DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Jason Over­dorf

While Delhi’s rich ar­chi­tec­tural legacy has yet to re­ceive the at­ten­tion it de­serves, a nascent con­ser­va­tion move­ment is giv­ing her­itage buffs rea­son to linger in the In­dian cap­i­tal.

FROM THE ROOFTOP OF HAVELI Dharam­pura, Old Delhi stretches to­ward the hori­zon. Turn­ing slowly, I can pick out the tow­er­ing minarets of the Jama Masjid, the red Lego blocks of the Shri Digam­bar Jain Lal Mandir tem­ple, the gleam­ing onion domes of the Gu­rud­wara Sis Ganj Sahib, and the bustling mar­ket of Chandni Chowk. As dusk falls, the sky is flut­ter­ing with hun­dreds of kites, and the neigh­bor­hood pi­geon caller is ready­ing his birds for flight. It’s a glimpse of a cul­ture that has en­dured for hun­dreds of years, prac­ti­cally since the days of the fifth Mughal em­peror Shah Ja­han, whose ar­chi­tects built much of what is still some­times called Shah­ja­han­abad in the early 17th cen­tury.

First set­tled in the sixth cen­tury B.C., Delhi has been the cap­i­tal of a dozen-odd em­pires dat­ing back to the dy­nasty of the Pan­davas, the five sib­ling he­roes of In­dia’s an­cient Ma­hab­harata epic. Rem­nants of that sto­ried past are scat­tered through­out the city—some dat­ing to 300 B.C., oth­ers from the me­dieval and colonial pe­ri­ods. But so far, the gov­ern­ment has failed to cap­i­tal­ize on this rich trove of mon­u­ments, which could make Delhi a tourist cen­ter on the order of Athens or Rome. Un­til now, per­haps.

Old Delhi, in par­tic­u­lar, is al­ways slated for a grand re­de­vel­op­ment. One year it’s the cen­ter­piece of a pitch for UNESCO World Her­itage City sta­tus; the next, it’s the fo­cus of a move­ment to in­crease tourism ar­rivals and cre­ate jobs. Like most of In­dia’s best-laid plans, how­ever, these schemes rarely progress be­yond spread­sheets and white pa­pers. Which is why Haveli Dharam­pura is so in­spir­ing.

“From a trav­eler’s per­spec­tive, this is a unique place where you can truly live in Old Delhi—in what you eat, what you see, in ev­ery­thing you do—in a lux­u­ri­ous set­ting,” ex­plains the owner’s daugh­ter and “des­ig­nated sto­ry­teller” Vidyun Goel as she shows me around the for­mer man­sion, or haveli, an old Per­sian word mean­ing “en­closed space.” “The suc­cess of this pri­vate restora­tion will in­crease the gov­ern­ment’s con­fi­dence in the public-pri­vate part­ner­ship model. There’s a long, long way to go. But in some ways, this is the first step.”

Opened as a 14-room bou­tique ho­tel in March 2016, Haveli Dharam­pura is one of the flag­ships of a nascent her­itage re­nais­sance un­der­way across Delhi, a move­ment fa­cil­i­tated by the In­ter­net, cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship, and pri­vate ini­tia­tives. An­other is the dra­matic trans­for­ma­tion of the area sur­round­ing Hu­mayun’s Tomb and the Niza­mud­din Dar­gah shrine, where the Aga Khan Trust for Cul­ture com­pleted a mas­sive restora­tion and ex­pan­sion project in 2013 in an ef­fort to cre­ate a tem­plate for con­ser­va­tion that could be em­u­lated across the coun­try. Other en­deav­ors—some­times hap­haz­ard, some­times cen­tral­ized—have also turned once-ig­nored mon­u­ments like the ruined 13th-cen­tury mosque and madrasa of South Delhi’s af­flu­ent Hauz Khas neigh­bor­hood and the colon­naded colonial cen­ter of Con­naught Place into thriv­ing en­ter­tain­ment hubs.

A grow­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist move­ment, mean­while, has made strides to­ward restor­ing this sur­pris­ingly leafy city’s nat­u­ral her­itage, through the con­ser­va­tion of the 80-hectare Mehrauli Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Park as well as the cre­ation of the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary and the Ya­muna Bio­di­ver­sity Park—projects that have in­volved up­root­ing in­va­sive species and claw­ing back forests from slums and garbage dumps.

As a long­time res­i­dent of Delhi, I had wit­nessed all this with­out re­ally reg­is­ter­ing what was go­ing on. That’s prob­a­bly be­cause when you are sur­rounded by its whirling throng, In­dia’s cap­i­tal al­ways seems to be com­ing apart at the seams. Up close, it looks like noth­ing is changing or ever will change. But af­ter liv­ing in the city for close to a decade, I moved to Ber­lin for 18 months—just enough of a hia­tus for me to reg­is­ter the trans­for­ma­tion I’d missed upon my re­turn in early 2015. This sum­mer, I re­vis­ited some of my fa­vorite haunts and dis­cov­ered a new sense of op­ti­mism.

A late Mughal–style man­sion built in 1887 in the Chandni Chowk area, Haveli Dharam­pura is among the few lo­cal con­ser­va­tion projects to turn her­itage into a straight­for­ward com­mer­cial propo­si­tion. So-called “her­itage ho­tels” have be­come the lynch­pin of neigh­bor­hood con­ser­va­tion in Ra­jasthan, where, in 1971, for­mer prime min­is­ter Indira Gandhi in­ad­ver­tently cre­ated a new gen­er­a­tion of hote­liers when she abol­ished the privy purses awarded to the state’s erst­while roy­als. Haveli Dharam­pura marks the first sig­nif­i­cant ho­tel-con­ver­sion project in the his­toric cen­ter of Delhi.

Fronted by a mas­sive arched gate­way, the man­sion had been carved up into ware­houses and shoe­box apart­ments when Vidyun’s politi­cian father (and cur­rent min­ster of state) Vi­jay Goel ac­quired the prop­erty in 2010. The weight of the roof was caus­ing the build--

ing to col­lapse on it­self, and most of the orig­i­nal fix­tures had been stripped away and sold. Per­haps even worse, a thicket of well-in­ten­tioned gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions de­signed to pro­tect her­itage build­ings para­dox­i­cally made every at­tempt at ren­o­va­tion a maze of bu­reau­cratic hur­dles.

For­merly a par­lia­men­tar­ian rep­re­sent­ing the con­stituency of Chandni Chowk, Goel un­der­stood those obstacles as well as any­one. He had ini­ti­ated the first, halt­ing ef­forts to re­store the 17th-cen­tury bazaar district to its for­mer glory in 1998, spear­head­ing a gov­ern­ment-led ef­fort to re­paint the fa­cades of all the build­ings along the main road from the Red Fort to the Fateh­puri Masjid and re­move the rats’ nests of im­pro­vised elec­tri­cal wiring strung over­head for a first-of-its-kind cul­tural fes­ti­val that at­tracted some 500,000 vis­i­tors. But since then, he’d seen dozens of grandiose plans to turn the city’s his­tor­i­cal cen­ter into a top-flight tourist at­trac­tion bro­ken by their own am­bi­tion. Every square me­ter of Chandni Chowk is oc­cu­pied by shops and res­i­dences. No­body has any money (or much motivation) to in­vest in ren­o­va­tion. And the city’s strong cul­ture of tenant rights makes evict­ing peo­ple to make way for his­tor­i­cal restora­tion all but im­pos­si­ble.

Rather than a grand plan, there­fore, Goel en­vi­sioned an an­chor project that would be like throw­ing a peb­ble into a pond, send­ing rip­ples out­ward into the city even as it in­spired like-minded en­trepreneurs to de­velop their own her­itage prop­er­ties.

“Ten years ago, my father brought me and my brother here and told us he was tak­ing us to the Taj Ma­hal of Delhi,” Vidyun re­calls as we sit be­neath one of the scal­loped arches in Haveli Dharam­pura’s ground-floor res­tau­rant. “I was stand­ing in this com­plete ruin! It was ready to fall apart at any time.”

To­day, the prop­erty is a stun­ning ex­am­ple of late-Mughal ar­chi­tec­ture. Over six years, Goel and his son, Sid­dhant, painstak­ingly re­viewed doc­u­ments and pho­tographs and scoured the coun­try for artisans to recre­ate the orig­i­nal struc­ture, re­plac­ing the ter­razzo and sand­stone floor­ing, strip­ping out par­ti­tions, and restor­ing the orig­i­nal scal­loped arches, col­umns, and marble lat­tice­work.

“They didn’t want to re­store it to how it was 10 years ago, but to how it was 100 years ago,” Vidyun says.

You can al­ready see the im­pact the ho­tel is hav­ing on its neigh­bor­hood, in the form of new busi­nesses cater­ing to the com­par­a­tively well-heeled guests Haveli Dharam­pura at­tracts to an area that had hith­erto fea­tured only back­packer ac­com­mo­da­tions. While it’s a long way from the posh me­dieval lanes of Italy’s Siena or even the re­birth that turned Bei­jing’s hu­tong district into a war­ren of art gal­leries and hip restau­rants, it of­fers just enough ev­i­dence to in­spire hope that such a revo­lu­tion could be pos­si­ble for Old Delhi, where as many as 200 his­toric havelis sur­vive in a sad state of ne­glect. (One no­table ex­cep­tion is the Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli, a pri­vate res­i­dence in the Ch­hota Bazaar area that was re­cently re­stored us­ing tra­di­tional build­ing ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques—in­clud­ing grout mixed in a spe­cially made cir­cu­lar mill—by young Delhi ar­chi­tect Aish­warya Tip­nis.) But first, the bu­reau­crats will need to get out of the way.

“The gov­ern­ment should come to the sup­port of the peo­ple,” Vi­jay Goel says. “We should re­lax the rules that have pre­vented ren­o­va­tions and give con­ces­sions to peo­ple who want to re­store other havelis.”

Nei­ther Goel nor many other Del­hi­wal­lahs ex­pect that kind of gov­ern­ment sup­port to ma­te­ri­al­ize any­time soon. But across town in an­other of the city’s re­mark­able his­tor­i­cal cen­ters, the Aga Khan Trust for Cul­ture (AKTC) has demon­strated that civil so­ci­ety can ac­com­plish the same kind of trans­for­ma­tion, com­bin­ing con­ser­va­tion with ur­ban re­newal.

De­spite achiev­ing

World Her­itage sta­tus in 1993, the 16th­cen­tury Hu­mayun’s Tomb com­plex has never drawn as many vis­i­tors as the Red Fort or Qu­tub Mi­nar, the city’s other two UNESCO sites. That’s in part be­cause of the name, ex­plains AKTC’s Ratish Nanda, who has de­voted most of his ca­reer to the site’s restora­tion. While the Taj Ma­hal is also a burial site, it’s known as a “palace,” not a “tomb,” and pro­moted as a tes­ta­ment to em­peror Shah Ja­han’s love for his fa­vorite wife. For some rea­son, the Em­press Bega Begum’s de­vo­tion to her late hus­band, Hu­mayun, has never at­tained the same ca­chet.

To me, though, that has al­ways made Hu­mayun’s Tomb and the neigh­bor­ing Niza­mud­din Dar­gah more ex­hil­a­rat­ing. On the off-sea­son morn­ing when I meet Nanda for a walk­ing tour of the restora­tion project, I am one of per­haps a half-dozen tourists ex­plor­ing the 12-hectare Per­sian-style gar­den that sur­rounds the mas­sive, domed tomb of In­dia’s sec­ond Mughal em­peror. It’s not al­ways so de­serted, Nanda as­sures me. The num­ber of vis­i­tors has in­creased from around 200,000 to more than a mil­lion per year thanks to the restora­tion project. But be­cause the com­plex is so large, you don’t get the fish-in-a-bar­rel feel­ing that hits you

amid the thicket of touts at the Taj Ma­hal.

A sand­stone pre­cur­sor to the white marble Taj, Hu­mayun’s Tomb had de­te­ri­o­rated steadily even af­ter it was named a World Her­itage site in 1993. Poorly planned and un­der­funded preser­va­tion ef­forts us­ing ce­ment had marred the main struc­ture and dev­as­tated some of the 100-odd out­ly­ing mon­u­ments, while over­looked stone walls and gar­dens had sim­ply de­cayed into ruin. Us­ing funds do­nated by the Aga Khan on the 50th an­niver­sary of In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence, in 1997, Nanda un­der­took the restora­tion of the gar­dens sur­round­ing the build­ing. Then, when that project was suc­cess­ful, he be­gan a com­pre­hen­sive restora­tion of not only the tomb it­self but also the ad­join­ing neigh­bor­hood—a me­dieval colony sur­round­ing a vi­brant shrine to the Sufi saint Muham­mad Niza­mud­din Auliya that is now essen­tially a slum, though it is nev­er­the­less in­ter­est­ing to visit.

Ac­cord­ing to Nanda, the idea was to counter the per­cep­tion that con­ser­va­tion was the op­po­site of de­vel­op­ment. Bring­ing in artisans from all over the coun­try, the 200,000-man­hour project cre­ated em­ploy­ment and reestab­lished a sense of own­er­ship among com­mu­nity res­i­dents. “Al­most 75 per­cent of our bud­get goes to wages for our crafts­men,” Nanda says. Along with restor­ing build­ings, the trust im­proved ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and health­care and in­vested in parks and other public in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing per­for­mance ar­eas for Qawwali mu­sic, a de­vo­tional genre that be­gan here in the 14th cen­tury and is still pop­u­lar to­day. (Every vis­i­tor should take in a Thurs­day-night Qawwali per­for­mance at the shrine; they’re one of the city’s cul­tural high­lights).

Like the owner of Haveli Dharam­pura, though, Nanda is equal parts op­ti­mistic and pes­simistic about the fu­ture of similar con­ser­va­tion projects. He’s con­vinced the AKTC project has ably demon­strated the way for­ward, and he is en­cour­aged that cor­po­rate fund­ing has poured in since the gov­ern­ment ruled that her­itage con­ser­va­tion projects qual­i­fied un­der a re­cent law re­quir­ing com­pa­nies with a turnover of more than one bil­lion ru­pees (US$150 mil­lion) to give at least two per­cent of their prof­its to char­ity. Low-cost air­line In­diGo, for in­stance, is spon­sor­ing the restora­tion of the tomb of Ab­dul Rahim Khan-I-Khan­nan, who was a prom­i­nent courtier dur­ing the reign of Ak­bar the Great. And the char­i­ta­ble arm of Mumbai-based con­glom­er­ate Tata Group partly funded the restora­tion of Hu­mayun’s Tomb.

Nanda, how­ever, re­mains skep­ti­cal that any­one will pick up the torch when the AKTC project—which was re­cently ex­tended an­other five years to un­der­take the restora­tion of more mon­u­ments in the area sur­round­ing the tomb—of­fi­cially comes to an end.

“This can­not go on in per­pe­tu­ity,” he says pen­sively as he shep­herds me through the war­ren-like Niza­mud­din shrine. “There will be things left un­done.”

Among other is­sues, AKTC is only re­spon­si­ble for the restora­tion project. Though Nanda is work­ing on a 1,000-square-me­ter mu­seum that prom­ises to im­prove the stan­dard of cu­ra­tion and in­ter­pre­ta­tion (a weak point here as at most In­dian his­tor­i­cal sites), the job of run­ning the com­plex as a tourist site falls to the over­bur­dened and un­der­funded Arche­o­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of In­dia (ASI). This leaves it vul­ner­a­ble to the same pres­sures that have al­lowed ill-in­formed and ir­ri­tat­ingly ag­gres­sive free­lance guides to take over so many of the coun­try’s re- mark­able land­marks.

For­tu­nately, the In­ter­net has fa­cil­i­tated a boom in “soft­ware” that more than com­pen­sates for the city’s fail­ures in the “hard­ware” depart­ment. Face­book-based event cal­en­dars and ded­i­cated web­sites like now make it easy for trav­el­ers to find guided food tours, her­itage walks, and na­ture hikes or­ga­nized by young vol­un­teers or non­profit groups like the Bom­bay Nat­u­ral His­tory So­ci­ety and the In­dian Na­tional Trust for Art and Cul­tural Her­itage (INTACH).

Per­haps more than any­thing else that has hap­pened over the past decade, this has lib­er­ated vis­i­tors to Delhi from the tyranny of touts and pack­age tours, says INTACH’s Alisha Pathak. “The most ex­cit­ing thing about it is that now Delhi is dis­cov­er­able on foot,” she tells me.

Every few weeks, for in­stance, the Bom­bay Nat­u­ral His­tory So­ci­ety or­ga­nizes a morn­ing hike of some kind through the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary, where not long ago I joined an ex­cur­sion to search for proof that the park has at­tracted its first leop­ards. Each winter, the Delhi Walk Fes­ti­val in­au­gu­rated in 2016 by the non­profit Delhi, I Love You group now of­fers some 85 culi­nary, ar­chi­tec­tural, and bird-watch­ing walks through some of the city’s most fas­ci­nat­ing neigh­bor­hoods, led by volunteer his­to­ri­ans, gour­mands, ecol­o­gists, and fla­neurs. And groups like Delhi By Foot and INTACH it­self or­ga­nize similar out­ings on a weekly ba­sis that have earned lo­cal ex­perts like his­to­rian So­hail Hashmi and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Pradip Kr­ishen a cult fol­low­ing. “If you walk around the hin­ter­lands of Delhi, you keep stum­bling on for­got­ten mon­u­ments that are in­ti­mately con­nected to the city’s his­tory,” Pathak says.

To me, that’s the most amaz­ing part of this re­nais­sance. I’ve lived in Delhi for more than a decade now, and every year I con­tinue to “dis­cover” ma­jor arche­o­log­i­cal sites such as the 12th-cen­tury Qila Rai Pithora (the for­ti­fied ci­tadel of the so-called Slave Dy­nasty) or the 17th-cen­tury tomb of the Mughal gen­eral Azim Khan.

Now, ev­ery­day vis­i­tors to In­dia’s cap­i­tal have the chance to dis­cover these hid­den gems too—and it fi­nally looks as though they may sur­vive to make Delhi a ri­val to the other great an­cient cities of the world.

The Niza­mud­din Dar­gah shrine.

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