Handled with care

The story of how the Sunder Nursery, a neglected heritage-park complex in New Delhi, was nursed back to health

Delhi’s affair with its multiple monuments has lasted centuries. The Nizamuddin area especially developed a flair for gardens, mosques, baolis, tombs etc that were built alongside the Yamuna. Come 16th century and the Grand Trunk Road was built, which surrounded a number of gardens and tombs. Sometime in the early-20th century, a patch of land was set aside as a nursery to the north of Humayun’s Tomb, which largely would cater to experimentation with plants brought from elsewhere. The empire left, and it was time to preserve what was left of the monuments, lest our history be overshadowed by our own neglect.

Originally known as Azim Bagh, Sunder Nursery was somehow thrown into the background, wherein its rich history and heritage remained only on paper. The nursery had visitors, of course, but only from its immediate neighbourhood who came to buy plants for their balconies and gardens. The rest was in shambles, which included six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in a bad state of upkeep and maintenance.

From 1997-2001, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), a wing of the Aga Khan Development Network, restored the gardens of Humayun’s Tomb. Post that, the beautiful monument has seen tourists and history enthusiasts flock in large numbers to spend quiet days amidst the traffic outside its boundary walls. Often, they can be seen posing for shutterbugs, with the magnificent background adding to the charm.


Lakkarwala Burj after conservation

Collaborative win

In 2007, the trust entered a public-private partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, the Central Public Works Department and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to further the larger project of restoring the Nizamuddin area into the cultural hub it was, as part of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative.With Humayun’s Tomb restored to its glory, the focus shifted to the other two components, restoring Sunder Nursery and improving the quality of life of the people in Nizamuddin basti.

Sunder Nursery’s design was already in place with M Shaheer, a landscape architect, planning the far-reaching corners of the 90-acre heritage park. His focus was “congruency between nature, garden and utility, coupled with environmental conservation.” Says Archana Saad Akhtar, Senior Programme Officer, Design and Outreach, AKTC, “These are three sites that adjoin each other, but have been quite segregated from each other. This is a historicity programme in which the mandate has been to see how culture can be used as a tool for the socio-economic and urban development of historic city centres, which are mostly in a state of neglect. The reasons are many, like urban services not being strong enough, population growth etc. But there are a number of ways in which the three sites can be assets to one another, instead of lying in isolation. The idea is to identify those aspects and bring them closer.” The project was led by prominent Conservation Architect, Ratish Nanda, who heads AKTC’s work in India. The settlement itself is at least 700 years old. Within the Sunder Nursery-Batashewala Complex, there are nine monuments, including the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Lakkarwala Burj, Sunder Burj, Sunderwala Mahal, Mirza Muzaffar Hussain’s Tomb, Chotta Batashewala and Unknown Mughal’s Tomb.

The renovation has effectively transformed the area. In the past decade, over 280 native tree species were planted within the nursery. A total of 30 acres of its land has been set aside as a bio-diversity zone, and 20 acres as nursery beds. The space is home to 80 bird species and 36 butterfly species, surely a rarity for the rest of Delhi. The “micro-habitat zone showcases plants of the ridge, riverine and marshy and alluvial landscapes,” namely Kohi, Khadar, Dabar and Bangar. The waterbodies trickle down to the mirco-habitats. Keeping in mind the winters, Maidan has been created for warm picnics. The Bonsai House and Garden House host exquisite varieties of plants. The Central Axis, inspired from Mughal gardens and Persian carpet patterns, acts as the primary pedestrian spine for visitors to the nursery.

Natural order

In case of conserving the monuments, the philosophy has been to use the natural and traditional materials of what they were constructed with.

“We faced some problem there as the later repairs carried out were using cement. It was a fashionable material in the 60s. The use of cement decays the monument at a far greater scale. For example, it creates a water-proofing layer, gets clogged, and the layers of the monument get tampered with, as these are made of sedimentary stones. The first major step was to remove cement and concrete from the monuments and repair them with lime water,” says Archana.

There are dedicated spaces for annual flower beds at different levels. The earthworks of 2009 also revealed a 16th-century lotus pond that was damaged. “You see, either we have only bio-diversity parks, or ones like Lodhi Gardens, which have formal landscapes. Here we have the Mughal landscape, nursery beds, and a biodiversity zone, which makes it rare,” says Archana.

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