We meet at 9am sharp. The team of five Japanese explorers are ready — with cap, water bottle and wet wipes — in the lobby of Sumitra inn, located in the back lanes of Delhi’s Safdarjung Development Area. Two are bespectacled students of Hindi at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The third is an assistant professor of architectural history and the fourth is So Yamane, professor at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Language and Culture. Yamane and I get talking. Or more precisely, he reels out phrase after phrase in the most perfectly-woven Hindi, and I stare open-mouthed. His speech is that of the havelis of Lucknow, where pigeons flutter in the corridors, ittar lurks in the air and tehzeeb is a way of life. Moved by the ghazals of Mir Taqi Mir, he started learning Urdu in his twenties and has been teaching it for close to 20 years. He even writes his own couplets and has recited them at the annual mushaira Jashn-e-Bahar. This interaction in the lobby provides the prologue to the kind of day I am about to have. It would make Indiana Jones proud. It is a day of tracking, exploring and chronicling, as rich in adventure as it is in discovery.

I accompany the four Japanese researchers, led by the indomitable Naoko Fukami, director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Cairo, on a monument hunt. Armed with only a 55-year-old map created by a certain historian named Matsuo Ara, the team aims to map 400 medieval monuments of Delhi over two years. Their project — awkwardly titled ‘Urban Development and Heritage Preservation of Historic Delhi: Re-evaluation of Mission for Indian History and Archaeology, University of Tokyo, in 1959-60 and 1961-62’— has a simple mission. They wish to see how the 400 monuments have evolved over time. Intach is also helping them in the process.

Prof Ara, Japanese historian of Indian History and South Asian History, passed away in 2008. Fluent in Urdu, he visited Delhi 55 years ago and created a detailed map that provided the location of the monuments. There were also detailed notes for each — the ownership, function, status, features, materials, state of preservation and date. Fukami and her team use Ara’s documentation as compass and lodestar to track each of those 400 monuments.

The task is rather monumental, as many of these structures have been obliterated, encroached upon, or rendered unrecognisable. Some of these structures — dating back to the Delhi sultanate (1191-1526) — have now become homes, complete with television sets, clotheslines and a scooter parked outside. While people prove helpful most of the time, they can turn irritable when strangers tramp through their doorways, says Fukami.

Even as the project is underway, the findings till date are grim. Hundred and twenty eight monuments have been all but demolished, including one that cannot be located from the map. Twenty three are in ruins, swallowed up either by urban sprawls or nature.

This obliteration of heritage is a poignant reminder of the importance of Fukami’s work. In India, we cast nary a sideward glance at our cultural inheritance. Monuments get bulldozed, stepwells are sealed, hammams are demolished. To catalogue and document 400 monuments is an exercise not only in diligence but also to acknowledge and memorialise what was. Ara’s detailed map is not just an individual’s research project, but rather it is also like a pop-up book which conjures up the medieval history of the city. Fukami’s work pays heed to the structures Delhi has little time for. By tracking down each of them with the sincerity of a hound on a hunt, her group literally brings monuments back from the dead. The petite historian says, “In Japan, you wouldn’t find 400 medieval monuments, but in India not many people are interested in their heritage.”

In two autorickshaws we set off for Kilokri tomb, located between the wide span of the Mathura Road and the carefully topiaried neighbourhood of Maharani Bagh. With a warm smile, Yamane approaches chaiwallahs and kabariwallahs to find out the location of the tomb. His impeccable Hindi immediately warms people towards this motley crew. We walk through narrow but well-cemented gallis, past shops selling kebabs and rotis. Kyota Yamada, with a PhD in Indo-Dutch architecture (he has spent months in Nagapattinam, Colombo and Kochi), notices the tiled facades of the houses and realises it is a sign of recent prosperity. We continue down the alleyways, stopping to unfurl the map and show residents the original photos of the monument. After 15-20 minutes we hit our destination — the 700-year-old tomb.

Immediately, Fukami and Yamada get down to work. They take detailed measurements of the structure and compare it to the original. A trained architect, Yamada effortlessly draws the blueprint, even while standing. They conclude that this Islamic complex consists of a medieval domed monument, the tomb of Sai-yid Mahmud Bihari and a new mosque. While the original arches have been demolished, the shapes (square base, octagonal drum and dome) and the petal-shaped kangura (motifs) remain unchanged.

Even though much of the original structures might have vanished, the complex is well-maintained because of the efforts of Abdul Haziz Haji Sahib. The gracious caretaker tells us, over little cups of chai, that four generations of his family have looked after the complex. Using contributions from the neighbourhood he has repaired parts of the tomb, sourcing iron from the local kabariwallah. While this might not please historians, it safeguards the building against the vagaries of time.

With the recce complete, the team makes its way to Taimoor Nagar, past the Meerabai Institute of Technology, in search of the Kilokri fort and bridge. A hookah panchayat appears to be in session in Taimoor Nagar and the men of the community take a breather from their inhalations and exhalations to gawk at the adventurers. They huddle around Yamane’s printouts, which show the bridges as Ara had found them. The eagerness of the elders does not match their knowledge. They point to the black-and-white drawings and exclaim that they remember playing under the bridges as children, but are unable to offer any more information.

A fetid drain choked with plastics, home to pigs, and dark with flies runs along the length of Taimoor Nagar. The historians however remain undeterred and walk along it to make doubly sure there are no remnants of the ancient bridge. A stench rises, the sun beats down, water bottles run dry. I ask Yamada if these conditions make their work hard. He answers with Zen-like fortitude, “It is not more difficult than working in Japan. It is just different.” The juggi jhopdis thin out and open into a bramble-filled vacant lot, where a few Jat women cut wood for fire and young men gambol under leaking water pipes. Fukami stops to examine each brick along the way, but mutters sadly to herself, “Not old, not old.”

Our next destination is Chilla Nizamuddin, north of Humayun’s tomb. We locate this monument rather easily as it is just a short walk from the Capital’s premier landmark. Chilla Nizamuddin is easy to find yet visited only by devout worshippers and wandering felines. The Delhi Walla, the city’s favourite blogger, writes, “the chilla, or retreat, of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is Delhi’s most serene monument.” I couldn’t agree more. The group sets to work at once, measuring, blueprinting and comparing. They find the building has been whitewashed and a new grill shutter added, but the original structure remains. And the damage to the chajja (sunshade) at the east façade has been repaired authentically. Everyone pauses a few moments to observe the numerous cats purring in the nooks and to ask the resident fakir about the many rings on his hand. It is early evening, but work for the day is not done.

The group has so far documented 234 monuments that still exist and 23 others that are in ruins. Over a hundred monuments across Delhi still await Fukami’s visit so that they can once again be brought into reckoning.