It’s a piece of detail only a loving eye would notice: the six-metre-long gold-plated finial rising from the marble dome of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi shines brighter these days. Fortunately, this 16th-century monument, a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracts many loving eyes, and in the past two years, they’ve seen it blossom under the attention of squads of technicians, workmen and craftsmen. These drones have removed the dead weight of one million kilos of concrete from the mausoleum’s roof, mounted scaffolding to repair its splendid double dome and lifted giant quartzite stones to restore its imposing plinth.
Not far away, in Nizamuddin Basti, a boxy, four-storey municipal primary school, set not in pretty gardens but arid urban squalor, has been undergoing its own transformation: dilapidated toilet blocks have been replaced, collapsing water, sewage and electrical infrastructure overhauled. Bright furniture and computers have arrived in classrooms, there is a riot of colours on the walls—from paintings by Madhubani artists to art work by students, who include children of local ragpickers. Outsiders show up all the time, to train teachers and provide learning support to students. Principal Syed Ali Akhtar, pointing out sights with the aplomb of a tour guide, says triumphantly, “Our window panes are of no use now to all those stone-throwers below—look, unbreakable plastic!”
What’s remarkable about these two initiatives is that they belong to the same project. It is an ambitious exercise, unfolding over a 180-acre sprawl in the capital’s heritage-rich Nizamuddin area. Its prime mover, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), is on familiar ground, with a background of leading cultural and socio-economic renewal in historic Muslim neighbourhoods, like old Cairo and the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo. But in India, where heritage conservation rarely goes hand-in-hand with development (rather, often finds itself on collision course with the poor), it is charting new territory. Architect K.T. Ravindran, chairman of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, confirms, “There is no precedent here for what they’re doing, and if anyone can pull it off, they can, with their track record.”
A more accessible Chaunsath Khamsa
The idea that drives this project, of regenerating Nizamuddin, home to about a hundred medieval monuments, is not a new one. But it has always been safer to talk about than implement, since it involves dealing with a press of humanity, conflicts over land and Kafkaesque negotiations with official agencies. “If it wasn’t tough, someone would have done it long ago,” says AKDN’s project director, Ratish Nanda. “The sense of opportunity is amazing, but daunting.” Appropriately, a veritable army was assembled: a multi-disciplinary team of 100, and three government partners, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). Many donors have also come on board, including two Tata trusts.
The relatively straightforward part of the exercise is the conservation work, and the reconfiguration of spaces in and around Humayun’s Tomb and its neighbour, the serene and lovely Sunder Nursery. The outcome will be 150 acres of scenic archaeological parkland, studded with restored monuments. “Straightforward”, though, is not a word that the ASI would want to use. It fought a court battle and filed police FIRs (this, against another government agency, Northern Railways!) to regain control of tracts of land abutting the tomb complex with neglected monuments on them.
For conservationists, the Nizamuddin basti has both delights and despair. Residents don’t just live with history but also under, over and in it.
But across the traffic-choked Mathura Road lies a decidedly more complex challenge: the teeming basti, a place that is many things to many people. For the well-heeled, it is an eyesore in a genteel neighbourhood. For dog-owners, it is a place to buy cheap beef; for penniless gourmands, a haven. For social scientists, it is a 97 per cent Muslim settlement that illustrates the community’s marginalisation—only 6 per cent of young women here work, compared to about 35 per cent in urban Delhi. For seekers of the currently fashionable Sufi encounter, the basti exudes “character”, with its shrine, its qawwals, its rose-petal vendors, tiled teashops, carcass-flaunting meatshops, its skullcaps and burkhas, its limbless mendicants. For historians, and the thousands who pour in to pray at the dargah of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, the 700-year-old settlement is much more: a cultural and spiritual lodestar. It was to be near Nizamuddin, described by one of his most famous disciples, the poet Amir Khusro (also buried here), as “a king without throne or crown, with kings in need of the dust of his feet”, that tombs of rulers, generals, ministers and poets accreted here over the centuries.
For the conservationist, therefore, there are delights around every turn. Despair awaits him too, since residents don’t just live with history, they live under it (in the crypt of the stunning mausoleum of Akbar’s aide, Atgah Khan), over it, in tenements hugging the edge of a 14th century baoli (stepwell), and within the precincts of Tilangani’s mausoleum, Delhi’s first octagonal tomb. A local land mafia thought nothing of demolishing Lal Mahal, a 13th-century Islamic palace where the traveller Ibn Batuta once stayed.
Through a mirror of newness A more dignified setting for the tomb of Mirza Ghalib
Unsurprisingly, AKDN’s arrival on the scene in 2007, after the government cleared its project, generated an explosion of fear and insecurity. For the basti, this was another demolition squad (Delhi’s infamous one-time heritage czar Jagmohan had made an attempt earlier), and the project’s surveyors were roughed up and sent home. But nearly three years on, much water has flowed down the nullah; or, more aptly, quantities of murky, fetid liquid have been sucked out of the baoli, one of many places here where the project has made a sea-change. The tomb of the great Urdu poet, Ghalib, has had its shamefully shabby courtyard elegantly restored; and earlier this month, the sound of Indian and Pakistani qawwals singing Khusro’s famous Man Kunto Maula filled the newly landscaped forecourt of the beautiful 17th-century Chaunsath Khamba at the project’s first cultural festival.
Parallel makeovers of schools and health centres, laying of sewer lines and new toilets have helped break the ice. So have English lessons and a gym.
There is no doubt that the parallel makeovers of sarkari educational and health infrastructure, the connecting of homes to sewer lines and the building of community toilets have helped break the ice. So have English lessons, which the community was quick to demand, despite giving every impression of being trapped in a time-warp. Its women also petitioned, successfully, for a well-equipped gym. “So many of us are overweight, with nowhere to walk,” explains Shehzadi, a rickshaw-owner’s wife, and a mother of five. “The aspirations here are the same as everywhere else,” says Delhi’s ex-mayor and the area’s municipal councillor, Farhad Suri, who opened many doors in the community.
Continuous dialogue and negotiation remains crucial, though, whether for reviving community parks reduced to wastelands (it took two years to get permission from their owner, the Delhi Development Authority) or for finding homes for 19 families living precariously atop the baoli, on a cracked wall. The solution found within the framework of Delhi’s relocation laws is moving them 25 km away, to a resettlement colony, with AKDN buying and building their first legal homes. An equitable solution? “We have negotiated more with the Delhi government on this issue than any other, and done more for these people than anyone else has,” declares Nanda.
Facing page, students at the made-over municipal primary school
While the project is well-entrenched, with planned cultural and socio-economic tasks for the seven years it hopes to be around, its future course also remains, in many ways, open-ended. It depends, among other things, on more basti-dwellers joining the dots—that is, realising that these ancient buildings could well be their passport to a better future. As Ravindran puts it, “It’s about getting the people to believe in what you believe in, and making a narrative out of it.”
As the project’s newly trained heritage guides, basti-born and bred boys, take visitors around their neighbourhood, it seems some fragments of the narrative are missing, but others clearly in place, much like the tilework on medieval monuments. As we go past a tomb occupied by visitor-wary families, our poised guides advise us to speak softly “in a sensitive area”. As we turn a corner, sure enough, someone hurls an insult: “Yehudi (Jew)!” Not losing their stride, however, the young men carry on enthusiastically, explaining, in lesson-perfect English, the features of monuments that meant nothing to them a year ago.