On the morning of 8th April 1929, a group of Indian revolutionaries, both men and women, assembled at a Mughal-era garden in Delhi’s Shahjahanabad area. After sharing a meal and before bidding farewell, one of the women revolutionaries would prick her finger and put a ‘tilak’ of blood on the two revolutionaries who were about to embark on an important mission.
Just hours later, the two revolutionaries – Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt – would lob a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi, as a mark of protest against the British Raj, and make history.
While this act of Bhagat Singh is one of the most famous incidents of the Indian freedom movement, the historic garden where he and his associates met – Qudsia Bagh – is a victim of apathy and collective amnesia.
Ironically enough, for a garden linked to the Indian revolutionary movement, Qudsia Bagh is associated with a Mughal monarch whose reign is synonymous with decadence and debauchery – Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’ (r. 1719 - 1748).
Qudsia Bagh is a large garden complex on the fringes of Old Delhi, not far from Kashmere Gate. Paved walkways invite visitors to stroll through what was once a palace-cum-garden complex built for Qudsia Begum, third wife of Emperor Muhammad Shah and mother of Emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur (r. 1748–1754).
All that remains of this once endless paradise is 20 acres, its imposing western gateway, a beautiful mosque, a few pavilions and a couple of other structures.
Qudsia Begum who started as a royal courtesan, had by the 1720s, become extremely influential in the Mughal court and served as regent for her son after the death of her husband. An able administrator, she was sandwiched between two weak and ineffective rulers – her husband and her son.
Her husband, Nasir-ud-Din Muhammad Shah or Emperor Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’ presided over a rapidly crumbling empire and his decadent ways only accelerated its disintegration in the early 18th century. Muhammad Shah ascended the throne in very turbulent times, placed there by the Syyed brothers, Mughal king-makers, at the age of 17.
After his first two wives failed to provide him with a living heir, he married Udham Bai, who may have been of Hindu origin. She was introduced to the Imperial Court as a dancer or entertainer and used this position to gain favour among its members. Muhammad Shah grew fond of her and eventually took her as his third wife. She was even appointed as a mansabdar, a high-ranking position in the Emperor's army that was used to enforce his rule and maintain his authority, especially in his absence.
After Muhammad Shah's death in 1748, Udham Bai’s son Ahmad Shah Bahadur (1725–1775) became Emperor. As a widow, she took the title ‘Qudsia Begum’ and ruled as regent of India for six years, from 1748 and 1754. It was during the first year of her regency that she chose to have a garden and palace complex made exclusively for herself, away from the court politics of the Red Fort. It was called Qudsia Bagh.
Unlike her husband and son, Qudsia Begum knew what she wanted and went after it. It was widely rumoured in Delhi that she had had an affair with Javid Khan, the eunuch-superintendent of the Zenana or royal women’s quarters. Qudsia Begum was imprisoned along with her son in Salimgarh Fort in Delhi in 1754. After her death in 1765, the great palace-garden that she had created began to fall into decline.
There are only a few references to Qudsia Bagh after 1765. Author and historian Willaim Dalrymple in his book The Anarchy (2019) mentions that Qudsia Bagh was where the Rohilla warrior, Ghulam Kadir (grandson of Rohilla cheiftan Najibuddaulah), grew up in Mughal captivity. Ghulam Kadir would gain notoriety as the man who blinded Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II in 1788 and inflict unspeakable horrors on Mughal women in the Red Fort. When Maratha warrior Mahadji Scindia attacked Delhi to rescue Emperor Shah Alam, the Maratha artillery was stationed in Qudsia Bagh to bombard the Red Fort.
By 1803, Delhi would be taken over by the British from the Scindias, but even after years of decline, Qudsia Bagh was still in relatively good condition. In its present form, however, the garden does not even hint at its early descriptions by foreign travellers as well as senior officers of the British East India Company.
Sir Thomas Metcalfe, the Company’s agent at the Mughal Court, had prepared an elaborate sketch of the garden with its magnificent palace. The sketch is currently in the British Library. In its heyday, the garden rivalled contemporary palace gardens in Europe, with its imposing buildings, orchards, fountains and water channels, all essential to the Persian idea of paradise.
Qudsia Bagh is built in classic Persian Char Bagh style, with four symmetrical gardens that have water channels running through. Imported into India from Iran, the design became a favourite of the Mughals, the most dramatic example being the pristine gardens of the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Lakhori bricks have been used at Qudsia Bagh. These were much thinner and flatter than the bricks used today. Medieval craftsmen used limestone plaster to carve designs by hand, known as stucco work, which was part of the original structure. The Mughals were fond of art and architecture and designed their buildings with cusped arches and plain arches. It is said that this palace-garden complex had massive walls to protect it from public gaze because, after all, this pleasure palace was built for a Mughal Empress!
As you enter the garden through its main gate, on Yamuna Marg, you immediately come across a two-storey remnant of a tower and parts of a wall attached to it. Due to its sorry state, it is hard to make out whether this was originally a watch tower, a decorative tower or something else, but even these pitiful ruins hint at the delicate craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into the making of these structures.
From palm trees of various sizes, to banyan trees, to flowering trees such as the Amaltas, this was definitely a garden fit for an Empress. One can imagine the abundance of birds including peacocks that must have graced these lawns.
Within the garden complex is a British-era bungalow used by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as a storehouse. This building was the residence of a Mr Smith, a British officer, although one can’t be sure what his role or designation was. It is rumoured that this exact spot used to be the stables of Empress Qudsia Begum but no proof of this remains.
As you continue to circle the garden, you come across what is known by some as the ‘Hathi Darwaza’, or the original entrance to the majestic palace that once stood here. We know that elephants were a part of Mughal pageantry and that they could have entered the gardens through this gateway but there is no proof that this is what actually happened.
The gateway is built with Lakhori bricks and is encased in red sandstones and plastered with limestone. There is beautiful stucco work on its walls. It has arches with floral patterns above and the ruins of two decorative turrets on its sides.
It is devoid of signage but the building on the other side of the gateway is magnificent or must have been in its time. The structure is large and must have had a number of rooms and corridors. The ASI has not installed lights inside the building and you have to squint to pick out the details that have survived on the decorative roof. The main doors, which were presumably made of wood, are missing.
Attached to the Qudsia Bagh complex is the Shahi Masjid (Royal Mosque). This mosque was the private place of worship for the Empress and her entourage, although it now has a separate entrance which opens onto Delhi’s Ring Road. It remains connected to the garden via a closed gate.
Like so many other monuments in Delhi, Qudsia Bagh too played its part in the Revolt of 1857. During these cataclysmic times, British families and soldiers living in the Kashmere Gate area took refuge in the garden due to its massive walls and mounted cannons on top of them to protect themselves. They later abandoned the garden and retreated to the Flagstaff Tower nearby, at the top of the northern ridge hill, but the walls of the complex, the palace of Qudsia Begum and the gardens suffered massive damage. The battered state of the Shahi Masjid points to how intense the fighting was.
Qudsia Bagh was never restored by the British but it was cleaned up and used as a public park for many years. In 1903, a grand coronation durbar took place in Delhi, to mark the coronation of King Edward VII as Emperor of India. On the occasion, the ‘Delhi Art Exhibition’, a grand industrial exhibition showcasing the ‘Crafts of India’, was organised in Qudsia Bagh, on the orders of Lord Curzon, the then Governor-General of India.
A grand temporary structure in Indo-Saracenic style, including exhibition halls, galleries and offices, were built here. The façade was decorated with tile work executed by potters from Lahore, Multan, Halla and Jaipur, and was painted with frescoes by students of the Mayo School of Art in Lahore. While the structure was dismantled soon after, the ‘Delhi Arts Exhibition’ of 1902 would be a landmark in the development of arts and crafts in North India.
The next historic event at Qudsia Bagh was when it served as a venue for Indian revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh and his associates, to meet in 1929. By the time India became independent, the garden had shrunk to less than 50 acres. The growing urban sprawl in the last 60 years has swallowed another 30 acres. Kashmere Gate (ISBT) and the road running alongside the garden, towards the Tis Hazaari Courts complex, were once all part of the Qudsia Bagh.
Lately, due to the construction of the ‘Heritage Line’ of the Delhi Metro, a massive section of the garden was dug up. Even though Delhi Metro refilled it, they poured rubble into the massive trench and did not plant a single tree or shrub to make up for the loss of foliage.
There has also been a move by the North Municipal Corporation of Delhi to change the name of the park altogether, from Qudsia Bagh to ‘M M Agarwal Park’, after a local leader.
Just like so many monuments in Delhi and elsewhere in India, the general disinterest in our heritage has contributed to the neglect of this slice of paradise. One can only hope that the ever-dwindling Eden created by Qudsia Begum lasts long enough for future generations to know that there was a time in India when wealth and opulence were marked by building something as simple and refreshing as a garden.
Barun Ghosh is an alumnus of the Parsons School of Design, New York. Apart from being an entrepreneur, he’s a landscape, architecture and food photographer. He is also a heritage enthusiast and currently pursuing a degree in history (honours) from IGNOU. He tweets at @barunghosh.
An effort like this needs your support. No contribution is too small and it will only take a minute. We thank you for pitching in.