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Building gardens conserving heritage

Luis Monreal, the director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, talks about the newly restored Sunder Nursery in Delhi and the trust's other projects around the world

The Sunderwala Burj in Sunder Nursery. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The Sunderwala Burj in Sunder Nursery. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

I meet Luis Monreal on 22 February, a day after the Sunder Nursery heritage garden in Delhi was inaugurated by vice-president Venkaiah Naidu and the Aga Khan. Dressed in a blue linen shirt, his shock of white hair neatly brushed back, the general manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), Geneva, cuts a contented figure amidst the bustle of the AKTC’s large Delhi office, just off the Sunder Nursery in Nizamuddin. Monreal is an internationally renowned historian, archaeologist and conservationist. He joined the AKTC in 2001, and, prior to that, he had curated the Marés Museum in Barcelona, served as the secretary general of the International Council of Museums, the director of the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, and the director general of La Caixa Foundation in Barcelona.

He has reason to feel happy. The Sunder Nursery heritage garden project, 10 years in the making, is complete. The 90-acre park has been transformed into a planned Mughal-style garden, with a part of the park effectively remodelled as an arboretum, supporting micro habitats. Anchoring the green spaces are restored mausoleums from the 16th century. Then there’s the old nursery itself, built by the British in 1924 and still going strong with exotic plant species preening in their greenhouses and attracting customers from all over the city. As a conservation project, the Sunder Nursery is already a success.

When I ask Monreal about the genesis of the project, he says it was shaped by the trust’s experience of working on the Al-Azhar Park in Cairo. Completed in 2005, the AKTC transformed a gigantic garbage dump in the heart of the city into a 30-hectare green zone. Later, the trust also restored a 12th century historical wall at one end of the park. The proceeds from tourism money (the park gets about 22 million visitors every year, according to Monreal) were channelled by the trust to the poor neighbouring area of Darb al-Ahmar, to develop the local economy through microfinance, skills training, and health and education services.

“Cairo was our test tube," says the Spaniard. “From year one, the park has been self-sustainable. We are a non-profit, so I would say that today the park generates a healthy nexus of income over expenditure of approximately $1 million. Sixty per cent of this amount goes to the Cairo governorate. We spend 40% of it through an NGO we have created in Darb al-Ahmar for social and development projects."

Ten years ago, hard on the heels of the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb, which cemented the trust’s reputation as a premier conservation agency in India, Monreal and the AKTC were looking for a similar city park-cum-historic neighbourhood restoration project in India. “His Highness (the Aga Khan) started the process of consultation with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). And the ASI was very responsive, maybe too responsive, as they sent me a list of 92 sites to restore!" So Monreal and Ratish Nanda, the projects director of AKTC, India, made a smaller list of about 12 sites—they visited and documented five. “One evening, in Hyderabad, I told Ratish, look, the ideal city would be Delhi. We have restored Humayun’s Tomb, but I’m thinking of a parallel with the Cairo model. We have the Nizamuddin Basti," remembers Monreal. So, the two got on to Google Earth. There was a large green zone right next to Humayun’s Tomb. “I said, what is this? Is this the Sunder Nursery? And Ratish said yes! Eureka, we found it, this is the project," exclaims Monreal, laughing as he recollects that conversation.

The domed ceiling of the Sunderwala Burj. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Monreal has a special attachment to Nizamuddin, and was keen that any project in the area should positively affect the basti. “I knew the Nizamuddin Basti very well, because since the late 1970s, when I was with the International Council of Museums in Unesco, I would often come to Delhi, and whenever I would come to Delhi, I would always go to the dargah. It has been one of my favourite places since I was 30 years old," he says, adding, “What we wanted to find, this kind of scope, where the cultural heritage had to be a springboard for a project which introduces some sort of socio-economic development, can’t be done in an archaeological site isolated in the middle of nowhere."

Under Nanda’s leadership, work began on the Sunder Nursery and the adjoining Batashewala complex in 2007, in association with the ASI, which is the guardian of the monuments, and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), which runs and maintains the nursery. Over a decade, the site has been transformed. There are now six restored Mughal-era monuments from the 16th century that are designated Unesco World Heritage buildings. The complex also includes a garden pavilion from the 18th century.

The Sunder Nursery area is a necropolis, containing as it does the mausoleums of Sunderwala Burj, Sunderwala Mahal and Lakkarwala Burj. The adjoining Batashewala complex includes the beautiful pavilion tomb of Mirza Muzaffar Hussain, a son-in-law of emperor Akbar, another tomb called Chhota Batashewala, as well as a very early Mughal-era mausoleum.

The restored tombs do look marvellous. I’ve often wondered, looking at Delhi’s countless Mughal- and Sultanate-era monuments, what they would have looked like in their pomp. The AKTC’s restoration offers some answers. Grey, crumbling edifices with the lingering smell of bat droppings have been transformed into elegant garden mausoleums, glowing with the red and white faćades that the Mughal builders so delighted in. The project brought in traditional artisans and craftsmen from the surrounding region. Teams of engineers, restorers and craftsmen treated each monument in turn.

The Sunderwala Burj makes for a good example of the precise work involved. Latticed sandstone screens at doorways were restored, while cracks and leaks in the dome were sealed to conserve a gorgeous star-patterned ceiling. On a guided walk around the nursery, along with other journalists, a day before the inauguration, this ceiling stood out like a stunning three-dimensional optical illusion of infinite space. Nanda, who was guiding us, explained that some of the missing plasterwork of intricately incised patterns had to be restored by craftsmen. Many layers of old lime wash were carefully removed from surfaces, and new layers of lime plaster were added. The plaster included traditional additives like wood apple juice, egg whites, dal and jaggery.

Luis Monreal. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The Mughal gardens that surround and offset the monuments are built along a newly created central axis that runs from the entrance of the Sunder Nursery down past the Sunderwala Burj and then up to the restored Azimganj Serai that separates the nursery from the Delhi Zoo. A central water channel runs the length of this axis, while smaller waterways radiate on either side to feed smaller orchard gardens. Designed by the late Mohammad Shaheer, renowned landscape architect, the axis and its gardens are patterned on Persian carpet designs, combining the twin Mughal obsessions of flowing water and ordered grids. Just off this axis is a large sunken amphitheatre and open spaces for cultural programmes. The rest of the nursery is designed as an arboretum, creating micro ecological zones with managed forests and water bodies that recreate Delhi’s endemic ecology.

The local conditions of the historical city in question play an important part in shaping the conservation of monuments and the creation of the gardens that surround them, says Monreal. “They give us new ideas and opportunities. And what I think is important in this context is that I always try, and it is the case everywhere, that the teams are formed by local people. All my team in Afghanistan is Afghan, my team in Egypt is Egyptian," he says with some pride.

Now that the Sunder Nursery is open, it will be further fine-tuned and visitor amenities added, and, when the under-construction site museum at Humayun’s Tomb is inaugurated, Monreal hopes the entire complex will be as successful as the one in Cairo. There have been initial talks to incorporate the zoo and the Purana Qila complex to create one of the largest conserved green zones in the world.

For now, he and his AKTC team are busy. The trust is either working on, or running, historic city conservation programmes and parks in Hyderabad, Lahore, Kabul, Bamako (Mali), Khorog (Tajikistan), Zanzibar (Tanzania), even war-torn Aleppo in Syria. The field archaeologist in Monreal loves the work. But exploring new and sustainable methods of conservation is what excites him. “The needs of conservation in a country like India are enormous," he says, “Even if you devote the whole of the defence budget to the conservation of monuments, it would be insufficient."

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