Festival and Urban Space

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Every year I get asked by some new friends and colleagues, ‘It’s a holiday on Eid Milad but what is it?’

For those not aware Milad-un-Nabi is the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed[Peace be upon Him] which falls on the 12th day of the 3rd month according to the Islamic calendar. There are proponents for and against the celebration which also marks the day of the death of the Prophet. There is no historical evidence for Milad-un-Nabi or Eid Milad, and the practice started 400 years later by the Fatimid Empire in Egypt inspired by Christmas Day venerating the birth of Christ. However, it is celebrated widely in South Asian Muslim communities. This background is necessary to understand the context of celebrations in the midst of people questioning the legitimacy of the celebration, and it being politicized in the recent years.

Milad-un-Nabi in Hyderabad has taken altogether a new fervor and zeal. A little less than 7 years ago this day would be a small private and somber affair. Small neighborhood gatherings, if at all, local mosques filled with songs sung by children in praise of Prophet would be heard.  An evening dedicated to seminar narrating the stories and lessons from the life of Prophet, and quiz, elocution competitions, and from which prize distribution followed. Businessmen, shopkeepers, and householders pitch in money for the communal kitchen where poor people are served food without discrimination. This was observed in the old city and mixed neighborhoods while the rest of the city went on business as usual. The scale of the events was still local and not yet mobilized to make grand pompous processions in the city.

One incident that brought about a dramatic overture to this is the communal tension the city was plagued with briefly during 2010.  That year eid was followed by Hanuman Jayanti witnessed the celebrations competing in their show of pomp and fervor.  Both celebrations are marked typically by decoration on religious buildings, prayer and puja, communal kitchens, and sounds blaring from speakers religious or Bollywood numbers. At the time, a number of people from an organization were mobilized from various parts of the country in Secunderabad area armed with swords etc. to create communal tensions, in an otherwise calm city with small infrequent altercations among the two communities, were preempted by the city police. The people of old city Hyderabad are a mixed population and contiguous areas of concentrated either Hindus or Muslims.

The following years have seen a lot of changes in the way these celebrations happen. In response to the attempt to disturb the communal harmony and threat to their security, some religious groups consolidated to make the event grander and several processions are taken out in the city every year during eid.  To assert the right to city and public space grandiose statements are made during the celebrations. Bigger, brighter, larger, louder – lights, sounds, sights, places are to behold. The festivals follow each other and so do their attempt to make it larger than life. These activities happen precariously within close proximity of space and time. An imminent fear lurks as a slight mishap could be blown out of proportion, and provoke people negotiating the same public domain.

It is a known fact that the old city area has been estranged from the growth and development’s relentless activity in the newer and extended city. The celebration marks a day beyond an everyday necessary to make their presence felt in the public sphere and show of community spirit. It is an assertion of a right and a political statement as several politicians are invited in night long events that take place in the open grounds of the college run by the organisation. David Harvey defines the Right to City: ‘ far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is the right to change ourselves by changing the city.’ The old city is built too densely and events such as these are a testimony of people claiming the city space outside its immediate boundaries from which they are excluded. The administrative side is another story exhibiting abject neglect and apathy. Recent proposals were made to rebuild the Osmania Hospital, a listed heritage building. Decisions such as this only prove counterproductive and disturb the integrity and sense of place. Examples from other cities emphasize that neglected urban areas divide the city and make its resources inaccessible. Such a plight is often evident as one takes a ride from the new city to the old city, a keen subject of study of marginalization of people socially, politically and economically.

The festival celebrations in such a scenario serve twofold for the people. Firstly, in claiming the public sphere far from the edges of a local neighborhood and demand the right to public space as its (ignored) citizens. Second in fostering a community spirit and solidarity as a collective response to elements that disrupts the harmony of the city. In times of the tolerance debate, one could only hope the succession of the festivals happen as peacefully, and that urban development follows a far more insightful and sensitive course.

HydRockabad

Guardian Rock overlooking Peerancheru Lake

Blast, break, flatten: often the words used to describe the process involved in leveling rocks to make way for urban development. The natural rock formations are an integral (often overlooked) aspect of the narrative of Hyderabad’s rich history which lies on the Deccan Plateau. The age of the rocks date as far back as 2,500,000,000 years (2.5 billion) one of the oldest rock landscape that was created. As a small city, Hyderabad lay nestled amongst the rocks whose history began with the Golconda Fort city sitting atop a hill.

Apartment buildings at Nanakramguda

A relentless construction activity is fast changing the natural landscape and urban form. In a span of 20 years, the area under metropolitan limit has increased from 170 km2 to 625 km2 and proposed to be further expanded to 928km2. Large tracts of agricultural land, small villages, and intermittent rock landscape were added to the city limit along with many peripheral urban conglomerations. The process of redrawing of their extents is not new to urban centers. The city outgrew its fortified limit and spread to the north, built over an uneven terrain by cutting rocks and falling trees. This was sporadically done following the then ownership pattern and land grabbing of the adjacent areas relying on private vehicles for the commute. As population and demand of housing increased the areas in between them developed. The centers of business shifted from the old to the new city and the extended city in the recent years.

Proposed Masterplan 2031, HMDA website

Today the city of Hyderabad is showcased as the place of Charminar and Cyber Towers juxtaposed together. Literally speaking Charminar symbolizes the heritage and culture that is for consumption for those doing business in the clinical precision of the technologically advanced Cyber Towers and the foreign investments it promises. This mutually exclusive idea of Hyderabad overrides the many layers of identities it contains. There’s more to the city than what meets an ad campaign designed to invite national or an international audience. Nostalgia lurks, for the locals, witnessing a sea change in the city’s development. For the migrants, it is the search for their belonging in the city. ‘What place is Hyderabad?’ is the question that both of them ask.

Cities by their relative placement in a geographical setting offer natural respite from the urban conundrums. For example, Delhi has urban forests (fast depleting), a wide variety of flora, fauna and bird species because of its strategic location at the foothills of Aravalli mountain range, the coastal city of Mumbai or Chennai have a unique ecosystem, the edge of the shore doubles as a large public space. Hyderabad lies on the eastern Deccan Plateau (called Telangana), between the two mountain ranges – Eastern and Western Ghats and on the north by the Vindhya and Satpura mountains, made of vast sheets of massive granite rocks. Anyone familiar with the city knows of the peculiar natural formation of clouds and rocks that are reminiscent of the seasonal shifts. The rocks and blue sky lie at the heart of the city that connects people to nature. The sky undergoes infinite changes in the cloud shape, structure, and patterns through the year – flat, puffy, wispy, high up etc. Full blue, cluster of clouds wafting, stationery clouds of myriad form and size, heavy clouds pregnant with rain, against the backdrop of yellow-orange, red-purple, blue-grey sky filtering sunlight is a sight to behold. The cloud formations are out of human reach and control but the rocks do not enjoy such state anymore, and their loss is irreversible.

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One of the foremost reason to conserve the rock formation is that they are one of the oldest geological formations on earth and very peculiar to the geography and its subterranean volcanic activity. Secondly, it sustains an ecological cycle that cannot be overlooked or denied, the recent flood in Chennai is a live example of the disaster that occurred because of which. This formation is made up of humongous to small size rocks, sometimes so precariously balanced that it seems a gust of air is sufficient to make them tumble down. Some time spent amid the rocky landscape can inspire an ode for their lyrical construct. The Society to Save Rocks is a group of artists, photographers, and environmentalists from Hyderabad working to protection the rocky landscape since 1992. In 1996, they formed themselves into a registered society, and since then, the Society to Save Rocks has expanded to include many other citizens, from students to housewives to businessmen and bureaucrats. The Society to Save Rocks aims to preserve and protect the spectacular ancient granite formations of the Deccan Plateau, India – a natural wonder of stony ridges and hillocks shaped into picturesque balancing forms. A constant effort by the society made authorities recognise their natural heritage value and 9 such rock precincts were listed under Regulation 13 for protection in the year 1997. And in 2009, another 15 rock sites were notified as heritage precinct by the then government of Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad is the only city in India where rocks are protected as a natural heritage.

The rock landscape is a hard, impervious and undulating terrain converting low-lying areas into water bodies replenished by small channels.The crevices between rocks filled with water during the rainy season are home to seasonal aquatic and reptilian life.  Bats feeding on mosquitoes, help to control their numbers, are commonly found in moisture laden fissures. The vegetation is peculiar as the wild plant species found can grow without water for extended period of time. The water bodies, large or small, thus formed are home to migratory birds every winter with birds migrating as far from Russia. The rocks, water bodies, vegetation, fauna are deeply connected to each other in sustaining an ecological cycle. Incautious planning and development activity in the urban areas is disturbing this natural cycle and rendering it irreversible. The rocks are cut to use as building material, low-lying areas are filled, channels are dump filled, trees and plants fallen in order to develop land parcels. This inadvertently disturbs the natural drainage of the place, making it susceptible to floods. The constant construction of infrastructure, buildings, the pollution from the vehicles emit particulate matter into the air reducing its quality starkly. Increased temperature, extended summer, a dearth of rain, numerous deep bore wells are reducing the water table resulting in acute shortage of water.

Satellite images from 2005, 2010 and 2015 of the development along old Bombay Highway

2005
2010
2015

The case is not against urban development as it is the only way forward for cities. An objective approach is required that can address the issues of development and urban ecology together. It is necessary to respond to the needs of the city and also the need of the existing natural heritage. This is not possible without the will of the governing authorities that takes the decisions for the course of future growth and development. Civil societies or citizens collective have a limited role in proposing, creating awareness, or sometimes even pressurising but it is the competent authorities that can put it to implementation. There are examples, recent and old, that teach us that destructing a natural ecosystem hasn’t proved to be beneficial in the long run. And we rely on human resilience to overcome a state of emergency when disaster strikes instead of planning with foresight. We need better planning and design in order to create better cities and better future.

 

TOPO HYD
Topographical Map of Hyderabad

 

The following are some recommendations to protect natural heritage:

1. Planning

i. Identify key areas of influence of rock landscape and ecological cycle it sustains as a system.
ii. Change the direction of growth from sensitive zones.
iii. Introduce buffer zones that are specific to each area identified to reduce the negative impacts of development.
iv. Identify key elements of the system: rocks, water bodies, watersheds, drainage pattern, vegetation, fauna and avian species for different seasons.
v. Create a regular monitoring body to keep the system in check.
vi. Land use should be compatible with its surrounding area and not exceed optimum pollution level as prescribed.
vii. Create awareness among the official decision makers, local community and stakeholders, in addition to students, professionals and participants from across diverse fields.

2. Urban Design

i. Incorporate rock formations in creating public space where it doesn’t disturb a natural habitat.
ii. To make intermittent areas of development accessible a network of terraces and steps can be introduced.
iii. Buffer zones can be designed to create spaces for community and public interactions.
iv. Foster an active recreation for the city by designing natural rock trails, walks, parks etc.
v. Create a network of open spaces that facilitate walking, cycling, or new forms of sports like parkour etc.
vi. Create a system of rock, water bodies, open spaces that can act as the lung space of the city.
vii. Where necessary spaces must be built of temporary materials.
viii. The roofs built on terraces can be designed to interconnect public recreation space.
ix. Use of smaller rock outcrops as a community, breakout, picnic, or interaction spaces.
x. Engaging local people in design and guardianship of spaces that benefit them.

3. Architecture

i. Minimal cutting of rocks.
ii.Encouraging building on slopes and stepped terraces.
iii. Designing with rocks as an element of space in built areas.
iv. Use of courtyards and verandas in building as open elements.
v. Use of rock outcrops in indoor garden and pools as the core of design.
vi. Feature walls of rocks to display art etc.

The list is not complete or exhaustive. We can only hope that some action will be taken before we render the blast, break, flattening process irreversible and the entire landscape disappears from our eyes.
Note: This post is an outcome of a year long observation of a commute I undertook as a visiting asst. prof at an architecture college. The rock walk with the Society to Save Rocks really inspired me to consolidate my thoughts.