The city of Delhi is a cluster of many historic capital cities scattered across its expanse. It has many ancient medieval monuments, historical settlements, archaeological sites and remains. Most of these historical places still exist, full of old buildings, artefacts and other features of heritage and cultural value. However, in the process of city development and planning, these settlements fell into neglect often as an unintended by-product of rapid urbanization. Some of these monuments of historical importance were taken over by ASI and some remained underutilized and abandoned due to their severely decayed condition. The built environment of the historic precincts around these buildings is also disrupted due to developmental pressures, increasing population and uncontrolled growth. The deteriorating historic precincts and the abandoned monuments in Delhi are the result of lack of interest by the authorities and non contextual growth without following any strict regulations. The economic and socio-cultural connection which these monuments had with the habitat once is disrupted because of the breakdown of certain factors like population shift, change in occupation, development triggers-gentrification, administrative governance, political disasters like communal riots, etc.
Khirkee, an urban village in South of Delhi is one such model, which is the victim of urbanization. The Neighbourhood derives its name from the Khirkee Masjid built in the 16th century by Khan-i-Jahan Maqbul Tilangani, the Prime Minister of Feroz Shah Tughlaq of the Tughlaq Dynasty. The word ‘Khirkee’ prefixed to the Masjid is an Urdu word that means “window” and hence is also called “The Masjid of Windows”. Around it is a collection of neighbourhoods constituting the Khirkee village, which is the historical habitat and also Khirkee Extension, which is the unauthorized development that came up around 1980s onwards. The village is where the old families lived and the extension exists on what was once agricultural land. The village was part of the urban economy anchored in the political kingdom at the time of Tuglaqs. This indicates that agriculture was definitely a significant occupation of its residents generating revenue and contributing to the economy of the kingdom. The village had a family based ownership of agricultural land as well as the presence of the commons. According to its local resident historians, the village was disrupted when the government of Delhi decided to take over the common agricultural property (after independence), which forms the present Khirkee extension. The government wanted to create a refugee colony for migrants from Pakistan in 1950. The villagers protested against the government and eventually the courts put a stay order preventing the government from taking over, but also not allowing the village council to stake its traditional ownership over it. The Khirkee Extension still came up.
Residential and Commercial encroachments abutting the Khirkee Masjid
The Khirkee Village has lost its connection with the mosque around which it is spread. This is because of the shift of the population during the partition of India. The physical environment of the precinct is completely disrupted due to the uncontrolled and unregulated growth. The current physical manifestation of the precinct is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood of global faces with regional migrant communities as ‘urban villages’ such as this make ideal locations for the new migrants to rent, live and set up shop or even buy cheaply. These global faces have no relationship within the community or monuments and new migrant communities are not even aware that the monument is a mosque and has certain heritage value.
The present physical manifestation of the precinct has no relation with the monument except for the kids from the surrounding neighbourhood who play within the setbacks of the monument. The physical environment of the precinct is completely different from the peaceful monument, mainly due to influx of a variety of residents demanding more space to live and work, which can be provided due to relaxed regulations and ease of construction in urban villages of Delhi. However the imprint of the fabric hasn’t changed and is in relation with the monument and topography. Certain positive social factors like communal gathering of women and children on daily and occasional basis in the Chowks and Chaurahas of the old settlement still exist.
Like Khirkee, most urban villages of Delhi have monuments that are left underutilized and misused with little or no connection with the surrounding neighbourhood and city. Some of these are occupied by beggars, criminal elements and vagabonds. These monuments are not visible or accessible directly from the main road due to the illegal construction encroachment along the streets and edges of the settlement or the monument boundary line. The character of the historical villages, i.e built form and open spaces is rapidly transforming because of the uncontrolled and unregulated growth. Being the neglected spaces of the city, outside of master-planning domain, there is limited documentation and mapping of these urban villages.
The challenge lies in defining the role these monuments can play in telling the history of the place as well as that of the city of Delhi. The presence of the monument can contribute towards enhancing the image of the city and neighbourhood and help resolve the gap between conservation and modernization. Although the physical structure of some monuments including Khirkee Masjid would be preserved as these are protected under ASI, we have to rethink their role as urban assets that have the potential of re-linking historical and socio-cultural fragments of the city over time and space.