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Monumental effort

Priyanka Sharma & Veenu Sandhu  |  New Delhi 

Centuries’-old Indian craft and modern technology come together to restore Humayun’s Tomb to its past glory

It is a scorching April afternoon and the Humayun’s Tomb complex in Nizamuddin is bursting with life. Armed with their swank cameras, tourists from various countries attempt to capture every nook and corner of this World Heritage Site. Teachers lead groups of students across the structure, dictating lessons in history along the way. No one notices a group of labourers hard at work in various pockets of the complex.

The workers have been a constant at the site for a few years now. They are here as part of the stupendous Humayun’s Tomb-Nizamuddin Basti-Sunder Nursery Urban Renewal Project which has for the first time in India brought together government organisations, public trusts and private corporations to protect and help conserve heritage monuments. Led by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), the project has also raised a serious debate about conservation — its meaning, scope and the methods of restoration.

The work going on at the site of Humayun’s tomb is about much more than restoring the Mughal Emperor’s mausoleum built in 1565 AD. “There are about a 100 other projects within the project,” says Ratish Nanda, project director for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in India. The site, in fact, makes for the densest ensemble of ancient Mughal era buildings, including several 16th century garden tombs. There is the Isa Khan’s garden-tomb, where work is currently on which is why visitors are not allowed in. A guard at the gate ensures that tourists do not venture into the tomb where Isa Khan Niazi, an Afghan noble in the court of Sher Shah Suri, rests. Last year, the area around this tomb had revealed a secret: what is believed to be the country’s oldest “sunken garden” which lay concealed by layers of history. Then there is the Nila Gumbad, the 12-acre Batashewal garden tomb complex, the Afsarwala complex and the Sunderwala complex.

This is a special year for the 10-year project. The restoration work on the most grandiose site, Humayun’s Tomb, is expected to be over by year end. Already the annual ticket sales at Humayun’s Tomb are above Rs 8 crore. Among the private organisations which have joined hands to make this possible is the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. Ford Foundation, American and German embassies and the World Monuments Fund have also come forward for the larger project.

It has been a humongous task which has brought modern technology and ancient craftsmanship together. “Over 100,000 man hours involving master craftsmen have gone into the project,” says Nanda adding, “We are trying to get back to the crafts-based approach as opposed to the archaeological approach.” India, he explains, has 3,000 years of stone building tradition. But, after the British set up ASI, archeologists took over the task of repairing and conserving heritage buildings — with disastrous results which emerged once the recent repairs started.

The monument had been quick-fixed with cement which had not only made the structure look ugly, it was also accelerating the deterioration process. A painstaking task of removing hundreds of thousands of square feet of cement from the façade and the flooring had to be undertaken. The conservationists realised it was time to go back to the roots and seek out the sandstone craftsmen. Thankfully, many of them were still around, “using the same tools and the same building material as their forefathers did 500 years ago,” says Nanda.

On this April afternoon, however, it’s the other labourers we encounter. Mohammad Khalil-uddin, 20, who has been working on the Isa Khan tomb for months, says. “I used to work outside the complex earlier, cutting grass and planting flowers at the pavement.” Now, he has been trained by “senior workers” to use machines for cutting and levelling the grass. At the moment the master craftsmen are away for the harvest festival.

If centuries’-old craft has come to the rescue, so has state-of-the-art technology. Before work on the ground started, every square millimetre of Humayun’s Tomb was documented from the inside and the outside using 3D laser scanning technology.

Besides the monuments, there was another aspect with needed looking into — the human aspect. “Heritage buildings ought to be an economic asset and should socially and economically benefit people living in the vicinity,” says Nanda. Hence, health, education and urban development of the area around (Nizamuddin Basti and Sunder Nursery) are also in focus. But that is another story.

First Published: Sun, April 22 2012. 00:47 IST