Delhi’s Aga Khan Heritage


Delhi’s Aga Khan Heritage

A mammoth undertaking to restore and develop Delhi’s Nizamuddin will end this time next year. How has it transformed one of the most historic and touristy areas of the country?

This could be the closest thing to paradise. Here, the world is all grass and birds, air and sky. Sunflowers sway gently in the afternoon breeze. Tiny manicured gardens are laid out one after the other. Stone benches are placed discreetly behind green hedges—just the place for lovers wanting to hide from prying eyes. There are water pools, an amphitheatre and a long water channel with walkways on either side. In the distance, a kite suns itself on the dome of a small monument.

The edifice looks nothing like the typical Delhi ruin—dilapidated, scarred, defaced with “love” graffiti scrawls. The ceilings and walls inside retain their beautiful original patterns, making the centuries-old building look more like its early self.

When I first visited the Sundar Burj about a decade ago, it had the feeling of a very different, very forgettable place. The monument is in the middle of other ignored ruins at the Sundar Nursery, next to the touristy Humayun’s Tomb in central Delhi’s Nizamuddin area.

This is much more than a place to buy plants; it runs parallel to a part of Mathura Road that stretches from the Nizamuddin police station all the way to the Delhi Zoo. Today, the Sundar Nursery, the Khilji-era Jamaat Khana Masjid and the tomb of the Mughal-era poet Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan are in the final stages of redevelopment. The mosque is in the premises of the Nizamuddin dargah, the famous Sufi shrine that has lent its name to the area. The work is being done by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), named after the philanthropic leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

Sundar Burj in its before and (below) after state. Photo courtesy Aga Khan Trust for Culture


Photo courtesy Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The Switzerland-based charitable institution, part of the Aga Khan Development Network, focuses on revitalizing Muslim communities globally—it has had a presence for many years in this historical quarter of Delhi. It has not only restored monuments, but has also initiated education, health and development programmes in the messy and vibrant Muslim neighbourhood that is the Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti.

The AKTC is working in collaboration with government agencies as part of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative. This was the first public-private partnership in monument conservation in India. This time next year, the project will complete a decade—the AKTC’s agreement with the Union government ends in 2017.

The trust’s most noteworthy accomplishment has, perhaps, been the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb, a Unesco World Heritage Site, in 2013. Ten years ago, the monument to the second Mughal emperor had a leaking dome, missing tiles, collapsed walls, damaged stone facades and tonnes of cement slapped on in attempted repair by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

The seeds of its redevelopment were sown 20 years ago. In 1997, the AKTC announced plans to restore the gardens at Humayun’s Tomb as a “gift to India on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence”. In 2004, at an award function at the tomb, then prime minister Manmohan Singh requested Prince Aga Khan to continue their work in the country. On 11 July 2007, the AKTC signed a memorandum of understanding with government agencies, including the ASI, the Central public works department (CPWD) and the municipal corporation of Delhi.

There continue to be those who believe ruins should look like ruins, that dilapidated monuments acquire their own individuality. And that by getting rid of all their supposed flaws, we lose an understanding of the role they play today. What would happen to all the stories that only ruins can evoke?

Sam Miller, who has written a book on his long walks in the Capital, is one of them. “Generally, with Delhi ruins I wish there was a greater stress on conservation and less on rebuilding,” he says.

Conservation architect Ratish Nanda, who set up the AKTC’s India operations and has headed them since 2007, disagrees. “The monument is not a painting. It can’t look ruinous and yet be stable. Conservation effort on monuments left in disrepair will always require restoration and even reconstruction of missing or damaged elements.” The AKTC’s objective, he says, is to enhance the life of the buildings by removing modern materials like cement that have been added to them over the decades, and, wherever possible, restore the missing elements with original materials and design. He adds that the lime plaster applied to the surface of monuments will naturally acquire the patina of age within a few years.


Ratish Nanda at the Sundar Burj.

So far, then, the AKTC has restored more than 40 monuments in the area, including the tomb of poet Mirza Ghalib and the 14th century Hazrat Nizamuddin baoli, or stone step well, where nowadays young men from Old Delhi come for their daily swim. It has worked in partnership with organizations such as the Tata Trusts, Ford Foundation, the ministry of tourism, InterGlobe Foundation and the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

The construction of the Humayun’s Tomb Interpretation Centre, which is now on, is being talked about as Delhi’s first “sunken museum”. It will be an ambitious underground complex that not only connects the Mughal emperor’s tomb to Sundar Nursery but will also help familiarize visitors with the entire Nizamuddin area through exhibition galleries, a library, seminar halls, a crafts centre and café.

“I feel more than a sense of achievement,” says Nanda, who has compiled a two-volume catalogue of Delhi’s monuments and also oversaw the restoration of the tomb of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, in the Afghan capital Kabul. He was talking to me at his solar-panelled office in one corner of Sundar Nursery. “We have demonstrated a model for conservation-based development of historical city centres where the conservation needs of grand heritage buildings and those of communities are both fulfilled as is the city’s need for a major green space,” he says, adding that this is exactly what they have tried to accomplish in Delhi.

Delhi has many historical centres like Nizamuddin. You could focus on Qutab Minar as the focal point in Mehrauli. In Old Delhi, it could be the Jama Masjid, with its surrounding bazaars. In north Delhi, it could be the St James Church. So the renovation of Humayun’s Tomb and the adjoining Nizamuddin area could have important implications for the future of conservation of old buildings in India.

“The AKTC did what has not been done so far, and that is restoring the original appearance of monuments by using similar materials first used to construct them,” says Narayani Gupta, who has written many books on Delhi’s monuments. “They have shown that it is possible to coordinate a project involving historical buildings, gardens and communities and integrate it in a way that they complement each other.”


The Nizamuddin area is clearly demarcated into its East and West localities, separated by Mathura Road. These two colonies are home to many of the city’s writers, artists and academics. Humayun’s Tomb is in Nizamuddin East; many of the balconies there offer a tantalizing glimpse of the monument—indeed, the tomb-facing apartments cost more; rents of Rs.1 lakh a month are not unheard of. Prices in Nizamuddin West are a smidgen cheaper.

The AKTC, however, is focusing on the Nizamuddin Basti. In this jumbled area with its narrow by-lanes and higgledy-piggledy houses, I once rented a studio apartment, opposite the Zamin mosque, which set me back just Rs.5,000 a month. My first-floor window opened on to the basti’s 14th century step well.

Last year, the AKTC convinced my former landlord, a lawyer, to raze his house and move it 3ft to protect the stone well. The new structure was ready last month. All the work on the house, from demolition to construction, was undertaken by the AKTC, with a part of the cost shared by the owner. The step well was restored in 2010—the AKTC had to manually remove tonnes of stone debris and flotsam that had collected in it over 800 years. The small monuments around it are still being repaired



Farid Ahmed Nizami, the lawyer whose house was demolished and rebuilt.

“My first experience of the conservation work done by the Aga Khan Trust was when I went to Kabul in 2004,” says Rakhshanda Jalil, author of Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments Of Delhi. Jalil talks of the devastation of Babur’s tomb during the prolonged Afghanistan crisis. Beautiful old trees had been chopped for firewood, the marble screen around the tomb was broken and the entire complex, which is perched on a bare hillside, was nothing more than wilderness. “Then, the AKTC transformed it.

“In India, I was fortunate to see a before-after makeover in the Nizamuddin Basti and Sundar Nursery area,” says Jalil, who has been chronicling the city’s old buildings since the early 1990s. “The work by the AKTC is in keeping with the spirit of urban renewal. They believe in local tie-ups, community involvement and, best of all, they seek public-private partnerships. No single NGO or institution—no matter how well-endowed or well-intentioned—can work in isolation. The AKTC is showing the way forward.”

The starting point to understand the AKTC’s work is Humayun’s Tomb. Even in its earlier dilapidated state, it must have inspired a variety of feelings. For it has been the stage for great historical events. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, took shelter here from the British, as did Partition refugees almost a century later. The building not only holds the remains of Humayun but also of Dara Shikoh, the prince regent who could have shaped a different history of India, had his promised throne not been usurped by his brother.

The throne-snatcher, emperor Aurangzeb, had the reputation of being one of India’s most intolerant rulers. While his name was recently removed from a major Delhi boulevard, the work by the AKTC has helped bring to the fore the name of Khan-i-Khanan, who overcame the barriers of faith to write verses in praise of the deity Krishna.

A visit to his tomb in Nizamuddin East doesn’t just offer an idea of how the monument looked originally, it also gives a sense of the background of the people who built it—and of those who are at work there now. The men skilled in excavating the earth are from Murshidabad in West Bengal, the stonemasons from Raebareli in Uttar Pradesh, the sculptors from Dholpur in Rajasthan, the lime plaster workmen from villages near Jaipur in Rajasthan. These craftsmen have been brought in from their villages for the restoration.


Craftsmen at Khan-i-Khanan’s tomb

The AKTC’s chief engineer, Rajpal Singh, who offers this information, has overseen the work at all the restored monuments. “This craftsmanship runs in their blood and has been passed down the generations,” says Singh. It is possible that 400 years ago, the ancestors of these men were here at this spot, building Khan-i-Khanan’s tomb.

Today, these craftsmen earn Rs.750-1,100 a day, with an insurance and provident fund scheme as an added benefit. In fact, 75% of the AKTC’s conservation cost is spent on their wages. “Until now, we have generated 500,000 man-days of craftsmen work for conservation across 45 individual monuments,” says Nanda. He did not, however, disclose specific figures.

About 60 stone-carvers at the AKTC have been with the project for over a decade. Stone-carver Attar Singh is one of them. His two sons, as well as his four brothers and their sons, work as stone-carvers with the trust. The AKTC is almost like his extended family.

Chief engineer Rajpal Singh credits his career to his genes. His father, who was with the ASI, had also worked on the great Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Eighteen years ago, much to the dismay of his family and friends, Rajpal Singh left the security of a permanent government job in the CPWD.

At the Khan-i-Khanan monument, Singh leads me to the tomb chamber. Nothing could have prepared me for the surprise. I had been there a couple of years ago. Back then, the building looked beautiful from the outside but the tomb chamber was dark, musty and smelt of bat shit.

Now, craftsmen have scraped away decades of grime to reach the original surface of these walls. They have restored the patterns that had disappeared after years of abuse; the original designs were cleaned, not retouched. The aesthetics of the incised plaster-work are visible once more. Geometric patterns, symbols and religious calligraphy have re-emerged. The ceiling now displays a clear view of its floral patterns.



R.S. Fonia, the ASI’s joint director general and media spokesperson, compliments the AKTC for its “beautification of parks” but does not comment on “the main structure renovations” that are “traditionally the job of the ASI”.

One thing that this government-run archaeology department can certainly learn from the AKTC is how to bring local communities emotionally closer to their cheek-by-jowl monuments and offer them a sense of ownership. Traditionally, having a heritage structure next to your house can be something of a burden. You are not allowed to add an extra floor to your own house; you are not permitted to tie your goat to the stone wall; you cannot hang your clothes to dry inside the ruins (though people do). The attitude of the basti’s residents, however, is changing. “We used to think of our area as a slum,” says Feroze Qureshi, a meat- shop worker. “But (the social work by) Aga Khan has made us realize that our basti is very special and that it has monuments foreigners are interested in seeing.”

In its development initiatives in what may be perceived as a conservative neighbourhood, the AKTC has focused on women. Zenana Bagh,a garden for women, opened in 2010; self-help groups that allow women to earn by creating craft products were set up—one kiosk, selling such wares, opened last year at Humayun’s Tomb.

But there are critics also. A shopkeeper on Ghalib Road complained that “because of these Aga Khan people, a lot of our women appear on the streets without the hijab and some have even gotten jobs.”

This progress might be an even greater achievement for the AKTC than the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb. “We have shown that the private sector can fulfil government objectives,” says Nanda. “Our biggest success will be a time when we are not needed any longer in the basti.”

Although the AKTC may exit Delhi next year, there are no plans to quit India anytime soon. In January 2013, it signed up for another 10-year conservation project at the Qutb Shahi tombs in Hyderabad, Telangana. Nanda’s hope is that the AKTC will be granted an extension of at least two years in the Capital to complete work on the last remaining projects—the Union culture ministry’s response was still awaited at the time of going to press. Meanwhile, Nanda is pondering another interesting question: “Does Delhi want us to do more stuff?”

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