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Preserving The Past – the Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi

Posted by
Ar. Anusha Narayanan
on January 31, 2014 at 01:01 PM

The restoration of the Humayun’s Tomb - which took seven years to complete – was done with the help of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September 2013. The restoration of the 16th Century Mughal tomb complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of the city features under the broader perspective of the “Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Project” undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and is headed by Ratish Nanda, the Delhi based conservationist (www.nizamuddinrenewal.org). The project, mired in controversy, had conservationists, artists, heritage enthusiasts and historians debating over the “authenticity of ruins”, and on whether a ruin should “look” like a ruin – post restoration! 

© Courtesy of sources & research

The issue sparked off from the painting of the North and East Gateways of the monument in what appeared as red and white paint. Quoting Ratish Nanda, Project Director, AKTC, from an interview in the Indian Express: “There is absolutely no white paint being used anywhere at Humayun’s Tomb. What appears as paint is in fact a 1 mm coat of lime plaster mixed with marble dust. The Mughals used it here and even at other stone buildings such as the Diwan-i-Aam at the Red Fort to give a marble like appearance to plaster/red sandstone. The white coat of plaster also serves as a protective layer to the lime plaster below, in which organic additives such as jaggery and bel fruit pulp ensure patina returns quickly.” Nanda said the efforts to remove cement layers and replace these with traditional lime plaster layers used by the Mughal builders, including the significant final layer, will no doubt give a “new” look until a few good monsoons restore the “dignified” patina. 

The AKTC has been working on the Nizamuddin Basti and the Humayun’s Tomb complex since 2008 and recently also achieved a milestone by scraping off “a million kilogram of cement concrete from the roof — laid there during the 20th Century to prevent water seepage. Officials said it only ended up accelerating the decay process.” This may be considered as a fair indication of the sensitivity of the conservationist steering the project.

What seems to be the hiccup is explaining it to the masses. Agreed that “mass opinion” should not always be our catalyst to work, but the same information put across to the people through responsible architectural journalism could have been better received by the masses. The article goes on to quote Mr. AGK Menon, the director of the Delhi Chapter of INTACH as: “It is my firm conviction that in Asia we differ from the European paradigm in how we restore our sites and thus mediate the future of our culture. Culturally our monuments are a part of our here and now, unlike Europe where they are frozen in a historic past and where they are seen as artefacts and not heritage. Our monuments must be part of our contemporary culture; therefore our response requires being dynamic and informing our conservation interventions. It is this fundamental difference which is the challenge facing our monuments and sites, many yet with policies still frozen in its 19th Century legacy of ‘preservation’; and largely orphaned.” 

However, the country is dotted with such “orphans” which await the much needed “face-lift”. Why only Humayun’s Tomb? Or the Qutb Minar or the Red Fort? The country is dotted with such relics from the past; some already beyond repair. Shouldn’t we also approach other monuments with just as much conviction? No one asks of us to follow stoic European methods of conservation in the dynamic Indian context, but doesn’t the hubris about keeping the masses out of the loop because of their lack of ‘expertise’ spark a chicken-and-egg problem?


Conservation is impossible if the object we need to conserve seems irrelevant to the masses. Granted that we, as a people, are habituated to hearing tragic tales of “lost” heritage; that we have shut out positive change, and that we equate change to bad news. Ironically, even for architects, our stereotypes and cynicism are hard to penetrate.

This effort by AKTC to maintain the largely lost “red and white” scheme of external facade treatment which the Mughals traditionally followed is validation of the fact that not all indigenous knowledge has been relegated. It may well become a module for reference for restoration methodology, treatment, and traditional material usage for other heritage structures as well, but it needs to include the people - the Indians - at least the citizens (in this case the Delhiwallahs) in the action as well. This will ensure that the “change” will not be superficial and standoffish – but rooted and inclusive.

Architecture, keep aside Heritage Conservation, is a social art. Thus it needs to be amalgamated into society not injected into it. And for that, it needs to accept and appreciate the opinions of the masses. A well-trained mind may choose more wisely than a lay mind, but ultimately our service is offered back to society as their muse, and we need to make sure we are on the same page when it comes to Art of Conservation. If the right to information is of the masses then the responsibility of transferring information is of the architects to uphold. 

This restoration project defines a change in approach for the Archaeological Survey of India; from a “preserve as found” ideology to a “conservation and restoration” one. Besides the Aga Khan Trust, this project was also supported by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust; represented at the ceremony marking the completion of the restoration work, by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV and industrialist Ratan Tata respectively. Hailing the public-private partnership model for the restoration of monuments, the Prime Minister said the success of this conservation initiative would encourage similar initiatives for other monuments. 

Designer : N.A.
Photography :courtesy sources & research

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