Earth Day Story: Sunder Nursery in Delhi

Bombax ceiba Bombax ceiba or Semal in Hindi, the flowers bloom in February-March followed by fruit pods which contain cotton balls.

To celebrate Earth Day 2016, we're featuring Sunder Nursery -- a remarkable green effort in one of the most urban metropolitans in the world. This is a guest post by Shubham Mishra, an urban planner based outside of New Delhi, India.

It was June 5, World Environment Day. A couple of years ago on this day I led a small group of officials from one of India’s leading public sector undertakings dedicated to planned urban development for a walk in Sunder Nursery. Spread over 70 acres in the middle of the national capital, Sunder Nursery is Delhi’s largest public nursery. As I shuffled through my hurriedly compiled notes on the history of the area, the leader of the group, an urban planner himself, got curious about me. Why, with a Masters’ degree in urban planning from a renowned college in Delhi, would I want to spend my time counting and mapping trees in a nursery? I didn’t quite know what to say, so I continued with the walk.

Many years ago, when this organization and its notions of planned development had probably not even been conceived, the building blocks of New Delhi – one of 20th century’s most ambitious urban planning schemes – were laid down at this very nursery. Alick Percy Lancaster, the last British to head horticulture operations in India, lovingly nurtured this space and experimented with various species of trees and plants. In the year 1949 he wrote,

“The new year brings us a new nursery site. Its site near Humayun’s Tomb was selected because of its aesthetic value almost more than because it has fairly good soil. Viewed from the entrance gates to the nursery, the ancient walls of the Old Fort form a magnificent backdrop, and we are making every endeavour to create a garden worthy of the site. In February, when the annuals are out in all their glory, there will be opportunities galore for photographers with colour films, for our annual beds are located so as to form a colourful foreground to splendid view of Humanyun’s Tomb. We started in late August, and since then we have levelled, fenced, laid water and roads, planted up the annuals, rose and vegetable sections, and we are now busy in transferring our pot plants. We have yet to plant out trees, shrubs, creepers and fruit sections, and are hopeful that we will complete them by the end of February.”

Many of these trees would eventually grow up to provide shade over the wide avenues of New Delhi. Others like the African mahogany (Khaya senegalensis), Araranut (Joannesia princeps), Bishopwood (Bischofia javanica), and Spanish mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) still flourish in the Nursery as the only specimens of their respective species in the city.

Azadirachta indica or Neem (left) in Hindi, one of the basic trees of India. Tabubea aurea (right), which flowers in late March and mid April.

A number of smaller nurseries mushroomed in the neighbourhood in the 1960s and took over from where Lancaster left; one can still rely on the native scientific knowledge of the local gardener even if his diction and pronunciation has made ‘flocks’ of floss-silks (Ceiba speciosa).

Many years before Lancaster, Sunder Nursery was a different shade of green; it was called Azim Bagh – the exalted garden, the final resting place of several sufi saints. In the early 16th century, the garden and the caravanserai it housed provided shelter to the travellers on the Grand Trunk Road.

Come July 2017 and Sunder Nursery would be back to its magnificent self. As part of the larger Humayun’s Tomb – Hazrat Nizamuddeen Basti – Sunder Nursery Urban Renewal Project, the garden complex is undergoing an extensive restoration project undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). The plan envisages the premises as an amalgamation of manicured Persian gardens, forest, historic fabric and nursery functions.

Since 2007, much of the overgrown areas have been cleared, pathways and Persian gardens with fountains and water channels recreated. A new landscape masterplan centred on species native to Delhi and the surrounding region is getting implemented in phases. The 1,800 odd existing trees, more than 3,500 plants and shrubs of the new masterplan and 72 species of birds have already made the nursery an urban oasis. Add to this natural heritage, the nine early Mughal era monuments restored to their original glory, and you would truly have a Sunder (the word means ‘beautiful’ in Hindi) Nursery in the city. It was perhaps this interplay of the natural and the built heritage that made the senior planner compliment the urban planning of the site as we ended the walk.

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