Shifting Grounds: Urban morphologies in the Yamuna Riverbed

Aneesha Dharwadker (MDesS)

Project Overview

The Yamuna River, a major tributary of the Ganges, runs the north-south length of Delhi,  India, providing around 70% of the city’s water supply and giving structure to the contemporary urban form. Beginning with the earliest records of Delhi’s history, including the epic story Mahabharata, the river has had a remarkable urban presence, acting as a thread along which urbanism has developed as well as a spiritual anchor for the majority Hindu population. In 1857, the year the Mughal Empire officially dissolved and the British politically clamped down on Delhi, the river flowed just east of Shahjahanabad (now Old Delhi), which was at the time the urban center of the region. In the century and a half since then, the Yamuna has shifted nearly two kilometers eastward, leaving a strip of land between Shahjahanabad and the new riverbank that accommodates a neat assemblage of urban types and forms, from large swaths of greenery and swooping transportation infrastructures to informal housing and a national cricket stadium.

It is this space—the space abandoned by water and reclaimed by urban citizens—that is my zone of interest for this study. The research completed for this grant maps plans and sections of the strip based on a predetermined grid, paying particular attention to the relationship of transportation infrastructure and architectural development to the ground itself. The project explores whether architecture, landscape, and density is this area are unique to the city due to its location on the old course of the Yamuna, and whether such a major ecological shift is a factor in both formal and informal design.

Project Information

1857 was a major turning point in Indian history. The mutiny of Indian soldiers, both Muslim and Hindu, against the British, is widely noted as the first revolutionary moment in the struggle for decolonization. What was known as Delhi at that time was the city of Shahjahanabad, the seventh in a series of walled cities in the region, built by various emperors ranging from the Rajput to the Mughal dynasties. These cities are evidence of Delhi’s unique and complex urban history. Shahjahanabad, constructed starting in 1638 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (b. 1592), was by far the most successful of the seven cities—not only was it the most modern and modernized in terms of urban systems, its expression of Indian design and political power posed a real threat to the structures of the British colony. Shahjahanabad was comprised of a walled palace and fort surrounded by streets and urban fabric, which were in turn contained in a wall; importantly, it was positioned at the edge of the Yamuna River, a major tributary of the Ganges. Whoever ruled the city commanded not only the breadth of the northern plain, but also the major waterways of the region.

The 1857 Mutiny marked the official end of the Mughal Empire. Since then, the Yamuna has continued its long dual history, as both a political entity and a shifting ecological feature. The space between where it flowed in the mid-19th century and where it is today is an amorphous strip of land that has lent itself to multiple forms of urbanism, including fertile green space, large-scale transportation infrastructures, industrial complexes, informal housing, and a cricket stadium. This strip is not representative of the rest of the city; that is, it is not a microcosm of Delhi. It is in fact an area of sparse architectural construction, as opposed to the rest of the city which in some places is dense to the point of suffocation. However, the zone does show some response to its ecological properties, taking advantage of the fertile land left in the wake of the shifting river. The zone acts as an infrastructural connector, as well, between older parts of Delhi in the west, and newer developments in the east. It is an atypical space and, for my purposes, provides a sampling of how might Delhi might urbanistically progress in the 21st century.

The riverbed zone is surrounded by clear edges: to the east, the current course of the Yamuna, and to the west, Mahatma Gandhi Marg, a major city highway. Between water and infrastructure lies a landscape that, to be properly understood, requires a rigorous framework. For this project, this framework is applied in a 500 meter square grid. The grid establishes lines along which sections can be cut, and squares within which plans can be drawn. It is intended to be a neutral framework, overlaid on the site plan with some degree of arbitrariness. This allows the emergence of unexpected spatial relationships, which are otherwise obscured or overpowered by the large and rigid transportation infrastructures on the site.

I approached this project by looking at aerial views of the city, noticing that this particular zone was put together differently, and much less densely, than other parts of the city. However, I was not aware of what the actual construction (or lack of it) looked like on the ground. Individual huts are not visible in satellite imagery, and it is precisely these constructs that define the riverbed urbanistically. It was a major surprise for me to discover what is essentially a village right in the center of the city. What is even more surprising as that when one is in the space of the village, surrounded by a lush green landscape, the surrounding city (and its accompanying noise) seem to disappear. Likewise, when one is in the city, there is no indication that the village typology exists adjacent to it.

I traversed the site by car and foot, and documented important points through photography and on-site sketching. I purposely took photographs in linear sequences so that I could stitch them into panoramas in the post-field production. Sketched helped to understand the infrastructure on the site, and its relationship to the various smaller scale structures surrounding it, including informal housing, industrial complexes, and the fertile ground that is a natural byproduct of the river shift. The methods I deployed were basic, but the information gleaned from them is extremely useful. Delhi is currently under-explored and under-represented in the design fields, despite its broad and deep design history and rather perplexing contemporary urban condition. The immediate contrast of the city and the village contributes to this condition. In much of the literature I have read, research on Delhi has been completed within the framework of time and history. It is a city constructed and constricted by chronological analysis; this project seeks to challenge the assumption that history is the consummate frame. The method of looking at even a small portion of Delhi through the lens of a grid argues that space and spatial analysis provide equally fruitful research; it prioritizes the city/village relationship in space rather than in time.

The panoramas of the riverbed, as a tool of analysis, give a sense of how diverse the zone is. In the northern part of the riverbed, the landscape is lush, and the air is humid. A scattered village condition sits among agricultural tracts, where vegetables are cultivated throughout the year. The land is technically owned by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which was created in the late 1950s to manage the physical development of the city at both the architectural and urban scales. A few of the villagers I spoke with described their relationship to the DDA: first, they insisted that they pay a nominal annual fee of Rs. 10,000 (about $192 US) to occupy the site; second, they said that when twice they had attempted to build permanent housing, the DDA came in and tore it down. Thus, in the center of Delhi, they live in bamboo huts with no fixed plumbing, outfitted instead with dish television. They pump water in makeshift pipes directly from the river, and, from the few cows they have, make dung patties to burn for heat and fuel. While I fully believe the second point, I am skeptical about the first. Rs. 10,000 is no small sum of money, and it did not seem likely that they could spare that much each year for “rent.” I had a feeling they told me this because they thought I might report them to a DDA or legal authority, and wanted to stress the legitimacy of their situation to me.

In the central part of the riverbed, much more planned construction is prevalent. There is a large public park that includes the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. There are also large-scale industrial complexes; one of these, for example, is a major water purification site. Wide highways and bridges for mixed traffic form ribbons around these areas. However, as one moves closer to the river, the soil becomes fine and more like sand on a beach–this is the zone where more sophisticated agriculture occurs, in plots of land neatly divided into grids.

In the southernmost part of the site, the terrain is drier and more arid. The Indira Gandhi Arena, built for the 1982 Asian Games, punctuates this part of the site. Its massive form and inaccessibility contrasts the agricultural zones nearby. Little is built in between the Arena and the river, except a large, flat stone embankment. This seems to be an artificial response to flooding–the stones form a hard layer that follows the natural terrain, but acts as a barrier so that the water does not reach the highway nearby.

This part of Delhi–the Yamuna riverbed that is not publicly acknowledged as such–provides a vital case study for understanding the diversity of forms in Delhi, in particular how informal/rural settlements interact with extremely organized industrial and political complexes.

Contact Information:

Aneesha Dharwadker