The story goes like this. Hundreds of years ago, a midwife who lived in Mehrauli was called to a mansion near the Hauz-i-Shamsi lake at night to deliver a baby. The mansion’s residents were unlike anyone the midwife had ever seen – unnaturally radiant, incredibly beautiful. After the delivery, as was the custom, the family thanked her by gifting her a sack full of what she thought were grains. The midwife returned home and opened the sack with her husband – in it were gold coins. The husband got suspicious of her whereabouts that night, and demanded to know where she got the gold. Distressed, the midwife took him to the lake to show him where the strange family lived, but there was no mansion to be seen.

“Nobody knows what happened to the midwife,” said Mesha Murali, with a smile. “This is one of my favourite stories. There are many similar paranormal stories that tend to do the rounds in the Mehrauli area.”

Murali heard the ghostly legend from an old Mehrauli resident while researching the history of the Delhi locality for a neighbourhood museum opened by Ambedkar University’s Centre for Community Knowledge along with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, or Intach.

Called Hum Sab Mehrauli, the museum at the Kalu Ram Complex lays emphasis on the stories of Mehrauli’s residents and how they interact with their physical space, instead of its many monuments. It opened for public viewing on February 28.

Murali, the project coordinator for the Mehrauli Neighbourhood Museum, described how it all started. “We put together a team in early September and started approaching old-time residents and shopkeepers in the area with requests for interviews, old pictures and any visual material that would enable us to put together a historical and cultural narrative of the neighbourhood as told by its residents rather than historians.”

Hum Sab Mehrauli exhibition (Courtesy: Facebook)

At first, there were some difficulties.

“Many people weren’t interested in talking to us at first, and those who did weren’t willing to hunt for old pictures and once they did it took some convincing on our part to make them part with the photographs,” she said. “Older residents were uncomfortable with the idea of video interviews, so we have several audio interviews which will be playing in the background at the exhibits.”

Mohammad Anwar a resident of Ward 7, Mehrauli, 1970s (Courtesy: Mohammad Tohir).

Eventually, the residents opened up to the idea of the museum and began contributing. The team was able to collect around 120 photos by Mehrauli residents, some of which show family picnics, or the subject posing in front of the Qutub Minar.

Mohammad Anwar posing opposite the spot where Jain temple Ahinsa Sthal stands today, 1970s (Courtesy: Mohammad Tohir)

Before Mehrauli, Ambedkar University and Intach had set up neighbourhood museums in Shadi Khampur (in 2012) and in Nizamuddin (in 2015). According to Surajit Sarkar, coordinator at Centre for Community Knowledge and professor at Ambedkar University, the idea behind them is to rediscover and preserve stories about the everyday lives of the people who inhabit these spaces. Neighbourhood museums move beyond the textbook narratives of history – they can set up anywhere, in a haveli, an abandoned warehouse, or a garden.

Residents of Mehrauli at the Qutub Minar Complex, 1990s (Courtesy: Anil).

One of the seven ancient cities that make up Delhi, Mehrauli has a plethora of cultural traditions that survive to this day. Among them is the Phoolwalon Ki Sair, an annual event where people from across religions come together to offer floral chaadar and pankha at the Dargah Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and the Yogamaya temple, both in Mehrauli, as a symbol of communal harmony.

The exhibit at Hum Sab Mehrauli has been curated keeping in mind the themes that emerged during the researchers’ conversations with the residents – ecology, water and sanitation, relationship between people and historical monuments, and festivals.

“Water and sanitation played an important part in the stories of many residents,” said Murali. “Some talked about the time when they would go in the open to defecate.”

One anecdote in the exhibit is a 70-year-old resident’s reminiscence of a time when access to Sanjay Van, a forested area near Mehrauli, was unrestricted. “One could could go in and out whenever he or she pleased,” said Murali. “People wold go into the forest for defecation in groups, never alone. Getting attacked by jackals in the forest was a common occurrence and men used to carry large sticks to defend themselves and their children from such attacks.”

Residents of Mehrauli at the Qutab complex, 1970s (Courtesy: Mohammad Tohir).