Marvel in marble and lattice work gets new life

The sepulchral silence of the Paigah Tombs complex is broken as artisans begin work to restore the 18th century funerary park with incised limestone plaster and Makarana marble

April 12, 2023 10:57 pm | Updated April 14, 2023 12:20 am IST - Hyderabad

The ongoing conservation and restoration of the Paigah Tombs in progress in Hyderabad.

The ongoing conservation and restoration of the Paigah Tombs in progress in Hyderabad. | Photo Credit: Serish Nanisetti

The Paigah Tombs necropolis is a little-known marvel of ornamentation, vegetal pattern and geometry in the southern fringe of Hyderabad. Built over generations by a family that maintained close ties with the Nizam’s family, the tombs are an exemplar of what is possible with limestone mortar, marble and pietra dura. Just off the Inner Ring Road beyond Chandrayangutta is the complex, surrounded by houses, graves and garbage bins. 

The real marvel is revealed once you enter the ceremonial portal. It is a world of exquisite craftsmanship, delicate lattice work and an unmistakable decay wrought by time and people. Luckily, the decay is being arrested and the site now has a vibe that looks like spring in a dusty garden. “This is a gem of a site with exceptional incised plaster work in limestone stucco. Not many cities have such a collection of tombs that are so unique. It is an honour to be part of this project,” said Ratish Nanda, CEO of Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which is carrying out the restoration works in partnership with the Telangana department of Archaeology and Museums (DAM).  

The team is racing against two deadlines — that of monsoon, as well as ‘gehun ki katai’ or the wheat harvest season. “We want to finish the work on the ceiling before the onset of rains,” says Mr.Nanda, while his colleague Rajpal Singh is alert to the ways of workers whose schedule is dictated by agriculture cycles of wheat harvest.

An artisan at work.

An artisan at work. | Photo Credit: Serish Nanisetti

Lying on the floor, using a painter’s spatula, Lokesh applies a fine layer of limestone plaster on the lower part of the pillar of Latifunnisa Begum’s tomb. He pats the curved portion and moulds it into shape. Lokesh, who hails from Jaipur, is among the dozens of skilled craftsmen who are helping shape and restore the tombs that show Rajasthani, Mughal and Deccan aesthetics.

The best time to see the magic of the lattice, light and shadow is during winter mornings and evenings when the dull sunlight filters through and casts a glow on the marble sarcophagus, occasionally bouncing off sparkling light from the grain of the marble. It is in the morning and evening that the light dances through the lattice work to create an ethereal effect.

Replicating shapes

How small, straight geometrical lines are turned into delightful replicating shapes with graceful curves is shown by architect Syed Tajuddin who shows some of the drawings that he created before beginning the work. “The shapes are square, hexagon, pentagon and decagon, but they blend with the others to create the final lattice work. There are 110 lattices,” shares the conservation architect.

Some of the tilework was wantonly destroyed in October 2006. “I rushed to the site in the morning when I learnt about the destruction. I was distraught as we were dealing with other encroachments on the site when this happened,” recalls Faiz Khan, a scion of the Vicar ul Umra family who is now the face of Paigah nobility in Hyderabad.   

Mr.Khan remembers his first visit to the Paigah Tombs as a four-year-old. “It was vast open ground. There were chandeliers in the corridor. There was a sense of space. We had our own security force guarding the place,” he says. What was a burial ground for the nobility spread over 14 acres is now 1.96 acres of contested space. One of the saddest memories of the place for him was the discovery of a family that lived beside the tomb of Vicar Ul Umra and cooked food inside. The relic of the time is the sliding grill where a latticed doorway used to exist.  

After 1971, when the security provided by Paigahs was withdrawn, some 18 families moved into the complex and were living inside. Some had constructed godowns. The Naqqar Khana and other places were turned into homes, toilets and warehouses. During the night, the pathway was turned into bandikhana with pushcarts and other vehicles parked in the pathway. The slide would have continued except for the fact that in 1989, a family member requested the DAM to step in. While the Archaeology department created a patina of physical protection, it could not stop the natural decay and could not deal with the squatters. The squatters were evicted in April 2009. 

Through it all, the caretaker, Rahmatullah Qadri, has been one steady element. Visitors can never leave the site without encountering him, and he tells them tales of the nobility who still visit the place or the effort he has to put in to keep land sharks at bay. As much of the land around the tombs is illegally occupied, the development of Paigah tombs is an anathema to the locals. Visitors have to keep a wary eye on their parked vehicles. “Gaadi andar rakho. Ye parking nahi hai (Park your vehicle inside; this is not the parking lot),” says one of the residents who lives near the entrance. 

This is a far cry from the time when the tombs were built by the primary nobility in Hyderabad. The Paigahs, who were the Praetorian Guards, had a larger-than-life image and a thirst for good things. In 1901, the three Paigah families controlled 4,134 square miles of the Nizam’s Dominion which had an annual revenue of ₹40 lakh at a time when the exchange rate with the British rupee was between ₹115 and ₹116.

Paigah nobility

The hilltop palace of Falaknuma was constructed by Vicar ul Umra, as was the palladian devdi near Shahgunj while Khurshid Jah built a palace complex with vineyards on the other side of the road, and before that, the Jahanuma (view of the world) complex was built by the first Shams ul Umra.

The string of palaces, residences and places of worship stretched up to Begumpet where the Paigah Palace is still a landmark. This opulent lifestyle attracted the attention of Nizams who tried to place curbs despite marital ties. The Nizam VII instituted three inquiry commissions to probe the financial affairs of the Paigahs using the logic that the land grants were for the maintenance of troops to protect the Nizam. Earlier, when Shams ul Umra’s name was proposed by the British Resident, Sydenham, the Nizam demurred, citing that both the military and civil administration would pass on to the Paigah nobleman. Later, however, Asman Jah and Vicar ul Umra became prime ministers. 

Among the first to be buried here was Abul Fateh Teigh Jung, a warrior who came with Nizam Ali Khan to the Deccan and died in 1786. The family of soldiers and warriors trace their lineage from Sufi saint Shaikh Fareed Shukur Jung. The burial ground was chosen as it was close to the Dargah of Burhane Shah. While the whole area around the Burhane Shah’s Dargah has a number of graves and tombs, the State government’s efforts will be on the core area of 1.96 acres.

The conservation effort is one of the rare public-private-partnership in India with partial funding from the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation .“Funding is not part of the problem. Getting skilled craftsmen to execute the project is the key. We will take about two-and-a-half-years to complete the project. We will begin with the ceiling so that there is no stagnation or ingress of water over the structure,” informed Mr. Nanda.

Thousands of terracotta tiles are being cut, quartered, shaped and then plastered with fine limestone mortar to recreate the missing pieces of lattice work.

Thousands of terracotta tiles are being cut, quartered, shaped and then plastered with fine limestone mortar to recreate the missing pieces of lattice work. | Photo Credit: Serish Nanisetti

One of the challenges remains the tile work. It is a 2.3-inch square terracotta tile with a 3mm thickness. Thousands of these terracotta tiles are being cut, quartered, shaped and then plastered with fine limestone mortar to recreate the missing pieces of lattice work. “We are getting the terracotta tiles from elsewhere as the soil required to make them is not available here,” informs Mr.Singh, who is part of the conservation effort.  

Among the most exquisite craftsmanship at the site is the Pietra dura inlay work on the sarcophagus of Hussain Unnisa Begum (1883), wife of Khurshid Jah. The tombs were built at a time when pineapples were a craze due to their exotic appearance. The result? Pineapples are a key decorative motif, making their appearance at the base of finials on the minarets. The finials which used to be copper are now blobs of cement. These are being removed and replaced with copper ones, and the team has to mould 345 with 222 smaller ones and 48 larger ones.

Third effort to salvage site

An earlier conservation work was limited to cleaning up the site about 20 years ago during the Afro-Asian Games. At that time, the department of Archaeology had a budget of ₹13.95 lakh. A decade later, the site was again spruced for the 2012 CoP-11 Biodiversity Conference.  

“The tiled flooring was replaced with cement flooring. This blocked the natural flow of water, leading to stagnation and damage to the pillars. The plan is to remove the cement flooring and restore the original surface,” says Mr.Nanda. 

The water channel to drain rainwater from the roof to the ground has been cleared as part of the project. Along with the restoration and conservation of the site, the landscape is also going to be restored with better amenities and lighting. 

“It is a place that I find peaceful. I sometimes go there to sit and find a sense of calm,” says Mr.Khan. Once the restoration of the lattices, colonnades, finials, and domes is complete, another generation can walk in admire the craftsmanship and find quietude.  

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