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Life along the Delhi Ridge

Thomas Crowley | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 15, 2020

In poor light: Urban forests like the Ridge are often seen as outside the boundaries of civilisation, a refuge for “antisocial” elements   -  VV KRISHNAN

Delhi’s own stretch of the Aravali Range is steeped in history but seems to have fallen off the city’s mental map, writes Thomas Crowley in his new book

* Many Stone-Age tools have been uncovered along the Ridge, pointing to its importance as an ancient tool factory more than 100,000 years ago

* The Ridge has been an important source of water, fuel and fodder, as well as a shield against the hot winds of Rajasthan

* The modern-day Ridge, stretches from the city’s southern border to the Yamuna River near North Campus, roughly following the path of the ancient Aravali mountain range as it peters out into low hills and spurs

* 1994 saw the creation of four reserved forests on the Ridge

When I moved to Delhi from the US in 2010, my first home in the city was a flat near Delhi University’s North Campus. Soon after arriving, I began to hear wild rumours about the forest nearby, referred to, cryptically, as the Ridge. I soon began wandering around the Ridge on my own and, to my outsider eyes, it seemed to be quite tame (except for the ubiquitous monkeys). I became fascinated with the varying public perceptions of the Ridge. While Delhi has a reputation as an unsafe city, the Ridge is seen as particularly dangerous — in part because of the horrific murder of two teenagers in the late ’70s, along with reports of other crimes.

Author Thomas Crowley’s first home in Delhi was a flat near Delhi University’s North Campus, close to the Ridge

 

Forests (even urban forests like the Ridge) have often been seen as outside the boundaries of civilisation, making them a natural refuge for “antisocial” elements. This “uncivilised” space also allows for escape from societal constraints; many young lovers, with no place for romance at home, are found cuddling and canoodling in the Ridge. A place for love; a place for fear; the Ridge is many things to many people.

Meanwhile, I learned that my slice of the Ridge near Delhi University was just a small sliver of an enormous, though discontinuous, forested zone, totalling a remarkable 80 sq km. This zone, the modern-day Ridge, stretches from the city’s southern border to the Yamuna River near North Campus, roughly following the path of the ancient Aravali mountain range as it peters out into low hills and spurs.

Fractured Forest, Quartzite City: A History of Delhi and Its Ridge; Thomas Crowley; Yoda Press and SAGE Publications India; non-fiction; ₹795

 

I began to learn about the rich history of the Ridge, first independently, then as a research associate for the NGO Intercultural Resources, and then again independently, as I wrote the book that has now been published as Fractured Forest, Quartzite City: A History of Delhi and its Ridge. In my research, I was repeatedly struck by the crucial, often under-appreciated role that the Ridge has played in Delhi life for millennia. Many Stone-Age tools have been uncovered along the Ridge, pointing to its importance as an ancient tool factory more than 100,000 years ago. Firoz Shah Tughlaq built a hunting palace there. The British camped there during the 1857 uprising. Some of the most prominent symbols of post-liberalisation conspicuous consumption have been sited on the Ridge, from luxury farmhouses to high-end malls. And throughout all this history, the Ridge has been an important source of water, fuel and fodder, as well as a shield against the hot winds of Rajasthan.

I also learned about contemporary contestations centred on the Ridge. In the ’80s and ’90s, a strong middle-class environmental movement pushed for greater protection of the Ridge. It was largely successful; 1994 saw the creation of four reserved forests on the Ridge. However, the government used this movement as justification for clearing slums and other lower-class areas in and around the Ridge, while allowing fancy farmhouses; even the polo ground of the President’s Bodyguard remains. The case of the Od community in the Bhatti Mines area is particularly galling; several Od villages, deemed “slums”, were destroyed by the government, despite the traditional role of the Od as conservators of water.

Perhaps the biggest initial surprise in my research was how little the Ridge seemed to feature in accounts of the city. The city has grown since 1994, and the Ridge — it seems — has fallen off the mental map of many Delhi denizens. Perhaps, I thought, environmentalists had grown complacent after their victories in the ’90s; or maybe people’s fear of the Ridge was contributing to the greater disinterest. But the Ridge is of too much importance — both ecologically and socially — to let it lie unnoticed.

Throughout much of my early research, I thought of the Ridge as an undiscovered and unexplored part of the city. So little has been written about it, I thought. As my research deepened, I came to realise that my talk of “discovering” the Ridge smacked of Columbian arrogance. The local communities surrounding the Ridge — especially those that held on to remnants of rural life — already knew it intimately. For many of them, it is a hangout, a shortcut, a hiding place, a fuel source, a place of worship and more. I realised that I would do well to understand their views on the Ridge; and I endeavoured to do just that as I proceeded with my research.

At the same time, visits to the Delhi State Archives (fortuitously located on the edge of the Ridge) and to Teen Murti Library pushed me further back into the Ridge’s past, to all the sedimented layers of ecological, political and economic history that have converged to form its present-day terrain. Both the past and the present of Delhi look different when we view it from the Ridge. In this time of unprecedented socio-ecological crises, the Ridge has much to tell us about Delhi’s potential future.

Thomas Crowley is the author of Fractured Forest, Quartzite City: A History of Delhi and Its Ridge, jointly published by Yoda Press and SAGE Publications India under the SAGE Select-Yoda Press imprint

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Published on October 15, 2020
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