'Humayun's Tomb has been restored the Indian way'
The recently-restored Humayun's Tomb is the largest conservation initiative in independent India and the only one undertaken by the non-governmental organisation, the Aga Khan Trust For Culture. Kareena N Gianani meets its project director, Ratish Nanda, who tells her how the structure was conserved with an Indian sensibility and how it has created skilled manpower for future initiatives of similar scope and scale
Tell us the significance of the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi.
In 1993, Humayun’s tomb was declared World Heritage Site and the International Council on Monuments and Sites recommended that the gardens must be restored. In 1997, the garden restoration was undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and, in 2007, we commenced the larger Urban Renewal Initiative that includes the mausoleum and 300 acres of its setting including Nizamuddin Basti.
The conservation efforts have brought about major social and economic change to the quality of life of resident communities. This project is significant because this is the first time a non-government body - which is not an NGO - has taken up a project of this scale. Humayun’s Tomb’s conservation was co-funded by Sir Dorabji Tata Trust.
How had the architecture of Humayun’s Tomb been compromised over time?
The architectural integrity of Humayun’s Tomb was largely compromised in the 20th century due to inappropriate repairs using materials such as cement, which was liberally used. When we began work in 2007, we removed 10 lakh kilos of concrete from the roof of the structure. Many Mughal details had been obliterated over the years.
The once grand, dynastic gardens were left to decay. There were no structural issues here, mind you, but when we stepped in, Humayun’s Tomb was not what the Mughals intended it to be. We needed to restore 2,25,000 sq ft of lime plaster, 58,000 sq ft of sandstone terrace, among other works.
What was the trust’s conservation philosophy when it came to restoring Humayun’s Tomb?
It was quite simple, really - we decided to go back to the Indian way of conservation and not go by the popular conservation philosophy of ‘preserve as found’. Our vision depended on sourcing out master craftsmen, who can honestly understand and restore the structure’s integrity, its ‘wow factor’ as some call it.
A multidisciplinary team has worked on this significant structure, which includes engineers, conservation architects, structural engineers, designers, urban planners and material scientists. We roped in 1,500 craftsmen, who worked with traditional tools and materials, which were used five centuries ago when the structure was built. As some crafts and skills have been lost over time, we spent four years experimenting and training them on the job. For instance, for the tile work on the eight canopies of the tomb, it would have been easier to import material.
But, instead, we invited craftsmen from Uzbekistan, who then trained our men here. The eldest Uzbek artiste was 90 years old. We also believe that conservation must socially and economically sustain the people around the structure in question. So, our manpower was untrained - one of them, I remember, was a barber. I think trained workers come with modern bias, and it is almost impossible for them to work without chemicals. By training our men from scratch, we eliminated this possibility, too.
What kind of legacy does this project leave behind for similar future works?
This project has definitely created skilled manpower for future works of similar scope and scale. We have documented every step we have taken across the years, because only history will judge us. Every piece of stone which comprises the structure was numbered and documented, and that was how we learnt, for instance, that seven percent of it had to be replaced.
The craftsmen worked on the tiles for four years before actually fixing them and the plasterers were trained over two years. We also trained 200 Archaeological Survey of India officers on how to use lime plaster. All work carried out on the Humayun’s Tomb is rooted in the Indian context, but fulfills international guidelines. For instance, this was the first time 3D laser scanning was used to document the structure. Till date, this technology was only used to detect leakage in nuclear plants. I believe these efforts will spark off similar newer initiatives in the future.
How did this project holistically involve and improve the lives of the people living in the area?
Conservation would be meaningless if it does not take people’s social and economic conditions into account. It can, in fact, fulfill government’s objectives when it comes to social change. In this case, the local communities residing near the World Heritage Site benefitted from significant initiatives in health, education, urban improvements, sanitation, vocational training towards employment and so on
What, according to you, are the biggest challenges when it comes to restoring Indian heritage?
Heritage receives no incentives in India, which is the biggest snag when it comes to preserving structures. Decisions on heritage need to be fast-tracked, and many laws are inappropriate yet. As architects, it is our responsibility to develop innovative ideas to ensure that the significance of important structures is not lost over the years. Across the world, urban areas which have their heritage intact represent a better quality of life.
For instance, New York city protects 29,000 heritage buildings - twice as much as India - and their land values are higher for it. India must look at world heritage cities as examples - in Edinburgh and Rome, for instance, heritage is as important - and a part of - urban planning. I think once we, as a country, understand that heritage is an asset, not a burden, things will certainly improve. That isn’t the government’s job alone - we all have a role to play when it comes to proving that conservation can get you incentives, and that it is relevant.