Once there was a Garden City
Each era leaves an indelible imprint on its culture and traditions through its people and their ways of living. The National Capital of India - in all its scenic splendour, has its own set of mesmerising stories to tell and its exquisite landmarks continue to regale the masses with tales of Delhi’s gradual transformation into the massive metropolis that it has become today.
The word Bagh used as a suffix in Karol Bagh, Punjabi Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, can lead one to the imagine crowded markets, traffic jams and packed residential areas but Delhi has managed to protect and preserve through time, some of its treasured Baghs (orchards/ gardens) with their panorama of lush green and breath-taking natural beauty.
Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the planner of the city has 18 orchards in its records in the city with their combined area of 491 acres. “We used to earn Rs 19 lakh per annum by auctioning fruits of these orchards but now we have decided to open the gates to the public. For the first time in history, the fruits of these orchards will not be auctioned but will be available to the general public” said Mahipal Singh, spokesperson of DDA. Most of these orchards have been converted into parks and the fruit-bearing trees are gradually being replaced by shady plants, herbs, and shrubs.
Situated north of Shahjahanabad, Sheesh Mahal Bagh is one such orchard that still treasures the originality of the Bagh along with its history and fruit-bearing plants. Now known as District Park Shish Mahal Bagh, this Bagh is spread in around 40 acres of land behind the Shalimar Bagh police station and houses 12 of the 18 orchards of DDA along with a relic of the Mughal era which has been taken over and maintained by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). The remaining six orchards are in District Park Pitampura, Rohini Sector 18, Rohini Sector 19, District Centre Ashok Vihar, and Shakarpur.
In the pre-independence era, the Sheesh Mahal Bagh was looked after by Muslim care takers who went to live in Pakistan after partition. The Indian government overtook the responsibility of maintaining these Baghs and allotted them to locals on contractual basis for harvesting the fruits. As seen in the records, DDA has named these orchards after the 16 contractors who were the first few to be allotted these orchards by its predecessor, Delhi Improvement Trust. They are Shri Chand Wala Bagh, Rati Ram Wala, Ahiron Wala, Motewala, Rafiwala, Matin Wala, Nali Wali, Hazara Wala, Jolly-1, Jolly-2, Jolly-3, Jolly-4, Tanki Wala, Aloochi wala, Baniya wala, Shish Mahal C and D. Interestingly, several other parks in the Shalimar Bagh region which were developed from orchards are now known by the names of their original owners or contractors.
A few years back, the orchards had a varied collection of fruit bearing plants like Lime, Orange, Pomegranate, Guava, Mango, and Amla etc. This collection no longer exists. The dense green orchards with their cows and buffaloes transport one to a different world, far away from the humdrum of daily life. “The Bagh was earlier fed with Haiderpur canal and was dense like a forest. It also yielded larger quantities of fruits than it does today because the canal water brought humus from the rivers which acted as natural fertiliser for the plants,” said Babulal, an old time gardener of the orchard who accompanied us on the tour.
This canal has existed since the Mughal era when the orchard was commissioned by Akbarabadi Begum, one of the Shahjahan’s wives. The canal and its water channels are now destroyed but the remains of certain wells inside the garden give the evidence of the beauty of this orchard in those days. “In the mid-nineties, an issue cropped up amongst the government’s agencies regarding payment of the water bill. We now use ground water to water the plants. The ground water is sufficient for parks but not for orchards,” he added. He further informed us that earlier, there were around 80 employees of the DDA for upkeep and maintenance of the park but now only 18 gardeners remain to take care of the park.
The most prominent buildings visible inside the orchard are Sheesh Mahal, the main palace building, the ruins of a canal leading down the centre to a squire pool, and the pavilion constructed on the other side of the pool. The main palace building is now in the custody of ASI while some scattered Mughal-era constructions are abandoned. This palace is of historical importance as Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had declared himself Shahjahan’s successor in this very palace. It was used by Shahjahan and other Mughal emperors as a resting place during their missions and visits to Lahore and other areas of the region. During British Raj, David Ochterlony and Lord Metcalfe, both British residents of Delhi used the palace as their summer lodge. Earlier, the orchards had villages of Haiderpur, Shalimar, Sahipur, Singhalpur, Bhadota Sarai, Peepalthala, and Pithora along their boundaries.
“The basic difference between a park and an orchard is that we plant only non-fruit plants in a park. These plants are generally shady trees, herbs and shrubs as the people who visit these parks either damage the plants by plucking fruits or injure themselves in the process,” said Singh. The entry of people is restricted in orchards and fruit contractors don’t allow them inside while there no such restriction in parks. Interestingly the DDA has now decided to develop these orchards like parks. District Park Shish Mahal C & D close to residential areas has already been developed into a park with greenery and swings for children. “We have planted grass in huge areas of the park which will now be cut properly,” informed Babulal. As DDA has decided not to auction the fruits of the orchards, contractors have been served notices to leave the gardens to the residents of Haiderpur J J cluster.
The DDA is yet to deploy guards for the park and the contractors so far, were responsible for protecting the plants and their fruits.
“This area is becoming a hot spot for criminals, drug addicts and anti-social elements. There were at least 12-13 fruit contractors who deployed two to three individuals to protect the fruits round the clock. That turned out to be a big deterrent for the criminals and anti-social elements in the area. The DDA should deploy security guards to control crime” said Ramraj Yadav, a retired government officer who regularly goes for walks in the park. “Pick pocketing, chain snatching, eve teasing, drug addiction, and even prostitution are done deep inside the orchards” he added, claiming that the policemen take bribes and let the culprits escape.
A big portion of the orchards on Haiderpur J J cluster side has become barren land as new trees were not planted when the old ones fell. A few J J clusters have also been erected inside the orchards which have now become common grasslands for the animals of the dairy owners in the area. This region is used as a defecating ground by the slum dwellers making it a no-go zone for residents. “The harvesting of fruits from the orchards requires expertise and needs to be done at the right time with caution. The common people will certainly damage the fruits and the plants as they can’t wait until the fruits have ripened and are also not properly equipped,” said Daljeet Singh, a fruit contractor who has already started to pack up and leave the area. Besides Sheesh Mahal, several other Baghs in Shalimar Bagh have been developed into district parks but they are still known by their old names with Bagh as a suffix like Motewala Bagh, Malhotra Wala Bagh, Sadh Wala Bagh, Ram Swaroop Thakur Wala Bagh, Ram Bagh and Karnel Wala Bagh.
North MCD has two historical Baghs under its jurisdiction – Roshanaara Bagh and Qudsia Bagh, but neither of them has any fruit-bearing plants. Roshanaara Bagh was built by a Mughal princess - Roshanara Begum, one of the daughters of Shahjahan while Qudsia Bagh was built on the orders of Qudsia Begum, the mother of Ahmad Shah Bahadur. “The visitors and children often break the branches of the fruit plants, sometimes injuring themselves too. So we decided to not plant any fruit bearing trees,” said Ranbir Kumar, Director of Horticulture, North MCD. The corporation has also been maintaining another orchard – the Beri Wala Bagh in Ashok Vihar Phase II. The Bagh shifted its jurisdiction from under the DDA to MCD along with the transfer of the colony. “It’s spread in 4.5 acres of land with 40 plants of Ber and four Mango plants. We earned Rs 10,000 by auctioning the fruits of the orchard in 2014,” he added.
"We used to earn Rs 19 lakh per annum by auctioning fruits of these orchards but now we have decided to open the gates to the public. For the first time in history, the fruits of these orchards will not be auctioned but will be available to the general public - Mahipal Singh, DDA
"This area is becoming a hot spot for criminals. There were many fruit contractors who deployed two to three individuals to protect the fruits, but it turned out to be a big deterrent for the criminals and anti-social elements in the area. The DDA should deploy guards to control crime - Ramraj Yadav, park visitor
"The harvesting of fruits from the orchards requires expertise and needs to be done at the right time. Commoners will certainly damage the fruits and the plants as they won’t wait until the fruits have ripened and are also not properly equipped - Daljeet Singh, fruit contractor