Re-discovering Delhi through Vintage Maps

Re-discovering Delhi through Vintage Maps
An 18th-century map by the French cartographer Jacques Nicolas Bellin Photo Credit: Courtesy of Columbia University

Lockdown or not—there's enough to keep cartography nerds, history buffs, antiquarians and all kinds of map lovers in the city busy for weeks

Prannay Pathak
November 30 , 2020
06 Min Read

The best part about living in a city like Delhi is that even if you can’t travel for a while, its heritage structures, markets bustling even during a pandemic, sprawling green spaces and uncyclable roads will keep the itinerant thirst quenched (as shameless side note, read Aman Nath’s ode to the historical character of modern Delhi). But after about two months of our stepping up our shopping routines, walking tours and excursions, and thronging its famed markets with watchful derring-do, the pandemic seems to be rearing its spiky-bob head again. With the second wave (or third, based on what paper you read) here and the AQI worsening, our little attempts at rebellion will have to wait.

But those of us who waste no time in seeking comfort in books, old photographs—and vintage maps—don’t have it so hard, as I realised, leafing through Pilar Maria Guerrieri’s gorgeous 2017 hardback Maps of Delhi. Naturally, I let myself be carried away and sought out the esoteric circles of the cartography cult that the internet affords us. It is fun discovering that the noisy village in the underbelly of your fancy residential locality existed when the latter was still a field half a century ago. It is thrilling to secretly hope to name your future café Delly/Delli—the version most pre-19th century maps have. Here’s a curated list of resources full of maps from Delhi’s past.


The 1955 topographic map by the US Army
Delhi and arounds in a 1955 map by the US army
This really extensive and highly legible map covers the expanse known as the National Capital Region these days, bordered by the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. This map, produced by the US Army in 1955, is part of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection of the University of Texas Libraries—just one of the hundreds of maps of places all over the world, from Malawi to Malta and Bijapur to Kabul. On the Delhi map, the portions done in yellow denote populated areas at the time the map was produced (access the complete map here).

While we’re at it, word of appreciation for this collection made available by the University of Texas—it is just impressive. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you feel thankful. Even if you’re not much of a map-reader, you can treat these as art. Go ahead and print them out—they deserve to go up on your wall.

Delhi region, from a map published in 1863 in The Weekly Dispatch
The Delhi region as it appeared in The Weekly Dispatch, London, circa 1863
In this map that appeared over a hundred and fifty years ago, it is interesting to locate NCR towns and villages and Delhi suburbs even if you may not see New Delhi. To someone like me, these places seemed to exist only in a post-20th-century reality, with their quasi-urban character and intriguing underbelly perception. The best part is mouthing the amusing British-style spellings and imagining how they might have said 'Shahderuh' instead of Shahdara, 'Bulubgurh' and 'Buhadoorgurh' instead of Ballabhgarh and Bahadurgarh!

This map is part of a dedicated page Columbia University has for maps of Delhi, which is in turn a part of Professor Emerita Frances W Pritchett's site on South Asian studies. The page has maps on Delhi's immediate environs from the 1901 Murray's Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon, one of the Imperial Delhi that Lutyens had envisioned, and a historical representation of the area during the Sultanate age. My favourite in this collection of maps is this colourful, neatly drawn map of the walled city of Shahjahanabad, complete with the individual precincts and gates.

Shahjahanabad, the old walled city of Delhi

Mapping through empires – The Yamuna River Project by The University of Virginia
This series is quite unlike the rest of the collections we are discussing here. As the name indicates, YRP traces the history of Delhi through a series of maps depicting the rule of different dynasties throughout history, with a special focus on the river Yamuna, almost a forgotten, much-older sibling of the historical city itself. The series of maps moves in a chronological order, beginning with Tomar rule, then the Chauhan dynasty, the momentous reign of the Ghurid dynasty, and the subsequent eras of the Khiljis, the Tughlaqs, the Lodis, the Mughals and so on. However, as we earlier said, the project's focus is to trace the role of the river Yamuna in Delhi's evolution through the course of a millennium, "revitalise its ecology" and eventually reconnect "India's capital city back to the water". Check the series out here.

The walled city and its waterways

The Seven Cities of Shajahanabad
Sarmaya, the online museum, has a fascinating collection of learning resources, and their maps on Delhi point towards the often forgotten history of the national capital. In the map (dated 1803) below, one can see the layouts of the smaller, ancient sub-cities inside Delhi–all of them existing individually as Jahanpanah, Hauz Khas, Old Delhi, Shahjahanabad and Tughlukabad. Also see their map showing the plan of the quelling of the 1857 mutiny

Broad layouts of the Seven Cities of Delhi (cartographer: Thacker, Spint & Co.); circa 1928

Illustrated Map of Delhi by Vandana Singh
We close our list with a fun entry–this illustrated map of the city by filmmaker and artist Vandana Singh.

The Illustrated Map of Delhi by Vandana Singh (for Delhipedia)

Peppered with trees of all kinds, the city's heritage structures, iconic buildings, avenues, and individual localities/neighbourhoods demarcated nicely, this map is a classic exercise in how illustrated maps can go a long way in making map-reading easier, establish a visual connect between explorers and places, and even trigger interest in biodiversity conservation, like in the case of the viral Biodiversity Map of Odisha. We did our own illustrated walk through Old Delhi and you can check it out here.


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