a culture vulture’s guide to delhi’s 7 best heritage parks

Culture vulture.
Noun INFORMAL
a person who is very interested in the arts.

Are you one? I like to think I am. Culture gets me all starry-eyed. Whether it be museums, art, or theatre. And somewhere in this mix, for me, is heritage, which places culture in a continuum of time. I see culture and heritage as part and parcel of the same mix, one incomplete without the other.

Luckily for my present location, Delhi oozes of heritage. Both tangible and intangible. And one of the many ways the city protects its built heritage is through heritage parks—a delightful combination of monuments and gardens, each unique and with a narrative of its own.

Here are its seven finest that I came across in my explorations of the city and which I would like to share with you in their historical order. If you are in Delhi, do make your way to them.

I have also included tips on how to add some present-day culture to the visits, to make them that much more memorable. Remember … continuum. Happy exploring. 😊

1. MEHRAULI ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK: DELHI’S HISTORY, ACROSS 1,000 YEARS, SET IN A FOREST




There is only one place in Delhi that’s been continuously inhabited for the past one thousand years. It is a stretch of 200 acres next to the Qutab Minar complex and is now called the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. They have all left their mark here—the original Hindu rulers, Delhi Sultanate, Mughal Empire, and British Raj.

Though some of the key ruins have been fenced off in recent years to protect them, there are still enough, of the total 100 or so, to clamber through and explore on deserted dirt-paths under dense forest cover.

Not to be missed is Mohammed Quli Khan’s Mughal-era tomb which British Governor General of India’s agent, Sir Thomas Metcalfe later bought and refurbished into a billiards room in 1843. It formed part of Metcalfe’s country estate called Dilkusha or ‘Delight of the Heart’ and was surrounded with a boat house, guesthouses, lake, canopies, and ziggurats.

There’s also the magnificent Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb [1529] dedicated to the Sufi saint Shaikh Jamali Kamboh and Kamali. No one is exactly sure who Kamali was, but he lies buried next to the saint in the flat-roofed tomb decorated with exquisite tilework inside, patches of which still remain.

Not in the park itself, but worth a visit, is the colossal crumbling Tomb of Quli Khan’s brother Adham Khan, who killed Emperor Akbar’s favourite nobleman and Prime Minister, Ataga Khan. Akbar had Adham Khan thrown off the Agra Fort walls for this and then built this fantastical monument in 1567 to honour the killer. The tomb is also known as Bhulbhuliya because of the maze of corridors inside its thick walls.

Culture tips: 1) Drop by the Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah in the adjacent village for some soulful qawwalis. 2) Delhi By Foot runs a thought-provoking walk through the ruins filled with stories and lively discussions.

2. HAUZ KHAS: THE 14TH CENTURY OXFORD UNIVERSITY OF THE EAST BUILT AROUND A HAUZ




Hauz Khas, literally meaning ‘royal tank’, is the handiwork of two 14th Century Delhi Sultans: the ambitious Afghan Allaudin Khilji and the gentle Turkic Firoz Shah Tughlaq.

Allaudin Khilji, whose ambition knew no bounds, called himself the 2nd Alexander and saw himself as a world ruler. His regime was marked with stability, oppressive reforms, and constant campaigns to defend Delhi from the Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan and his marauding warriors. Who knows how Indian history would have panned out if it were not, in fact, for Khilji? A practical water reservoir for a practical man, Hauz-e-Alai was constructed as a source of water for Khilji’s new capital Siri.

Unlike Khilji, Firoz Shah Tughlaq was determined to be known only for his building projects. Back in the 14th Century, after the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols, the Delhi Sultanate had become a natural choice and haven for Islamic learning which drew inspiration from the ancient Greeks. Firoz Shah Tughlaq decided to rename the lake to Hauz Khas and build one of the finest madrasahs in India on its banks where geometry, astronomy, and philosophy could be taught to the brightest minds.

What one sees today are the ruins of the L-shaped 2-storeyed madrasah, with cenotaphs of its professors at one end, a three-domed assembly hall at the other end, and at the intersection, the tomb of the man himself, Firoz Shah Tughlaq. All overlooking Khilji’s hauz aka water supply.

Culture tips: 1) Hauz Khas Village is filled with trendy eateries and galleries. 2) In a little square facing Café Pink is some spectacular graffiti on three high walls. 3) For a leisurely heritage walk through the ruins, check out Intach Delhi.

3. DEER PARK: PRE-MUGHAL ERA TOMBS DEEP INSIDE A WOODLAND




Though Deer Park lies right next to Hauz Khas, I would recommend you explore the two separately. Deer Park is dark, wooded, and contains some of Delhi’s oldest monuments, predating the Mughal era, deep in its recesses. It is a magical area of 60 acres with its dense green cover and winding stone paths which open into pockets of ruins suspended in time.

No, you are not going to encounter deer scampering through the ruins in joy. The ‘Deer’ part of Deer Park is confined to a 17-acre enclosure which houses some 200 deer, and which you would only have the privilege of engaging with from the other side of the fence.

Bagh-e-Alam ka Gumbad, the first monument you will see in the woodland, is a Lodi-era tomb dating back to 1501 as per the Persian inscription on its facade. The tomb’s highlight is its gorgeous painted stucco ceiling. Facing the tomb is a Wall Mosque, also of the Lodi era, with bastions and a crenelated wall. Going back further in time and deeper into the forest are the Tohfewala Gumbad and Kali Gumti, both tombs from the Tughlaq period [1321 – 88].

The oldest of the lot is the dome-less ruins of Munda Gumbad on a knoll by the Hauz Khas lake. Seven hundred years ago, the knoll was an island in the middle of the water reservoir and the crumbling structure a fancy pavilion for recreation. It was built by Alauddin Khilji, who ruled from 1296 to 1316, and formed part of his Hauz-e-Alai.

Culture tips: 1) Hauz Khas Village next door has some of Delhi’s finest cafes and art galleries. 2) The park is a favourite with joggers in the early mornings.

4. LODI GARDEN: A DELHI SULTANATE CEMETERY IN A BOTANICAL GARDEN




Lodi Garden is my favourite park in Delhi, so forgive me if I go over the top in its praise. It is incredibly atmospheric with its dense green cover and shimmering stone monuments which change colour through the day.

Technically it is Delhi’s oldest garden—800 years to be exact. It started off as an orchard. In the 15th and 16th Centuries it turned into a cemetery garden, and in the 20th Century the cemetery became a public botanical garden.

There are 11 monuments across Lodi Garden. Three of these are imposing tombs belonging to the Sultans of Delhi’s Sultanate era. The prettiest of the lot is the Tomb of Muhammad Shah Sayyid [1444] in which the 3rd ruler of the Sayyid dynasty is buried.

A short walk away is the enormous Bada Gumbad, Majlis Khana and Bada Gumbad Mosque, an ensemble fronted by the equally large Sheesh Gumbad. Some historians claim the Sheesh Gumbad [1489] is the burial place of the founder of the Lodi dynasty, Bahlol Lodi. It is a tad difficult to validate this theory, or any other, since there are no inscriptions or records about it.

At the other end of the 95-acre park is the still intact Walled Garden Tomb of Sikander Lodi [1517], Lodi dynasty’s most enthusiastic patron of the arts and learning.

Surrounding these monuments are 40 species of flowers and some 7,000 large trees of 215 different species. There’s also a bamboo garden, bonsai park, butterfly zone, herbal garden, lotus and lily pond, and peacock hatchery. And for the birding enthusiasts: happy to inform you that 151 species of birds have been sighted here!

Culture tips: 1) Attend a free yoga class in the early mornings. 2) Get a book, find a bench and read in Delhi’s prettiest open-air reading room. 3) If a birder, reach at dawn to meet the garden’s resident and migratory birds.

NOTE:
You may also like to read: Lodi Garden: Eleven Monuments and 7,000 Trees.

5. SUNDER NURSERY: MUGHAL MONUMENTS IN LANDSCAPED FLOWER BEDS AND PARKS




The newest heritage park to join Delhi’s already impressive collection is the lovely, urbane, 90-acre Sunder Nursery. Opened to the public in 2018, after a 10-year extensive restoration project, it is a collection of exquisite Mughal-era monuments, landscaped parks abloom with flowers, and microcosms of Delhi’s natural habitat.

Back in the 16th Century, this area was a Mughal cemetery called Azim Bagh or Great Garden. Along with Humayun’s Tomb next door, the tombs in Sunder Nursery were part of an ensemble of walled garden tombs of the rich and powerful. Six of them still stand and, since 2016, fall under the Humayun Tomb UNESCO World Heritage Site.

They are the Sunder Burj, Sunderwala Mahal, Lakkarwala Burj, Bada Batashewala Mahal, Chota Batashewala Mahal and the Unknown Mughal Tomb. Whilst at the nursery, don’t miss the 450-year-old Lotus Pond and Mughal Pavilion. The latter claims to have had the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan himself as its resident.

Apart from being a cemetery, Sunder Nursery was also an arboretum in its eclectic past. When the British Raj decided to move their capital from Calcutta to Delhi, they were determined to give it urban green spaces. Trees were brought from all over the British empire to this part of Delhi in 1913 to first test if they could survive and thrive in Delhi’s soil and weather. Vestiges of this exercise still dot the nursery.

Culture tips: 1) End your visit with a scrumptious organic brunch at the nursery’s Farmers Market held on weekends from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm. 2) Music concerts take place in its open-air auditorium till 10:00 pm in summers.

NOTE:
You may also like to read: Sunder Nursery: Delhi’s Loveliest Secret.

6. QUDSIA BAGH: AN 18TH CENTURY QUEEN’S PRIVATE PALACE-GARDEN IN OLD DELHI




One of Delhi’s hidden gems, Qudsia Bagh is near Kashmiri Gate in Old Delhi. Not many know of its existence. Yet, 250 years ago, there stood a palace-garden of such beauty and grandeur in its grounds that the officers of the British East India Company gasped in awe.

Unfortunately, all that remains of Qudsia Bagh today are a heavily shelled mosque and gateway, and a remodelled pavilion in a lush tropical garden. It may not be the most atmospheric or loveliest of Delhi’s heritage parks, but it definitely is the one with the best story.

Begum Qudsia was a Hindu dancing girl called Udham Bai in her earlier avatar. She was beautiful and knew what she wanted, using her charms to climb up the social ladder in the Mughal court.

It was not long before Emperor Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’ fell in love with her and decided to marry her after his first two wives had failed to conceive a son. So smitten was he by Udham, he even conferred upon her a senior rank in the Mughal army. Luckily for both, Udham bore him a son, Ahmed Shah Bahadur.

When her husband, the emperor, passed away in 1748, Udham renamed herself Qudsia, took over the reign of the empire, had a passionate affair with Javid Khan, the eunuch superintendent of the zenana, and built a magnificent palace-garden on the outskirts of Delhi. She was powerful and extravagant, but all good things come to an end. Along with her son, she was imprisoned in 1754.

Fast forward to 1857. India’s First War of Independence. Qudsia Begum’s pleasure-home had become part of the war zone between the Indian sepoys and British East India Company. The latter, who once commissioned artists to paint the palace-garden’s beauty, now together with the sepoys, bombed it into nothingness.

Culture tip: Around 750 metres away is Nicholson Cemetery with poetic graves of British and Indian Christians during the British Raj, including that of Brigadier John Nicholson who blew up Kashmiri Gate and defeated the Indian sepoys.

7. NIZAMUDDIN BASTI: A ROLL-CALL OF THE WHO’S WHO OF MEDIEVAL INDIA IN A 700-YEAR-OLD SETTLEMENT




And lastly, not all heritage parks are green spaces. Recipient of two UNESCO awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2021, the narrow lanes of Nizamuddin Basti [settlement] around the Dargah [shrine] of the 14th Century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya contain a roll-call of the Who’s Who of medieval history.

Walk through a towering red sandstone gateway or turn a corner in a quiet alley, and be prepared to be met with architectural monuments of poetic beauty.

Chausath Khamba, meaning 64 pillars, is Ataga Khan’s family grave. Ataga Khan was Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Prime Minister, an elevated status his family inherited. The innovative minimalist square marble hall with 25 reversed domes and bays, and latticed screens was built in 1623 – 24 by Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, his son and contains numerous tombs, with Kokaltash’s as the centrepiece.

Adjacent to it is India’s most famous Urdu and Persian poet, Mirza Ghalib’s Tomb; his grave covered daily with fresh red roses. Ghalib [1797 – 1869] saw it all—the decline of the Mughal empire, the British East India Company’s takeover of Delhi in 1803, and the 1857 First War of Independence. A complex period he transposed into deep, thoughtful poetry.

In contrast, is the imposing square marble and red sandstone Tomb of Ataga Khan built on the orders of Emperor Akbar and completed by Ataga’s son Mirza Aziz Kokaltash in 1567. Murdered by the jealous nobleman Adham Khan on 16 May, 1562, Ataga Khan’s lavish tomb is adorned with Quranic verses extolling his martyrdom.

At the heart of the Basti is the Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah complex hemmed in by the 700-year-old gigantic Jamat Khana Masjid and over 70 graves including those of Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s beloved daughter, Amir Khusrau, a Sufi poet and the saint’s favourite disciple [1253 – 1325], and Barni, the first known Muslim to write a history of India in 1357.

Culture tips: 1) Qawwalis, penned by Amir Khusrau, are sung every Thursday evening at the Dargah. 2) Ghalib Academy runs computerized calligraphy training courses.

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And with this, I come to the end of my post. I hope you enjoyed reading it and it inspires you to explore more of Delhi. As always, Happy travels. ❤

– – –

NOTE:
1. Entry charges: Only Hauz Khas and Sunder Nursery charge an entry fee. Entry to all the other parks is free.
2. Guides: I explored Mehrauli Archaeological Park with Delhi By Foot, Hauz Khas and Nizamuddin Basti with Intach Delhi, and Sunder Nursery with INTACH Delhi and Sair E Hind. Deer Park, Lodi Garden, and Qudsia Bagh, I explored independently using the book Delhi: 14 Historic Walks by Swapna Liddle.

11 thoughts on “a culture vulture’s guide to delhi’s 7 best heritage parks

    • Glad you liked it Anna. 🙂 Delhi is easily one of the, if not the most, rich cities in India in terms of history and heritage. There are multiple cities within the city, multiple religions practiced in peace, and every chapter in North India’s past 1,000 years shows up in its eclectic collection of monuments.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Aadil. Lovely to hear from you after so long. How is beloved Mumbai doing? I miss it dearly. But luckily for me, Delhi is pretty interesting too. Am happy you liked the post. I am enjoying exploring Delhi and its many layers and facets. 🙂

      Like

    • Thank you! Am glad you liked the post. There is so much to see in Delhi. What is interesting about these heritage parks is that each one has a different mood, feel, and set of monuments. Hence making each very unique. Happy exploring. 🙂

      Like

  1. You’re very lucky to live in a place like Delhi with so many cultural offerings, including impressive heritage buildings. For me, while Jakarta has its fair share of Dutch colonial structures, I have to go to the central part of Java to see the real ancient stuff. I hope the Indian capital can solve its pollution problem so that its residents and visitors can enjoy this city even more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Delhi has much to offer. I am lucky I am getting the chance to explore it. Regarding pollution, I think the people here are so used to it, they would not recognize their own city if it was unpolluted. 😀 But jokes aside, these heritage parks play a very important role in providing the city its green lungs.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: global art shot: kampani kalam, when east met west | rama toshi arya's blog

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