Restoring Delhi’s Crowning Jewel


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When New Delhi was made the capital of India a 100 years ago, the site was already dotted with impressive Mughal buildings and the city’s ancient heritage was one of the factors that attracted the British to Delhi. 

People enjoy a stroll at Delhi’s Humayun Tomb [Credit: Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images]

Of all the ruins in Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb is the most impressive and arguably is more striking than Lutyens’ Delhi. After the British crushed the revolt of Indian soldiers who rebeled against their rule in 1857, an event also known as India’s first war of Independence, it was in Humayun’s tomb that Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, was hiding out when he was found and arrested by the British. 

In modern day Delhi, the city’s rubble from the Commonwealth Games has proven to be a boon for the restoration of this world heritage site. 

In preparation for the Commonwealth Games, curb stones across the city—slabs of quartzite stone that are used to make pavements and weigh about a ton each—were being replaced by the more expensive, and less durable, sandstone, says Ratish Nanda, an architect and the director of this restoration project for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. 

“It’s one of the hardest stones,” says Mr. Nanda, adding that quartzite can no longer be mined because of a government-imposed ban. When Mr. Nanda got wind of the city’s plans, he quickly bought 70 truckloads of the stones. 

While carrying out the restoration work, he had noticed that some of the quartzite stones had been cannibalized from a part of the plinth—the platform on which the tomb stands—and that gaps had been filled with cement instead. His team removed 12,000 square meters of cement concrete and put in place the huge quartzite blocks. 

“Some of them weighed 3,000 kilograms and needed 15 men to lift,” he says. 

For the uninitiated, the famous Humayun’s Tomb, built in 1565 AD, is located in the heart of New Delhi in a neighborhood called Nizamuddin. The area is named after a revered saint—Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya—who lived there in the early 14th century. And since it’s considered auspicious to be buried near a saint’s grave, the area has witnessed centuries of tomb building, a tradition that continues. The restoration team is repairing several of the tombs. 

Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative from Archana Saad Akhtar on Vimeo.

The restoration of the Nizamuddin heritage precinct—a public -private partnership between the Archaeological Survey of India (the premier organization responsible for archaeological researches and protection of the cultural heritage under the federal government), a couple of city agencies, the Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Trust—has been underway since mid-2008. Apart from the Mughal emperor’s mausoleum, it includes a nursery (Sundar Nursery) and a village (Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti). The three together cover some 200 acres of land and include at least 75 medieval monuments, making it the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic monuments in India, say Mr. Nanda. The conservation work, which employs local artisans and is using traditional methods, is currently being carried out on the main tomb, the gateways, and 50 of the 75 monuments. 

This restoration project is unlike any other in the country, says Mr. Nanda. For a start it’s using experts from across disciplines—engineers, landscape architects, graphic designers, as well as several architects and archaeologists. And unlike other projects in the country, it’s bringing back the craftsman’s approach. There are over 600 craftsmen working on the project and are using the same tools and techniques that their fathers and forefathers used to. 

“All conservation should be based on a living tradition,” says Mr. Nanda. “We hope the Archaeological Survey of India will use this system at every site henceforth.” 

Another distinguishing feature of this project is that it’s using an urban landscape approach to conservation and will restore the entire setting of the tomb, including restoring 50 monuments in the area and building a 100 acre park that will stretch between the mausoleum and the old fort, the Purana Qila. 

This project also links conservation with development and involves training local youths to become heritage guide and hold regular health and education camps in the villages in the area. 

Author: Megha Bahree | Source: The Wall Street Journal [December 27, 2011]



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