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The world's most-polluted capital city finds a green sanctuary in Sunder Nursery

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Adjacent to the iconic Humayun’s Tomb Complex is Sunder Nursery, which has been transformed painstakingly from a neglected, rubble-filled dumping ground to a heritage park with over 300 species of trees

The 90-acre Sunder Nursery is New Delhi’s green lung

The Azimganj Serai garden area: the serai, a pit stop for travellers to rest, was restored to bring back its lost cultural significance and the architectural integrity of the monument.

Summer months in New Delhi can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Thankfully, the city, which has the dubious honour of being the world’s most polluted capital city—has found an escape; Sunder Nursery, a green sanctuary that allows its 29.3 million people to heal. The nursery hugs within its 90-acre fold several heritage monuments, nature trails, an impressive arboretum (the city’s first), a bonsai and a garden house, as well as water bodies.

To understand its uniqueness, however, one needs to reflect on its past glory. Nizamuddin Basti, the area in which Sunder Nursery is ensconced, has borne witness to a profusion of building activity ever since the 14th century, with its serais, garden tombs, baolis (stepwells), mosques, gateways and garden pavilions. In the 16th century, the Grand Trunk Road was built through this area. It was by the early 20th century, however, that Sunder Nursery came into being during the building of the capitol complex of New Delhi by the British. Established to the north of the Humayun’s Tomb, this nursery was created to propagate saplings for New Delhi’s avenues and to serve as a ‘lab’ for experiments with plants brought from other parts of the Empire.

A view of the Sundar Burj.

Conservation works on Sundarwala Mahal have made this 16th-century monument a prominent part of the Humayun’s Tomb World Heritage Site. The first phase of conservation work on Sundarwala Mahal was taken up in 2009-10, when the collapsed portions of the monument were reconstructed; original red sandstone flooring was installed, and the re-plastering of the structure was done in the traditional lime mortar technique with the restoration of the muqarnas (ornamental vaulting characteristic of Islamic architecture).

Over several decades, the centuries-old, culturally rich Nizamuddin Basti was reduced to a bustling slum teeming with issues. By then, Sunder Nursery had become a dumping ground for construction rubble while the historic Humayun’s Tomb became a decaying structure, marked by cracked masonry, broken stonework and vandalised walls.

In 2007, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), along with the Archaeological Survey of India, the Central Public Works Department and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, commenced the Humayun’s Tomb-Sunder Nursery-Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Project. Spread across 224 acres, it is, according to Ratish Nanda, CEO, AKTC, India, the country’s biggest urban conservation project that “empowers local community” as well as focuses on the conservation of the monuments. 

While work on Humayun’s Tomb Complex was completed in 2013, Sunder Nursery, adjacent to it, was painstakingly transformed from a dumping ground to what is now touted as New Delhi’s own Central Park. Led by noted landscape architect Mohammed Shaheer, who passed away in 2015, before its completion, the park has been designed along a central axial spine around which gardens and landscapes were arranged, with traditional Mughal gardens and Persian carpet patterns serving as the inspiration. Over 300 varieties of tree species, 80 species of birds and 36 butterfly species inhabit the nursery, which features monolithic marble fountains, water streams amidst geometric flower beds and raised sandstone pathways. No surprise then that there has been “a thousand percent increase in the number of visitors”, according to Nanda who adds that AKTC will manage the project for the next ten years.

A view of the interior of Sundar Burj: cement concrete flooring was replaced with red sandstone, which was hand chiselled and fixed with lime mortar after the consolidation of the base layer. Wooden doors, which had been severely damaged due to poor maintenance and neglect, have been installed at the four openings.

A view of the impressive 16th century Lakkarwala Burj monument, which is now a World Heritage site. Its interiors have Quranic verses in incised plasterwork that encircle the room. The conservation of this monument included repair and rebuilding of the western façade, restoring the decorative work in the muqarnas along with re-installation of jallis, flooring and the restoration of the parapet wall.

The challenges to restore a dumping ground into a green lung were, as expected, plenty. Lying abandoned for decades, much of the area had overgrown. During the initial work, the accumulated rubble required some 1,000 trucks to be removed before the ground was levelled and subsequently recreated. Neglected tomb structures dating back to the 16th century, such as the Lakkarwala Burj (which now houses the rose garden), Sundar Burj, Batashewala Complex (which houses the tomb of Mirza Muzaffar Hussain, grand-nephew of Emperor Humayun and son-in-law of Emperor Akbar), among several others, were restored following exhaustive architectural documentation, including archival photos and condition-assessment reports. The ornamentation on the internal wall surfaces were cleaned to expose original details and missing incised plasterwork was reconstructed following the original pattern. The sandstone lattice-screen openings were restored, and master craftsmen, many of them still living in Nizamuddin Basti, restored the Quranic inscriptions. Traditional material was used, including lime plaster that was prepared in the traditional manner with additives such as jaggery, lentils, egg whites, pulp of the bael fruit, to ensure long-term preservation of these monuments.

“The discoveries,” says Nanda, “have been remarkable.” In 2009, for instance, a lotus pond was discovered in the section that houses Sundar Burj and Sundarwala Mahal. While Humayun’s Tomb Complex and Sunder Nursery collectively have an ensemble of 60 monuments, the nursery alone has 20 of them; some were discovered while the conservation work was still in progress. Six of them—discovered when the work began—have since been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. “From secret passages to dome structures with ceilings decorated in gold and lapis lazuli, archaeological discoveries happen on a daily basis,” says Nanda.

A partial view of Sundar Burj and the amphitheatre created south of the Sundar Burj-Sundarwala Mahal axis, near the entrance zone of Sunder Nursery.

Centuries ago, while designing Humayun’s Tomb, its original Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas imagined the tomb surrounded by the mythical ‘paradise garden’. Given the efforts led by AKTC, we have regained that piece of ‘paradise’ again.

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