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Human life unfolds and proliferates in the unbounded three-dimensional realm called space, in which all objects and events display relative positions and directions. This concept of space is considered to be of fundamental importance to the understanding of the physical universe. In most literature, space has an abstract and subjective definition whereas when it becomes more comprehensible and can be interpreted in a more objective manner, it starts to be identified as a place. Castello (2010) refers to the place as a ‘qualified space’ that changes the subjective or abstract notion of space to a more objective notion of place that could be experienced by its users. Places are parts of human environments where meanings, activities and a specific landscape are all implicated and enfolded by each other (Relph, 1992). Places are distinguished spaces defined by their pervaded stories, meaning and sentiments (Rose, 1995).

In various cultures and traditions, people feel strongly connected and associated with the places having environmental characteristics that define them and differentiate them from others. Memories, feelings, values and attitude towards the physical world in a geographical setting together with their archetypical symbols and landscapes produce a sense of social unity leading to evocation of a feeling of identification of the inhabitant with the environment. It has been realised through history that India has from time immemorial been revered as a sacred geography with innumerable connects between people, landforms, beliefs, culture, religion and so on and so forth, which form the basis of the way we live and perceive our environment (Eck, 2012). Tracing the historical layers from textual references in Indian mythology, the way of living, connecting with our places and celebrating these connections is deeply rooted in our culture. It can be inferred from various examples from the past that the natural and built environment is relational and can induce attachment with certain places of significance.

The ancient highway route taken by Lord Rama on his journey from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka and various cities falling on this path is revered by people even today as it bears the footprints of the heroes from their cultural lineage in Hinduism (Fig. 1). The four journeys taken by Guru Nanak Dev on his mission to spread the divine message in four directions criss-crossing the entire Indian subcontinent are marked by the legacy of Gurudwaras named after his visit by the Sikh community (Fig. 2). The Sikh community strongly identifies itself with these places because of their historic connection, which even today is revealed through a storied landscape, a part of which is reflected in their culture. These cultural landscape identities linked to a particular geographical place of historic value help to mirror the culture that created them. The way the people of these communities live in these places defines them and renders the real meaning to these places, rooted essentially in the vernacular belief system.

Fig. 1: Ancient highway route taken by Lord Rama
Fig. 2: The four journeys taken by Guru Nanak Dev
Fig. 2: The four journeys taken by Guru Nanak Dev

Tuan (1977) viewed space more in relation to human beings and defines it as the embodiment of feelings, images and thoughts of those who live, work or otherwise deal with that space. He argued that places were essentially ‘centres of meaning constructed out of lived experience’ that through time would be perceived as significant to the lives of the people. The celebrated and successful places in a community may be regarded as ‘profound centres of human existence’.

The temple towns of India present a similar philosophical discussion where these geographies are overlaid with layer upon layer of story and are connected in a storied landscape involving the local people and history (Eck, 2021). India has numerous case studies of these temple towns where the temple sits as the charged centre and the city expands around it into a dim periphery with all its powerful sentimental, religious and emotional three-dimensionality. A few of these landscapes bear imprints, sometimes even real and physical footprints of the heroes, self-manifested eruptions of Gods and the bodies of the Goddesses. These landscapes are shaped and realised into physical forms based on nothing else but only the indestructible belief of the people and their emotions and attachment, lending a soulful essence to the otherwise ordinary physical setting. The temple city of Madurai with the Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple at its centre and the city of Tiruvannamalai with the Arunachaleswarar Temple as the nucleus have continued to be revered as the most spiritual and cultural hubs in the Southern part of India, owing to the belief system of the people which is being transferred as a legacy from generation to generation.

The way the people of these communities live in these places defines them and renders the real meaning to these places, rooted essentially in the vernacular belief system

In India, one comes across a number of examples where the identity of the whole settlement is derived out of the sheer symbolism associated with it. The small town of Pondicherry on the Coromandel coast of India, famous for its serene locale, its mouth-watering cuisine and the cultural imprint of its various colonial influences – most visibly the French – makes a valid case in this regard. The town’s landscape in certain locations stands out starkly in contrast to the surrounding state of Tamil Nadu. Though a speck on the map, Pondicherry is the capital of Francophone culture in India. The French East India Company was the last of the European powers to arrive in India, reaching its peak around the mid-18th century and finally ended with India’s Independence. While the physical departure of the French took place, the essence of French culture, their traditions and lifestyle were agreed to be preserved as a part of a political treaty between the French and the Indian governments. This marked the commencement of an atypical settlement typology in which populations of Franco-Pondicherrians, locally referred to as Creoles, with their customs and traditions have been the major driving force in determining and shaping the present landscape. The French spirit of urban planning, streetscape and architecture is showcased in the true sense in this city (Fig. 3). The language, lifestyle and local food also display authentic French culture, which is being celebrated and retained by the locals, validating the fact that the most powerful catalysts in rendering meaning to a place are none other than the people themselves who inhabit, use and live in these places.

cultural-expression-people-indian-cities-rendering-meaning-places-french-spirit -urban-planning-streetscape-architecture-showcased-true-sense-pondicherry-tibetan-market-majnu-ka-tilla-delhi-which-represents-essence-lifestyle-potters-lane-hauz-rani-where-craftsmen-migrants-neighbouring-states-rajasthan-haryan-some-cities-around-delhi
Top - Fig. 3: French spirit of urban planning, streetscape and architecture is showcased in the true sense in Pondicherry
Bottom Left - Fig. 4: Tibetan market at Majnu-ka-tilla in Delhi, which represents the essence of Tibetan lifestyle
Bottom Right - Fig. 5: Potters’ Lane at Hauz Rani where the craftsmen are migrants from the neighbouring states of Rajasthan and Haryana and some cities around Delhi

One feels a deep association with the places where one was born, grew up, lived or had particular experiences. In phenomenology, the place is defined as ‘any environmental locus in and through which individual or group actions, experiences, intentions and meanings are drawn together spatially’ (Casey, 2009, Seamon, 2013).  Lyn Lofland (1992) goes a step further and establishes a provisional formulation of person to place connections as: (1) memorised locales, (2) paths, rounds, ranges and (3) hangouts and home territories based upon the intensity of these associative values.

Extending Lofland’s theory, it may be said that places are dynamic and the engrained meanings may also be amorphous until an associative relationship is endowed upon by the users and their ways of life. This dimension of ‘place attachment’ is closely linked with the affective aspects of environmental meaning (Altman and Low, 1992). It develops when ‘a place is well-identified and felt significant by the users and able to provide conditions to fulfil their functional needs and supports their behavioural goals better than a known alternative’ (Williams et.al, 1995). Ujang (2010) in her study on urban places in the context of Southeast Asian cities suggests that the place attachment contributes to the making of place identity.

The theoretical conception of place identity as an individual’s strong emotional attachment to particular places or settings is consistent with the broader conception of place identity (Yilmaz, 2006). Place identity is the way in which a place informs the identity of a person or people (Proshansky et al., 1995). In psychological terms, it refers to ‘the symbolic importance of a place as a repository for emotions and relationships that give meaning and purpose to life, reflects a sense of belonging and importance to a person’s wellbeing’ (Proshansky et al., 1995). Relph (1976) argued that people need a sense of identity, of affinity to a specific territory and/or group. Individuals need to express a sense of kinship to a collective entity or place, and of individual identity, which may be achieved by physical separation or distinctiveness, and a sense of entering into a particular area (Carmona et al., 2003). Sense of belonging, rootedness and a conscious sense of association or identity with a particular place make it meaningful to the people. Rootedness refers to ‘unconscious sense of place and the most natural and unmediated kind of people-place tie’ (Arefi, 1999).

People own a place by just being there and holding on to their traditional ways of life

While it is established that place identity and sense of belonging make a place meaningful for people, it is also imperative to understand place identity in the context of culture. Place identity is formed by a combination of spatial, social, cultural and historical characteristics of its inhabitants that distinguishes them from the others (Amundsen 2001; Tilley, 2006). Proshansky et al. (1983) explain that the relationship of people to place involves both its physical and social meanings and belief attached to it by its residents. This relationship establishes a foundation for place identity, which in the context of culture relates to self-identity and includes a variety of images and memories of the past and present (Watson 2007). In phenomenology, place identity is related to the place that people associate themselves with and which represents their group identity (Seamon, 2013).

The Bengali neighbourhood referred to as Chittranjan Park, located in the South-East part of Delhi, stands out as a relevant case of place identity and place attachment particularly for the Bengali community settled here. Originally built specifically for the displaced population of East Pakistan who were afflicted by the Partition, the neighbourhood has a unique blend and beauty of being an ethnic enclave. Because of its rich traditional roots in Bengali customs, it is a notable place for its powerful socio-cultural manifestations. The most celebrated festival of Durga Puja, fish markets, other market spaces, public gardens, social infrastructure, sacred sites of worship and other significant aspects all contribute to a place identity, uniquely rooted in the customs and traditions of Bengali culture (Cover Image). The intangible flavour evident in the place owing to the language, lifestyle and behavioural specificities of the people adds to the authenticity of the local identity and sentiment, which in this case was brought by the migrating population years ago. It is a peculiar case of how people own a place by just being there and holding on to their traditional ways of life.

The narrative of the exodus of the Tibetan community to several locations including a few in India, is quite well documented. The Indian Government supported Tibetan immigration. Not only were they granted preferential status among refugees but were also allowed to preserve and practice their culture, religion and tradition in India. A significant number of Tibetans reside in a narrow-laned, small locality named New Arya Nagar at Majnu-ka-tilla in Delhi, which represents the essence of Tibetan lifestyle and culture very elaborately (Fig. 4). The flavour of their identity is expressed abundantly through the markets and streets of the locality.

The colourful saga of Potters’ Lane at Hauz Rani is another similar story where the craftsmen are migrants from the neighbouring states of Rajasthan and Haryana and some cities around Delhi. The market has existed for around 70 years, through which these migrated populations have owned the space and made an indispensable mark not only in the physical space of the city but also in the hearts of the city dwellers owing to the magical art of pottery that they display through the vibrant products that they sell (Fig. 5). During festive seasons, the street receives huge footfalls. The street very effectively captures and showcases the typical cultural mood of the traditional villages and their art forms.

Fig. 7: Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi

Nizamuddin is a distinguished case of how Sufi culture and tradition are being kept alive and celebrated over centuries in the heart of the National Capital. The Nizamuddin area is the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings in India, inhabited by a vibrant local community with 700 years of living culture. The importance of its legacy and the environs are still kept relevant to the city of Delhi. The area is visited by millions of tourists and pilgrims from across the world each year. Since the 13th century, the Hazrat Nizamuddin area has exhibited a magnificent living culture that not only led to the construction of grand mausoleums, mosques, step-wells and enclosed gardens but also the creation of cultural traditions of music, poetry and food; rituals that have defined both Hindustani culture and Sufi traditions (Fig. 7).

Henry Lefebvre in his seminal book The Production of Space (1974) established the fact that space is shaped and produced by social relations. It further meant that the space becomes a host and provides an opportunity to the social performances to unfold and take place in, thereby becoming a part of the larger cultural processes. Setha Low (2014) proposes the concept of ‘spatialising culture’ to discuss the relationship between culture, space and place. She demonstrates the multifaceted relationship between people and place including aspects of social and historical dimensions, which might have originated in other places. The idea of ‘spatialising culture’ is about appropriating urban spaces for specific uses to suit their cultural preferences. These spaces become the tool to represent the cultural identity of communities and people inhabiting the place.

The idea of ‘spatialising culture’ is about appropriating urban spaces for specific uses to suit their cultural preferences

There are examples of adopted identities in contemporary times where the actual relevance of a landscape is being masked and overpowered by another more compelling functionality. The 18th century architectural piece called Jantar Mantar located in New Delhi is an observatory to assemble astronomical data and to predict the planetary movements. Originally designed for a scientific purpose, Jantar Mantar, in the contemporary urban, especially political scenario, is rather popular as a site for staging protests. The whole meaning of the place has changed and the purpose of how the city dwellers relate with the monument today is altogether different from its initial intention.

Fig. 8: Famous procession at the temple of Jagannath Puri

The forecourts of temples and the processional routes in our cities are beautiful examples of ephemerality being rendered by the presence of large crowds during festivities, which otherwise remain as silent and regular places during most of the year. The world-famous procession held at the temple of Jagannath Puri and the Braj Yatra are notable examples of landscapes where people bring a whole new life to the relatively peaceful environs (Fig. 8).

The idea that the city must be an expression of the culture and lifestyle of its residents has been the core of Indian settlements since the very beginning. Historically, our habitations have responded extremely well to the aspirations of their users owing to the fact that they were always a part of policy and decision. It continues to be a dominant theme; even as cities in India stand at the verge of being consumed by the seemingly inescapable banality, the quest for validated images of urbanity world over. Cities invested in history, identity and image where people are at the centre should be the ideal model in contemporary times. Only then shall our urban realm be inclusive and truly people-centric, where life will blossom and flourish happily and most effectively.


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