Humayun's Tomb was the first garden tomb of epic scale and complexity to be built in the Indian subcontinent which decades later inspired the greatest mausoleum of all, the Taj Mahal. Over four centuries old, the majestic monument was losing its original charm and splendour with weathering and neglect damaging the masterpiece.
The ochre and white of the emperor's mausoleum had dulled to grey in parts, many of the jalis (lattice screens) were broken and, in some places, crudely repaired with factory-produced grey cement; bees frequently lay siege to the tomb's massive arches; and the immense gates to the mausoleum were broken in several places. Long relegated to the isolation and neglect of the aged, the ancient monument had to be restored and brought back to the mainstream of Nizamuddin and modern Delhi.
Headed by the Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and supported by Tata Trusts, the Humayun's Tomb-Sunder Nursery-Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Project aimed at the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures and public spaces in ways that can spur social, economic and cultural development. For the first time in South Asia, government organisations — led by the Archaeological Society of India — joined hands with private corporations and public trusts to protect and nurture cultural traditions and conserve heritage monuments.
Says Niyati Mehta, Programme Officer for Media, Art and Culture with the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Allied Trusts, "This project takes a dynamic, multi-disciplinary approach to conservation so as to include the integration of traditional craft and conservation techniques. This has contributed to developing a successful model that could impact conservation projects at the national level as well as in the region. This has the potential to strengthen India's conservation philosophy."
Conservation plans for Humayun's Tomb went beyond technical measures for the repairs of the mausoleum itself. The monumental initiative involved the training of craftsmen in ancient skills such as firing tiles and making lime mortar, as well as bringing to conservation experts and architects in India contemporary technologies such as laser scanners and 3D documentation.
The technology for 3D laser scanning was used for the first time in India in the Humayun's Tomb conservation project. Conservation architects from Uzbekistan trained and worked with local conservationists in experimenting with clay and quartz, types of soil and chemicals, to get the exact shades of green, lapis blue, turquoise blue, yellow and white, the five colours originally used on the tiles decorating the canopies, arches and walls of the tomb.
"One of the aims of the initiative was to modernise the way conservation is undertaken in India," says the Aga Khan Trust for Culture Project Director Ratish Nanda. Thus, the highest standards of conservation — surveys and documentation, detailed architectural drawings and in-depth research, peer reviews, and training for those involved — have been followed.
The impact of the conservation work is being felt much beyond Nizamuddin. From Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Goa and elsewhere, conservationists have begun to engage in intense dialogues on lime mortar, colours and dyes, cleaning techniques and tile work. Furthermore, the detailed documentation has established a standard in Indian conservation. Not only will it serve Humayun's Tomb well in terms of future maintenance, it can become a prototype in the conservation of other such heritage structures. After all, as Mr Nanda puts it, "It's not just about preserving a heritage structure; it's about bringing that heritage to the communities that host these monuments."