations of agencies like the DDA and the Delhi Forest Department. Only when this becomes part of the regular work of these agencies that attempts to, say, weed out alien species like vilayati kikar for indigenous ones will bear fruit. Citizens need to know why this process is important for their own health, they need to be informed that this is not just an academic experiment but an intervention towards making Delhi a more sustainable city. Similarly, citizen outreach and involvement may also see dying water bodies like the Khooni Jheel revive, turn into community assets from conversation liabilities.
Significantly, apart from these more palpable gains, the Ridge also brings a range of intangible benefits to all those who engage with it. After all, what we are is what we have been, our past informs our future. That Delhi is unloved is majorly due to the ruptures which have recurred throughout the city’s history, specially its recent past. The bonds of jealous pride and grudging fondness, which tie a citizenry to a city, are almost non-existent in Delhi because we live divorced from our heritage, from our micro-history as a city. This is also due to the needs of our development, which has little scope for looking back, and to the nature of the law, which alienates communities from their heritage in the name of conservation. Delhi is a victim to this dual apathy, its potential as a synergetic city dammed by the juggernaut of the greater good.
The Ridge, for instance, has witnessed the ebb and flow of human civilisation over the course of the past millennium. Sultan Firuz Shah built a hunting lodge and baoli here in the 14th century, fondly named Jahan Numa; it was he who installed an Ashokan Pillar as well, to complement the glory of this palace. Many centuries later, Sir Edward Colebrooke, a potentate in his own right, built his country manor here after his dismissal as the Resident of Delhi. The Ridge was also the fulcrum of the Mutiny of 1857 in Delhi, an event whose consequence matched few others in determining the fate of modern India. All of these structures exist even today, but they are all shut from the public behind high walls. Locals who frequent the Ridge, those who live in it, find little to connect them to these monuments.
We need to holistically reimagine the Ridge, to inscribe these meanings in the contours of our engagement with it as a city. Let us imagine a forest where greenery is not just nominal but also substantive, an array of native plant varieties capable of providing sustenance to indigenous fauna. Let us imagine the Khooni Jheel revived, the fences barricading it brought down for a new lease of aquatic life. The Ridge can become more than just a perennial walking track, so let us imagine a future in which parents bring their children to the Ridge for instruction as well as enjoyment.
Flagstaff Tower used to be the final node in a pilgrimage of sorts, a circuit of imperial glory and sacrifice from Lucknow to Delhi via Kanpur. Let us imagine a future in which the University is encouraged to look up from its classrooms, enact the teaching of history along the stony paths which saw much of the action of 1857 unfold. Culture is not just an ossified artefact, it can also act in concord with the future. Let us work to see Chauburji, a medieval tomb and mosque, become a fount of poetry and music, a place for the young of heart to find peace in the heart of nature.
As in the rest of Delhi, there is not just a lot to see but also a lot to feel in a place like the Northern Ridge. The wide sweep of centuries compressed in stone, the agelessness of rock to bring humility to human vanity. The Ridge is symptomatic of the best and the worst of Delhi, all the yearning for immortality distilled as vignettes of power, beauty, and faith. Let us imagine a future where a shared awareness of all of these moves us to rejuvenate our heritage, make it not just lived but also alive. Perhaps then, barkat of the mysterious pir in Jahan Numa — the fakir who went fanaa here five centuries ago — may come to envelop all of us in its healing embrace.
The writer is an Urban Research Fellow with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. The views expressed here are his own