Understanding pedestrian culture in Himalayan towns and cities
By Ar. Nikita Verma
The Indian subcontinent has had a long history of walking. Most ancient temples and monasteries have Pradakshina (circumambulation) paths built around them. Padyatra or journey by foot is an important part of traditional living. The pilgrimage to various holy centers and temples spread across the country ensured people walked a lot. Even now, millions walk to pilgrimage spots such as Sabarimala in Kerala, the Hindu Char-Dham and Hemkunt Sahib in Uttarakhand, the annual Pandharpur Wari pilgrimage in Maharashtra, the hill of Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu etc. With the advent and convenience of motor vehicles within urban areas, pedestrian culture in South Asian cities took a back seat. If there is one region in South Asia that has supported walkability in cities in ancient, medieval and modern times (sometimes only partially), it is the Himalayan belt. Pleasant weathers, rugged terrains and smaller communities play a major role in their survival.
Compared to urban areas of the plains in the sub-continent, Himalayan cities are relatively small in scale, both area and population wise. The scarcity of water, land and infrastructure because of steep and unstable slopes, long distances from railway stations, airports and other transport modes limit the size of urban areas in the Himalayan region. Often these cities are not planned urban areas but expanded versions of the trade, pilgrimage or tourism centers in the region. These urban centers are distributed across different topography and varying altitudes in small cluster units. Yet, amongst the mountain cities of the world, Himalayan urban areas are the densest. This article highlights its unique pedestrian morphology by looking at examples spread across the region, some of which are listed below.
Almora: The town of Almora is sited over a horse saddle-shaped ridge of a mountain in the Kumaon Hills, Uttarakhand. The main bazaar is around 2 kms long and is pedestrian in nature since the princely times to now. Since Colonial and post-independence times, the town has undergone remarkable changes. More localities were developed, educational and technical institutions established, administrative offices, more pathways and roads were constructed, electricity, water supply and sewage lines were introduced….The pedestrian Bazaar still remains the heart of the town.
Shillong and Gangtok: Bustling with people (locals and tourists alike), Police Bazar in Shillong and MG Road in Gangtok are yet other examples of urban hubs that are pedestrian in nature and thriving with businesses both formal and informal. In fact, a few years ago state authorities in Gangtok made concerted efforts to make the main street vehicular free and develop the street for pedestrian use only.
Photo 3: MG Marg of Gangtok over the years. First picture is estimated to be from the 1940-50s, the second from 2004 and the last one being very recent. Pic Source: Vintage Sikkim blog and Trip Advisor. (Vintage Sikkim)
Leh: The main bazaar now a lively pedestrian street is a recent transformation under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), a state-driven programme to modernize and improve infrastructure in Indian cities.
Kathmandu: Urban areas of the Kathmandu valley are perhaps the most unique case within Himalayan cities, offering not only pedestrian streets, but temple squares, sit outs around shrines, courtyards and corners that add to its public spaces and community life.
Shimla: During British occupation of India, a few horses and manually-pulled ‘rickshaws’ were used to carry some elite officials and differently abled across the Mall Road. In the 20th century, cars were allowed only up to a certain elevation to access the Mall Road at various drop-off point. Today, The Mall Road along with the allied bazaars and streets is a unique 6 km pedestrian only recreational area. A similar pattern can be seen in other mountain towns established by the British- such as Darjeeling and Murree.
Owing to their constrained land areas and terrain, it is unlikely that Himalayan cities can have large squares, plazas or parks as public spaces. It is these multi-functional and mixed use pedestrian streets/bazaars that comprise the public sphere in mountain cities. Many of these are indeed repositories of unique architectural and cultural heritage that are endangered owing to lack of attention and conservation efforts. The expanded urban areas and newer development in these cities are often devoid of this quintessential pedestrian friendly component. As Himalayas urbanize rapidly and settlements expand, an analysis of city form and its public spaces in the region will give critical insights into the successful practices of organizing and creating people friendly spaces.
Nikita is a graduate in architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture (Delhi) and holds a Masters in Urbanism from the Bauhaus University in Germany. She has worked in India, Slovenia, Germany, and Spain with several international organizations as an Architect and Urbanist for brief periods before moving to Almora, which she calls home now. She works with Ethos as Chief-in-Ideation and co-runs a practice called Studio Bardo.