K.K. Muhammed, who retires from Archaeological Survey of India this June, shares his eventful journey

At times, he has stepped out of his role to do something more extraordinary, like setting up temporary schools for the children of restoration workers and labourers engaged at various sites in Delhi, like the Tughlakabad Fort, Adilabad Fort and Humayun's Tomb. Ask him if the practice will continue, and he responds, “I don't know. At that time, I was Superintending Archaeologist and the post is such that you can get things done but only if you want to. You can choose not to do anything. The fire has to come from within. Sarve Bhavantu Sukhina… has been my philosophy. I have always been inspired by the Upanishads,” explains the conservationist, who is fluent in Sanskrit and knows important texts like “Manasara Shilpa Shastra” and “Mayamata Vastu Shastra” by heart. “I must have been a Namboodiri in my previous birth,” quips Muhammad adding that he just deployed an ASI staffer to teach the basics to the kids and the parents were happy. When the visiting American President Mr. Obama and his wife Michelle Obama heard of it, they wanted to meet them, which they did at Humayun's Tomb,” Muhammed adds.

Born and brought up in Kerala, he graduated in History from Aligarh Muslim University and later joined it as Assistant Archaeologist. He had led an eight-member excavation team to discover Akbar's Ibadat Khana (hall of inter-religious discussions), a Christian chapel and a Mughal Bazaar at Fatehpur Sikri and still considers the discovery as one of his most exemplary achievements. Merely 26 years old then, he says he had seen the painting of Ibadat Khana several times and that's how could relate to it.

Though he has successfully carried out work in the Delhi Circle, which he headed from 2008 July to March 2012, Muhammed feels he has enjoyed working in places other than the Capital, where everything gets noticed fast. Restoration of the 1,300-year-old Bateshwar Temple in Madhya Pradesh is one of the brightest spots of his career. It was in 2004 when he first visited the temple and found the magnificent structure in ruins. “Out of hundreds of temples there, only 10 to 12 temples had remained and others had all broken down. They had shattered during an earthquake. We managed to restore 80 temples and 120 more are still left. It will take another five years to finish the work,” says Muhammed, who had to first negotiate with the dreaded dacoits of the Chambal Valley and then the mining mafia to begin the task.

“Before embarking on a loot, the dacoits would come to pray before Hanuman, the deity at the temple, and even after returning with a huge cache they would thank the god for his blessings. So, when one day I walked into the temple, I found somebody smoking a bidi. He was dacoit Nirbhay Singh Gujjar. I told him, ‘How can you smoke a bidi inside a temple?' And as I said that a person accompanying me came forward, held my hand and said, ‘You can't talk to him like that.' At that point I understood that they are those dacoits. Nirbhay must have been thinking, ‘This man, all of 5'2'', is telling me to stop, that too in my area.' Anyhow, I recovered immediately and engaged Nirbhay Gujjar in a discussion. I told him that these precious idols would have also vanished like so many if he had not been around. And then I told him of his lineage, which he had no idea about — that he belonged to the Pratihara dynasty that had once ruled that region.”

After he won over the dacoits, the mining mafia came in the way. The incessant mafia activity going on in the surrounding areas was causing great harm to the temples and he shot off letters to the concerned agencies but nothing moved. “I wrote to the SP and the DM but nothing happened. Then I wrote to Sudershan ji, who was RSS Chief then, and things moved. I received life threats, which happens everywhere we go, but once people come to know our intentions and motives they relent.”

Speaking of technology, Muhammed says he believes in the traditional methodologies of restoration. “I feel that the site, when you know how the original structure looked like, should be restored to its original shape. Unfortunately, the Nalanda Stupa looks like some steeple of Europe,” he expresses.

Having spent 24 years in the agency, Muhammed is aware of the problems that plague it and has been quite vocal about it as well. “Do you know what's the budget of the Delhi circle, which has such important monuments to take care of? It's just 5 crore and 75 lakh. There is an accurate shortage of funds, and governments — be it the BJP or Congress — I have realised, only talk big. It doesn't translate into action. We need to overhaul the system. We need to market our heritage. The entry ticket to a world heritage monument is merely Rs.10 and other monuments is just Rs.5. At the Eiffel Tower, you have to pay a different amount for visiting a different level and here we let a filmmaker shoot at our heritage site for a whole day for just Rs.5000. The agency needs to generate money for itself,” he says.

His list of achievements is long and goes on to include his official complaint against the Taj Corridor project that he had registered with the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee. He was also responsible for making Sanchi Stupa disabled-friendly.

The Replica Museum at Siri Fort, housing copies of important sculptures and structures around the country, is also his brainchild.

His work at Mundeshwari temple in Patna and Shiva temple in Bhojpur is also very significant. Under his supervision, Naubat Khana at Red Fort was also turned into white from Red as the ASI's research revealed white to be the original colour of the structure.

He has received five National Awards for the conservation of Sanchi Stupa, Qutub Minar, Humayun's Tomb and Red Fort and has also got SAARC environment award for Bateshwar temple complex in 2010.

He has been a tour guide to several visiting dignitaries like American President Barrack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama and also to the former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

He wanted to trace the Buddha's route — right from his departure from Kapilvastu, his home to Rajgir and Bodhgaya. “I know so much has been found but there is still so much. There are many small hidden remains still there. I wish money is not wasted on meetings in five-star hotels and instead spent on such tasks. There is so much to do in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.”

On Friday, Muhammed made a presentation on his work at Bateshwar Temple and on June 5, he will give a lecture on ‘Identification and Discovery of Akbar's Ibadat Khana at Fatehpur Sikri. History lives on.