Author Pilar Maria Guerrieri discusses with ANANYA BORGOHAIN how the maps of Delhi from the 19th century onwards document the evolution of the Capital through the Mughal era, pre and post colonial periods, and the contemporary times.

The book takes into account maps published from the 19th century onwards. How old is the earliest map of Delhi?

Different maps of Delhi are dispersed in all kind of archives, nationally and internationally, and it is very difficult to locate and say which is the ‘earliest’ map. The first map of this collection dates at the beginning of the 19th century, which is around when we know the British reached Delhi and the Anglo-Maratha War occurred. It is clear though, even from the book Mapping India by Manosi Lahiri that “mapping” began and is actually linked with colonialism. Mapping, knowledge and power have always been related.

How did you choose your maps?

I chose those maps that were able to explain the major steps of the development or growth of the city, from the architect/planner’s point of view. In fact, with the same maps — which are valuable primary sources — a historian or a cartographer could have written a completely different story.

As someone with an insightful understanding of the city and its growth over the centuries, how do you look at contemporary Delhi in terms of its housing facilities, pollution control measures, overused landfill sites, and population explosion? 

Nowadays, I am actively working on contemporary Delhi from 1991 to now, trying to understand more of all these topics you mention. History and ancient maps are particularly meaningful when they become active tools to understand the roots of contemporary developments. I have realised that many problems of the contemporary megacity lie in the wrong application of models (most of the time Western) to the local context. There is not enough attention towards the local context — its geology, climate and culture — in the field of architecture and planning. Moreover, there are not enough efforts of architects to work bottom up instead of top down. Clear demonstration of what I am saying are the latest, completely out of place, new, glossy, unsustainable glass and steel architectures of Gurgaon or Noida. Moreover, among young architects, there is still a strong aspirational value towards foreign models; their own history/heritage is not enough integrated in the syllabi of schools of architecture. Getting inspired and copying is fine as long as the young architects know what or why they are copying and if those choices really meet the needs of the people. Unfortunately, this awareness is often not present among the youngsters.


Please tell us a little about what you found most interesting about the map in the chapter ‘Siege of Delhi 1857’. How does it enlighten us about the First War of Independence and its consequences?

The map ‘Siege of Delhi 1857’ shows the first position and settlement of the British cantonment. The cantonment were placed north of Shahjahanabad, protected by the Ridge, and characterised by a very simple and functional grid pattern. More interesting to understand the Siege though, is the ‘Plan of the British Position at Delhi, June 8-Sept 14, 1857’, where the military event of the 1857 Mutiny is actually described in much more detail. The military maneuvers are visibly marked on the map, be it the ‘enemy’s trench’, the position of specific batteries or the indication ‘Left Breach’ or ‘Right Breach’. Here, the individual batteries are marked and designated as are the names of their commanding brigadier, showing a picture of the First War of Independence battle field.

What do we learn about the present day mohallah system in Delhi from the map of Shahjahanabad published by William Mackenzie?

We could learn from old Delhi and the ancient mohallah subdivision of the city of Shahjahanabad, the concept of shared space, of neighbours, embrace the mix of activity (production/commercial/residential), and experience a pedestrian city.

Also the bazar model that characterises the ancient Indian cities and the complex segregation/organisation of different types of activities/products. All concepts that seem to have gone lost with the zoning principles and the colonies town-planning model.