HERITAGE This ASI officer's operation has a human side. T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

I t was a dramatic picture that caught one's attention. It appeared in almost every newspaper in India on November 8, showing the U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle standing in front of Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi. An official of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was explaining a point to them. He was K.K. Muhammed. Some newspapers mentioned his name, while others did not. But this modest officer, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI (Delhi Circle), does not care.

For Muhammed, it is routine – to explain the history and architecture of monuments in New Delhi, Agra, Gwalior or Mamallapuram to visiting heads of Governments. He even guided Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf around Taj Mahal in 2001. Muhammed is a scholar in Sanskrit, effortlessly quoting from Kalidasa's ‘Raguvamsa' or ‘Megh Doot' and texts such as ‘Manasara Shilpa Sastra' and ‘Mayamata Vastu Sastra.' His magnum opus has been the restoration of more than 100 ethereally beautiful temples/shrines that lay in ruins at Bateshwar complex, about 40 km from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh.

Presence of dacoits

The swathe of destruction was such that it looked as if it had been hit by an earthquake. About 200 temples had been built there 1,300 years ago. Stylistically, the Bateshwar complex belongs to the period between post-Gupta and early Pratihara (between the 8 {+t} {+h} and 10 {+t} {+h} centuries CE). The restoration was not only an epic task, but it also involved negotiating with the Chambal valley dacoits - who controlled the complex – to hand it over to the ASI for restoration. During a reconnaissance trip, Mohammed, to his consternation, found a bearded man smoking inside a temple. An ASI employee informed him that it was the dacoit Nirbhay Singh Gujjar. After protracted negotiations, Gujjar handed over the complex to Muhammed for restoration.“This (Bhateshwar) is my place of pilgrimage. I come here once in three months,” Muhammed said later. He really connected with Obama and his wife, whom he described as “a wonderful couple.” The U.S. President was keen on meeting the children of itinerant workers from Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Bihar who (workers) were engaged in restoration and conservation of various monuments in Delhi. Since these workers travelled from place to place, their children could not receive any education. So Muhammed and his colleagues taught these 150 children Hindi, English and mathematics on the premises of monuments. “Obama made a request that he would like to meet those children,” the Superintending Archaeologist said. But most of the workers and their children had gone back to their home town to celebrate Deepavali. However, Obama and his wife met 12 children, who have learnt to read, write and do calculations. The U.S. President wanted to know the history of the Mughal rule in India and was curious about the “cultural strands” that had gone into themaking of the Humayun's Tomb. Muhammed told him that while the double-dome concept in the tomb belonged to Central Asia (Samarkhand), the arches were from Persia and the cupolas from Rajasthan. The “kalash” on top of the dome was also from India.

Michelle Obama was informed that it was marble from Rajasthan, red sandstone from Uttar Pradesh and local quartzite that went into its construction. The Humayun's Tomb complex was built in seven years from 1565 to 1572 by his widow Haji Begum. It marks the beginning of the major building activities of the Mughals.

What kindled Obama's interest was the link e that Muhammed drew between Dara Shikoh and the American writers (and transcendentalists) such as Henry Thoureau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, who believed in human freedom and social betterment. “Their inspiration came from Dara Shikoh, eldest son of Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal,” he explained. He told them that Dara Shikoh was buried in the Humayun's Tomb complex.

Fifty-eight year old Muhammed has won four national awards from 2006 to 2010 from the Union Ministry of Tourism for the conservation of Sanchi Stupa, Qutub Minar and Humayun's Tomb, making them tourist-friendly and enabling physically challenged persons to visit these sites. In February 2010, he received the SAARC Environment Award for conserving the Bateshwar temple complex.

On November 19, in Chennai, Muhammad will receive the REACH (Rural Education and Conservation of Heritage) Foundation award for restoring the Bateshwar complex to its original splendour.