Author and historian Swapna Liddle makes a compelling point about the value of physical maps when we discuss her new book, Shahjahanabad: Mapping A Mughal City. “Before Google Maps, when we used to navigate the city (Delhi), we used to take the help of Eicher Maps. This was like the Delhi version of the British A to Z maps. I still have it in my car,” she adds.
A map also forms the basis of the book Shahjahanabad, written by Liddle, along with visual curators Pramod Kapoor and Sneha Pamneja. But this is not just any map. The centrepiece of this 104-page coffee table book is a pre-1857 cartographic resource: a large map of Shahjahanabad from the British Library (IO Maps X/1659). Dated 1846-47, it is the most detailed available cartographic record of the walled city before the changes that followed the revolt of 1857. Shahjahanabad was founded as the imperial capital by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan in the mid-17th century.
While the map is missing a corner, corresponding to the south-eastern corner of the city, it still has a lot of interesting detail, as Liddle writes in the book. The inscriptions are in Urdu but can be read with a moderate level of difficulty, according to the author.
The book comes with a beautiful, large pull-out replica of the historic map, a collector’s item, which also forms a part of the book cover. Who the mapmaker was or who commissioned it in the first place remains a mystery. There is no “overt evidence”, as Liddle writes, only clues, which you come across as you go through the book.
Liddle has broken down the map into 13 zones—like chapters almost. Be it the Red Fort, which was known then as Qila-e-Moalla, “the exalted fortress”; Faiz Bazaar, known to us today as Dariyaganj; or important historical locations like the Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk.
Detailing the landmarks in all these areas, spotting and explaining architectural features, required years of extensive research. “For me, the map does not stand in isolation. The whole point of writing the book is that I have studied this map in the context of other sources of information, a variety of other texts,” says Liddle during a video interview. “While I was doing my PhD thesis, I got to know this city in this period quite well. In fact, while I was writing this book, I was also writing another book, The Broken Script: Delhi Under The East India Company And The Fall Of The Mughal Dynasty, based on my research. It is that work on the city, combined with what I get from this map, that I have put together.”
Liddle says one of the fascinating aspects of this map is that it is one of the few sources that can be used to retrace areas of Shahjahanabad that have disappeared completely: landmarks like the actual square, or chowk, in Chandni Chowk or the Akbarabadi Mosque, which was demolished after 1857. “It’s one of the few sources we have of trying to reconstruct what the city was,” says Liddle.
This aspect is another reason the book will appeal not just to cartography enthusiasts but anybody who is wanting to find their way around the galis of Old Delhi or discover old structures. It’s the best map to attempt this with, Liddle adds. “If you try and find something with Google Maps in Old Delhi... (it’s) impossible.”
While the book focuses on the Shahjahanabad map, it also includes other earlier and contemporary maps which give the reader a peek into the changing character of the city and map-making techniques. Deciding what to include and leave out in the book was also challenging, says Liddle, adding that anybody who wants to know about Mughal town planning and how cities were made will also find the book useful.
The city of Delhi has seen constant change, losing historical areas, buildings and landmarks to time. Liddle says it is important to preserve monuments and heritage landmarks, considering them archives to study the past—and learn from it. “Shahjahanabad, for instance, was a medieval city which had its own logic of how people lived in those days.... It was a compact, walkable city. You can walk from one end of the city to another quite easily. If you see what cars have done to the city, you appreciate the value of it (such city planning),” she notes.
Be it the neighbourliness factor or the importance of open spaces, these are characteristics of the old city we can learn from when we design cities today, says Liddle. “In Delhi, we have not realised the potential of a heritage city like Shahjahanabad. This is an important asset from the point of view of tourism and heritage-led economic development,” she adds. “I always feel that you can only save heritage by making it economically viable for those who have a stake in it... We can’t save it on sentiment alone.”