Breathing Life Back into Humayun’s Tomb
Panchalee Thakur

The Project at a Glance

  • Timeline for tomb restoration: 2008 to 2013
  • Timeline for finial work: 2014-2016
  • Craftspeople: Over 200
  • Work days: 200,000
  • Organizations involved: Archaeological Survey of India, Central Public Works Department, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (now called South Delhi Municipal Corporation), Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Titan Company Ltd.
  • Monuments restored: Humayun's Tomb along with adjoining monuments Nila Gumbad, Isa Khan's garden tomb, Bu Halima's garden tomb, Arab Serai gateways, Sundarawala Mahal and Burj, Batashewala group of monuments, Chausath Khambha, and Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli

The unveiling of a new gold and copper finial on top of Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi on 19 April caps the closure of a long and complex restoration project of this monument from the Mughal era. A public-private partnership model, a multi-disciplinary team, the use of latest technologies, and extensive archival research and documentation came together to put the shine back on this 16th century mausoleum that had laid in a derelict state for decades.

It took five years of intensive planning and painstaking restoration works, 200 craftspeople, and 200,000 work days to restore this monument to its original glory, that was constructed by emperor Akbar in his father's honor. Work on the 18-feet tall, 300 kg finial was taken up later as a separate project after a severe sandstorm brought it down in 2014.

umayun's Tomb had set a precedent in Mughal architecture of building a tomb within a "paradise garden" and served as an inspiration for the Taj Mahal. It sustained years of neglect as the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which is the custodian of historical monuments in the country, did not have the resources to carry out the large-scale repair and rebuilding work it required. In 2008, the Government of India invited the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to take up the restoration of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The AKTC was entrusted with this responsibility because of the success of a conservation project that it had undertaken during 1997-2001, that of the Charbagh gardens adjoining Humayun's Tomb. The restoration of the gardens was a part of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative of the Government of India. It was the first instance of a private organization taking up conservation of historical sites in India.

Setting the Goals
Archana Saad Akhtar, senior programme officer, design and outreach, AKTC, said the project had three broad objectives: heritage conservation; environment development, and restoring historical urban landscapes; and improving the quality of life of the residents of the adjoining Nizamuddin Basti through socio-economic initiatives.

"Work started with a detailed conservation plan by compiling archival research on the site and the monument, high definition surveys, structural assessments, and reviews of proposals by national and international experts. The team referred to national and international conservation charters to ensure the solutions proposed were in line with them," explained Ms. Akhtar. As part of the project, AKTC sought to establish a conservation process, conduct peer reviews by experts and professionals, carry out conservation works that meet international standards, create detailed documentation, and encourage traditional craftsmanship.

Some of the Major Works

  • Removal of over a million kg of concrete from the terrace, which was laid in the 20th century and had added unnecessary dead weight on the monument.
  • Restoration of the original character of the 12,000 sq.m. lower plinth by lifting the heavy quartzite paving and resetting it after adding a lime concrete layer underneath.
  • Re-setting of sandstone on the upper platform. Approximately 60 percent of the total area of 6,150 sq. m was re-laid, and structural cracks and cavities filled with lime concrete.
  • Replacement of cement plaster of the lower alcoves with lime plaster and restoring the original star patterns.
  • Restoration of ornamental tilework on the tomb's canopies.
  • Removal of layers of cement plaster and limewash from the high dome chamber of the main hall.
  • Installing ramps and sandstone bridges for better accessibility to the gardens.
  • Repair of the enclosure wall.

The Crown Restored
The finial on top of the tomb's dome is 18-feet tall that sits on a wooden base. It comprises of 11 vessels of pure copper crowned by a brass inscription. The vessels are covered with layers of pure goldfoil work. An analysis revealed that the Mughals had used copper sheets of 99.42 percent purity, which is not commercially available anymore. The plating was of pure gold.

The restoration involved architects, engineers, scientists, carpenters, coppersmiths, and gilders. The works undertaken were to procure and carve the wooden core, commissioning of copper and beating it to the required profile, casting the crowing brass inscription and finally, the gold plating work.

Titan Company Ltd. commissioned the manufacturing of copper sheets of the required 99.4 percent purity. A traditional workshop in Shahjahanabad in Delhi was employed to prepare the 11 copper vessels, matching them exactly in profile and weight to the original.

Master craftspeople skilled in the traditional process of gilding gold onto copper were identified, and after several rounds of experimental gilding and durability tests, the gilding work was completed. Finally, the re-produced finial was mounted on the dome that matches the weight and profile of the original piece.

Project Implementation: Key Components

Strong Partnerships
The conservation project was co-funded by AKTC and Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, and carried out in partnership with ASI. Titan Company Ltd. provided the 3.5 kg gold required to re-create the finial and supervised the gilding of the copper vessels with gold foils. Titan's expertise in jewellery and watch making came to good use to ensure quality and longterm preservation of the gilding work in extreme weather conditions. Another company that has joined hands with AKTC in the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative is InterGlobe Foundation.

"This is one of the few heritage conservation projects to be undertaken by a private agency in India. We strongly feel that a lot can be achieved when government agencies, private organizations, and corporate houses come forward to restore and revitalize our heritage," remarked Ms. Akhtar.

Control and Review Mechanisms
To put in place a model conservation process and facilitate smooth decision-making, a core committee was formed, which was chaired by the regional director of ASI. This committee oversaw the conservation works. The rest of the core team members were senior ASI officials and the AKTC project team. The committee met monthly on site, discussed new ideas, and reviewed progress.

Day-to-day operation was supervised by a conservation architect and engineer, alongside the master craftspeople.

Resource Planning
More than 200 craftspeople worked on the conservation of Humayun's Tomb. The multi-disciplinary team comprised conservation architects, engineers, structural engineers, civil engineers, historians, geologists, designers, artisans, draftsmen, archaeologists, project and heritage management experts, archivists, film-makers, and photographers.

The project initially faced a challenge in finding the right artisans to work on the inlay works. They brought in Rajasthani artisans from Dholpur for sandstone work and from Makrana area for marble work.

"Many of these craftspeople had left this work. On this project, they not only found employment, but also got an opportunity to display their skills," said Ms. Akhtar.

However, tile-making is a lost art in India. So to restore the tiles on the roof canopies, the team flew in master craftspeople from Uzbekistan who trained youth from the adjoining Nizamuddin Basti in this ancient craft.

Modern Technologies
The project team relied heavily on new technologies besides architectural and photographic documentation. "It was for the first time that a high definition survey using three-dimensional (3D) laser scanning technology was used in India (for a project of this kind). It provided a stone-by-stone assessment of the entire façade, helping the team conduct a detailed analysis and plan specific repairs," Ms. Akhtar added.

Besides documenting all the buildings in the monument complex with a 3D laser scanner, the team used AutoCAD software to achieve higher accuracy in the architectural drawings. With these technologies, the team was able to not only present accurate architectural documentation and assess the condition of the monument, but they also helped the artisans to prepare the architectural elements for restoration.

Managing Expectations
"From the onset of the project, the project managers encouraged healthy debate and discussions on the conservation works. They made a series of presentations to the civic bodies, government agencies, and opinion leaders to clear any doubts or apprehensions anyone might have regarding this major conservation work," Ms. Akhtar said.

The monument, which was inaugurated by then Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, after its restoration, is also called, the "dormitory of the Mughals," as there are over 150 Mughal family members buried in its precincts

In 2010, a site exhibition was installed in the west gate to Humayun's Tomb. The exhibition informed the public of the conservation works, along with its historical and architectural significance. There were information panels, which gave the public a fair understanding of the works being undertaken on the site.

Societal Impact
To achieve the mandate of improving the quality of life of the residents of the adjoining Nizamuddin Basti, the project team inducted 15 youth from the area as heritage volunteers in a program called Sair-e-Nizamuddin. Over a period of 4-5 years, these boys were trained in English, theater, and storytelling, and taken on trips to other historical cities. These youngsters now organize heritage walks for school children, other organizations, and tour operators.

"This program has not only provided them a livelihood but has also created a sense of ownership and appreciation in them for their own heritage and neighbourhood," she said.

The restoration of Humayun's Tomb with the help of private organizations sends out a positive message for heritage conservation in the country. It makes a strong case for saving hundreds of historical monuments that are in a dilapidated state across India by combining the resources and expertise of government and private agencies.

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