I amble gingerly on the paved walkway leading up to the Sunder Burj, my pace losing its morning vigour with every passing second as I undergo a quiet hypnotism impressed upon me by the bridelike majesty of the structure. The spell is momentarily broken when the scent of autumn, diffused in the air by the flowers crushed under passing feet, meets with my sense of smell. This is despite the restrictive grasp of the mask on my face that the times have necessitated. But it is a cloth mask, cotton, to be precise and is coordinated nicely with the setting on account of the little blue flowers, so who’s complaining?
Yes, with a pandemic raging, we have decided, after much haunt-hunting, to hand ourselves to Sunder Nursery on an overcast Delhi morning. I remember stepping out of home like a baby that first learns to walk and into the Uber rather circumspectly, like I had never learned to entrust myself to a vehicle. In the space of the half hour it took us to reach here, we sanitised our hands twice, not afraid of setting our palms on fire in the Delhi sun, whose wicked nature even the virus doesn’t seem to have softened after all.
Anyway, all the hassle seems to be paying off. Deprived of travel and free mingling with the great outdoors, this 90-acre arboretum speckled with 15 heritage monuments (six of them Unesco World Heritage Sites) already seems to have upstaged the Garden of Eden itself in my imagination.
Built in the 16th century, the freshly restored Sunder Burj hides behind its extraordinary stature a channel for water to flow in, interspersed by fountains and rivulets complemented sublimely by flowerbeds. The benches here provide stimulating angles to view the supreme architecture of the titular structure of the park. We even spend a good half-hour climbing up to the platform and venturing inside, stocking up to feed our hungry Instagrams when another pandemic strikes.
The end of the water channel diverges into two circuits. Being modern humans, we haven’t got Robert Frost’s individualism so we take the road presumably more travelled by. Thankfully, the area plan is such that you have to be really special to miss a lot.
And it leads towards a waterbody whose exotic composure is accentuated with each passing second by the approaching cloud cover. The opposite bank overhangs with dramatic laburnum, and a couple of women softly discuss politics under it. It is an artificial lake, we learn by ourselves somehow, and loutishly hog a bench with quaint armrests to fully soak in the foreign- country feel that we prize so much here. I remember muttering to myself: “No, don’t say yeh toh India ka Scotland hai.”
At our back is a little passageway through a row of trees leading towards the Lakkarwala Burj that sits sequestered in a corner of the park, almost like a forgotten first queen at a royal palace, sitting with her back to the visitor atop an arcaded plinth. A garden of hybrid roses with names such as Christian Dior, Mon Cheri, Oklahoma and Charleston, lies prostrated at its feet, aptly named Gulistan.
But thanks to the mid-pandemic resurgence (hopefully it is mid-pandemic) of the cycling people, who like so-called introverts, seem to be leaving no stone unturned and no milestone untouched, no landmark can sit in silence for too long at Sunder Nursery. In fact, there are so many of the community here that they almost seem to be bait-hired by the authorities to show the walkers around. Great move I’d say, considering there are dolts like myself strutting around with the guide map in my sling bag. Facepalm.
The denizens of Gulistan look like highbrow snoots in comparison to the wildflowers that thrive in gregarious fraternity throughout.
The self-sacrificing champas strewn all over the walkway leading to the Sunder Burj, compete with the flushing marigolds of the section named Garden of Delight, even as the messy bladderwort- lookalikes overgrown in the Azimganj Serai make merry in the forecourt flowerbeds. The ubiquitous jasmines aspire to be periwinkles and the carefree occupants of the lotus garden sway merrily along with affectionate hyacinths. Georgia O’Keeffe would have been happy. Van Gogh would have left his ear alone.
By the time we circle the lake to reach the forecourt of the Azimganj Serai, the sun is out a bit. We just stand for a moment and take in the canna garden, even though there are no butterflies, as a bespectacled child rightly points out in adorable indignation. It was through this place that the Grand Trunk Road passed and it was here that travellers to and from Central Asia stayed at the Azimganj Serai. It actually does feel like a sort of crossroad.
Before 2018, when the new face of Sunder Nursery was revealed to the public, the young and the old, the high and the low, the dog walkers and the sloppy kissers—all flocked to Lodhi Gardens. But having visited it on a daily basis as a child, it has in the last few years become something of a bore.
Sunder Nursery, on the other hand, with its sophisticated spaces—water features, amphitheatres and dedicated plant houses—and the promise of active upkeep thanks to the entry charge element, offsets the familiar drabness of the city park formula. No mossy lakes with the hackneyed bridge over it here, no tombs trod upon yet by marauding bands, no grass hills for children to roll off of.
Flanked by the canna garden and a bonsai house, the contemporarily named Arc of Discovery leads to the gorgeous Sunderwala Mahal. It is here that heritage is having a moment in the presence of an ongoing family card game and the prying author of its hagiography—both parties practising social distancing even without the pandemic requiring us to.
This exceptional mausoleum with identical faces follows the fancy hasht- behesht style in Mughal architecture. We step inside briefly and sort of confirm whether there are indeed eight rooms surrounded by a single hall. But for all my love for architecture, I would like to step outside once again, and admire its arches and friezes and the spooky silhouette of the tree on its lawn that I strongly suspect isn’t barren just because it’s autumn.
Across the road that is a friendly border of sorts between Sunder Nursery and the adjoining Batashewala Complex, a long open walkway leads to the larger-than-life entrance of the Bada Batashewala Mahal, where Akbar’s son-in-law Mirza Muzaffar Hussain lies buried. The huge bent tree dang in front of its entrance appears like a malformed lyre of a reclusive musical genius with long, unkempt facial hair. The grass lawn the structure overlooks has transformed over all these months into a haggard field claimed by dogs whose eyes have forever waited for humans to return. Like we always have.
The hasht-behesht plan is repeated here, too, and the restoration work is impressive, from the plaster medallions and the muqarnas on the delicately restored ceilings to the tiles and the fine patterns that might have first adorned these walls. The complex comprises two other, smaller tombs, the Chota Batashewala and another unnamed tomb from the Mughal era.
We flit out of the Batashewala Complex back towards the amphitheatre. It is late afternoon but pleasant, and so there are more of our species out on the lawns of the Sunderwala Burj. They are laying their thermoses and lunch boxes out on the park furniture and on sheets spread on the ground, all of them busy recovering the remains of a spring lost to coronavirus. The curious-looking kiosk-on-wheels serves a fancy water bottle for a hundred bucks but that pain is assuaged a bit when I realise it’s a perfectly cylindrical glass bottle.
On the way to the exit, I sense a black drongo fly past and alight on a branch, its distinctive tail unmistakable even from a distance. I realise we actually missed two spots—the wilderness and the peacock habitat—when we took the Arc of Discovery. But our thighs are chafed from walking so much in a day after so many months. But as they all say...I’ll be back.
Nearest Airport: Indira Gandhi International Airport (14.8km, 30 mins away)
Where To Go: Can’t get enough of the greenery and heritage? Right next door is Humayun’s Tomb; Entry fee Rs35; 6.30am to 6.00pm
Getting Around: Cars, bikes and cabs are available within the city; Rs6/km up to 20km with Rs60 as base fare
Know before you go:
x An annual pass costs Rs3,000
x Don’t forget to get the information brochure with a detailed guide map at the entrance (Rs20). Or download the free flier at sundernursery.org
x Check out the organic market for produce and lifestyle items every Sunday
x Visit the wilderness area and the peacock habitat zone to spot some rare avifauna
What to Eat
x Nizamuddin Basti has some excellent hole-in- the-wall establishments if you’re craving kebabs, nihari or Moradabadi biryani
x Looking for a fine-dining experience? head to Cirrus9 on Zakir hussain Marg or to Dastarkhwan-e-Karim for some authentic Mughlai fare