Patience and perseverance are the virtues of an experienced conservationist. More so when the task at hand is a complex exercise to transform a dilapidated Mughal-era monument into an illuminating contemporary architectural delight.
Towards this year’s end, heritage lovers will be in for a grand treat when the decade-long conservation work would be completed at the historic Neela Gumbad, a part of the sprawling Humayun’s Tomb complex. In all probability, this octagonal structure would become the Capital’s pride of place and even end up bagging the coveted world heritage site title.
Without boasting its architectural triumph in restoring Neela Gumbad to a level where it appeals to heritage experts, the international community and denizens of Delhi, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has been renovating the earliest Mughal-era structure. That the monument is located in a secluded corner of the Humayun’s Tomb complex means that it is out of bounds for the Nizamuddin residents.
“Though efforts to secure the Neela Gumbad have taken over a decade, in a few months, the one million annual visitors at Humayun’s Tomb will be able to access the Neela Gumbad. This is easily the most striking Mughal era structure in Delhi and also up till now one of the least known or accessible,” says AKTC project director Ratish Nanda. Just like in the Humayun’s Tomb, no “original tile was removed from the monument.” Even those tiles which had lost glaze were retained. “Lime plaster with additives such as gur, bel fruit pulp, egg white and marble dust were applied on the internal and external wall surface,” adds Nanda.
The work is being carried out under the supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India and Sir Dorabji Tata Trust has co-funded it. After undertaking a six-year-tile research programme, the Nizamuddin youth have prepared titles matching the original tiles. The project has in a way improved the socio-economic conditions of the Nizamuddin basti’s residents.
“We are proud that our hard work led to the creation of over 15,000 tiles in a record time and we have managed to restore the tiles which were missing on the dome. The tile production mechanism has undergone a lot of development with constant innovation since we started learning from the Uzbek craftsmen. It has given us a respectful position in the society,” says Salahuddin, a tile craftsman.
“In the last seven years, we have spent hundreds of days creating stone elements for structures where conservation works are being undertaken by the AKTC. Never before have we had such an opportunity to work with pride and match the work of our forefathers. It is a pity so many stone elements have over time been removed from these monuments but we still have the skills and this project has allowed us to train our next generations,” says Attr Singh, the head stone carver.
Before the tiles could be put, removal of the cement plaster on the internal and external surfaces — applied between 2003 and 2004 — was essential. Cement was responsible for the Mughal monument’s ruinous appearance.