India's most ambitious restoration projects by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture uncover history that is both alluring and spectacular
Walking through the well-manicured gardens surrounding the splendid mausoleum of Humayun that stands as a magnificent testament to Persian architecture there is an overwhelming sense of calm. Then wonder. A question immediately wells up in the mind — was this how the 16th century monument looked at its best. No one will know that. But the second Mughal ruler, known more for his weakness than valour, has been immortalised and perhaps made equally famous as the other Mughal greats by the amazingly restored monument to his memory.
The tomb had been commissioned by Bega Begum, Humayun’s Persian wife and chief consort in 1565, nine years after the emperor’s death and is known to have been completed in 1572 under the patronage of Akbar. Located in Delhi’s Nizamuddin East, Humayun’s tomb or Makbara-e-Humayun is one of the best-preserved Mughal monuments and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993.
But it was not always like this. The grandeur of this spectacular edifice gradually diminished due to lack of maintenance as funds dried up in the royal treasury. In 1880, under British rule, the surrounding garden was redesigned to accommodate an English style garden. It is known to have been restored to its original style in a major project between 1903 and 1909. However, the complex and its structures were defiled in 1947 post partition India when it was used to house refugees.
The most recent phase of restoration started in 1997 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in collaboration with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) — the first private partnership to conserve a national monument.
As Professor Chetan Vaidya, urban advisor with UN Habitat and former director of the School of Planning and Architecture recalls, Humayun’s Tomb heritage conservation is a unique and successful experiment of heritage conservation with private participation. “Aga Khan Trust has provided excellent technical assistance. Sunder Nursery is a major open space also known as central park. Basti improvement, once again is an excellent example of creating inclusive cities,” he remarks.
The seeds were sown in 1997 on the occasion of India’s 50th anniversary, when Aga Khan gifted the garden restoration of Humayun’s tomb to India. An MoU was signed with the ASI in 1999 as it was the first time any private player was coming forward to offer funds and restore any national monument in India, recalls Ratish Nanda, chief executive officer of AKTC, who has been relentlessly working on the projects.
According to him, it took the Government of India two years to set up a national fund to receive the funds and allow AKTC to take on the project. “We finished that project in 2003 and left India. In 2004 we were invited again and His Highness Aga Khan was requested by the Government of India to do more work in the culture sector. We looked at about 50 sites and chose to come back to this area since His Highness thought of completing the work around Humayun’s Tomb with 50 projects in and around the area.”
AKTC chose to landscape over 200 acres and carried out major work in health, education, sanitation, vocational training and urban improvement in the vicinity. The second agreement was signed in 2007 for a 15-year period till 2022. In 2013, the government of Telangana requested the trust to initiate conservation of monuments in Hyderabad. The Qutb Shahi Tombs were selected for a 10-year project. “We are looking at completing 100-plus acres of land and 80 monuments during the 10-year period in the Qutb Shahi area,” says Nanda.
There were major challenges not just in restoration, conservation, but in urban planning as well where the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), the mother agency, decided to intervene and uplift the lives of the urban millennials residing in these areas. Today it has become a classic case study for private players and government to emulate in heritage conservation.
For every conservation project that it takes up AKTC, says Nanda, does a thorough survey of the area. Sometimes this takes a few years. Master craftsmen, often with a family history over generations of working on similar buildings, are then brought in. It helps, also because these craftsmen usually know the material used in the monuments.
This contrasts with the difficulties faced by the ASI. According to recent reports, ASI, despite having over 3,600 monuments under its custody, is finding it tough to maintain them. Last year, the tourism ministry floated the idea of corporates adopting India’s key monuments for maintenance, upkeep and tourist amenities. However, ASI officials point out, funding is not the real problem — it lacks manpower and trained personnel. For Delhi alone, ASI has an annual budget of around Rs 10 crore, which is adequate for maintenance and creation of new facilities, say its officials.
Criticism of the ASI
“The last time the ASI went into overdrive at the Red Fort, relaying water channels, altering landscapes and repairing the inlays in marble columns, the work was so shoddy and damaging that a group of concerned citizens had to file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court to get it to stop “restoring” the site. This was in 2003, under the National Democratic Alliance government, when Jagmohan was the Culture-minister-in-a-hurry who pushed through these ill-advised repairs”, says Kavita Singh, dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in a report.
Says Neeraj Bhagat, a heritage conservation architect of Section CC Architects, involved in conservation projects for Worlds Monuments Fund (WMF), New York for Jahangir and Raja Mahal in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh and temple sites near Khajuraho, “The ASI and a leading heritage consultant were involved in the collaborative task probably between 2006 and 2010. However, the elaborate conservation plan did not translate into an effective implementation and works on the ground remained a disappointment. Without pointing fingers at any of the parties involved, it could be attributed to the early days of public-private partnership that did not work out too well.”
However, Bhagat is quick to point out how the partnership between the Aga Khan Trust and the Government of India is an encouraging one and a much-needed initiative in India, which faces a dearth of funding and an informed approach to conservation. “The project not merely undertakes the conservation of Humayun's tomb and other significant monuments in the area but also extends its ambit to the renewal and regeneration of the historic Nizamuddin Basti that includes social and economic benefit programmes for the local community,” he says, adding: “An intervention carried out on a historic monument is irreversible and hence, the minutest details, technical specifications and processes are to be duly recorded, documented and shared with the wider public as well as the professional community for the greater good.”
Not an easy task
According to Vaidya, apart from AKTC’s contribution, India lacks the capacity to undertake major conservation. The focus so far has been on monuments. Overall tourism infrastructure and city infrastructure are seldom looked at. “Baroda, for example, is famous for its Nayamandir. But as you visit the area you will notice a huge building in front of Nayamandir which obstructs the view.”
One big challenge is to make conservation financially viable. “We do not have a way where we can get people to pay for visiting heritage sites. We need to take conservation as a business proposition,” he points out. He feels there is a need to converge urban planning with restoration and conservation to maintain economic viability.
A look at AKTC projects
Humayun’s tomb, Delhi
In the later years of the 20th century, the Humayun’s Tomb site suffered from a condition that was common with many world heritage sites. Its gardens were worn, its masonry cracked, and the stonework was broken or incomplete. The unkempt look brought few visitors to the site. The competition for resources made restoration of cultural sites a path full of obstacles. The challenge, therefore, was to find ways for cultural sites — many of great beauty and tourist interest — to sustain themselves.
Following the completed garden restoration in 2004, AKTC expanded its activities to encompass an urban renewal project that comprised the adjoining areas of Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, Sunder Nursery and the Humayun’s Tomb complex, while simultaneously undertaking significant socio-economic and environmental development initiatives
Before undertaking conservation, a significant archival research programme, coupled with meticulous documentation, was initiated, which included the use of 3D laser scanning technology. An exhaustive condition assessment carried out by a multi-disciplinary team of conservation architects, archaeological engineers, and historians, revealed that although the mausoleum and its associated structures were in a relatively stable structural condition, they were, however, in a severe state of material deterioration. The assessment revealed that architectural details used by the Mughal builders had been compromised by 20th century repairs that included the use of inappropriate modern materials.
Conservation work aimed at restoring the architectural integrity and the original Mughal splendour by using traditional building craft skills of masons, stone carvers, and tile makers with the traditional materials. In view of the scale of work and with a major departure from a ‘preserve as found’ approach, a conservation plan was peer-reviewed by international experts at the outset. There were a number of significant challenges. To begin with, the structure is very large. Over 2,00,000 man-days of painstaking work by master craftsmen — following the evidence of original architectural elements that remained — were required to restore the splendour.
Water seepage on the roof of Humayun’s Tomb was of primary concern. Stone-carvers manually removed a million kg of concrete, 40 centimetres thick, from the roof — they had been added by engineers over the years, evidently to stop seepage — in order to restore the original levels and reveal buried architectural elements. Almost the entire sandstone terrace of the upper platform required lifting. Major structural cracks were carefully stitched prior to resetting 5,400 square metres of sandstone to original patterns and slopes. Stone-carvers also lifted 3,700 square metres of stone from the plinth, which was buried under 20th century interventions of cement. To reset the heavy stone blocks, some of which weighed over 2,500 kilograms, required up to 15 craftsmen to lift.
The contrasting red-white surfaces of the mausoleum, achieved by the use of red sandstone with white marble inlay, are the defining architectural element of the tomb. Each stone of the facade was scientifically analysed to determine the most appropriate strategy: repair or replacement. Stone-carvers used traditional hand tools to match the original finish of the stone. Similarly, masons also used traditional building techniques to reconstruct the 42 arched recesses of the garden enclosure wall that had collapsed.
To restore the structures, over 20,000 square metres of wall and ceiling surfaces were plastered over using lime mortar, prepared in a lime wheel with additives such as molasses, egg white, fruit pulp or marble dust. Lime plaster, applied in layers, with the final layer being one millimetre thick, was used by the Mughals craftsmen to mimic white marble.
A prominent intervention was the removal of cement plaster and the restoration of the decorative star-shaped patterns on the facade of the 68 mini-mausoleums on the ground level where 160 Mughal family members, including Dara Shikoh, are buried. The conservation process required four years of experimentation, which was started under the guidance of master craftsmen from Uzbekistan — who trained youth from the adjoining Nizamuddin Basti in tile making.
Further, the outstanding universal value of the Humayun’s Tomb complex is also derived from it being at the heart of an ensemble of 16th century garden tombs. Together with conservation works on Humayun’s Tomb, the adjoining monuments of Nila Gumbad, Isa Khan’s garden tomb, Bu Halima’s garden tomb, Arab Serai gateways, Sundarawala Mahal and Burj, Batashewala group of monuments, Chausath Khambha, Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli and adjoining monuments are all part of the ongoing project. In all cases, the setting of these monuments is also undergoing conservation, and landscaping or urban improvements.
The project, through improvements in education, health, sanitation and infrastructure, has aimed to improve the quality of life of areas in its vicinity. Neighbourhood parks have been landscaped, housing improvements undertaken in partnership with house owners and support provided to the municipality to undertake a major street improvement programme. Performance areas have been created for qawwali singers, in keeping with a tradition that started in the 14th century by Hazrat Amir Khusrau and continues to draw a wide audience.
Chausath Khamba, Delhi
Chausath Khamba was built in 1623-24 to serve as a tomb for Mirza Aziz Koka, foster brother of Akbar. It is so called on account of the 64 (chausath) monolithic marble pillars (khamba) and stands in near his father, Atgah Khan’s tomb, at the edge of the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.
The entry to the tomb enclosure is through a lofty arched gateway and it has a large sunken forecourt. The mausoleum is built entirely of marble, with 25 marble domes supporting the flat roof of the structure.
The marble blocks of the 25 domes were tied to one-another and embedded in the brick masonry over the domes with iron dowels. The rainwater spouts from the inaccessible roof got blocked resulting in large quantities of rainwater collecting on roof. This caused corrosion, rusting and expansion of the iron dowels. The forecourt of the mausoleum — segregated with a masonry wall built in between in the 1980s — was in a poor state.
A high definition survey was carried out, followed with a stone-by-stone assessment. Archival research revealed sketches dating from the early 19th century, descriptions and a continuous record of photographs from the mid 19th century.
The study of the structure revealed that over 80 per cent of the stone blocks had severe cracks and past repairs had inappropriately only filled up the cracked portions of stone blocks with white cement — masking the damage but allowing the deterioration to accelerate. The forecourt — largest open space in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti — was to be landscaped to create a venue for Qawwali performance in the neighbourhood. The assessment was that preservation of Chausath Khamba would be possible only if the iron dowels were removed. It therefore became necessary to start a conservation programme that required dismantling each of the 25 domes. Such an effort had never before been undertaken anywhere in the world.
Once a specially designed support framework was built, the keystone was held in place and rings of marble blocks were dismantled and carefully reassembled on the floor. Iron dowels manually removed and stone indents of matching size prepared for corners that had burst.
The stone carvers, using traditional tools and building techniques took eight months to successfully repair the first dome — on the northwest corner — thus establishing the repair methodology for the mausoleum. The repair of the 25 domes has taken almost four years during which time three teams of stone craftsmen have worked under close supervision.
The masonry wall built in the 1980s to limit access to Chausath Khamba was dismantled and replaced with a transparent fence using motifs from the decorative lattice screens of the mausoleum.
The forecourt itself was paved with stone in a manner that not only enhanced the historic character but also allowed the creation of a performance space for concerts and cultural festivals. Twice a year the Urs ceremony of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and his favourite disciple, the Sufi poet Amir Khusrau is held at the Urs Mahal built within the enclosure in the mid-20th century. It is proposed to install a permanent exhibit in this space.
The conservation effort at Chausath Khamba created at least 25,000 man-days of work for traditional stone craftsmen and allowed training of younger craftsmen. Youth from Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti have been trained to serve as heritage volunteers guiding tourists, pilgrims and schoolchildren through the seven centuries of built and living heritage of Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti.
At the onset of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative, baseline surveys revealed that under 1 per cent of the women residents had any livelihood. Self-help groups established there were trained to make souvenirs in paper and textiles with motifs from Chausath Khamba and Humayun’s Tomb. Conservation of other monuments such as the 14th century step-well and the Khalji-era mosque has also been undertaken within the Basti.
Mirza Ghalib’s tomb, Delhi
Mirza Ghalib, one of India’s most legendary Urdu poets was buried adjacent to the Chausath Khamba. As an extension of the conservation effort, the poet’s tomb enclosure was also landscaped to create a tranquil space for veneration and poetry sessions organised regularly.
Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khana’s tomb, Delhi
Standing only a few hundred yards south of the mausoleum of Humayun is the monumental tomb built by Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khana for his wife — Mah Banu. Built in 1598, this would be the first monumental tomb built for a lady in Mughal times and, on his death, Rahim was also buried in the mausoleum he had built for his wife.
The son of Bairam Khan — Akbar’s uncle, tutor and regent after Humayun's death, Rahim was one of the emperor’s nine most important ministers, known as the navratnas (nine gems), and was renowned for his military prowess, skill as an administrator, and scholarly pursuits, such as the translation of the Ramayana and poetry. Despite the historical, architectural and archaeological significance of the structure, by the 21st century Rahim’s tomb was no more than a crumbling monument.
In 2014, InterGlobe Foundation generously offered to fund the conservation of the mausoleum as well as an associated cultural programme culminating in publications, concerts and academic symposiums. The conservation project is expected to be completed this year.
Bara Batashewala, Delhi
Popularly known as the Bara Batashewala Mahal and built in 1603, Mirza Muzaffar Hussain’s square tomb, near Humayun’s tomb, stands on a raised platform with five half-domed arched entrance bays on each side. The central grave chamber, several feet below the ground, is surrounded by eight rooms, making this an interesting example of the “hasht-bihist” plan — which represents the eight spaces of paradise as described in the Quran.
The collapsed eastern facade was restored while the southern facade — inappropriately reconstructed only a decade ago — required dismantling and reconstruction in keeping with the original design. Similarly, the roof, which had deteriorated, was relaid with lime concrete to create an adequate slope. Long stretches of the garden enclosure walls, visible in archival photographs, were demolished in 1989. The foundations of missing portions were excavated in order to guide the reconstruction of these sections.
Chhota Batashewala, Delhi
Within the enclosed garden and standing just east of Mirza Muzaffar Hussain’s tomb, once stood an octagonal tomb. It is said to have been profusely ornamented and was known as Chhota Batashewala. Using archival images, the effort had been to raise standing portions of the structure to complete just one portion of the facade in order to indicate to visitors the original scale and profile. A rubble masonry wall has been built all along the periphery to provide support to standing portions in lieu of the shallow foundations of the structure. A vaulted tomb chamber was also discovered and the earthen in-fill that had been placed inside was removed.
Sundarwala Mahal, Delhi
The outstanding universal value of the Humayun’s Tomb World Heritage Site is also due to this area being an ensemble of 16th century garden tombs abutting one another. Similar in plan to the tomb of Mirza Muzaffar Husain, this structure, also a 16th century tomb originally stood within a garden enclosure together with the Sundar Burj and the Lotus Pond.
The first phase of conservation on Sundarwala Mahal were taken up in 2010 when collapsed portions were reconstructed. That was also when portions of the building, inappropriately reconstructed by the ASI in 2002-2006, were demolished and reconstructed in the likeness of the original Mughal era details.
In 2014, HUDCO provided the funds to carry out the final conservation programme of this structure that included installation of red sandstone flooring, replastering the structure including restoration of the muqarnas, a form of embellishment in Islamic architecture.
Conservation works on the structure were completed in 2015 and landscape works around the tomb have also been completed.
Mughal Tomb Garden, Delhi
This early Mughal-era tomb stands immediately north of Humayun’s Garden-Tomb, within its own garden enclosure. Conservation works were preceded by an exhaustive documentation and archival research on the structure. All original lime plaster found on the structure was carefully consolidated and retained on the structure. Ornamental patterns, such as that found on the neck of the dome and the parapet was carefully restored.
Atgah Khan’s tomb, Delhi
Built in 1566-67 by Atgah Khan’s son, Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, this is the finest example of early Mughal architecture. Square in plan, the tomb is a combination of red sandstone and white marble with geometric pattern red sandstone inlay panels on all the four facades and marble panels with handmade tile inlay work in the spandrels. The interiors, once highly decorative with red sandstone jaalis and incised plaster work motifs and inscriptions from the Quran as calligraphy, have mostly been stripped of this original work. Layers of cement-surkhi plaster have replaced much of the red-blue ceiling with ornamental incised plaster work.
Stone by stone damage assessment of facade stones with relief work has been carried out. The external red sandstone panels with marble inlay work have been extensively damaged in past repairs with the insertion of cement and marble inlay of inappropriate size; replacement panels are presently being prepared.
Jamaat Khana Masjid, Delhi
The principal mosque of the Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin, this 14th century structure is the earliest mosque in Delhi that continues to be in use. In 2014, the Dargah Committee led by Janaab Najmi Nizami approached AKTC with a request to undertake an urgently required conservation programme on the structure.
Architectural documentation and condition assessment of the mosque was carried out in 2014 prior to commencing conservation. Scraping multiple layers of cement plaster and paint from the domed ceiling was a painstaking work that required 1,500 man-days of work. After the paint was scraped off the red sandstone dome, a team of 15 skilled stone carvers repaired the partially decayed or damaged red sandstone decoratiion to carefully match the original pieces.
Baoli Arcade, Delhi
The Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli built in the early 14th century, and miraculously still containing water, is today hemmed in by modern constructions. In 2008 portions of the Baoli collapsed marking the commencement of conservation efforts that have since included desilting the Baoli of centuries of accumulated waste, providing alternate residences for 18 families and reconstruction of the collapsed portions.
Approvals for the major renovations were taken from the National Monument Authority, ASI and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation. In order to achieve the objectives of seeking three feet depth on the Baoli side, the structure required to be completely dismantled. This was required to be done carefully as several abutting structures were resting on this structure.
Azimganj Serai, Delhi
Azimganj Serai is the earliest Mughal era Serai in Delhi and stands in the National Zoological Park, just north of Government Sunder Nursery. Years of neglect had led to a major collapse. Conservation work in 2015 was carried out on 27 chambers in the south-eastern corner and 28 chambers in the north-western corner of the monument. The work required great precision and care. In some cells, nearly 40 per cent of the structure had collapsed.
Deep filling and careful stitching with stone of large cracks in the structure has been done all across the structure. Specialised shuttering is being used for conservation of arches, vaults and domes, thereby ensuring consistency of profile and reducing time spent in scaffolding works.
Barah Khamba, Delhi
On the eastern end of Lodhi Road, at the edge of Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, stands a 16th century Lodhi era domed tomb, known as Barah Khamba on account of its 12 pillars. Barah Khamba stands within the Delhi Master Plan designated heritage zone of Nizamuddin and within the buffer zone of Humayun’s tomb.
In 2014, the Delhi Urban Heritage Foundation of the DDA awarded a grant to AKTC to undertake conservation of Barah Khamba. The setting of the monument has been enhanced with formal landscaping and creating an additional access from the Basti which allows residents to use the park and create greater visibility from Lodhi Road.
Qutb Shahi Heritage Park, Hyderabad
Nestled at the foot of the Golconda Fort, the Qutb Shahi Heritage Park is spread over 106 acres. The Qutb Shahi dynasty ruled present-day Hyderabad region from 1518 AD to 1687 AD, and was founded by Sultan Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk. As great builders and patrons of learning, the Qutb Shahis strengthened Golconda, one of India’s most formidable citadels. This necropolis of the Qutb Shahi dynasty that ruled the region for 169 years in the 16th to the 17th centuries, includes 40 mausoleums, 23 mosques, 6 baolis (step wells), a hamam (mortuary bath), pavilions and garden structures set within a heritage zone of international significance. No other ensemble of structures in the Deccani kingdoms of Ahmednagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur or Gulbarga includes as many monuments of striking grandeur and complexity reflecting a unique synthesis of architectural styles.
On January 9, 2013, the Telangana’s Department of Archaeology and Museums, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation’s Quli Qutb Shah Urban Development Authority, Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture signed an MoU that, over a 10-year period, will enable conservation of all monuments and landscape restoration of the Heritage Park. Sir Dorabji Tata Trust & Allied Trusts have provided required funding for the conservation works on ten major monuments.
Through 2012, exhaustive recording, documentation, condition assessment, surveys and research exercises were carried out by the multi-discipinary Aga Khan Trust for Culture team as a precursor to the Conservation Plan that forms the foundation for the project. Over 2,000 drawings of the monuments alone have been prepared, in addition to topographical surveys wherein each minor feature of the site has been mapped including all trees. Further archival research and archaeological excavations are being carried out to guide the landscape restoration and enhance the understanding of the site through high definition survey using 3D laser scanning technology.
This are expected to generate over 3,00,000 man-days of employment for master craftsmen working with stone, lime and ceramic glazed tiles, thus leading a revival of building crafts in the region.
On the basis of investigations, it was found that most of the tomb structures are in a similar state of preservation and suffer from similar patterns of material decay as well as structural defects. Due to dampness and water seepage, plaster work of the wall surfaces and dome surfaces have deteriorated.
As a priority, over 600 cubic metres of stone masonry walls of the Badi Baoli were rebuilt prior to the monsoons in 2014. Conservation works here included removal of 400 cubic metres of collapsed masonry from within the well in a dangerous operation.
At Jamshed Quli Qutb Shah’s Tomb, the removal of deteriorating cement plaster from the domed surface and restoration of traditional lime mortar were carried out to prevent further water ingress which was causing significant cracks. At the request of the local community, emergency repair works have been done on Abdullah Qutb Shah’s mosque, the roof of which was leaking and from where over 400 mm of cement concrete weighing over 110 tonnes was manually removed.