“Where are you from?” “Which state are you from?”
These were the questions constantly asked to me as a kid. I grew up in the so-called ‘urban village’ in the heart of south Delhi known as Khirki village. For me, home was never the four walls. It was an entire community, their rituals and ceremonies – and two beautiful 14th-century monuments.
But while all my classmates and teachers knew of the more posh neighbourhoods, no one seemed to know about my village. Social science lectures further convinced me that villages imply backward societies and uneducated people. As a result, my young brain decided to divorce my village identity and pushed me towards claiming a new and hip ‘city’ identity.
It started with me writing my address not as Khirki village but Malviya Nagar (which is close by and a more upwardly neighbourhood). I further started to distance myself from all the stories I had heard from my grandparents. I restricted myself to my books. By the time I was in college, home for me was actually just 200 square yards and four rooms.
We soon moved out of the village to the so-called shehar (city) – Greater Kailash. I went on to study history at the prestigious St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. I completed my Master’s in public policy at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. With this background, I became interested in heritage policy and did my dissertation research on the topic.
My research somehow brought me back to Khirki village. I soon realised that we have been treating our cultural capital as petrified lava and not an appealing productive asset for development. What if we, as a community, could benefit from our way of life itself? Can we see the dilapidated monuments as resources and not just as structures? Is it possible that being a village does not imply backwardness after all? I started to search for answers.
Delhi is more like a caravan than a city. Millions of people and communities have migrated to the city and made it their home. The city is truly cosmopolitan. But as new layers have been added to the city, we have left some of our memories, stories and history behind. A number of us simply live in a city (or a locality) and never really belong. Urban life – with its material comforts and intellectual stimulation – sure has pulled millions of us towards the cities, but have made us leave behind our shared history, a sense of community, familial values. In the process, it has turned most of us into uprooted trees. Thus on one hand, I had a repository of the tangible and intangible history of not just Khirki village but of the city of Delhi itself, and on the other, people who lived in Delhi, but were still looking to make it their home, to belong. That’s when I decided to make the most of the opportunity and started taking heritage walks to my village.
Heritage walks are an immersive and experimental model for heritage education. A walk typically involves physically walking (sometimes cycling) in the area, which not only allows one to observe the heritage sites but also experience the intangible cultural heritage of the area first hand. Such a real-time and personal experience is instrumental in creating an emotional connection with the place and thus truly understand the meaning and values associated with heritage. Most of us only ‘visit’ monuments (mostly in our leisure time) and never truly experience them (or the area around them).
Such walks are also important in making people more aware of the challenges being faced by our heritage and thus encourage them to raise questions and concerns. As conservation is essentially a public good, it consumes public resources. And for a country like India, where the demand for the good (conservation) is low, it automatically occupies a very low position on the government’s list of priorities. Thus, one of the best ways to protect our heritage can be to stimulate public interest in them (if the number of people who flock to malls and restaurants on weekends came to monuments, the government surely would take notice). The monuments in my case were Khirki Masjid and Satpula which, despite being listed as grade A monuments by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), were in dilapidated condition and were desperately crying to be rescued.
As I started taking these walks, I realised that it wasn’t only the ‘outsiders’ who were interested to know about the lives of people in an urban village. The villagers also slowly became more aware of their own identities. As I went from one village elder to another (I called them baba – meaning grandfather; or maaji – meaning grandmother) asking for their experiences and stories, recounting and retelling them somehow made them more connected to their roots as well. They shared stories of their struggles during the Partition, acquisition of their lands by the government, their carefree childhood, the transition of Delhi from a city to a megacity, etc. When they felt connected once again to their janmabhoomi (motherland), I had the opportunity to become part of my own history.
Leading heritage walks as well as attending several of them in different parts of my city made me realise that perhaps we have been approaching history and heritage wrong. Perhaps, it’s now time to move away from textbook narratives towards an immersive, experience-based education. Perhaps we should be placing heritage at the centre of sustainability through exploring and fostering a better understanding of the social, economic, environmental and cultural benefits of urban heritage.
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