Who needs a time machine when one has one’s imagination to ride on? And a “ticket to ride” is provided by the immense heritage that is all around. On Sunday I attended, one of the India Habitat Centre organised “History Walks”. I had been wanting to attend one since years, but somehow I would always miss the opportunity or I would not be able to drag myself out of bed at unearthly hours on Sunday mornings. This Sunday however saw me determinedly see to it that I at least go and take a peek at what the concept of history walk entailed. It had been quite some time since I had gotten up as early as 6:30 am on a Sunday. This used to happen more in childhood, when we would get up early even on sundays, so as to get ready, eat breakfast and be free by the time “Rangoli” would get aired at 7:40am on good old Doordarshan. For, after that initial kickstart, the whole day used to be a non-stop, funfilled, TV affair and not a single kid I knew would miss it. If one didn’t get the hurdles like bathing and eating, aside, before Rangoli started, they would stare at you in your face when it would be siesta time. Anyhow, this is not about that personal history called childhood. This is about the history walk conducted by a historian who took us around Qudsia bagh, Nicholson Cemetry and other late Mughal and British areas around Kashmiri gate.
So here I was, after waking up at that unearthly hour on a Sunday morning to boot, with “project hairwash” aside (it *is* a project with complete planning, execution and maintenance), on my way to Masonic club, Jamuna road. I managed to reach there in time, in spite of hardly having seen this part of Delhi, ever in my life. Whatever is left of Qudsia Bagh, is apparently inside Masonic club. The greater part of the garden was destroyed to make way for Inter State Bus Terminal and the adjacent tourist camp site. With the newly built metro in place, the Kashmiri gate station is nearby. The moment one enters Masonic, it seems one has come to a different Delhi. The place is abuzz with activity, fortunately of the birdie kingdom. There’s a lot of cacophony around which somehow doesn’t cause discomfort. No, it’s not because of the traffic from the nearby busy Ring Road and ISBT. It’s caused by the innumerous birds flapping, shrilling, singing, screeching and generally being “natural”. The place is full of tall trees, and the seeping rays of the morning sun make it look picture perfect.
About 25 people gathered around the historian Swapna, as she explained the history behind the imposing western gate that we saw next to us. Some people were taking notes, some listening in rapt attention, some preparing for photo-ops and still others like me, perhaps trying to imagine what it would have been like in the days of yore. Qudsia Begum (originally Jodha Bai or something similar which I forget now) was the wife of Mughal emperor Mohammad Shah. She got the garden built in the 18th century (1748 to be precise). It comprises of a baradari, a private mosque of the emperor and his wife, and some gates. A small stream used to cross the garden and join the Jamuna river which used to flow just next to the garden. The stream has long been blocked and has stagnant water now. The Ring road stretches over what was once the Jamuna’s river bed. Once inside the garden, devoid of all the noise of a big metropolis, it’s not difficult to imagine a paradise, with a clean Jamuna, flowing by, right next to that green patch. After the 1857 mutiny, the British moved their battery and troops here and bombarded the Kashmiri gate. One of the smashed arches of the mosque, bears a signature of (maybe) a cannon ball that hit it. The British eventually took over and the result is a mix of colonial and mughal architecture. The British also established Civil lines, which was the centre of British administration before the new capital was formally inaugurated. The Old Secretariat, now the seat of government for the Delhi State administration and the Oberoi Maidens Hotel are some of the colonial buildings that stand from those days. “Civil lines”, to this day, is a name associated with a very posh locality, wherever it exists. With all this history in mind, we walked around the Qudsia Bagh stepping into centuries long forgotten and gone past. The baradari is a curious mix of British as well as Mughal architecture. It reminded me very much of some of the army barracks (converted to officer’s accomodation) that I have stayed in. The mosque is functional even today. The gate looks majestic and one can imagine a queen coming here in full splendour to enjoy the flowers and the fruits of this garden. Apparently the emperor and his family used to come here often on picnic and were accompanied by an assorted array of servants and guards. Things were obviously done in style those days.
After exploring Qudsia Bagh we stepped back into modern times and the hustle bustle of this city called Delhi. The motley group of people (some of whom are regulars) walked towards the Oberoi Maidens to see the 100 year old, relatively lesser known hotel, apparently frequented by Jinnah when he was here. The Nicholson Cemetery, nearby, was named after John Nicholson who led the British troops that fought the mutineers in 1857. It happens to be Delhi’s oldest cemetery. As we stepped into the neglected cemetery, it was time travel in another century for us. The British may have ruled this land for a long time, but so many of them also have a “deeply rooted” past here. Lots and lots of graves, with some of them belonging to war casualties, some there as a result of prolonged illnesses, and still some belonging to very young children; speak of the low life expectancy rates in those days. The average age of the dead happened to be very low. This cemetery is right behind Kashmiri gate metro station. After getting a dekko and reading some of the moving epitaphs, we all dispersed. The flitting in and out of time periods, and trying to capture some of the “present”, has certainly whet my appetite for more.