A silver lining.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The restoration work on the Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb in Delhi ended in September 2013.
“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 The Delhi Walla up to the roof of the 16th century tomb, not accessible to visitors, Mr 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 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), Mr 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.
During my most recent visit I saw art conservators giving finishing touches to the arches on the sandstone platform, filling in the star-shaped ornamentations with gheru (ochre) 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 Mr 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.”
A minute later, coming down the stairs of Humayun’s Tomb, he says, “The scene is dismal but we can still be optimistic. This monument is a model to conserve the heritage of our great structures.”
Rest in peace