Heritage at your fingertips

- September 27, 2019
| By : Shubham Bhatia |

The Safarnama app helps tourists discover lesser-known monuments along with a peep into history It’s an uneventful evening at Jama Masjid area in New Delhi. Shoulder-to-shoulder is an understatement, as pedestrians walk purposefully towards their destinations. This is where the phone’s Safarnama app gives an alert that there is a heritage point within a 100-metre […]

The Safarnama app helps tourists discover lesser-known monuments along with a peep into history

It’s an uneventful evening at Jama Masjid area in New Delhi. Shoulder-to-shoulder is an understatement, as pedestrians walk purposefully towards their destinations. This is where the phone’s Safarnama app gives an alert that there is a heritage point within a 100-metre range.

Along with the notification is a text: a personal account of a person named Salim Saheb, ‘son of a well-known freedom fighter of Old Delhi,’ mentioned in the book The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia.

Salim Saheb, talking about Delhi in the time of Partition, continues: “There was a lot of bloodshed. This area was safe [Pahari Imli] but Paharganj, Karol Bagh, New Delhi, Lodhi Gardens, all this…” The app has obviously picked up the only reference to Pahari Imli area which it could find.

In an area as popular as Jama Masjid, even a Delhiite or a tourist, would not guess about a sub-area in the popular bazaar near Jama Masjid, known for its delectable Mughlai cuisine. That’s the USP of the app – it makes you aware about even obscure places of historical value, places which are not on the tourist map.

The Safarnama app allows a user to download and explore curated cultural heritage experiences for Delhi. Divided into two segments — Delhi Partition City and Gadhr Se Azadi Tak — under a section named ‘Experiences,’ the app sends a push notification to a user when they are within a whisker of a heritage building.

The segment Delhi Partition City tells the user a few stories of the post-Independence period, from August 1947 until the end of 1959. Whereas Gadhr se Azadi Tak deals with the 1857 rebellion, the imperial capital of New Delhi coming into being (from 1911-1931) and its extension till 1947.

Coming back to the notification which showed the information about Pahadi Imli, the app also offers a navigation feature through Google Maps.

Criss-crossing through the crowd, jumping around potholes while squinting at the phone, you reach Masjid Pahadi Imli, the oldest building of the locality of the same name. Situated in a very narrow lane corresponding to the main road of the bazaar, the mosque is easy to find, as the Mughal-style carving on the front wall catches your attention.

A wall painted light green with pink and green carvings stands out in the narrow lane. While some men are returning after offering prayers, some are sitting nonchalantly outside the gate. Upon inquiry, this reporter is guided to meet the Imam of the mosque.

Sitting in a tiny room on the first floor of the mosque, Imam Naib-Ul-Haq Kasmi calls someone on his phone to inquire about the history of the mosque, as he himself is not aware about.

We come to know that the mosque is some 200-250 years old and “was built after Jama Masjid.” The Imam, who has been serving in the mosque for 28 years, says that the mosque is “not that popular among tourists, just locals.”

Masjid Pahadi Imli sees about 150-200 people offering prayers daily, while during Friday prayer, the number reaches up to 700, says the Imam.

Animatedly, he relates the story behind the word Imli in the mosque’s name. “There used to be a tamarind tree which used to bear so much imli, it could fill a shop.” Hence, the mosque was named Masjid Pahadi Imli.

Starting out as a single storey building, with the help of funds and donations, Masjid Pahadi Imli now stands three storeys tall.

The lane is full of small restaurants selling biryani, kebabs and curries. Some shops offer clothes, stationery and medicine.

About the two segments of the app known as ‘Experience’, Deborah Sutton, the principal investigator of the project and a professor of modern South Asian History at Lancaster University in UK says, “Each is a spatial biography of the city – materials from various archives are combined and mapped across the city. So places become the index of heritage and history can be integrated into the city, rather than kept in museums, monuments and archives.”

The app also shows ‘vanished places’, “where there is no, or very little, physical remains of the place that the media relate to. For example, the Delhi Exchange near Chandni Chowk,” says Prof Sutton.

She says, “Digital heritage experiences can capture that dynamic characteristic of urban environments, that they change constantly, far more effectively than monuments that are, by the their very nature, set apart from the city.”

So what challenges were faced while developing an app designed on Delhi, and for Delhi? “Geo-fence is probably the trickiest feature to develop, they’re hard to test without actually going out into the real world and trying them out,” said Jack Woodmansey, the developer of the Safarnama app.

“Since we’re based in Lancaster, UK we had to just use test experiences here and sort of hope it wouldn’t behave too differently in Delhi, and by keeping the radius relatively large (min of 100 metres) it luckily seemed to work well when we got there,” he said.

Asked if Delhi was challenging for him to work on, Woodmansey said “I found that Delhi is really well mapped on both Google Maps and OpenStreetMap. So finding things was relatively easy compared to many cities.”

To experience the Gadhr Se Azadi Tak experience, we head to Chandni Chowk. From the start of the locality till Fatehpuri Masjid, the app shows you four trigger points.

As we start walking away from Red Fort, the app sends a push notification as we reach closer to Bhagirath Palace, the well-known electrical market.

The app shows a haveli in a shabby state which was “once the home of the influential Begum Samru.” It also tells that “After her death in 1837, her adopted son inherited it, selling it to the Delhi Bank in 1847.”

“In the fighting of 1857, the bank manager and his family were killed and the mansion severely damaged. In 1940, the building was sold to Seth Bhagirath. Bhagirath Palace is today a renowned electrical market.”

Rajan Mishra, Team Associate at Travel Corporation of India, who used the app, has a different take on the app. A conductor of heritage walks also, Mishra gives an example of the Chandni Chowk area, where he says there are many popular heritage places, which “are not listed in the app.” He says, “Through an app like Safarnama and just by looking at a single picture, you can’t explain it well.”

“Our heritage walk starts from Jain Mandir followed by Dariba Kalan, Sunheri Masjid, Haveli of Mirza Ghalib, Fatehpuri Masjid and the spice market. Some of these are not listed in the app,” said Mishra.

In response, Prof Sutton says, “Safarnama is very much a prototype at present and I am keen for people to use it and provide feedback so that we can develop its interface and content further.”

She also tells that an ‘experience’ named Karachi Partition City will be released later this year. “There are also plans to explore Mumbai’s industrial heritage using the app,” she added.

For now, Prof Sutton hopes that “Some visitors to the city will become aware of the Safarnama app and the two Experiences and use them while they explore the city. Safarnama is not designed to be a guide book or to be definitive. The Experiences tell small stories about places and, I hope, re-animate places are not normally associated with heritage. I love Delhi’s monuments, those places and buildings set apart from the city and carefully curated. But heritage is everywhere, each locality in Delhi has unique and fascinating histories.”