Con­ser­va­tion Czar

The Aga Khan, spir­i­tual leader of the tiny Is­maili com­mu­nity, is plough­ing his riches into her­itage con­ser­va­tion and restora­tion.



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.

Fol­low the writer on Twit­ter @ San­deep­Un­nithan

PANKAJ NAN­GIA/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

Tombs of the Qtub Shahi

kings in Hy­der­abad

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