One of the most respected expatriate organizations in Delhi, Seven Cities has been responsible for creating lifelong friendships and teaching many about the fascinating history and culture of Delhi. MangoliMag contributor Dakshina Gammanpila caught up with Seven Cities coordinator and close friend Janet McCartney to talk about Seven Cities and what they loved about their experience with the program.
Dakshina Gammanpila (DG): Hello Janet thank you for agreeing to chat about 7 Cities. It
seems a little surreal to be conducting an interview with you in Spain
and me in England, when normally we would be having a cup of coffee
and a slice of cake together in Delhi. Covid-19 has changed that
landscape of course, but could you give us a description of 7 cities
(and a brief history)?
Janet McCartney (JM): Seven Cities is an open, friendly multinational group of
approximately 40 newcomers to Delhi who meet once a week (Wednesdays)
to explore the rich history and culture of their fascinating new home.
Seven Cities runs two 14-week seasons, starting in January and
September each year. Each season kicks off with an informational
coffee morning, followed by an introductory group lunch, ten weekly
tours and then closes with a final lunch and review of all the fun
experiences we had along the way. It is a long-established expatriate
institution but given Seven Cities’ focus on Delhi’s history, it is
ironic that we have very little information on the group’s history! It
has been operating since at least 1995 though as we are still in
contact with one Seven Cities alumni from then!
DG: Can you tell about us the format of groups and tours?
JM: All Seven Cities members are allocated to one of ten groups,
tasked with researching and leading a tour which focuses on a specific
period in Delhi’s history. The tours are ordered historically with
the first tour based on Delhi’s history and monuments of a thousand
years ago. Subsequent tours cover Delhi’s history under the Tuglaqs,
Syeds, Lodis, Mughals, East India Company and the Raj ending with the
tenth tour focused on the Independence movement and events of 1947.
DG: You and I have been friends for a number of years and share an
enthusiasm for Delhi. How has 7 cities contributed to your
understanding of Delhi?
JM: Seven Cities is the cornerstone of my understanding and enthusiasm
for Delhi. I joined Seven Cities within weeks of arriving in Delhi
and it was the best decision I made! Not only did I meet a friendly
bunch of fellow newcomers but it also introduced me to the city’s
history, culture and neighbourhoods in a structured, safe manner which
I felt very comfortable with. And from that first Seven Cities season,
I have been hooked!
DG:How long have you been involved in 7 cities and what drew you to it?
JM: Well I have known about Seven Cities since November 2014 when I
first came to Delhi on a “look see” visit and was enthusiastically
told that Seven Cities was a “must do”! I am a real history buff so
it did appeal and I signed up for the Fall 2015 season shortly after
we arrived. I loved every minute of that season and for the next two
years (four seasons) remained involved as a mentor until I was asked
to become one of the Seven Cities administrators from the Fall 2017
season onwards. So I have been involved with Seven Cities for over 5
years now but it is never boring as every tour is different (as they
are led by different groups of people who all project their own slant
and personality onto the tour) and every season brings in a new cohort
of people excited to explore Delhi.
DG: Have there been any favourites and could you describe a memorable one?
JM: It would be so difficult to choose a favourite as all tours are
unique and each historical period has an amazing range of fascinating
(and often blood thirsty!) list of characters to reveal and
interesting hidden-away monuments to poke around in.
On some tours, the group have dressed up and acted out skits, another
group had us singing a song they wrote about the Tuglaq dynasty during
the bus ride to Tuglaqabad whilst another group utilised their
contacts to arrange a unique private tour of the Parliament building,
and I just adore the Lodi tour when (for example) we amble peacefully
through Lodi gardens exploring the very picturesque tombs and parkland
and sample tea from a chai-wallah.
DG: I remember being in Group 10 (the final tour) the Independence
Movement and we decided that it should be from the perspective of
women. We all took on the role of women associated with the male
‘history makers’ to show an alternative view. I dressed up as Nan
Pandit (Nehru’s sister who later went on to be the first woman
president of the UN General Assembly), and I read her brother’s
Freedom of Midnight speech on the steps of Birla House, near where
Gandhi was assassinated. We then hosted a lunch at the British High
Commission (a hint of irony perhaps!) What did you do for your tour?
JM: I was allocated to group 8 which focuses on the East India Company
and along with my other group members we put together a tour that was
based in the north of Delhi (just beyond Old Delhi) around an area the
British named as the Civil Lines. We explored the fascinating 200
year old (well almost) church of St James which was frequented by many
EIC employees (and where many of them came to a sticky end in 1857),
walked along part of the old city wall near Kashmir Gate which was the
scene of fierce fighting in 1857 and then took rickshaws up the hill
to a watch tower on the Ridge where many EIC women and children
escaped to on 10 May 1857. And then after a morning of death and
destruction, we relaxed with a far more peaceful and refined 19th
century inspired lunch at the wonderfully renovated nearby Maidens
DG: You and I have both been mentors for 7 cities in the past can you
describe that role for us?
JM:Each season new members are randomly allocated to one of ten
groups. Each of these groups focus on a particular historical era and
normally consist of 4 new members and a mentor. The mentor is someone
who has done Seven Cities before and is there to guide the group
should they need and or want it as they put together their tour. As
each group is different, some mentors play an integral role, sometimes
even leading part of the tour whilst other mentors are only asked for
their top tips at the beginning of the season. It is very much up to
the dynamics of each group but regardless of this all mentors are
invited to every tour and you will also find them at the informational
coffee morning and kick-off lunch, eager to share their experiences
DG(In a nutshell) what are the 7 cities of Delhi?
JM:Well I am not too sure as there are more than seven cities! Little
remains of some of the cities and in some cases, names have swapped!
For example, in the 19th century Old Delhi referred to the area around
Mehrauli whereas nowadays it is a moniker for the old walled city of
Shahjahanabad containing the Red Fort and Chandni Chowk.
DG: What is your favourite dynasty?
JM: When I first joined Seven cities, I found the history of the East
India Company in Delhi the most interesting but really that was only
because being British I had learnt a small amount about it during
school. Nowadays, I am particularly focused on the late Mughals and
love exploring the deserted summer palace in Mehrauli although I have
just read a book on the second Mughal emperor (Humayun) and found him
a fascinating character too so perhaps I am a bit flighty when it
comes to favourite dynasties or rulers!
DG: Do you have to have any prior knowledge of Delhi history to sign up?
JM: Most people (and that includes me) have absolutely no prior knowledge
of Delhi’s history before they sign up and that is perfectly okay as
we are all newcomers and one of the main ideas of Seven Cities is that
we all discover this wonderful city together.
DG: What stands out about the 7 cities tours? Which aspect do you love?
JM: As each tour is lead by a different (and diverse) group of 4
people, the stand-out feature must be that no tour is ever the same as
the last and that is the aspect I most love. I have been involved
with Seven Cities for over 5 years now and gone on 50+ tours but I can
honestly say that not one has been the same. I love having the
confidence to explore parts of Delhi that I just would not feel
comfortable doing on my own and sharing sometimes very whacky
experiences with a group of new friends.
DG: The Autumn 2020
programme has been cancelled due to Covid19. Are there plans for
JM:We very much hope that we will be able to run a full Spring 2021
14-week season starting at the end of January. However, this is all
dependent on the Covid situation and associated health concerns, group
size limits and site access restrictions.
DG: Due to the current situation will there be significant changes
to the tour and 7 cities as a whole?
JM: Any changes to the Spring 2021 season will all be dependent on the
Covid pandemic’s health and legal requirements and we just do not know
at the moment what these will be. A shortened Spring 2021 season
focusing on outdoor less-frequented sites and with fewer participants
and thus smaller group sizes may be a more realistic scenario but we
will decide nearer to the time and post the information on our website
DG. It has been a pleasure Janet thank you
and I cant wait to see you in person. To wrap up I’d like to ask you
what is favourite historical place in Delhi?
JM:Gosh there are sooooo many! For a relaxing stroll and
multi-dynastic explore I would pick Mehrauli’s archeological park. It
contains everything from Balban’s nine hundred year old tomb, to a
Lodi-era baoli and a Mughal-era tomb which was converted by an East
India Company Britisher into his country home complete with boating
lake, walled rose garden, bandstand, dove cote and some very weird
garden decorations (a fake pyramid for one!) of dubious taste.
You can find out more about Seven Cities by visiting our new website
at www.sevencities.in .