Situated directly opposite Humayun’s Tomb Complex on the historic Grand Trunk Road, Sunder Nursery and Batashewala Complex are the home to a number of superbly restored Mughal-era monuments set within 90 acres of well tended gardens. For me, these two sites are some of the real hidden gems in India’s capital, largely overshadowed by Humayun’s Tomb which shares the same common entrance zone, but receives a mere fraction of the visitors.
My first encounter with these sites was well over a decade ago, when the monuments were in ruins and surely at great risk of disappearing altogether. I was delighted to find on my return visit in 2020 that this whole area has been utterly transformed beyond recognition, and now one can enjoy the blend of heritage and horticulture in peaceful and tranquil surroundings, far removed from the crowds just a few hundred meters to the south.
Sunder Nursery and Batashewala Complex are strictly speaking two separate sites and can be visited independently, although I imagine most visitors will access Batashewala Complex having first entered the nursery. In many respects it appears as though Batashewala Complex has been adopted by Sunder Nursery, the transition from one site to the other is almost seamless, and most of the maps provided to the visitors (see above) don’t make much effort to differentiate between the two.
What follows is a virtual tour of both these sites, largely focusing on the main heritage monuments that can be explored. One of the real joys of visiting this place is the lack of people, almost certainly you will have these monuments to yourself for the majority of the time.
Previously known as Azim Bagh or the “great garden”, Sunder Nursery was established in the 20th century to experiment with the propagation of plants and trees for New Delhi during the British colonial times. Today the nursery is operated by the Central Public Works Department, and has been transformed into a sustainable park as part of a much larger socio-economic development program that includes the urban regeneration of Nizamuddin.
Much of the restoration work at Sunder Nursery is thanks to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), who helped to enhance the nursery functions, create a significant arboretum, restore the monuments, and provide new visitor facilities and attractions. The bigger plan, yet to be realised, is to properly link up the nursery site with Humayun’s Tomb complex. This would create a single vast green cultural heritage park in the heart of the capital city.
Visible from the entrance to the nursery, Sunder Burj is likely to be the first monument you encounter on your tour around. Restoration of this monument commenced in October 2010.
Sunder Burj is probably most notable for its highly decorative ornamental star-shaped internal ceiling, which prior to restoration had suffered heavy damage due to water seepage and later (poor) repairs using cement and whitewashing. The cement plaster layers on the entire structure were removed, retaining any traces of the remaining portions of the original historic plasterwork, which were then cleaned.
The decorative plasterwork on the ceiling was restored by trained craftsmen, who have done an amazing job of blending the old with the “new”.
The interior of this compact tomb is profusely and exquisitely decorated, almost every inch of the vaulted ceiling and walls is covered with this fine plaster work. Although dating back to the early Mughal period, nobody knows who is actually interred here.
Up until the early 20th century records suggest that Sunder Burj and the nearby Sunderwala Mahal were grouped together within a single walled enclosure with a lofty gateway to the south. Sadly no trace of the wall or gateway survives today.
The space just north of Sunder Burj is designed as an elaborate garden, contemporary in layout but evocative of Mughal geometry, scale and irrigation practices. It is centered on a long water feature slightly elevated from the surroundings, from which on either side flow very narrow water channels, each culminating in a pool at a lower elevation.
Somewhat tucked away to the north-west of Sunder Burj is the much larger mausoleum of Lakkarwala Burj. This is the local name for the structure as nobody knows who it was actually built for.
Curiously, Lakkarwala Burj is built on a different alignment to all the other broadly contemporary structures, which follow a strict north-south alignment. The conservation work undertaken here was similar to that of Sunder Burj and also commenced in October 2010, with traditional materials replacing the inappropriate previous repair works.
Like Sunder Burj, Lakkarwala Burj also has Quranic inscriptions which were restored in a matching style of calligraphy. The entire stone floor surface was hand dressed by trained craftsmen.
Having revived the lost architectural integrity of the monument, a landscape plan for the Lakkarwala Burj Rose Garden was prepared, involving the planting of 30 beds containing 30 varieties of roses. Situated at the edge of a large lake, this provides a wonderfully tranquil space for visitors.
Azim Bagh & Azimganj Serais
The Azimganj Serai is a 16th century Mughal Sarai that originally stood on the Grand Trunk Road connecting significant Mughal monuments of Purana Quila and Humayun’s Tomb. Serais, also known as ‘caravan serais’, were built along the trade routes providing amenities for passing travellers, traders, and craftsmen. Today, Azimjanj Serai stands amidst one the densest ensembles of medieval Islamic buildings in India.
The serai has 108 deep alcoves around a large courtyard , which unfortunately you are not able to explore at all. The structure actually resides just outside the nursery, so one is only able to view it from within the Azim Bagh garden at the northern-most extent of the Sunder Nursey.
Sunderwala Mahal is sadly another monument that has suffered at the hands of previous restoration attempts. By 2002 the structure had largely collapsed, resulting in the western facade being reconstructed. Unfortunately this reconstruction did not respect the original plan of the building, with half-domed chambers being replaced by simple arches. Further restoration in 2008-09 of other collapsed areas did successfully match the original design, and finally in 2013 the inappropriately reconstructed western facade was dismantled and rebuilt as per the original profile.
In 2014 the final conservation phase included the installation of red sandstone flooring and re-plastering the structure, including restoration of the muqarnas. The roof required major repairs including removal of existing cement concrete and restoring a traditional lime based flooring.
This is another early Mughal tomb, with a central chamber enclosed by eight rooms forming a circumambulatory passage. Below the central room is a vaulted tehkhana (an underground chamber). There is minimal ornamentation to be seen here, except for niches in the walls, and some incised plaster. At one end of the southern side, two steep staircases lead up to the roof (access not allowed on my visit). The roof would once have been topped by another structure, but today all you can see of it is the platform.
That concludes a tour of the monuments that can be seen inside Sunder Nursery proper. To not mention more about the horticulture here would be a serious omission, as so much of the enjoyment gained from visiting the nursery is the fact that you are immersing yourself in both heritage and nature.
Sunder Nursey is Delhi’s first arboretum with almost 300 tree species, some of which are the only examples of that species in India. This living collection of trees provides a continuous stretch of dense green cover across Sunder Nursery and beyond, and serves as a prime habitat for birds. In terms of pure numbers, Sunder Nursery’s statistics are more than impressive :
- 4,500 trees
- 54 varieties of flowers
- 30 acres of biodiversity zone
- 20 acres of nursery beds
- 80 bird species
- 50 butterfly species
With this abundance of flora and fauna, and a heavy dose of heritage thrown into the mix, Sunder Nursery offers a unique location in the heart of Delhi which is well worth visiting if you spend any time in the nation’s capital.
From within Sunder Nursery, access to the Batashewala Complex is via a path near the south-east corner of the site. I believe a separate access road facilitates an independent visit to this complex, although I am not sure what the ticketing situation is. I recall my nursery ticket being inspected when I re-entered the nursury, but I don’t know if visiting Batashewala Complex is free or whether the nursery ticket covers both sites.
The Batashewala Complex comprises of two Mughal era tomb-garden enclosures totalling 11 acres, within which stand three tombs of national importance and protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). They were once a significant part of the 16th century Mughal necropolis adjacent to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the 14th century Sufi saint who has been revered for over seven centuries.
In the 1950s, the ownership of this complex was given to the Bharat Scouts & Guides to serve as a camping ground. This led to over 150 structures being built on the complex by 1989, and sadly resulted in a lot of destruction of the heritage buildings here. The original enclosure walls were demolished, and the levelling of land to facilitate the new buildings resulted in partial collapse of some of the protected monuments. Following twelve years of effort by the ASI and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), the ownership of the Batashewala Complex was restored to the ASI in 2010, allowing systematic conservation and landscape restoration to be undertaken by the AKTC.
Nobody seems to know the reason behind the Batashewala name that is used for some of the monuments and the complex itself. A batasha is a small disc of fine sugar, but what connection these tombs have to a batasha is unclear.
Mausoleum of Mirza Muzaffar Hussain
Also known as Bada Batashewala Mahal, this tomb was built for Mirza Muzaffar Hussain after his death in 1603 C.E. Mirza Muzaffar Hussain was a grandson of Shah Ismail of Persia, and Governor of Qandahar until he was forced to surrender it to the Mughals. In recompense he received from Akbar the title of farzand (son), was made a Commander of five thousand, and received the land of Sambhal reportedly ‘worth more than all Qandahar’. Emperor Jahangir arranged the marriage of his third son Sultan Khurram (later Shah Jahan) to Mirza Muzaffar’s daughter Kandahari Begum.
This square tomb stands on a raised platform with five half-domed arched entrance bays on each side. Parts of the striking plaster ornamentation had survived on some of the internal wall surfaces, providing the vital evidence required to faithfully restore missing portions. Ornamental plaster medallions and the intricate muqarna patterns on the half-domed arched entrance bays symbolise the highest craft traditions of the period.
The central tomb chamber, several feet below the ground, is surrounded by eight rooms, making this an example of the “hasht-bihist” plan – which represents the eight spaces of paradise as described in the Holy Quran. Mirza Muzaffar Hussain’s prestige and power appears to be obvious in the sumptuousness of his tomb.
As with other monuments already discussed, further examples of incorrect reconstruction from a decade ago occurred here. Only ten years ago the southern facade was incorrectly reconstructed, resulting in a subsequent dismantling and rebuild.
Archival photographs gave clues as to where the original enclosure walls were prior to their destruction in 1989. Archaeological excavations confirmed the wall alignments, which were then reinstated using traditional materials and methods.
Chota Batashewala Mahal
Immediately east of Mirza Muzaffar Hussain’s tomb are the ruins of an octagonal early Mughal period tomb, reported to have once been profusely ornamented. It was described in the 20th century thus :
“…standing on a platform some 3’ high. It consisted of a central octagonal chamber, with a surrounding arcade containing an arched opening on each of the eight sides. The central apartment was provided with four doorways, three of which were closed by stone jalli screens. The domed ceiling of the central chamber, as well as the walls inside, is ornamented by floral and geometrical patterns intermingled with Quranic inscriptions in incised plaster”.
Archival photographs from the 1960s, coupled with earlier drawings and a detailed study of the standing portions of the building provided enough evidence of the original structure to carry out an informed conservation project.
Standing on an elevated stone masonry plinth, this lofty domed Mughal-era tomb has an almost fort-like appearance. Once again, inappropriate repairs in the 20th century had to be undone before correct materials and methods were adopted for the latest round of restoration.
The square tomb has an arch on all four sides, with some trace of blue tilework on the outside. The interior has a stunning display of incised plaster. Quranic verses are incised in plaster in a broad strip above the dado, and in the center of the ceiling is a very fine circular design exquisitely painted in deep blue and red. Sadly we have no idea who this tomb was built for.
That concludes a virtual tour of Sunder Nursery and Batashewala Complex. A wonderful collection of beautifully restored 16th century monuments, six of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, set within an almost immaculate heritage park. If you’re visiting the world famous HumayunTomb opposite, these two sites are well worth adding to your itinerary.
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