Aga Khan Trust for Culture Rescuing India’s Monuments: From Delhi’s Humayun Tomb to Hyderabad’s Qutub Shahi Tomb – A conversation with Ratish Nandha

Nanda has become a healer of Delhi’s crumbling monuments. He has been involved in the conservation of more than 100 of them. And last year, the team led by the 41-year-old conservation architect finished restoring the Capital’s Humayun’s Tomb, the first of the great buildings raised by Mughals in the subcontinent.

Since we started preliminary work on the tomb in 1997,” says Nanda, and continues:

  • the number of its visitors has increased by 1,000%.
  • A 14th century stone well in the basti long abused as a dump has been detoxified.
  • Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib’s derelict tomb has been restored with marble inlays and red sandstone.
  • At least one public park has been cleared of drug addicts.
  • Enrolment in the refurbished primary school has increased from 130 children to 660.
  • Hundreds of young people in the basti have acquired basic skills in computers and the English language—some of them now lead heritage walks for tourists.
  • Garbage is collected from one-third of the houses.
  • Restoration work on the additional buildings in the Humayun’s Tomb complex continues.

Ratish Nanda outside a Lodi-era tomb in Lado Sarai, New Delhi. Photo- Pradeep Gaur:MintSuch a feat would have been impossible even for Nanda—he has personally catalogued and photographed more than a thousand known and unknown monuments in Delhi—had he not been heading the India operations of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), a Switzerland-based philanthropic institution that focuses on revitalizing Muslim communities across the world.

Since 2007, Nanda has been pioneering the Urban Renewal Initiative project in central Delhi’s historic but filthy Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, a village just across the road from Humayun’s Tomb. Besides restoring dozens of medieval-era monuments in the area, AKTC’s venture (in partnership with government agencies) aims to lift the living standards of neighbourhoods around the monuments.

Like a CEO who spends too much time poring over PowerPoint presentations, Nanda talks mostly in bullet points.

  • “No.1: a conservation project must have all the required human and financial resources it needs, otherwise there is more damage than benefit.
  • No.2: conservation and development must be parts of the same project.”

Referring to the gloriously beautiful Atgah Khan’s Tomb, a monument unfortunately encircled by the basti’s multi-storeyed shanties, Nanda says, “If you want to preserve that building, you first have to take care of the people living there in unsanitary conditions.

For some ruins, it is too late. Last year, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) informed Parliament that it could no longer trace 35 protected monuments in the country—12 of them were in Delhi. Such a loss is crushing, but despair won’t help.

We have started with a 10-year conservation project at Qutub Shahi’s Tomb in Hyderabad,” says Nanda. That may be Humayun’s Tomb, Part 2.

Read more at: Ratish Nanda | The custodian of ruins

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