October 18, 2020
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What Lies Beneath

The archaeologists have dug up the past—they could bury it too...

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What Lies Beneath
What Lies Beneath
Delhi is such a historic city that whenever I see yet another open space disappear under new development, I wonder what bits of the past are being destroyed forever. Romila Thapar once told me that she and some colleagues had tried to ensure that before any new construction began, archaeologists would have a chance to survey the site and extract anything of particular interest. Unfortunately their plan came to nothing and the lost wonders of Delhi are generally safe within the ground only when that ground is safe from developers.

One such spot lies at the back of the gardens of Humayun’s tomb, where once the Jumna flowed and close to where the steel tracks of the main railway line now run. I have walked here for over 30 years, and remember with particular nostalgia the big WP class locomotives that used to shunt carriages as a retirement job. I miss the birds that have disappeared as the area has been tidied up.

I had never given much thought to the slope in the lawns here—just near the south-west corner of Humayun’s tomb. The slope continues across a narrow road to the bright turquoise dome of the Neela Gumbad. Yellow, green and blue tiles still obstinately adhere to one side of this superb 16th-century Persianate tomb that stands on a platform overlooking the railway line.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking up this grassy slope when I saw men digging. Digging very energetically and very fast. I dreaded some kind of construction but it soon became clear that this was a bona fide archaeological dig. Every day I went back and every day the young gulmohar by the excavation was deeper up to its neck in earth and a world of a much prettier age began to appear beneath the level of the grass.

Now walls, paved pathways and ruined arcades that have not seen the light of day for centuries lie exposed. What has been found is literally a missing link—a grand, arcaded stone jetty that joined Humayun’s tomb to the Neela Gumbad. The square platform on which this turquoise-domed tomb stands was originally an island in the river Jumna and the stone jetty to this island was reached through a door in the garden wall of Humayun’s tomb. This was known in theory, and now it has proved to be fact as well.

Naturally it is not a good idea to leave great holes in the ground for me and other walkers to fall into. The archaeologists have dug up the past—they could bury it too. But that would be an enormous shame. Some years ago the Archaeological Survey of India got together with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to successfully restore the gardens of Humayun’s tomb and transform our understanding of this historic garden. If they could do that, they can, and hopefully soon will, restore the island tomb to its rightful place within this World Heritage complex. I look forward to that day.

This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, December 2007

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