Academic journal article Change Over Time

CONSERVING URBAN WATER HERITAGE IN MULTICENTERED REGIONS: An Historical-Geographic Approach to Early Modern Delhi

Academic journal article Change Over Time

CONSERVING URBAN WATER HERITAGE IN MULTICENTERED REGIONS: An Historical-Geographic Approach to Early Modern Delhi

Article excerpt

Early modsrn CitiGS in South Asia are renowned for their exquisite architectural waterworks, which included tanks, stepwells, garden channels, pools, and fountains.1 What is less widely appreciated is that these structures were situated within urban regions that had multiple spatial centers, and sometimes even multiple citadels, as in Delhi, India. Multicentered cities had infrastructural systems of waterworks and roads that were only partially connected with one another. Successive urban centers developed different types of water systems to collect, conserve, and distribute monsoon runoff, aquifer withdrawals, and wastewater discharge. It is precisely this partial networking in which nearby urban centers developed partly autonomous and partly interconnected wells, tanks, channels, and streams that sheds light on the spatial and social dynamics of urbanization and urban conservation in multicentered cities.

The late twentieth century witnessed a shift toward more fully networked water infrastructure that obscured but by no means fully replaced earlier multicentered patterns of urban development. This paper uses a historical geographic approach to ask what was, and is, the "city" to be conserved? Even today, Delhi encompasses over one hundred official urban villages, a New Delhi Municipal Corporation, Delhi Cantonment Board, Municipal Corporation of Delhi, and overarching National Capital Territory, along with scores of unrecognized slum settlements-each of them served by still partially networked and partially autonomous water systems. The changing institutional and infrastructural mosaic of pre colonial times prefigured the current situation.

This paper offers a historical geographic perspective on early modern precolonial urban water systems that developed in Delhi during the twelfth through eighteenth centuries. It draws together current knowledge about urban water structures and conservation practices of each period. In each historic center, waterworks influenced the patterns and processes of spatial development.2 In some cases, waterworks were abandoned, in other cases they were sustained or revived to serve the evolving partially networked, multicentered patterns of urbanization.

Some early modern water structures and institutions have continued to operate through the nineteenth, twentieth, and present centuries. In those cases, conservation encompasses the evolving functions as well as structures of historical water systems, albeit set within profoundly changing urban social contexts. Multicentered cities had more than one social as well as spatial center. Their centers moved from one area to another, served by multiple infrastructures. These spatial processes complicate perceptions of the city in history as well as their conservation.

Recent research has tended to concentrate on colonial rather than precolonial capitals and their waterworks whether in liberal, critical, or Marxist historiographies.3 At the regional scale, this has produced incisive studies of colonial canal irrigation and the vigorous discourse it generated among colonial irrigation engineers, administrators, and their critics from the mid-nineteenth century onward.4 Urban water systems developed under different branches of colonial administration such as departments of public works, public health, and sanitary engineering, which also have growing critical literatures.5 Heritage conservation developed under the auspices of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and less formal actors, and it, too, is beginning to generate an analogous critical literature.6 Part of the criticism of heritage conservation is directed against its monuments-based approach, and toward the need for broader urban social and environmental approaches to conservation in cities like Delhi.7 While there is still much to be critically investigated regarding colonial water systems and heritage conservation, this paper strives to dig more deeply into the complexities of precolonial urban water development and to do so with a historical geographic approach. …

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