‘Kitne Kadam’ (How many steps)
This week I hit my first major set-back, and it was a disheartening yet learning experience. Working in Zamrudpur, a village in the heart of Delhi, with its many caste and cultural nuances, is the first time I had to work in such a capacity on ground, even in a place I call home, and I’m learning that its far trickier to navigate a socio-political landscape that the physical one.
In India, especially in small neighborhoods, open markets or communities, close knit units and narrow streets, force most of the movement to be pedestrian. Here, distance measurement and way guidance gets simplified beyond actual dimensions and the human body becomes an important tool itself. Distance is most often measured in steps (‘kadam’ literally translating to feet) and directions would be given in the form of “take the first left, and about 30 steps from there is my house” or “the shops are tucked away in the alley barely 10 steps from the temple entrance”.
The greater Delhi city has existed since the mythological period of the Mahabharata and over time, its many rulers have left marks of their rein in the form of forts, walls, tombs, gateways, mosques and pavilion. Currently there exist over 300 such structures, ranging from the Sultan Ghari tomb, the oldest tomb in India built in 1231 to the Qila-i-Mubarak (Red fort) built in mid 1600’s. When we realize that this is just one city in a country the size of India, logistically, it has been near impossible for the concerned bodies, the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) and INTACH to catalogue or maintain each and every one of such structures. Their current conditions range from those incorporated to UNESCO World Heritage site and well maintained, to those semi protected by fences, to many nameless remnants scattered around. Though the jurisdiction ruling states that no constructions can take place within 200 meters of any historical monument, it is often overruled either by illegal encroachment or by certain loopholes in the city byelaws.
Zamrudpur is home to seven 14th century tombs located throughout this small community. During the past two weeks I’ve been hunting the archives of the ASI and INTACH to find more information about them. Unfortunately there’s no historical record of these tombs, the only mention being that of a Maulvi Zafar Hasan in a record of the city’s historical monuments in the first decade of the 20th century, who also attributes them to being of unknown origin.
Owning to the village’s status as a lal dora urban village, there were some byelaws that it got exempted from and many that offered grey zones of interpretation leading to encroachments. In its growth and expansion in the heart of prime real estate of the city, its buildings and structures grew such that they’ve almost completely engulfed these historical monuments. Buildings have sprung up next to, around, and through these tombs, all but hiding them from plain sight.
As an experiment in way finding, I wanted to try calling out the location of these tombs through the winding lanes of the community. The small size of the community and the nature of their presence mean that the tombs are 15-20 meters at most off any of the main streets in the neighborhood. Expressing this in a layman’s anthropometric measurement understanding, we decided to paint markers exposing the nearby tombs and the number of “steps” that they were away from that spot.
I created the stencils, with which some of the children started painting around the neighborhood. Unfortunately, we had barely started, when a few residents created a commotion regarding our project. Many families have illegally encroached upon these tombs, using them as sheds for their cows, or extensions of their homes. They got afraid that our project was trying to raise the issue in the municipal corporation’s eyes. They’ve already been in court battles with the ASI for years regarding the status of these tombs. Despite our best efforts, and to try maintaining an acceptance of the NGO and our project in the community we had to abandon it mid way.
My personal opinions on the situation and the legalities notwithstanding, (I am personally against historical monuments becoming passive, caged relics, with my own thesis project exploring the possibility of establishing a weekly market in the another monument complex in the city – Hauz Khas monument), we understood the futility of trying to press this strategy in such a short duration of my stay and instead try another avenue to explore way-finding in the community. Way-finding clues, which would be visually engaging and provoking, instead of being mere signage guiding movement.
(This post was written at the end of last week, being uploaded now thanks to my ongoing struggle with the available Internet connection. This week, we’re trying a different strategy, that seems to be getting a good response and I’ll be able to critique better it once its finished completely.)