When Ratish Nanda, projects director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, India, threw open the doors of the newly restored 16th century tomb of Isa Khan on World Heritage Day, visitors and guests took turns to marvel at the ornate ceiling and to applaud Nanda and his team for having restored it beautifully. Everyone except a lady in salwar kameez who seemed to have found the moment too overwhelming and started to cry quietly.
After having strewn rose petals on the six graves in the tomb, she stepped out. Faryal Khan Niazi, it turned out, was a direct descendant of Isa Khan, an important noble in the court of Sher Shah Suri, and part of the dynasty that ruled Delhi for 18 years, between two Mughal rules. Niazi, a Pakistani citizen now responsible for Unesco's education programmes in West Asia and Yemen, says she used to visit "Dada Isa Khan's" tomb with her father, and had last come in 2001. "Now the tomb has been beautifully and, importantly, correctly restored," says Niazi, who managed to fly in for the re-opening of the tomb.
While not everyone might have such a personal a connection, that did not take away from appreciating the efforts that had gone into restoring the tomb, built in the style of the royal tombs of the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties. Situated near the entrance to Humayun's tomb, it forms part of the larger urban renewal initiative undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust of Humayun's Tomb, Sundar Nursery and Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti. The entire Nizamuddin area has over 100 monuments, which makes it one of the densest clusters of medieval Islamic buildings in the world. Restoration work on Isa Khan's tomb began in January 2011, with a generous grant of half a million dollars from the World Monuments Fund. Most of this money, says Nanda, has been spent on the craftsmen. "Over two years have gone into the restoration," he says. Finding labour was not a problem because our craft skills are very much alive and it is also in the interests of the labourers to be trained in work like this which could get them more jobs in the future, he adds. Attar Singh, one of the craftsmen who worked on the restoration, was brought in from Dholpur in Rajasthan and has been working on the jalis, made in Dholpur stone and sandstone. He says that he is very happy to see the finished work.
The restoration work, Nanda points out, had several firsts to its credit, including the fact that it is the only one in the country where a heritage project has been undertaken by a private organisation, in partnership with the government. The aim was to make it a model for conservation efforts and set the standards for future restoration works. So the work was preceded by a year of archival research, documentation and structural condition assessment. The work itself involved techniques like 3D laser scanning and ground penetration radar survey. One of the discoveries during the restoration was the fact that the outer garden was originally four feet below the level of the gardens surrounding the tomb. This meant that 125,000 cubic feet had to be removed to restore it to a "sunken garden" but it also led to the discovery of hundreds of terracotta objects.
Work will continue for another seven to eight months. A possible challenge could be retaining the monuments in its restored condition but Nanda disagrees, "These monuments have been standing for over 500 years without any major restoration work. What to be done once it has been restored properly is some basic maintenance."