Lal Dora

Lal Dora

Lal Dora  

I’ve always been fascinated by cultural dichotomies and in my debut blogpost I’d like to shed some light on one such nuance I’ve perused since the beginning of my undergraduate studies in architecture leading up to my masters in Art, Design and the public domain at Harvard. I’ll take you through a brief history of what ‘Lal Dora encapsulates and what it inherently signifies in different cultural contexts culminating on how I conceived an art project around it. So, sit tight because this might be a lengthy one!


Lal’ meaning red and ‘Dora’ meaning thread was a phenomenon that came into being during the British regime in India. The premise of which used to be a red line drawn on the map of British controlled regions delineating the village population from the nearby agricultural land for revenue records. This land was meant to be used for non-agricultural purposes only as an extension to the village habitation1. The practise has an eery resemblance to the act of red-lining, (note the term red-lining and its similarity with lal dora) in certain neighbourhoods of North America in the 1930’s. However, that was more to do with racial injustice as opposed to taxation and revenue generation in this case. If you would like to read more about redlining you may check out this article by NPR. 

The lal dora movement seemed to have originated in the year 1908 and after almost 50 years, 10 years after Indian independence in 1957 the Delhi municipal corporation issued a notification to the government which listed the lands under the LAL DORA classification, within and on the outskirts of Delhi. The MCD declared that no building By-laws needed to be followed in such areas and residents were free to construct without prior approvals. Other states followed suit which inevitably lead to haphazard informal settlements amidst major cities in the country. Today these villages are riddled with issues pertaining to sanitation, electricity, water shortage and neighbourhood safety to name a few. Some of these villages also have a rich history and within them are hidden some unique and mesmerising monuments, yet not many people know about them. 

One of the major contributors to the demographic of these villages are migrants from various parts of the country in search of employment in the city. These villages prove to be ideal locations as they provide them an opportunity to live in the heart of the city but with relatively cheap rent owing to its inherent complexities. This influx of migrants changed the socio-cultural and socio-economic life of the village and bought about an interesting conglomeration of diverse ethnicities. Despite such radical changes in socio-cultural patterns the identity of these ‘urban villages’ are still in question. An informal settlement amidst strict formal entities, these villages were inevitably left-out and remained to be only a moment in the memory of the city. 

Cultural symbolisms

Now that you have a brief background let’s delve into some cultural symbolisms associated with red threads across many religious and ethnicities in the context of India. 

A red thread is used in various religious rituals and acts as a powerful identifier of cultural meanings. Kalava (Fig5.1) also called mauli or charadu in Hindi is a sacred thread tied by a priest or an older family member2, typically grandparents or parents on the wrists of all the people attending the prayer ceremony. When used as part of a ceremony or puja, the kalava helps unite the congregation as one symbolic body during worship. A popular sacred belief is that the kalava protects the wearer from enemies and disease as well. Another common use of the thread is as a Sutli (Fig 5.2). A sutli is tied around a Pipal tree as a part of a Hindu ritual. The Pipal tree represents the tree of life owing to its longevity. The cotton thread represents the fragile nature of life, love, trust and faith. The belief underlying the ritual is that a single thread may be weak but when it is wound 108 times around the trunk it becomes strong and is no longer fragile and easy to break.

In Islamic culture, a red thread is connoted as wish or Mannat (Fig 5.3) Irrespective of religious background individuals tie red threads around the Lattice screens of the Mosque or a Dargah. Each thread tied symbolises a wish and if granted, the person who tied it has to come back to untie it3. This tying and untying represents the gratitude and personal connection one makes with architecture.

These intangible hidden meanings attached to this tangible simple thread opens up a host of possibilities for re-interpretation of the rather contrary universally observed concept of Red-lining conflict areas. 

This dichotomy of the two systems presented an opportunity for me to reanalyse the connotations attached to red-lining and perhaps flip it over to a more inclusive rather than seclusive event. 

The Project 

Since the symbolic red thread is always wound around an object i.e the wrist, around a tree or lattice screens in mosques, the goal was to research an alternate typology. A way in which it has perhaps never been used before. So I gathered a few threads sourced from local shops and began some material explorations.

Eventually the idea to stitch with the thread was settled upon. Since this particular thread has never been stitched with before it alluded to the narrative of developing a new use case for rewriting the concept of red-lining.

The project was then divided into two segments, one as a curated stitch and the other crowd sourced. The curated stitch series was aimed at outlining and hypothesising what the original red-lining map would’ve been. I took various aerial images and painted them onto a 2’x2’ fabric canvas highlighting the haphazard nature of such developments in which all open areas were stitched using the thread. (See fig 5.4)

The second segment of the project was aimed at being interactive. 3 panels, each measuring 6’x3’ were constructed ideally to be placed in open areas for residents and visitors alike to stitch through in any pattern as they desire. The only rule was that everyone gets the same amount of thread. Once they are done with their portion, the other person may choose to continue from where they left off or start a new stitch creating an almost cryptic pattern and in some cases query on what this may mean in the overall scheme of things. When the seemingly haphazard pattern is complete is when it is appropriated by projections of daily struggles of the village. With the thread being a direct representation of some of the plights residents face on a day to day basis. (refer to fig 5.5)

The project however is far from complete, I envision this research to go on and eventually be a part of the daily life of an urban village. The ultimate goal would be to connect residents of the village with the city at large by re-creating the lal Dora but instead of it being a medium & measure for seclusion it becomes a means for opportunity & inclusion.

I wish for the project to have a Human ritualistic scale as well as an opportunity to gain artisanal skill. Acting as a catalyst to explore a day in the life of the urban village by highlighting the daily struggles in hope for a conversation and dialogue among residents and citizens at large.

I’d like to use the Lal Dora as a metaphor and medium of expression by re-analysing its potential and use its inherent connotations to flip the discourse around red-lining by exploring its alternative uses.

1. “About Lal Dora – Know & Share.” About Lal Dora Know Share. Accessed December 04, 2016.

2. Rajendran, Abhilash. “Why do we Hindus tie red thread – Mauli or Kalava – at the beginning of a Religious Ceremony?”, Hindu blog, 25th September 2015, URL: Accessed 5th December 2016

3. Selva J. Raj, “Miracle as Modern Conundrum in South Asian Religious Traditions” 23rd October, 2008, Page 201

Written by Sahej Bhatia