Published : April 19, 2003
“I am not the star of the show,” Ritesh Nanda protests as he shies away from the range of our cameraman Amit Kumar’s focus, “the star is behind you.”
The star, in question, is the garden at Humayun’s Tomb, a star destination on a traveller’s itinerary, bang in the nerve centre of teeming Delhi. The site was declared a world heritage monument by UNESCO in 1992.
Five years ago, from the steps of the mausoleum, a wild jungle of elephant grass, dry broken tanks, mounds of earth and an eerie silence would have greeted the visitor.
Here was the House of the Dead with over 100 graves, including the headless body of Dara Shikoh, murdered by Aurangzeb in the kingship battle, and Humayun’s wife Haji Begum.
The begum had commissioned the building in 1565. According to Quaranic sensibility, Haji Begum spent a princely Rs 15 lakh to turn the 30-acre patch into an Eden on earth, a char bagh, or a four-part garden paradise, with sweet scented flowers, fruit trees and a place where leaves in the water channels were gently carried away by the wind.
But the cataclysmic course of history turned the monumental garden, built with medieval rubble masonry, into a desert of shame.
During the British days, the garden was farmed out to undertake tobacco cultivation. In post-Partition days, it served as a refugee camp.
In the 1980s, it was also the victim of slapdash resto work, prior to the Asian Games, while the garden continued to remain neglected.
Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, did initiate restoration of water channels between 1905 and 1910 and similar efforts were made in 1930s and 1940s.
In the post-Independence era, however, it became fashionable to eschew the old in the drive to modernise a young democratic nation. And the bigger conservation issue nagged: it’s easier to restore things badly but harder to do it well. But now thanks to the collaboration of Aga Khan Trust for Culture that donated Rs 3 crore and the Archaeological Survey of India, the quintessential piece of paradise blooms once again.
Opened by His Highness Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of Ismaili Muslims this week, the garden revitalisation project was undertaken under the National Culture Fund, a body set up to bring in private money to preserve national heritage properties.
Work on the project started in 2000, and the man in charge of coordination of archival research, garden excavation, research into traditional hydraulic engineering is Nanda.
After writing a book on 1,500 Delhi monuments, he wrote a restoration book called How to maintain Scottish graveyards , after attaining his MA in conservation from York University, England.
About his current project, he says: “It’s not possible to put a face of a baby on an old man. What we’ve tried is draw a balance by using traditional techniques with exacting modern standards.”
The story behind the garden project is as much fighting a battle of decay as about human sweat and soul: the garden project employed 150 labourers every day.
The numbers are equally stunning: it took two years and 60 men to chisel thousands of redstone slabs and 3,000 trucks of earth were removed to level the ground; sixty stone cutters were engaged to manually lay 3,000 m of sand stones, and about 3,500 km of pathway kerbstones. Every piece of stone and plant species in the garden has been digitally recorded.
“This is the first garden project in the subcontinent and it underlines that it’s not just concerned with the building but its interface with the community as a public space as well,” says Nicholas McKinley, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation.
Landscape artist Mohammad Shaheed was hired to recreate the original garden and the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany, Lucknow, conducted pollen analysis.
The 2,500 fruit and flower trees were planted according to references in the Akbarnamah and other medieval texts, including lemon and orange trees favoured by Humayun. Every blade of grass was manually planted.
“We have planted hibiscus, chandni, oranges and lemon trees as referred to in the texts. Most of the trees were planted in 1916 and the earliest picture of the place dates back to 1849, traced in Canada,” says Nanda.
Water is a powerful symbol in the Quaranic concept of four- part or four-river imagined paradise. About 3.8 km of water channels have been recreated, keeping the authentic gradient of 1 cm to 1.5 cm to let the water flow with a calm ease.
A balancing and filtering tank has been set up to circulate filtered water and meet the evaporation loss.
“In the 21st century, it’s easy to create a gushing effect. There are many modern gadgets. But that wouldn’t give the historical effect,” says Nanda. Systematic garden excavation sometimes led to surprise discoveries of copper and terracotta pipes.
As part of a long-term water conservation plan, 128 ground water recharge pits were dug and three 35-ft wells, once covered with compost and rubble, were cleaned up.
The water channels were repaired using traditional seepage-proof binds, using gur, bel-giri and brick dust. “A part of the water channel, which has evidence of a 16th century historic rubble bed has been left untouched,” says Nanda.
During the excavation, a fountain mechanism was found. In keeping with the monument’s blooming lotus design in the minarets, it was duplicated as a fountain in the central courtyard, bordered with the design of the frieze of Humayun’s grave.
And like all works of art, it has to be admired from afar. Sandstone benches are scattered on the red-dust pathways. Plans are also afoot to create a picnic area and a butterfly garden before the Aga Khan Culture Trust hands back the garden to the ASI after a year.
But should the ASI take control over park maintenance at all? Or should it take on this as a model to develop other gardens like Babur’s Hasht Bishist (garden of the eight paradise) that has gone to pieces due to neglect? Does the ASI have a viable financial plan for maintenance?
“It’s been calculated that with one-and-a-half day’s entrance fees (foreigners are charged $5), it will pay for a month’s upkeep,” says McKinley and goes on to add, “Money is not the problem, it’s really about maintenance.” Nanda’s eyes turn red as he says wistfully: “I can never come back to see this place ruined.”