The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the tiny Ismaili community, is ploughing his riches into heritage conservation and restoration.
HUMAYUN’S TOMB IS A MUSTSEE, DRAWING OVER 1 MILLION TOURISTS A YEAR IN DELHI. WORK IN THE COMPLEX IS STILL IN PROGRESS.
Conservation architects at the 16th century Humayun’s Tomb complex were recently struck by the queries of a man they only know as ‘ His Highness’. Shah Karim al- Hussaini, 76, the spiritual head of 15 million Shia Ismailis and a direct descendant of Prophet Mohammed, quizzed them about a nine metrewide Mughal- era lotus pond discovered during a recent renovation. Speaking in his alluring soft voice, the fourth Aga Khan, wanted to know how they knew it was so, how they would restore it, what flowers they would grow in it.
This curiosity and attention to detail is something his staff have come to expect from the patron of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture ( AKTC) that creates cultural hubs across the developing world. Later that day, on September 18, the Aga Khan beamed as he stood with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and industrialist Ratan Tata to oversee the end of a very unique restoration project. A Rs 30- crore public- private partnership ( PPP) that began with an MOU in 2007, has breathed life into the 16th century mausoleum of the second Mughal emperor. The complex, in the heart of Delhi, now draws over 1 million tourists a year. Work continues around the 170- acre tomb. Sunder Nursery, where the British grew trees for Delhi ( and where the lotus pond is), will be opened to Delhiites with pools, fountains and walking paths in late 2014.
As he sits in an exclusive area of a central Delhi hotel, the Aga Khan wears a gentle smile as he contemplates an earthly question. What would he have been if not a spiritual leader? “I would have to think back to when I was a junior in college,” he laughs. It is an oft- told story that defined the limits of Prince Karim’s choice. In 1957, the third Aga Khan overlooked his playboy son Prince Aly for his grandson Prince Karim, then a dashingly handsome 20- year- old student of Islamic history at Harvard. The new Aga Khan, inheritor of the Shia Imamat, shelved plans for a doctoral thesis on Islamic architecture in Spain. He plunged headlong into the welfare of his people scattered across the globe. He first set up the Aga Khan Foundation in 1973 and later the Aga Khan Development Network, that spends over $ 600 million for non- profit activities across 30 countries. Aga Khan IV, who Forbes magazine termed the world’s 15th richest royal this year, has an estimated net worth of $ 3.16 billion. Most of the wealth comes from zakat, or the percentage of earnings Shias donate for charity.
The Aga Khan once said in an interview that “an Imam is not expected to withdraw from everyday life”. He has had his share of yachts, jets and racehorses, but is today best known for his remarkable restoration projects, which transform mudwalled mosques in Timbuktu and Mughal gardens in Kabul. The Swiss- born Aga Khan monitors this from Aiglemont, a 100- acre
estate set in the French countryside of Chantilly near Paris. It is his office, residence and the seat of Shia Imamat. He also has a fleet of Bombardier jets that whizz him around the world to inspect projects, including his half- day visit incognito to Humayun’s Tomb in November 2011. It was restored to its former glory after six years and 200,000 man days of work. Nearly 10 lakh kg of Archaeological Survey of India ( ASI)- applied concrete was stripped by hand, and wooden doors, archways and buildings restored.
The Aga Khan never orders his staff. “He always says, “This is what I want you to think about”, says an AKTC staffer. “And always in a soft voice.” Staff are instructed to file project reports not longer than 20 pages, and the Aga Khan spends hours poring through them to pick out finer points. The emphasis, as AKTC’S project director for India Ratish Nanda says, is always local: “Craftsmen over builders and local residents over developers.” A study identifies how the project will transform local communities and the number of people who will be touched by it. For instance, Humayun’s Tomb has given livelihoods to hundreds of families in Nizamuddin Basti, a crowded settlement of over 20,000 people. “Essentially we are talking about converting dormant assets into prod- uctive ones,” adds Nanda.
Humayun’s Tomb is the first of 100 ASI- protected monuments identified by National Culture Fund ( NCF) to be finished. The fund, set up by the Government in 1996, aims to preserve culture by involving private firms. It is an idea whose novelty the Aga Khan admires: “We had heard of a public- private partnership for economic activities, but never for cultural ones.”
“Unfortunately, all other NCF projects are tied up in red- tape,” says conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah. “Humayun’s Tomb benefited as it was in the heart of Delhi, but PPPS are the way forward,” she says. Earlier this year, the Aga Khan took up a second project far from Delhi: The restoration of seven tombs of the Qutb Shahi kings who ruled the Deccan between the 16th and 17th centuries near Hyderabad. It is spread over 100 acres near Hyderabad’s Golconda Fort and will take another decade to complete. “The scale we are working on is similar, but the number of heritage buildings are significantly larger,” he says. His Highness will most certainly come visiting.
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Tombs of the Qtub Shahi
kings in Hyderabad