This is a walk that takes you through Civil Lines, a once upon a time suburb of Shahjahanabad. North of Delhi is the world in itself, established by the British, it still carries the air of the colonial culture. There are roads and streets, a stylish hotel, an old cemetery, a queen’s personal garden with a palace. A mosque, an orphanage and adoption place and if you want a historical Gurudwara. This part of Delhi is also along the Yamuna River, ahead of Red Fort, Salimgarh fort and all the samadhis of the post-independence leaders.
Delhi Civil Lines Walking Tour
After crossing ISBT on the ring road, take any road to your left and join Shamnath Marg. And locate the Oberoi Maiden’s hotel. This pristine hotel in white is straight out of the British era when this was known as the Maidens Metropolitan hotel.
It is classified as a heritage hotel. The lobby displays various awards it has won for being the best hotel in various categories at various times. You can go around the hotel which is also the corporate office for the Oberoi group. You may request the reception to take you on a quick tour and they would graciously show you the rooms and swimming pool that were built more than a century ago. And today stand as a classic example of heritage preserved and nurtured. You will have a feel of the bygone colonial era. A time when the British used to live here and this area more or less belonged exclusively to them. Today it has Delhi University, Delhi government’s steering wheels and lots of ‘turn of century’ bungalows as its neighbors.
Mother Teresa’s Orphanage
Behind the Maiden’s hotel in the by-lanes lies the Mother Teresa’s orphanage, where you can visit and contribute anything that you can. This is the first Mother’s orphanage that I visited and it was a very happy experience. As all the children had all the quality facilities that every child deserves. There are children from all age groups right from newborns. They all had good food to eat, decent clothes to wear, plenty of play area and toys. And enough staff to look after them. They did not allow us to click any photographs of the place or of the kids which I appreciate. Visitors are welcome as long as they do not intrude the routine and discipline of the kids. One of the sisters told me that most of the kids come from unwed mothers who are under social pressure and cannot keep the kids.
As you walk from here towards Qudsia Bagh, you would see Palna, an initiative by the Delhi government to take care of abandoned children. True to its name, there is a Palna kept outside the window with blankets in it, where any abandoned kind can be left. The kid would be taken in and raised inside the premises and also placed for adoption.
The Qudsia Bagh is an extensive garden that was home to Qudsia begum’s palace and mosque. Qudsia Begum was a dancing girl who married Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela. Their son Ahmed Shah became the next emperor. It was originally the Persian style char bagh garden with a wall all around. Most of it was destroyed during the revolt of 1857. Today it is probably one of the few quiet and peaceful places in Delhi, which are so in spite of being in the middle of the city rush. Once you are inside this garden, you would suddenly feel the serenity and as you walk along you would see an old building which is closed now. There is no information about what this building is or was.
An informal inquiry said that a senior government official used to live here until a few years back. It has since been taken over by the Department of culture and now it lies closed. To see the actual façade of the building you have to go to its back where you would see the double staircase leading to the entrance of the house. My guess is that this might have been the palace of the Qudsia begum which might have been destructed. And an English style Bungalow built on top of it, using the same small red bricks. But then it is just my guess.
There is a gate called the Hathi gate (elephant gate), which is beautiful even in its ruined state. It is a typical gate that you would find outside the Mughal era buildings. A thick-walled gate with places for the security guards to guard, from the top and stay inside the building. Today there are only remnants of the gate. But in the midst of a well-maintained garden, it looks majestic, rendering the air of royal past.
Another important landmark in the Qudsia Park is the mosque which in architecture or more appropriately in look and feel, matches the Hathi gate. It is a simple mosque with three domes. Looks like all the important members of the royal families like to have a mosque of their own to pray. In the vicinity of their residential quarters. And so this mosque must have been built for the lady who had her palace here. The mosque is again in ruins though it is a practicing mosque. The ASI board declaring it to be a monument of national importance has been pulled out and kept away. Probably by the family that lives here and probably does not like tourists intruding their privacy.
Just across the road from Qudsia Bagh, around the corner is Nicholson Cemetery, named after one of the British Army officers who is buried here. This is a cemetery which is still in use, and the area close to the entrance belongs to the century or more old graves. When you stand there and ignore the noise from the adjoining road, you would almost feel you are in the English countryside. Move around and read the epitaphs on the graves and you would realize that people died really young in those days. Some because of the war but there are lots of kids who died much before they reached the age to go to war.
There is an equal number of anonymous graves. Which probably belong to those unnamed soldiers whose bodies either could not be identified or had no relatives to take care of their last rites.
The caretaker of the cemetery was a friendly person who explained a lot of graves. And also told us stories about the children of those lying here coming after centuries in search of the last remains of their parents or grandparents. Without letting it become gory, he explained how he digs up graves and takes out the remains of them. He also explained the degeneration of the body. After how many years what remains on the ground. He told us about unidentified graves. How some families choose to be buried in the same place. How couples sometimes want to be buried on top of each other. It was an extremely humble experience being there. And also learning that it is also a profession for someone who has to handle the dead bodies every day.
While walking around civil lines, you can stop by and look at the bungalows in this area. Which were built by the governing British to live on the outskirts of the then city? If you have grown up in Army cantonments like me, you may feel a bit nostalgic. If you have lived in the UK for a while, again it may port you there for a moment. Roads are still broad here. If you choose a time when traffic is not much, and if the weather supports you, you can enjoy walking around. The area was established by and for the civil servants. And hence the name Civil Lines.
Manju Ka Tila Gurudwara
The Majnu Ka Tila is not really walkable distance from this walk’s walking area. But if you are here, it is worth visiting it. It is right on the ring road. Majnu ka Tila is one of the historical Gurudwara’s in Delhi. This is a place where Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first guru of Sikhs spent quite some time. There is an interesting story about how this place got this unusual name. There was a Sufi saint who used to live in this place by the Yamuna River in the 15th century. He was so lost in his prayers and his God that he could not see anything else. And he was almost thought to be a madman by the people. Hence he was called Majnu after the famous lover who could not see anything beyond his beloved.
When Guru Nanak Dev met him here and wanted to bless him, he said he wants his name to be remembered forever. So Guru Nanak blessed him and said that this place will be a place of worship. And it would always be known by your name, and so it is. There is a well in the premises of this gurudwara, which is the place where a lot of magic was done by Baba Ram Rai. And it is believed that the water from this well is still magical. This centuries-old gurudwara is quiet and peaceful. You can sit there and chat with the Granthi there who would graciously tell you stories around this gurudwara. There is always a certain devotion, a sense of being at peace at places where people have worshiped for long times.
You would feel this when you sit here with your head covered and your thoughts silenced. Of course, there is always the langar that is an added advantage of visiting gurudwaras.
Recommend you to read the following travel blog on Places to visit in Delhi.