In a tangle of forgotten, overgrown brush in the heart of India's capital, a quiet plan has been hatched to change the landscape of one of the world's most populous cities.
An intricate Mughal garden is being created. Crumbling sandstone tombs nearly lost to history are being rebuilt. An artificial lake is being carved out. The renovation of Sunder Nursery is intended to serve as the catalyst for an even more ambitious project: the creation of a mammoth, iconic park that would rival New York's Central Park as a refuge from urban chaos.
"It would be the place where the city descends. It would be an oasis," said Ratish Nanda, project director for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and the driving force behind the dream of a mega-park.
To create that park would require the merger of a string of adjoining gardens, heritage areas and a zoo administered by different government agencies, an incredibly complicated task in a land where bureaucratic turfs are fiercely protected. And though some officials are beginning to discuss the plan, no formal proposal has been formulated.
But sometimes in India, it takes tenacious dreamers like Nanda to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Nanda and the Aga Khan Trust have taken on seemingly impossible tasks before. They helped wrest a 17 acre compound in the area, along with a large monument, from India's version of the Boy Scouts. They are currently fighting with railways officials to get them to remove a storeroom blocking access to another monument.
"One single man has to be there, to strive, to go out and achieve this," said Ashok Khurana, a powerful supporter and the recently retired head of Delhi's Central Public Works Department, one of the many agencies that would need to work together to create the giant park.
The payoff would be considerable. Delhi, with a population of about 17 million, is a surprisingly green city, with small parks dotting many neighborhoods and Lodhi Gardens — with a clutch of crumbling monuments of its own — attracting speed walkers and picnickers in upscale south Delhi.
The mega-park would tower over them all.
It would be 480 hectares (1,200 acres), considerably larger than Central Park. It would have 100,000 trees of more than 300 species, Nanda said. It would encompass one of the most impressive collections of medieval Islamic monuments, anchored by the grandiose tomb of Emperor Humayun, a 16th Century prototype for the Taj Mahal. It would have an ancient fort, a Buddhist stupa, flocks of exotic birds and white tigers in the zoo.
Nanda imagines families rolling out carpets on the grass in the winter and enjoying a book in the shade of a tree in the summer. He imagines people touring the tombs or just crossing the park on their daily commutes.
The heart of the dream is the restoration of Sunder Nursery, a 40-hectare (100-acre) field adjacent to Humayun's Tomb, both of which are being restored by the Aga Khan's trust. The nursery was founded by British colonists to grow experimental plants. In recent years it was barely functioning, became a dumping ground for construction waste, and was visited by a few hundred people a month.
The trust fought back a government plan to cut the nursery in half — and destroy a garden tomb — to make way for a major road planned for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Nanda said. It had to remove 1,000 truckloads of construction rubble scattered about the fields.
It restored the 500-year-old Sunderwala Burj tomb from a gray building patched with concrete to the striking burnt orange sandstone and white lime mortar of its original design. A dozen other monuments in the nursery stand testament to the era, half a millennium ago, when the Islamic Mughal emperors from Central Asia ruled over a vast swathe of the Indian subcontinent.
The Sunderwala Burj stands at the entrance to a Mughal garden being built under the inspiration of Persian carpet designs, with squares of grass and flower beds bordering a thin pond that will send water flowing into narrow channels and over intricately carved stone patterns.
Nearby, workers have dug a reservoir to be filled with fish swimming in water from a specially built treatment plant. That water will also flow through streams into areas forested with plants from Delhi's different habitats. There is an amphitheater and a bonsai pavilion and plans for a restaurant.
Peacocks wander through the thick grass, one of the 56 bird species in the nursery.
"That was a kingfisher," Nanda said excitedly as he gave a tour. He pointed to a Mughal-era lotus pond being excavated. To the first fruits growing on a young lemon tree. To the new rose garden and the bright white and red edifice of the newly restored Lakkarwala Burj monument.
"This is beautiful. This is how it's meant to be. Look at this parapet, it's like a jewel," he said.
The nursery project, he said, is intended to turn what had been a dead zone "into a thriving ecological hub."
"The idea here is that this is a magical space that takes people away from the humdrum of daily life," he said.
But this is just a small step he hopes will create a creeping momentum toward the larger park.
He is already eyeing the crumbling Azimnganj Sarai, an early 16th Century pilgrim's motel just outside the nursery on zoo land. The Mughal garden, in fact the entire design of the nursery, points directly at the sarai, and he is hoping to get permission to restore it and add it to the park. That would bring him a small step closer to the mega-park dream.
That park, as envisioned by Nanda and his colleagues, would start with Humayun's Tomb and its complex of gardens and monuments. Just to the north is the nursery, then the national zoo, then the Purana Qila, the oldest fort in the city. Running alongside all this is the narrow Millennium Park, which borders the Yamuna River. These areas are so cut off now that a trip from Humayun's Tomb to Millennium Park, only about 100 meters (yards) away, would take 5 1/2 kilometers (3 miles).
"These are all things that have been originally linked and these artificial boundaries are just silly," Nanda said, pointing to the walls around a cluster of monuments.
He fears, however, the struggle of getting government agencies to cooperate.
"It takes centuries to get anything done here," he said.
The Archaeological Survey of India runs Humayun's Tomb and the Purana Qila. Delhi's Central Public Works Department controls the nursery. The environment ministry controls the zoo and the Delhi Development Authority runs Millennium Park. Even the railways have land involved.
The agencies would have to pool their budgets, pull down their walls, work together to provide parking and maintenance.
Mohammad Shaheer, a landscape architect who worked on the nursery, said the draw of creating such a unique space where residents of this city of migrants could interact and create memories will be irresistible.
Pravin Srivastava, the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, said the recent renovation at Humayun's Tomb, which involved about a dozen different agencies, proved such cooperation was possible.
"Everyone has their perceived priorities and their way of functioning. Getting around those certain blocks and mindsets is something that needs to be addressed," he said. Yet he predicted the new park could be inaugurated within five years.
"It can, and it should," he said.
Khurana, the former head of CPWD, predicted the park would be a tourist magnet with 20,000 to 30,000 visitors a day.
"The mindset is, everyone wants it," he said. "When the heart is willing, everything is OK."