In 1598, nearly 50 years before Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan, a poet and commander-in-chief of Akbar’s army, built a tomb in Delhi in memory of his wife, Mah Banu. Known as Rahim’s Tomb, the mausoleum stood in ruins with a risk of collapse until 2014 when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), in partnership with InterGlobe Foundation and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), began conservation efforts. After nearly six years of restoration work, the tomb opened to the public in December.
Similarly, after lying abandoned for decades, in 2007, a memorandum to redevelop Sunder Nursery — a 16th-century heritage park complex adjacent to the Humayun’s Tomb — was signed by the AKTC, Central Public Works Department (CPWD), the ASI and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (MCD). A decade of work has resulted in a 90-acre park dotted with historical monuments, 300 tree species, 36 butterfly species, two amphitheatres, a bonsai enclosure and a peafowl zone.
It was thrown open to the public in 2018. The redevelopment projects of these two tombs are among the recent examples of how outsourcing of conservation of heritage sites helped in carrying out quality work and bring about urban rejuvenation and generation of employment opportunities. But till two decades ago, despite having vast and unparalleled built heritage repositories in Delhi, the conservation scenario in the city had been obtuse, with several of them — notified and unprotected — were encroached and decaying to a wretched state. Some are still under ‘illegal’ occupation.
Majority of historical sites remained untapped and less-explored in the absence of a budget, vision, and innovative planning. Overloaded the ASI would generally focus on ‘prominent’ buildings of national importance. The State Archaeology Department (SAD) even doesn’t have a count of historically important structures in the national capital. While more than 170 buildings — forts, tombs, mosques, stepwells, towers, and hunting lodges — were under the jurisdiction of the premiere watchdog of monuments, only five heritage edifices, were in the list of SAD. The ASI would execute obligatory repair at some buildings according to the availability of budget.
Disregard for the built legacy can be gauged by the fact that the ASI was not able to reclaim Lal Quila (Red Fort) — the main landmark of Independence Day celebrations and symbol of India’s freedom struggle — completely for nearly 50 years as its major portion was under the occupation of Indian Army. The Mughal garrison was desecrated. About 400 buildings — shops, barracks, residential quarters, and toilet blocks were built over the years on its campus since 1947. In 2003, Union tourism minister Jagmohan’s intervention facilitated the departure of the Army after which, the conservation began to revive the old glory of the fort-palace.
Similarly, Mehrauli Archaeological Park (MAP), a historic site spreading over 200 acres containing a cluster of 70 ancient structures built between the 12th century (Chauhan period) and 19th century (British era), was lying in utter neglect, inaccessible and encroached. The breakthrough happened in 1997, when the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) took on the onus of improving and preservation of ruins around Balban’s Tomb in the MAP with financial assistance from the Delhi Tourism department. At the same time, the AKTC partnered with the ASI to restore the Humayun’s Tomb gardens on the occasion of golden jubilee anniversary of India’s independence.
“Though no major success was achieved for the next 10 years (till 2007) but these partnerships with non-government organisations showed the way, and the rest is history. In a related development, a listing of Delhi’s heritage buildings and efforts were initiated to count unaccounted tangible heritage in the city,” says Ajay Kumar, director project, INTACH (Delhi chapter). In 2000, the INTACH revised listing the monuments in Delhi, which was previously prepared by Maulvi Zafar Hasan around 1920s for the ASI. As per the three-volume catalogue, there are 1,208 significant buildings in the capital. In between, the Delhi government had also started thinking about the redevelopment of the Walled City area, also known as Shahjahanabad, around 2003-04.
The project, commenced in December 2018, is nearing completion. The SAD completed a survey and identified 238 structures which were not part of any list of protected buildings, either of the ASI or the department. The department signed a memorandum with the INTACH in October 2008 and in November 2012. So far, the collaboration has led to the safeguarding of 65 buildings, including historic significance and nationally important monuments. Another MoU was signed by the AKTC in July 2007 and the ASI. The other partners were the CPWD and the MCD, which marked the commencement of renewal of surroundings of Humayun’s Tomb and Nizamuddin Basti.
“Over 60 individual monuments have been conserved within the 300-acre project area over the past decade. The latest is the Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana Tomb. Footfall at Humayun’s Tomb has increased by 1,000 per cent. When we had started, 1.60 lakh visitors would come annually and the number has gone to 20 lakh in the pre-Covid period. We have created a new destination Sunder Nursery, which has been made possible by removing encroachment from 30 acres,” says CEO of the AKTC Ratish Nanda.
“Heritage is our economic resource.
We are trying to demonstrate that heritage conservation can be through financial sustainability. We have created employment opportunities — 15 lakh man-days of master craftsmen,” says Nanda. Strongly supporting the idea of private participation for heritage conservation, Kumar says the emergence of private entities has proved to be a game-changer. However, Sayyed Jamal Hasan, former director of the ASI, differs. “In many cases, I have seen private conservators have caused further damage to the remains. I, on several occasions, wrote to the higher authorities with photographic evidence about the ‘renovation’ done at protected sites by private agencies. Non-government agencies recreate and wipe out original features,” says Hasan.
Ancient structures in the city
173 Sites under the ASI
13 of them, including Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar, Safdar Jung’s Tomb, Purana Quila, and Hauz Khas, have paid entry
Most visited sites
Red Fort, Qutub Minar, and Humayun’s Tomb, among others as they receive approximately
10-12000 visitors every day. The footfall increases on weekends and holidays
238 monuments and heritage structures in the city are not part of any list of protected buildings, either of the ASI or the State Archaeology Department (SAD)
Successful preservation projects
Bada Lao Ka Gumbad in Vasant Kunj, Mutiny Memorial in Kamala Nehru ridge, Bhuli Bhatiyari Ka Mahal in Central ridge near Jhandewalan Metro station, Gol Gumbad (Lodi Road) and the tomb of Quli Khan in Mehrauli. The conservation was carried out by the SAD in association with the INTACH
19 notified protected structures in the SAD list. Till 2008, it had only 5 structures. After conservation, 14 more were added in the last 12 years
200 Buildings such as tombs, mosques and residential properties of historical importance in the city are protected by the Delhi Waqf Board. They need immediate attention
Delhi also has a large repository of 1,300 notified built heritage sites such as towers, bridges, temples, gateways, mansions, residential dwellings, graveyards and step-wells
Determined and collaborative efforts worked wonders for heritage conservation in the national capital, particularly in the last decade. The ongoing Chandni Chowk beautification project, recently conserved tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana, redevelopment of Sunder Nursery Park, restoration of Bada Lao Ka Gumbad and protection of monuments in Mehrauli Archaeological Park bear testimony to the fact. While the government agencies took up initiatives for careful preservation and maintenance of rich tangible inheritance, several private individuals toiled simultaneously to popularise the city’s legacy academically and through social media to ensure heritage preservation remains on the priority list of the authorities
Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC)
The trust took up its first job in Delhi in 1997 when it partnered with the ASI to restore the Humayun’s Tomb gardens on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. Since then, it is the only private agency carrying out conservation on national monuments in the country. In the last 23 years, it has conserved over 60 monuments and structures, including Humayun’s Tomb, in the Nizamuddin area and its vicinity which were built between the 14th century and early 20th century.
Nitin Panigrahi, DGM (project & administration), SRDC
The Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation was set up in 2008 for restoration, conservation, and promotion of the built and cultural heritage of Shahjahanabad. One of a kind, Chandni Chowk pedestrianisation and beautification project, inching towards completion, is the sole ‘achievement’ of the agency. Panigrahi sailed through all constraints and legal hassles with support of the Delhi High Court.
Swapna Liddle: Author and historian
She is also the convener of INTACH (Delhi chapter) and authored three books on history and cultural heritage -- Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi, and Connaught Place and the making of New Delhi. Her writings have helped in raising awareness about the city’s historic neighbourhoods and buildings. Liddle has led more than 150 heritage walks covering almost all major sites in the city.
Ajay Kumar, project director, INTACH (Delhi chapter)
An alumnus of Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management, Kumar has supervised or led the successful resurrection of about 60 historical buildings, which were away from public glare and government’s attention. Kumar is especially credited for reinstatement of about 600-year-old Bada Lao Ka Gumbad and several structures in Mehrauli Archaeological Park including Rajon Ki Baoli.