Built during Mughal emperor Akbar’s reign in the 16th Century, the Azimganj Sarai was once an inn that served historians and travellers who used the Grand Trunk Road. With 108 rooms and a large courtyard, the fort-like structure was the grandest sarai in the area — till it fell on bad times.
After centuries of neglect, a portion of the imposing structure has been restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). While the sarai’s boundary wall can be seen from the recently conserved Sunder Nursery, the rest of it falls under the private portion of the Delhi Zoo. AKTC signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2013 with the Delhi government’s Archaeology Department, under which the structure falls, to undertake the restoration.
“For now, 50% of the sarai has been restored in the first phase. It was in a ruinous condition, taken over by vegetation… many vaults had collapsed partially. Access to the sarai, which stands within the private portion of the zoo, was also a challenge due to vegetation. The conservation work required surgical precision in removing deep roots without causing further damage,” said Ratish Nanda, project director, AKTC.
According to Zafar Hasan’s list of monuments prepared in the 20th Century and used extensively by historians and
the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for reference, “the enclosure measures some 275 yards square… the southeast corner of the Sarai is in total ruins, as is the mosque which occupies its centre.” In Phase I of the project, AKTC used original material to restore the chambers and the boundary wall of the Sarai. “Phase II will commence after approval from the Archaeology Department and once tree-cutting permission comes through. It’s still a conservation site, and public access will only be possible after Phase II is done,” said Nanda.
An internal road in the zoo will have to be redirected to make the sarai accessible from Sunder Nursery, he added.
Regarding the funding of the project, which has been majorly done by the Delhi government, Vikas Maloo, Head of Office (Department of Archaeology) said, “The Delhi government has allocated Rs 2.93 crore for full restoration work of the Azimganj Sarai, which is approximately 79% of the entire cost… So far, half the work is done. The estimate has fallen short, so once approvals come through, the rest of the work will be done.”