India’s first public-private conservation model- Mughal emperor’s legacy to ‘mulk’

India-Culture/Heritage/Art

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By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

The illustrious Mughal emperor and arguably one of the most erudite of the Muslim rulers, Humayun, has bequeathed an unusual legacy to the history of the country’s heritage conservation more than 500 years after his death — a holistic restoration mission on a private-public partnership model, the first of its kind in the country paving the way for more sustainable heritage conservation initiatives in the future in concert with private stakeholders.

A restored mausoleum – an architectural splendour in red sandstone and marble — in memory of the 16th century Mughal king, Humayun (son of Babur and the father of Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar) was officially inaugurated by the Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh, his highness Aga Khan, the founder of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the chairman of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Ratan Tata on Sept 18 in New Delhi – the country’s capital. The Humayun’s Tomb dominates the urban skyline of the capital.  

For the historic capital city dating back to the 7th century AD, the restoration was yet another gem in the city’s architectural treasure trove brought on by six years of round-the-clock overhauling by thousands of craftspeople, architects, artists, designers and designers – led by conservation architect Ratish Nanda. The efforts have carted the relic back to its original Islamic self with the revival of many lost Islamic building crafts.

Estimates cite that the work created 200,000 man-days for craftspeople – assembled and trained from the neighbouring Hazrat Nizamuddin urban sprawl that comes under a greater urban heritage renewal mission (around the mausoleum) that seeks to resurrect lost crafts traditions and living cultures of the people in the 14th century habitat — and improve the quality of the life with culture as an enterprise of revitalization, regeneration and profit.

The Humayun’s tomb is one of the largest ensembles of Islamic garden mausoleums in the world hosting more than 30 relics. It is a World Heritage Site, honoured by UNESCO.    

In 1997, on the occasion of India’s 50th anniversary of Independence, his highness Aga Khan, a global cultural philanthropist, gifted the restoration of the gardens of the Humayun’s tomb to India. Work on restoring the sunken garden of the tomb — landscaped on the Islamic notion of “jannat” or heaven as an arcaded green paradise (charbagh) with four mythical rivers flowing into a pool (described in the Quran) began in earnest.

After seven years of work, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004, while addressing the completion of the garden restoration, requested Aga Khan to take over the restoration of the mausoleum with a broad hint that … “more public-private partnerships be evolved to maintain and restore the nation’s heritage”. Three years later, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture returned to the tomb with one its biggest “urban heritage renewal mission” — under its Historic Cities Programme in nine Islamic countries— to conserve the built and living heritage of the Humayun’s Tomb complex. An agreement was inked between the Government of India (led by the Archaeological Survey of India and several official agencies) and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for a joint restoration programme that included restoration of 30 mausoleums, creation of a 170-acre green lung at Sundar Nursery (a revenue generating city park in the adjacent Sundarawala Batashewala Burj complex- smaller garden tombs) and significant improvement in the lives of the people.

As work began in 2007, the partnership expanded to include Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Ford Foundation, United States’ Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, World Monument’s Fund and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The restoration of the mausoleums is significant because of two reasons, experts say. Firstly, it is the first public-private partnership heritage project that sets a major precedent for India, whose cultural history dates back to 5,000 years to the early Indus Valley Civilisation – and perhaps even before that in the misty eras of pre-history when the cavemen drew their first figures on the faces of rock shelters at Bhimbetka on the bank of the Narmada river in central India.

It also points to the future – a way that cultural history preservation should follow to make the process sustainable and set up linkages between the past, present and the future.

Secondly, it lays bare the sham in the name of conservation by government agencies since the beginning of the 20th century — quick concrete patchwork to contain water seepage as in the case of Humayun’s tomb and to repair crumbling facades.  

Conservation – the sweat-days   

The statistics are staggering, says conservation architect Ratish Nanda, who is overseeing the project in India. 

The process was implemented by a multidisciplinary team made up of landscape and conservation architects, engineers, educators, doctors, public health specialists, horticulturists, administrators, designers and craftspeople – who lent their expertise from within and outside to ensure quality work and healthy environs for the workers and their families in the neighbourhood.

A team of tile-making experts from Uzbekistan trained 12 young men in the lost art of making Islamic glazed tiles – mostly in blue — for four little elegant canopy minarets surrounding the central double dome of the mausoleum on the roof. The tiles are being used to repair the dome of a adjoining public minaret —  Nila Gumbad (blue tomb) — outside the mausoleum. The revival of the craft of ancient tile making – lost to India for nearly 300 years – has generated a source of livelihood for the local artisans.   

Calligraphers were taught to re-craft Islamic inscriptions in Persian and Urdu on the inner facades of the relics while local artisans were instructed in the craft of medieval stonework, masonry and mixing of lime mortar to create a marble finish –the Mughals loved to imitate — using lime wheel with additives like molasses, egg white, fruit pulp and marble dust.

The team of conservators had to remove millions of kilos of concrete from the mausoleum — which was once used as refugee camp to house homeless immigrants from across the border during Partition, Nanda said while walking an international media team around the complex last week. “The craftsmen had to apply 225,000 square feet of lime plaster — mainly to the double dome and to 68 small mausoleums around the ground level (that serves as a foundation base for the tomb), reset 58,000 square feet of sandstone on the terrace and lift the 40,000 square feet of the stone plinth that was buried under layers of thick concrete,” Nanda pointed out.

The restorers had to remove one million kilos of concrete from the roof and from the garden (nearly 40 cm thick layers of concrete) manually to reveal the original built structure of the tomb.

The approach to the restoration was crafts-oriented. The florals patterns were repainted manually and the embellishment cleaned with soft brushes for Islam prohibits “random retouching of sacred works of art”. “We brought 70 truckloads of old stones from the Delhi streets to pave the damaged forecourt. The government ripped the old stone flankings of the streets during the 2010 Commonwealth Games (for new pavings). We used them here,” the conservation architect said.

The restorers are trying to conserve the crafts techniques by encouraging the children of the artisans to train under their fathers Nearly 600 children have learnt the ancient building crafts from their fathers, who have been trained by experts for the project,        in holiday exercises.

Along with the Humayun’s Tomb, the team has restored 30 smaller cluster tombs — like the Nila Gumbad, Isa Khan’s Garden Tomb, Bu Halima ( a nursemaid and foster mother)’s garden tomb, Arab Serai Gateways, Sundarawala Mahal, Lakkarwala Burj, Batashewala monuments, Chausath Khamba and the ancient Nizamuddin Baoli (well).            

Dormitory of Islam

The Humayun’s tomb commissioned by Emperor Akbar in 1560s was said to have been built around 1569-70s. It was later assigned to the emperor’s widow Haji Begum for upkeep, experts at the site say, quoting historians. Lores say emperor Akbar visited the mausoleum five times – twice by boat.

“It is one of the first grand dynastic mausoleum that the Mughals built. For many years it has been the Mughal pilgrimage site,” Ratish Nanda says. It is said to be the precursor to the Indo-Islamic marvel Taj Mahal and a blueprint for the tomb at Sikandra— Akbar’s mausoleum near Agra— as well.

As many as 160 members of the ruling Mughal clan lie buried in the mausoleum complex next to each other. While the emperor’s marble cenotaph is the centre-piece of the grave ensemble at the tomb, the smaller cenotaphs fan out in a radial design in separate smaller enclosures in a traditional nine-fold architectural plan. An ethnic brass lamp – brought from a historical artifacts’ workshop in Cairo recently –overhangs the emperor’s relic.

The site of the tomb is considered holy because it located barely a km from the shrine of the 14th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya at the Hazrat Nizamuddin sprawl. 

The architecture of the tomb is essentially Persian, with three gateways, around the tomb. The interiors are spartan- beautiful in its white minimalism — with a hint of floral inlay around the domed roof. Arches break the monotony the endless tomb enclosures and wide open spaces open out to the skyline of the capital and the frail stream of the Yamuna river beyond.  

Humayun, who succeeded Babur, in 1508 AD (and died in 1556 AD) was a frail and mild-mannered empire builder, who was exiled by rival Sher Shah Suri to Iran for 15 years. A year before his death, he returned to India and wrested Delhi from the Suri rulers. Humayun fell to his death from the stairs of his personal library at the Purana Qila (old fort) while trying to face Mecca at prayer.             

Holistic conservation

The Urban Heritage Renewal mission with the restoration of the Humayun’s Tomb at the heart of the initiative has so far benefited 20,000 residents of the neighbouring Hazrat Nizamuddin sprawl with better healthcare, education, homes, sanitation and employment opportunities. But overshadowing the improvement of lifestyles, is the reality of the revival of ancient living cultures thriving for over seven centuries. The renewal mission has given a fresh lease of life to traditional cultures like Islamic music (through live concerts), performance traditions, an ancient paper cutting art, calligraphy, solid crafts traditions and Islamic horticultural practises. The flora and fauna of ancient Delhi has been “brought to life” at the Sundar Nursery open greenhouse outlying the mausoleum.       

“We have 20 major (holistic) heritage renewal missions in nine cities, but this is the largest site. The central premise is that cultural enrichment and historical restoration can be a springboard for social progress. The importance of such projects can increase by diversifying economy… We have been encouraged by the impact of the project on the lives of the inhabitants in the Nizamuddin area,” Aga Khan said.

The philanthropist believes that “the ethic of partnership should be the crux of any project of this sort. Private-public partnership is the essential keystone for development, he observed. “A creative mix of participants is needed…,” Aga Khan said. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has embarked on another private-public restoration initiative at the Qutab Quli Shah’s tomb in Hyderabad which is tentatively on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

PPP- Way Ahead?

India one of the richest repository of cultural heritage –living, built and intangible— can conserve its cultural treasure chest only if helped by private players who can work in synergy with government agencies, suggests Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. (An official estimate says the Archaeological Survey of India – the apex government conservation agency — manages nearly 3,650 relics).

Prime Minister Singh advocates a “holistic approach to conservation that will combine conservation with the social and economic needs of the communities around the heritage sites”. The Archaeological Survey of India is drafting a National Conservation Policy around holistic and integrated mixed models of conservation that will link restoration of monuments to revival of adjoining communities in a participatory way with several stakeholders. The government is campaigning to foster sense of ownership of cultural heritage countrywide.

Private participation in conservation of heritage serves two purposes, argue experts. It brings in more resources, creates a platform for greater exchanges of know-hows, ideas, pushes pace of work, ensures value for money and finally makes cultural conservation a profitable enterprise encouraging proactive community involvement.

Veteran Indian journalist, Shekhar Gupta, editor in chief of Indian Express, says the best way to conserve India’s cultural heritage is to liberate it from the government. “This (government control) explains the state of India’s heritage… How many governments have bureaucrats running the ministry of culture,” he points out.

Private-public partnership is the perhaps the most pragmatic way ahead – to strike the right balance between institutions and cultural democracy.                 

 

 

 

 

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