Finally, Humayun can sleep easy. The restoration work on the Mughal emperor’s tomb in Delhi ends next week. On the evening of 18 September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, industrialist Ratan Tata and philanthropist Aga Khan will visit the 16th century monument to mark the completion of this ambitious undertaking.
“It took us six years and 200,000 man-days of painstaking work by craftsmen,” says Ratish Nanda, project director of Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which is restoring the much larger Humayun Tomb complex, including the monuments in the neighbouring Sunder Nursery. The trust is also involved in the urban renewal of the historic Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti area.
Taking us up to the roof of the tomb, not accessible to visitors, Nanda says: “This was the first and so far the only instance that the restoration of a protected monument was undertaken by a non-governmental organization.”
Standing beside the dome of the mausoleum, we see a bird’s-eye view of the gateways, pavilions and the enclosure wall—all of these now put back in shape by the aforementioned trust with co-funding from Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Pointing upwards at the new-looking blue and yellow tiles on the stone chhatris (canopies), Nanda says, “Since we Indians lost the art of producing such tiles, we called in traditional artisans from Uzbekistan, some of whom were in their 90s. They trained the youth of Nizamuddin Basti in making the tiles you are now seeing.”
The burial place of more than a hundred Mughal princes, including Dara Shikoh who was beheaded by his brother Aurangzeb, Humayun’s Tomb has surfaced in every important shift in the city’s history. In 1857, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was sheltering here when he was arrested by the British. In 1947, it served as a refugee camp during the Partition riots when almost all the lovely sal wood doors in the arched recesses were burned.
Today, you see new doors of the same wood and design.
A decade ago, however, the monument was in terrible shape. The dome leaked. Tiles had fallen off. Stone façades were damaged beyond repair. The original lime plaster, used by the Mughals to mimic the white marble, was gone. Most arched cells on the outer wall had collapsed. Things were so bad that stone-carvers had to manually remove a million kilos of concrete, 40cm thick, from the roof to reveal buried architectural elements.
Earlier this week, art conservators were giving finishing touches to the arches on the sandstone platform, filling in the star-shaped ornamentations with gheru (saffron) dyes to emphasize the contrast between red sandstone and white marble.
Inside, a brand new handcrafted brass lamp plaque, custom-made in Cairo, Egypt, was hanging over Humayun’s stone cenotaph.
“Monuments need to be looked at as irreplaceable economic assets and not as burdens as we do now,” says Nanda. Shaking his head towards the nearby Khan-i-Khana’s tomb, he says, “By not caring for our heritage, we are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
Perhaps the goose might already be dead.
On 12 March, in reply to a question in Parliament, the ASI said that 35 monuments under its protection are “untraceable”, 12 of those in Delhi, the highest number for a single state.
Delhi showcases a thousand years of ambitious masonry—the cumulative building efforts of 12 dynasties, many of whom established their capitals here, and almost 90 different rulers (who created nine different cities).
But apart from the handful of Unesco World Heritage sites like the Qutub complex and Humayun’s Tomb, most of Delhi’s architectural heritage is under threat, or being turned into garbage dumps.
“Untraceable can only mean they have been destroyed, they are gone,” says Narayani Gupta, historian and author of multiple books on Delhi’s history and architecture. The ASI’s answer is more of a red herring than just in its choice of words. The 12 Delhi monuments that it says are untraceable were demolished a long time back—some, like the tomb of Captain McBarnett from the 1857 uprising was bulldozed in 1947. Even the latest, a British Siege Battery, also from 1857, was demolished in 1995.
Is the ASI’s list outdated?
“Most certainly it is,” Gupta says. “They are still following the Zafar Hasan list, which does not correspond to the geography or the reality of Delhi now.”
Maulvi Zafar Hasan was an archaeologist with the ASI who prepared the first list of monuments worthy of conservation in 1916. It features 1,317 buildings. The ASI protects 174 of those in Delhi—the rest are under various civic, cultural, and religious bodies, none of whom follow the Zafar Hasan list, and none of whom have completed the task of preparing their own lists.
“The NDMC, the DDA, the MCD, the Waqf board—they have been making their lists for decades now,” says author and historian Sohail Hashmi, an expert on Delhi’s monuments. “Who knows what has happened to most of these buildings? And what can you achieve if you don’t even have the most basic platform ready?”
A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India this year has found that 92 monuments are missing nationwide, after surveying only 1,655 monuments of the 3,675 that are under ASI’s protection. The report is waiting to be tabled in Parliament.
Things fall apart
Lal Mahal in Nizamuddin area is now little more than a single-domed outhouse standing in one corner of a large rubble pit. The area has been closed off with high metal and plastic sheets for more than four years now, ever since an alarm was raised that the owners of the building were demolishing it.
They have demolished it.
Yet, there has been a renewed call for action to save Lal Mahal, with newspaper reports, a dedicated blog, and Twitter feeds reporting on its state early this year. The building, of which almost nothing remains now, was identified by Zafar Hasan as the oldest surviving Sultanate-era monument in Delhi. Built in the 1280s by the Mamluk king Ghiyasuddin Balban, it is said to be the home of traveller Ibn Battuta when he settled in the city in the 1330s as a qazi (judge) in Muhammad Bin Tughluq’s court, and wrote extensively about the city and its king.
In 2009, a similar movement had gathered enough momentum to initiate a slew of action and reaction: The police filed a first information report (FIR), a Parliamentary committee and a Supreme Court-appointed committee were set up to investigate the issue, and both the ASI and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) came under fire.
All of that disappeared under the dirt and debris of land ownership issue.
“The MCD could not trace the ownership records, and it did not feature on ASI’s protection list,” says A.G.K. Menon, convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) Delhi Chapter, and part of the committee that investigated the demolition. “Then religious bodies entered the fray, and everything became too murky too handle.”
Land ownership is a major stumbling block in heritage conservation.
B.R. Mani, additional director-general of ASI, says most of the notifications do not even define the boundaries of monuments, and in a large number of cases the land on which an ASI-protected building stands does not belong to the ASI. The ASI also does not have policing powers, which in effect makes it an organization with a powerful mandate, but no powers to act.
“Seventy per cent of the city is developed illegally,” says Menon. “If the government’s own master plan can’t be implemented, then monuments don’t stand much of a chance.”
Government records list 1,639 unauthorized colonies in Delhi, with close to 5 million residents. In January, 48 settlements, which had encroached on ASI land, were part of the 205 unauthorized colonies that got the Delhi cabinet’s approval for regularization.
On the other hand, the newest body created to help preserve monuments, the National Monuments Authority, or NMA, (formed in 2010), has the express mandate of framing site-specific by-laws that will prohibit and remove all construction in a 100m radius around a protected monument, and restrict construction for 300m around it.
The NMA has cleared 1,600 of the 2,011 cases that have come to it from across the country. “A major chunk of those were in Delhi,” says NMA member-secretary Pravin Srivastava.
To tackle encroachment and littering, the standard practice now is to erect walls and gates around monuments.
“This keeps out women, children, and the elderly,” says Gupta. “And does nothing to stop vandals, of course.”
It also alienates the communities that live around monuments.
“Why can’t we work with the people living around monuments, and give them a stake in the conservation?” asks Gupta. “The urban villagers are not hostile to the monuments. It is an important social space for them. Give them incentives and let them take the initiative to set up shops, food kiosks.”
“Conservation can be an economic activity,” says Menon. “It can enhance employment, enhance the economic viability of a neighbourhood. Conservation and development are not antithetical, but right now, except for a few monuments, there is no infrastructure in place to turn our built heritage into tourism spots. We are sitting on a gold mine in terms of the economic spin-off that heritage tourism can generate.”
But who will initiate these measures? The ASI’s budget is pitiful—they had Rs.5.7 crore for the financial year 2011-12 for the protection and maintenance of the 175 monuments under them in Delhi.
There is no manpower either. “We are short on technical staff,” Mani says.
Simple things like monument-specific merchandise, which could generate revenue, are not available at heavily-visited structures like the Qutub Minar.
Spread over 100 acres, the Mehrauli Archaeological Park is a microcosm of all the struggles Delhi faces with preserving its architectural heritage.
“It’s a remarkable place,” Hashmi says. “Ten centuries of continuous construction has gone on there. You can trace the evolution of architecture walking from one end to the other—arches, minarets, domes—how they developed, the dialogue that took place when different cultures, aesthetics and religions met.”
In the late 1990s, Intach worked with the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to build the park and restore the structures within. By 2005, the area was cleaned up, paths were laid, landscaping and signage were in place, and monuments were restored.
Eight years later, the park is in poor shape. There is litter everywhere, the signs are broken, the greenery degraded, the monuments neglected. Cows, pigs and goats use the grounds to graze and forage.
“The situation is confusing, because there’s not one single authority looking after the place,” says Hashmi. “The grounds are with DDA, the structures divided between ASI, the archaeology department of the Delhi government, Waqf Board, NDMC—so everyone’s treading on everyone’s toes.”
The DDA says the park demands too much of their budget and that the other agencies are not doing their bit. Menon says the agencies meet frequently to discuss the issue, but make no headway.
“Mehrauli has the potential of becoming one of the most important heritage sites in India,” Menon says. “But we are going around in circles.”
At the edge of the archaeological park, Azhar plummets some 40ft past the ancient stones and pillars of Gandhak ki Baoli, and enters the water in the stepwell with a flourish. A small crowd of people sit around in the walkways and smile at the show. Azhar is 12, and his father runs a tea shop in the area. This is where his family hangs out in the evenings (when Azhar does not dive), along with their neighbours. There is a remarkable social continuity in this, since the shaded walkways of the 13th century stepwells, with its water-cooled stones, were used originally as public spaces to relax and shoot the breeze.
The stepwell is remarkably litter-free, and locals say they work to keep it that way so they can sit in peace.
When the heart-stopping diving session is over, Azhar and four of his friends scour for litter in the water and on the steps, and remove them.
“Diving is no fun if there’s plastic floating in the water,” Azhar says.
But hope, too, floats. “The scene is dismal but we can still be optimistic,” says Nanda, coming down the stairs of Humayun’s Tomb. “This monument is a model to conserve the heritage of our great structures.”
Mayank Austen Soofi contributed to this story.