On a bright December afternoon Shristi Sharma and her friend Asif Rihan were riding to Murthal along the Outer Ring Road near Burari when, on their left, they came upon a vast open, low-lying ground.
Except that it wasn’t empty. In their own words, it was like a circus.
Children and adults flew kites, some were learning to drive, others were playing cricket, or cycling, or jogging. Around them, cows, buffaloes, and a few horses galloped gaily.
“We had never seen a huge open space like this in the city. We decided to take a round and returned the next day for learning to ride the motorcycle and to experience this interesting space,” says Shristi Sharma, 19.
Owned by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), this enormous, somewhat rectangular field around 23 hectares (230,000 square metres), the size of around 15 cricket fields, is popularly known as the Nirankari Samagam Ground.
Every day, thousands of Delhiites — men, women and children — from all across the city come to the ground to pursue their hobbies that require accessible large open spaces, which are so difficult to find in a fast urbanising city.
The ground has been a favourite among kiting enthusiasts in Delhi for nearly three decades and a venue for local and national kite championships, what with its sheer size and absence of trees and high structures.
Every March, the ground plays host to a national kite flying competition.
“Teams from as far as Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad come here to compete,” says 41-year-old restaurateur Azhar Hashmi who has been kiting here twice a week for the last 24 years.
On a regular winter afternoon, kiting enthusiasts arrive here, their kites are neatly packed in colourful suitcases that they spread out outside their cars, parked at an equal distance from each other.
“We kite flyers have an association. Not more than eight teams will practice on this ground at any given time. We allot days among ourselves depending on when we have our weekly offs,” says Baldev Singh, a 65-year-old contractor who has been kiting here for three decades.
The kite flyers here impose many other self-restrictions. They take care to ensure that they restrict themselves to a row on an edge of the ground. A set of high tension cables passing over the ground and along the Outer Ring Road — the only high-rise obstruction — serves as a boundary.
The kiting begins only when most of the multiple cricket games — on Sundays, the ground hosts 40 to 50 small and big cricket games — on this ground have wrapped up. “There have been occasions when manjhas (kite strings) have left players injured. So, we try not to come in each other’s way,” says Javed Sultan, a 16-year-old boy who plays cricket here on Saturdays.
Hashmi, who also captains his kiting team, says he has flown kites from the terrace of his home in Sadar Bazar and participated in “fancy” kiting competitions at the India Gate lawns, but the experience pales in comparison to this ground. “The kites here easily fly 500-700 metres into the sky. And if a kite falls, it will definitely land inside the ground,” he says.
Matloob Khan, an embroider from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, is currently in the city on a two-day tour with his four kiting teammates. “Rampur doesn’t have a ground so big,” says Khan, his eyes focused on his kite, a dot in the sky, his hands in control of the string. “I have travelled across the country, but have come across a ground as suitable only in Kolkata, Bareilly and Fatehganj.”
The ground provides ample space to many who come here to learn driving. Take for example a local politician’s 14-year-old son who wants to secretly learn driving a Toyota Fortuner, to a young hair dresser who wants to be able to ride a scooter to work.
A network of “kachcha (not tarred)” as well as tarred roads, and uneven surfaces, makes the ground suitable for driving practice and prevent speeding.
“The roads are dug up at many places for some reason. These unwittingly serve as obstacles during driving practice,” says Mohammad Aslam, a cab driver who has brought his brother-in-law Mohammad Jeelani, for training.
Aslam recently purchased a car on monthly instalments and hopes Jeelani will help pay for it by driving the taxi at nights. “Jeelani is a slow learner and was finding it difficult to learn on busy roads and neighbourhood streets,” says Aslam, who drove here all the way from Narela.
Not just men, even animals come to the ground for training! Deshraj Kumar, a potter who wants to move to the fruits trade, is training his white horse which is strapped to a small cart painted bright yellow. “I began training him on the roads, but he would panic. He seems to enjoy on this vast, obstruction-free ground,” says Kumar.
In another part of the ground, young women are unloading plastic cones from two cars. As one of them, 20-year-old Aarti Bhardwaj who aspires to become a cab driver, nervously takes the driver’s seat, her trainer Lalitha tells her she has never seen anyone get hit by a car or a motorcycle on this ground.
Lalitha is a trainer with Azad Foundation, an NGO which equips women with skills such as driving and self-defence. “I was trained by this NGO many years ago on another large ground in Tughlaqabad (south Delhi). But that ground has been fenced due to a series of crimes. There is hardly any other big ground in Delhi where driving is allowed,” says Lalita.
This Burari ground, however, is yet to see any major incidents despite being surrounded by some crime-infested neighbourhoods. Local police officers credit the clear visibility and absence of enclosed spaces as a reason. A few men drinking along the edges dismiss themselves as “harmless”. “We are just having a picnic,” says a mid-aged man.
On a good weather Sunday, as many as 40-50 small and big cricket matches are played out simultaneously on this ground, says Shyam Sundar, a 72-year-old man who visits the ground with his grandson. With stones sticking out at many points, the field hardly makes for an ideal cricket pitch or outfield.
“You may not notice it, but the players have cleaned and flattened 22 yards of pitches every few metres apart,” says Nalin Kumar, a college student who has just been bowled out.
“No matter how many cricket teams land up at this ground, they will always find a pitch,” says Rajesh Singh, a few buffaloes grazing behind him.
Far from this game, two young men in tracksuits and headphones jog around. Look closely at the path taken by them and you will spot a 400-metre long jogging track carved out in the dry mud.
The two friends travel 12km from east Delhi’s Sonia Vihar thrice a week. “We chose this field after a police ground in Wazirabad was closed for the public. You can be listening to music and jogging here without a worry of getting knocked down by a vehicle,” says Rohit Kasana, a 23-year-old SSC aspirant.
The ground is possibly the only spot in Delhi where parasailing is feasible. For a fortnight every December, Army officials train members of the National Cadet Corps in parasailing, occupying nearly a third of the ground.
“The field offers several hundred metres of unobstructed ground as a runway. It saves us the trouble of having to take the cadets to other states,” says SR Abbas, hired by the army for training. “We have been using this ground for the last eight years.”
During the parasailing hours, the ground is out of bounds for kite flyers, and to a large extent the cricketers. While the regular visitors adjust their timings accordingly, it is a month-long Nirankari Sant Samagam function in winters that actually pinches them every year.
“For three days during the event, the entire ground used to be occupied by lakhs of devotees. But our activities here were banned for weeks before that,” says Jai Kumar, a Burari resident who plays cricket here.
“This land belongs to the DDA”. The messages displayed on five signboards along the ground’s borders leaves little scope for debate.
While the DDA says that the ground does not have a specific name, for everyone else — including Google Maps — it is ‘Nirankari Samagam Ground’. “Most people feel the ground belongs to the Nirankaris,” says Sumit Pathak, one of many auto drivers who choose the ground for playing cards and having lunch.
Vivek Morji, a media coordinator for the Sant Nikrankari Mission, says that the spiritual organisation would take the ground on lease for a few days every November for a three-day international religious congregation. “During the period, the ground is divided into many parts which serve as the accommodation as well as the venue for the cultural programme. Barring a few occasions in between, the ground had been serving us every year since 1990. But from his year, we have moved the programme to a new ground in Samalkha,” says Morji.
The ground is surrounded by neighbourhoods such as Burari, Jahangirpuri and Model Town.
For locals, it has been the go-to spot for jogging, walking, meeting. Keola Devi, 65, who has been running a tea stall here for decades, says the ground was filled with water until 30-35 years ago. “Even now, the ground is without basic amenities. There aren’t even usable toilets and the ground is strewn with plastic and other items. But it has been a favourite destination for Delhiites for years simply because the city lacks such unrestricted open spaces. Today, it provides a livelihood for so many vendors,” says Devi.
As the sun sets and darkness descends, the ground begins to slowly empty out. The vehicles in the ground are headed towards the Outer Ring Road which is shining brightly in the hazy evening, making for a splendid sight!