An anonymous piece of Delhi heritage gets a new lease of life
How a very visible but hitherto virtually anonymous piece of heritage will get a new lease of life in the heart of Delhi.
In the middle of a busy intersection across the street from Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi is an octagonal monument topped by a dome — some estimates say six million people pass by it every year. Not many, however, know what the structure is, when it was built, what its history is or even its name.
A painstaking effort is now on to pull this very visible monument in the heart of Delhi out of anonymity. For the time being, the ancient 70-foottall building is veiled by a green curtain. Large screens with recreations of what the structure possibly looked like originally and will look like once it is restored reveal its name: “Sabz Burj”, which means “green tower” or “green dome”. It is an intriguing name, considering that the dome is in fact blue and not green.
Some reports say that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), while attempting to restore it in the 1980s, removed the original green tiles and replaced them with blue. “But there is no evidence, as yet, of green on the dome, though we are still learning about this monument,” says Ratish Nanda, CEO of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which has joined hands with Havells India and ASI to conserve the prominent 16th-century site. The Trust had earlier restored the world heritage site of Humayun’s Tomb, which Sabz Burj overlooks.
It is not just the location that makes the monument historically significant, but the fact that this is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Mughal buildings in India. It is presumed to have been built shortly after 1526, when the Mughal armies under Babur defeated the Lodi Afghan dynasty and founded the Mughal empire in India. The style of the structure indicates that it is a tomb and not a mosque, gateway or pavilion. But it is not known whose tomb it is; there is no visible grave inside. Sabz Burj is also one of the earliest buildings in India with a double dome.
“Its unique architecture is representative of the Timurid style,” says Nanda. The turquoise and blue glazed ceramic tiles decorating the façade of the building with geometric patterns, richly ornamented incised plasterwork, wall paintings and decorative lattice stonework are all indicative of the Timurid style. This was when Islamic art and architecture in Central Asia was at its pinnacle.
And this — the sheer scale — is what makes the task of the conservationists all the more challenging.
Nanda would not like to compare it with Humayun’s Tomb in terms of the restoration work needed, but here’s the difference. Sabz Burj is nowhere close to Humayun’s Tomb in size, but then the tomb of the second Mughal emperor also has no ornamentation. And, Sabz Burj is all about ornamentation — a lot of which has been lost to the vagaries of nature, to vandals who stripped it of its lattice screens and tiles and sold them in the antique market, to the onslaught of pollution and the constant vibration of vehicles and blaring horns. At one point, it even served as the police station for Nizamuddin — the area that has a profusion of tombs, being the resting place of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. But the worst damage has been caused by illconceived “restoration” efforts that used cement to plaster and fix anything that appeared damaged.
The inside of the dome is intricately painted, making it one of its kind — all other domes have incised plasterwork. But this painting is hardly visible, because somebody once decided to put a layer of chemical on it. The conservationists are concerned that any attempt to remove the chemical without precise expertise could take the painting with it. So they are reaching out to experts around the world.
“Usually, about 80 per cent of the conservation cost goes into craftsmen’s wages. Not so in this building because we have to get extremely specialised help,” says Nanda.
The major work includes incising of cracks in the upper dome, stabilising the foundation, providing a plinth protection, and restoring missing work on the neck of the dome and the incised plasterwork patterns on the façade. The missing sandstone lattice screens will also need to be replaced.
While the dome itself is blue, its drum, or neck, displays a pattern with four strikingly colourful tiles — green, yellow and two shades of blue. Most of these tiles are lost, but some remain. Some are chipped. The conservationists do not intend to remove the original tiles, not even the ones that are chipped or have lost their glaze. They are, after all, almost five centuries old. The patterns below the lost tiles are still discernible and give the conservationists a good idea of what to place where and how. “Conservation needs in situ evidence. Fortunately, we have that evidence here,” says Nanda.
Replacing the lost tiles with machine-made ones is out of the question. So, master craftsmen — masons, stone carvers, tile makers — are recreating them using traditional tools and building material. Everything is handmade by local youths from Nizamuddin. So much so that even the compression is done by hand. The idea, as with other conservation works undertaken by the Trust, is to also provide employment to the local community and develop the surrounding area. During the conservation effort, the craftsmen are expected to clock over 15,000 man days. They have already removed the inappropriate cement work that was undertaken in the late 20th century.
Nanda does not want to reveal how much the conservation effort will cost, though he says they have a detailed estimate. Money, he says, is not a problem. The partnership with Havells has helped a good deal on that front. Initially, the electrical equipment company had offered to illuminate the monument once the conservation work was completed. That changed after Nanda visited the office of its chairman and managing director, Anil Rai Gupta. In Gupta’s office was a family photograph with Humayun’s Tomb in the background. “So, I told him, ‘I cannot let you get away with just lighting’,” says Nanda with a laugh. Gupta nods. One thing led to another and Havells decided to make preserving built heritage its corporate social responsibility. “That this initiative also provides livelihoods to the local community made it more attractive,” says Gupta, who has spent the last few weekends with his family at the monument.
The restoration work began in November 2017. The conservationists hope to have Sabz Burj restored and ready by the end of this year. That’s when the green curtain will fall and this grand monument that stands at the crossroads, both literally and in history, will once again engage with the thousands who drive past it every day — in its newfound old glory.
Sabz Burj is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Mughal buildings in India. It is presumed to have been built shortly after 1526