Hardlook: Sunder Nursery, lost and found

Six monuments from the 16th Century, in ruins and away from the capital’s eyes, have been restored and opened to the public — thanks to archival photos, Uzbek artisans, and some jaggery. Somya Lakhani tours Sunder Nursery to understand how it was done.

Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi | Updated: March 12, 2018 2:22:55 am
Though little is known about who built it in the 16th Century or who was buried inside the Sunder Burj, its proximity to Nizamuddin Dargah suggests it would have been someone important. Sunder Burj is one of the rare mausoleums in Delhi with an ornamental tomb chamber, comprising intricate incised plasterwork, inscriptions and opulent geometric star patterns on the domed ceiling. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Decades ago, when children from Nizamuddin would walk or cycle to school, parents would give them one clear instruction: don’t wander off to the vast, dark and dangerous Sunder Nursery.

“It was a thorny wasteland. Ruins of monuments inside were out of bounds for everyone — vigilant gardeners would throw us out if they saw us going beyond the nursery,” recalled Delhi-based author Rakshanda Jalil (54) about growing up in Nizamuddin in the ’70s.

Those days are now long gone. On February 22, the 90-acre Sunder Nursery-Batashewala Complex finally opened to public, after an 11-year conservation and renewal project undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). Inside are six 16th Century monuments, designated by the UNESCO as world heritage sites — Lakkarwala Burj, Sunder Burj, Sunderwala Mahal, Mirza Muzaffar Hussain’s tomb, Chota Batashewala and an unknown Mughal Tomb. Accompanying them are an 18th Century garden pavilion, two grave platforms, a collapsed domed tomb, the boundary wall of the Azimganj Serai, a lotus pond, a sunken amphitheatre, Mughal-era wells, a bonsai house, rivulets, and extensive flora and fauna.

This square mausoleum follows the Hasht Bihist floor plan common in Mughal architecture, where eight chambers surround a central room, which represent the eight spaces of Quranic paradise. Humayun’s Tomb next door follows the same floor plan, but unlike that monument, this one is a flat-domed tomb with a grave platform on the roof above. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

But putting the monuments back in shape was no easy task. In 2007, AKTC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), allowing it to undertake conservation of Humayun’s Tomb and 50 other monuments in the Humayun’s Tomb-Sunder Nursery-Nizamuddin Basti area.

“We removed encroachments from the Batashewala complex, expanding Sunder Nursery from 67 acres to almost 90 acres. Sunder Nursery was akin to an agricultural landscape… portions of land were either barren or taken up by dump construction rubble,” said Ratish Nanda, project director, AKTC.

Lakkarwala Burj is atop a plinth, and the tomb can be entered from four sides. A vaulted chamber, possibly to serve as the residence for a caretaker, is also part of it. Opulent ornamentation, geometric designs, muqarnas (honeycomb vaults) and calligraphic verses embellish the interiors of the tomb. Traditional materials used in the 16th Century were used during restoration of all six monuments. (Express Photo)

The trust went through archival photographs from collections across the world to understand the decline Sunder Nursery saw in the last 150 years. “Along with ASI, we undertook conservation works only on the basis of in-situ evidence available on each monument. Since all structures here were symmetrical, restoration of geometric patterns or even reconstruction of collapsed portions of monuments was possible even if 1/8th of the original detail was available,” said Rajpal Singh, chief engineer, AKTC.

The landscaping was done as per designs provided by landscape architect, Professor M Shaheer, who died in 2015. “He used his extensive understanding of Mughal gardens and Indian landscape design to restore the historic character,” said Nanda. “Sandstone, Delhi quartzite stone and lime mortar were used to restore the monuments… traditionally, lime mortar is prepared with additives such as urad dal, jaggery, bel giri (wood apple juice) and egg white. We’ve prepared lime mortar using these ingredients,” said Archana Saad Akhtar, senior programme office at AKTC.

Just like Sunderwala Mahal nearby, the garden-tomb of emperor Akbar’s son-in-law Mirza Muzaffar Hussain, who was married to Akbar’s eldest daughter, Sultan Khanam, follows the Hasht Bihist floor plan — eight chambers which surround a central room. Apart from muqarnas (honeycomb vaults), there is also tile work on this monument. To restore the tile work, artisans from Uzbekistan were hired to train karigars. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

Lost in obscurity all these years, despite being located in the middle of the city, Sunder Nursery-Batashewala Complex has now emerged as a delightful addition to the list of green spaces in the city, and also a venue to acquaint history buffs with lesser-known monuments. Barring Mirza Muzaffar Hussain’s tomb, little is known about who was buried in tombs inside Sunder Nursery. “In all likelihood, these were not tombs to begin with… they were pieces of land gifted to a nobleman or a relative of the ruler at the time, which were turned into gardens and homes, and when that person died, they were buried there,” said historian Narayani Gupta. “The impressive graves would have had inscriptions on marble… but after the mutiny of 1857, there was large-scale vandalism. It’s a possibility that because of this and the encroachments, we have probably lost who was buried here.”

Historian Sohail Hashmi holds the same opinion: “There must have been travellers’ accounts of these monuments, but due to the systematic looting of libraries between the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the formation of ASI in the late 19th Century, a lot was lost.”

Built in the 16th Century, the parapet, neck of the dome, the southern facade and the interiors are ornamented. As part of the restoration between 2012 and 2015, lattice screens (jaali) and the plasterwork were fixed. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

Apart from these six monuments, a portion of the boundary wall of Azimganj Serai also passes through the area, while the rest falls in the Delhi Zoo premises. An early Mughal structure, it is considered the grandest serai in Delhi with 108 rooms, standing on the 16th Century Grand Trunk road that passed through the monuments inside Sunder Nursery.

“The serai would have served travellers, pilgrims, merchants and craftsmen during the Mughal era. The high walls and the parapet lend it a fortress-like appearance. Conservation work on this structure has started in partnership with the Delhi government’s Department of Archaeology. We hope to eventually integrate this into Sunder Nursery,” said Nanda. Walking past the gardens and the restored monuments, one occasionally comes across ruins of structures that are beyond repair. One structure, an arcaded platform with a lofty arch, has, however, been restored.
“Photographs of this structure from as early as 2001-2002 are available but by 2007, it was a heap of rubble. We could restore it because of the photos we had, but historical texts describe the structure with tiles… no remnants of tiles were found though,” said Nanda.

With restoration complete, maintaining the pristine beauty remains a challenge. In December, AKTC signed a follow-up agreement with the CPWD, ASI and SDMC, under which they will manage the park for the first five years. “In the coming six months, toilets and cafes will be built, and a CCTV network will be installed,” said Akhtar. For now it is open to the public for free from 9 am to 4 pm, Monday to Saturday. From October, it will be open all seven days, and for longer hours. A ticket system is expected to start soon.

Sunder Nursery has also emerged as Delhi’s first arboretum (botanical garden of trees). According to AKTC, there are almost 300 varieties of trees, with 45 rare ones. Thirty varieties of butterflies and 80 bird species have already been recorded here, with Grey Hornbills, Rufous Treepie and peacocks making frequent appearances. “We are so starved of green spaces in Delhi… this gives us ecology, aesthetics, access, micro-habitats and a bonsai house. I used to visit it in the ’70s to buy plants; it was just rubble then,” said educationist Meenakshi Gopinath.

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