Once lost to obscurity and left in ruins, Sunder Nursery with its Mughal-era monuments has now been beautifully restored to give Delhi a new green space and yet another must-visit for history buffs.
It’s easy to miss the quaint lane to Sunder Nursery. The busy Mathura Road that brings you to it winds around a roundabout, in the centre of which stands the blue-domed Nila Gumbad or the Subz Burj tomb, at present tarped up for restoration. One of Delhi’s most visited sites, the magnificent Humayun’s Tomb rises imposingly beyond it. Across the road, devotees make their way through narrow lanes to the sacred dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. In the shadow of it all, the petite street lined by trees and veering off to the left from Humayun’s Tomb lies obscured by the famous and the glorious around. Barely 300 metres down this lane from the main road is an unpretentious sign signalling your arrival at Sunder Nursery.
History places the origins of the area that constitutes present-day Sunder Nursery to around the 16th century, during the reign of the Mughals. The Nursery was originally known as Azim Bagh and built as a Mughal garden beside the already established sites of the Nizamuddin Basti and Humayun’s Tomb. Over 100 monuments dot the landscape of the Nizamuddin-Humayun’s Tomb-Sunder Nursery area, some dating as far back as the 14th century. The Grand Trunk Road once ran through the Nursery, between Humayun’s Tomb and Purana Qila. And the Azimganj Sarai, which now falls within the premises of the Delhi Zoo at the far end of the Nursery, was built by this ancient route, possibly to house travellers, pilgrims, merchants, craftsmen and other wayfarers.
With the end of the Mughal era, many of the monuments fell into neglect and ruin, as did the gardens of Sunder Nursery. That is, until the British shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi and established a nursery at this site where plant specimens could be bred for the new capital’s avenues and gardens—thus giving the erstwhile garden its present nomenclature. Sydney Percy-Lancaster, the second of a dynasty of three Englishmen who notably dedicated their lives to horticulture in India, is said to have laid out the nursery at the time. In the 1940s, the Central Public Works Department acquired it and continued to use it for field trials of various plant species. But much of the original gardens and monuments of Sunder Nursery faded into the rubble of dust and obscurity over time.
Then, a decade back, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture took upon itself the mammoth task of restoring, renovating and conserving Sunder Nursery, in a bid to nurse it back to its former glory and to develop a city park with distinctive heritage, ecological and cultural infrastructure. “This site was chosen for such a major intervention on account of the possibility of restoring several grand monuments, creating a city park and improving the quality of life for a large resident population,” says Ratish Nanda, Chief Executive of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, India. “The Sunder Nursery development is in line with city parks that we at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture have created worldwide, in cities such as Kabul, Mali, Cairo, Edmonton, Zanzibar and Aleppo, amongst others.”
These restoration efforts were part of the larger Urban Renewal Initiative, wherein around 50 monuments in the Nizamuddin-Humayun’s Tomb-Sunder Nursery area underwent painstaking conservation work. A dozen of these were designated as World Heritage monuments by UNESCO as part of the extended Humayun’s Tomb World Heritage Site. Six of these monuments—Sunderwala Burj, Sunderwala Mahal, Lakkarwala Burj, Mirza Muzaffar Hussain’s tomb, Chota Batashewala Mahal, and an unknown Mughal’s tomb—stand within the Sunder Nursery. In addition, there are nine other monuments in its premises, including an 18th-century garden pavilion, taking the tally to a sweet 15 and thus making the recently opened park a new haunt of history buffs.
A carpet of green, as far as the eye can see, greets us as we enter the gates of Sunder Nursery. The expanse of green is punctuated in places by the white of the monuments and the brown of the raised sandstone pathways that lead you deeper into the Nursery’s many restored wonders. Prime among these trails is the grand central vista, which runs the entire course, from the entrance zone behind Humayun’s Tomb to Azimganj Sarai located in the Delhi Zoo premises at the other end—thus following the route of the old Grand Trunk Road. Walking on it is akin to taking a walk back in time.
The masterplan for the landscape of the 90-acre Sunder Nursery was developed by the late landscape architect, M. Shaheer. It comprised distinct heritage, ecology and nursery zones and ensured that the existing monuments and trees were sensitively incorporated into the design. Mughal-inspired gardens along the central vista feature monolithic marble fountains and water flowing amidst geometric flower beds. The immediate settings of the monuments have been provided with small formal gardens planted with typical Mughal flora, such as a beautiful rose garden around the Lakkarwala Burj monument.
About 20 acres of Sunder Nursery has been retained as an active nursery, while a specially-built facility allows the display of a rich collection of over 400 bonsai plants. A large maidan carpeted with grass stands dappled in the late afternoon sun; its purpose is to serve as a picnic ground in the winter. It is bound by a sunken, open-air amphitheatre on one side that has been built to provide a space for cultural evenings. A small lake stands serenely near the fag end of the Nursery, with walks, seating and pavilions along its edges. Plans are underway to build cafés by the lakeside. Nanda adds that the building of a 10,000-sq-metre museum is also underway. He elaborates, “It’ll be sunken like a baoli. The currently segregated Humayun’s Tomb and Sunder Nursery will be connected with an underground tunnel that will allow unrestricted pedestrian access between the two sites.”
At present, the park appears to be a calm oasis that insulates you from the din and pace of the city outside. The future plans sound exciting. But it wasn’t an easy task restoring the past and arriving at its present glory. A decade of time and effort was put in to survey, develop a masterplan and implement it in a phased manner. The crumbling monuments were painstakingly restored from the inside and out; in certain instances, where they were missing, entire sections of latticework and inscriptions have been carefully reproduced. Hundreds of truckloads of construction rubble were removed from the site, irrigation and electrical infrastructure were installed, peripheral roads were constructed, and 20 acres of nursery beds were laid out. A whopping 20,000 saplings of 280 native species of trees were planted, giving rise to the park as we see it today and leading to the creation of Delhi’s first arboretum. Over 60 species of butterflies and 80 species of birds have already been spotted here, and now that the water bodies such as the lake are full, the arrival of more varieties of avifauna is expected.
The heritage enthusiast amongst us will be excited at the prospect of exploring the newly restored old treasures, while the nature lover should be dancing with joy already. But there’s yet one more offering that Sunder Nursery has in store that will make a day out here just that much more worthwhile—a 20-acre microhabitat zone showcasing plants of the ridge, riverine and marshy ecosystems that were once found in Delhi but which have somehow gone missing along the way in the wave of development and construction. Sunder Nursery truly is a piece of Delhi that was once lost but now stands elegant and lovingly restored.