Nizamuddin Shrine’s Built Heritage and Delhi’s Urban Face-lift

The present crisis of heritage

The independence and partition of India in 1947 saw a complete reorientation of how the heritage, especially the Islamic architecture of Delhi, was seen and projected. Large tracts of Delhi’s lands with heritage buildings on them were earmarked for residential purposes and new colonies built on them when thousands of Hindu migrated here from west Punjab. Delhi lost an unprecedented number of heritage buildings due to illegal encroachments by the new migrants, who appropriated them not only for their urgent need but also as a revengeful act for their own loss of property in Pakistan. At least some authors have documented such loss of Islamic heritage buildings in Delhi in the hands of Punjabi Hindu migrants.12 Secondly, Delhi’s heritage worth projecting for the national pride and tourism comprised now of new colonial and post-colonial icons such as India Gate, President’s house, Connaught Place, Birla temple, Teen Murti house, and Gandhi’s cremation memorial, in addition to the older essential buildings like Red fort, Jama masjid and Qutab minar. The Nizamuddin shrine that was once a qibla or axis around which much of the Islamicate Delhi grew, went out of sight due to the modern structures and colonies built around it.

Fig. 09

Initially the Nizamuddin shrine, the baoli and other nearby structures were not even on the list of buildings that were cleaned or restored to make them presentable as Delhi’s heritage. This is mainly because many of these buildings and their parts, some dating to early 14th century, were being used as private residences, offices or shops by families that have occupied them since almost seven centuries. [Figure 09] The reason for their occupation is not only the scarcity of residential space in Delhi, but also their being profitable spaces for doing religion-based business, such as providing talisman, spiritual and medical healing, food, devotional literature, images and ephemera, besides other pilgrim-related services like the spiritual tourism. Besides such merchandise, an even larger income is generated through the donations made by the pilgrims either for the upkeep of the shrine or simply for the purpose of their salvation. For such profitable reasons, the extended families of local priests, spiritual healers, qawwals and shopkeepers are not only in competition with each other to court each arriving pilgrim but also a bit insecure about the legal status of their enterprise as well as the spaces they have occupied.

Fig. 10

The locality today is not well-kept in terms of cleanliness, infrastructure and heritage conservation. Hundreds of beggars throng the place not only for free langar food that is distributed here twice a day but also the space remaining open for them to sleep at night. According to a few pilgrims interviewed during this study, there are hardly any toilets for the visitors. The money that comes in for the upkeep is hardly used for daily maintenance except maybe for tents, electric fixtures and the essential items used during festive days. The narrow lanes leading to the main shrine are getting narrower due to illegal shop extensions, garbage and even overflowing sewers and their stink. Most historic buildings are in bad shape – partly or fully encroached upon by the local residents who applied and reapplied all kinds of harmful construction material and distasteful designs since decades. [Figure 10]

One should clarify here that the shrine keepers are not always the culprits who are damaging their heritage – they also have their own concerns of restoration and repairs of a building that they have been occupying for generations – they want to add a value of “permanence” and durability to the structure as well as more comfort to the visiting pilgrims. In today’s context they want to “modernise” the shrine. But by and large, their concept of repair and modernization starts with the applying of white marble, iron, cement and concrete to the structures, without realising that such material may actually harm the structure and would be completely incongruous to the original design and aesthetics. Many centuries old walls, lattice screens and other building parts are being painted over and over since centuries without any consideration of the damage the paint may have caused. In fact, some walls and sections of the tomb had Persian and Arabic text inscribed on them which got completely hidden from the view. Many families have been residing in structures that should have been preserved as monuments.13 Many such buildings (some as old as 500-800 years) have been broken down in the last few decades to construct new concrete buildings.14 It is not that the government authorities never made an effort to safeguard the heritage buildings here. But an outsider making an offer or effort to clean-up the shrine has always been seen as a threat to the established profitable system of the local priests, and met with a hostile attitude. Their own concept of preserving or “improving” the old buildings is usually limited to adding white marble or new paint all over the structures.

Fig. 11

Since heritage conservation and its implications on local population of Nizamuddin area is a large and complex subject of study with many aspects worth exploring, I would like to limit this report to a few example of how the recent efforts of restoration led to interesting cases of narrative formation between the restorers and the local priests and residents, especially how the latter had to “redefine” the concepts of heritage and relic in order to suit their interests. In 1985-87, after completing the listing of buildings of historic importance in Delhi, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) identified Nizamuddin Basti and the surrounding areas as conservation and environment protection areas. A dialogue was initiated with Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to take up the restoration which included upgrading, cleaning and landscaping the area around the Dargah. [Figure 11]

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) which has recently completed a large project of restoring the Humayun’s tomb was involved in the cleaning of Nizamuddin baoli and other areas.15 But their job in Nizamuddin could not start as easily as they did with a protected monument such as the Humayun’s tomb. [See video] The local residents and the shrine-keepers were up in arms against them as they feared the restoration was a ploy to uproot them from their homes and livelihood. They even employed lawyers and media campaigns to resist the efforts of restoration. This constant stand-off could actually be seen at two levels: (1) a localised one that relates to the particular heritage site and its use by the shrine’s priest class and (2) a larger one that relates to north India’s Muslim community feeling victimised by the government and Hindus.


12. Zaidi, Bashir Hasan, “Pesh lafz” (Foreword), in Anjum, Khaliq, Dilli ki Dargah Shah-e Mardan, Delhi: Urdu Academy, 1988, 13-14.

13. Verma, Richi, and Neha Lalchandani, “At home in Akbar-era ASI-‘protected’ tomb,” The Times of India, New Delhi, March 5, 2009.

14. Verma, Richi, “13th century monument razed,” The Times of India, June 2009 (Lal Mahal was built by Ghayasuddin Balban in 1245).

15. For details, see http://www.intachdelhichapter.org

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