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Using Descriptive Models to Understand South Asian Cities

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Geographers have long wrestled with the problem of classifying and analyzing urban places. Such activity ultimately allows geographers to understand the processes by which the present urban patterns have evolved. For South Asia, they have attempted to apply mostly Western economic, functional, morphologic, and mathematical models to cities whose historical evolution, cultural connections, and economic and political structure are non-Western, for the most part.

Attempts by geographers to understand urban places embody several strategies which have been identified in the National Geography Standards. (note 1) The use of mental maps, or descriptive models, aids in organizing information about cities (Standard #2). In the process, such models can be used to interpret the ways in which cities evolved to reach their present form (Standard #17). Throughout, geographers are searching to understand how and why urban places are arranged as they are, and what these patterns reveal about the functions performed within and by cities (Standard #12).

With regard to the morphology or physical form of South Asian cities, the difficulties are especially manifest. Land use patterns, transportation facilities, and residential neighborhood layout, for example, are at variance with Western urban experience. Hence, South Asian city patterns are not easily explained or satisfactorily elucidated by well-known Western urban morphology models, such as the concentric zone, wedge or sector, or even the multiple nuclei. These models in combination effectively explain the structure and land uses of Western cities. The lack of success in applying these models to non-Western cities is not because numerous attempts have not been made, but as Smailes noted, “assumptions and theories about city structure tend to be culture bound” and hence not especially applicable outside that culture. (note 2) 

The few descriptive models which have been devised to explain South Asian city structure do not seem to have received widespread acceptance. An important element explaining this absence of adoption may be the lack of universality in their application to South Asian urban centers. For example, Manzoor Alam evolved a model to account for urban growth and structure in Hyderabad (Deccan). (note 3) His model is clearly related to Western urban morphology models, especially to the concentric zone, but it does attempt to formulate, however tentatively, a new approach. However, Manzoor Alam did not intend to offer his model as a universal exemplar for South Asian cities.

Similarly well known is R. L. Singh’s work on Varanasi (Banares). Although he did not provide a model illustrating urban growth, he did identify “geographical zones” which have a roughly concentric pattern. (note 4) The Banares cantonment, however, did not fit easily into his scheme. Subsequently, Singh did attempt to employ a model, drawing an analogy from the biological cell reproduction processes and results of histogenesis, pattern formation, morphogenesis, fibroblasts, and sarcomas. (note 5) Needless to say, the system never caught on.

Further complicating the analysis of Indian urban structure is the long period over which Indian cities have evolved. It seems reasonable that even appropriate theories of morphology which apply to the early or medieval periods of Indian urban history would likely be inappropriate as explanations for modern city form. In fact, at least four very broad epochs of urban development in India can be perceived. Of these four periods, only two have received attention, albeit limited, from urban geographers.

The four periods are the Classical, from earliest settlement through Gupta times (up to 550 C.E.); the Medieval, from the Gupta empire through that of the Mughals (550 1700); the British colonial period, during which many Indian cities totally altered their form (about 1700–1947), and the modern period, after Independence and during which rapid population growth has forced modification of urban centers.


1. Geography for Life: National Geography Standards (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Research and Exploration, 1994).

2. Arthur E. Smailes, “The Indian City,” Geographische Zeitschrift 57: 177–90, 1969.

3. S. Manzoor Alam, Hyderabad-Secunderabad: Twin Cities, A Study in Urban Geography (New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1965).

4. R. L. Singh, Banaras: A Study of Urban Geography (Banaras: Nand Kishore & Bros., 1955).

5. R. L. Singh, “Social Factors in Morphogenesis of Varansi: A Suggestion in Technique for Form Evaluation,” Urban Geography in Developing Countries (Varansi: The National Geographical Society of India, 1968), 3–27.


Dutt, Ashok K. “Cities of South Asia” in Stanley Brunn and Jack F. Williams, eds. Cities of the World. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

Johnson, B. L. C. India: Resources and Development. London: Heineman, 1979.

King, Anthony D. Colonial Urban Development: Culture, Social Power and the Environment. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976.

Singh, Alok K. “Typology and Structural Models of Urban Centres in South Mirzapur,” National Geographical Journal of India, 34: 3: 249–255, 1988. Sjoberg, Gideon. The Preindustrial City: Past and Present. New York: Free Press, 1956.

Smailes, Arthur E. “The Indian City,” Geographische Zeitschrift 57: 177-90, 1969.