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

Heritage restoration and the creation of new icons

Fig. 13

Restoration and preservation of Delhi’s heritage buildings had been an ongoing process since decades, but it got a special boost in the last 3-4 years due to a planned face-lift of the city for the Commonwealth games held in October 2010, when Delhi was to be presented to the visitors as a world-class city.24 There was a lot of pressure on Nizamuddin area, being almost in the middle of the town and close to some of the most important venues of the Games, to look clean and presentable.25 But despite a huge budget allocated for the make-over of the heritage buildings and extensive work carried out almost in all monuments, the results of some restoration projects, even under INTACH’s supervision, were not considered up to the mark, mostly because some of these were done hurriedly to meet the deadlines.26 However, the AKTC, having a much better reputation of conservation (after their massive work on the Humayun’s tomb), pushed their way through the Nizamuddin area to take on as many portions of the heritage buildings as they could. Besides the urs mahal and chaunsath khamba complex, which were available easily, the baoli of Nizamuddin was also finally taken up for cleaning. [Figure 13] According to a report of the AKTC:

]Conservation works commenced following the partial collapse of the fourteenth century baoli (step-well). Conservation works benefited from the use of state-of-art technology, including Ground Penetrating Radar Survey, High Definition 3D laser scans and geotechnical assessments. The collapsed portions were rebuilt as per the original construction techniques. Prior to conservation works, a dwelling unit over the collapsed portion needed to be dismantled and alternate accommodation built for the family. In keeping with the requests of the local community, seven centuries of accumulations were manually removed from the baoli.27 

Fig. 14 

The restoration of the baoli was truly a historic event since the well had acquired dirt, grime and even sewage from the area for last seven centuries. [Figure 14] Despite being so dirty the devotees used to take out its water and carry with them as having sacred properties – some even drank it as a medicine. [See images] The conservation team took months to simply drain out the water and mud from its bottom using the latest drainage equipment. For the first time in 800 years, even the local people were able to “see” the lowest depth of the well as it was emptied out. The newly visible concentric rings at the bottom became an image itself that was published a lot in the media. In the process, the restorers also found, behind a thin wall, a secret passage going further into the basement of the building.28 Some old coins and clay utensils were also found in it. The local priests claimed that they already knew the existence of such a passage, and that it actually led to the Chilla of Nizamuddin, a mile away from the location.29 This discovery created a contestation between the restorers and the local priests since the latter were bent on trying to prove that they, being the hereditary “owners” of the place, knew such hidden details about the building even before the cleaners found them out. However, when asked about the exact location of the tunnel, they could not pinpoint it.

But besides the activities of restoration, the AKTC and other agencies also tried to convince the local residents by drawing a plan of a larger and more comprehensive rehabilitation of the area and the lives of people, involving new facilities of education, health, recreation and cultural activities in the neighbourhood.30 They also tried to revive the tradition of qawwali singing by assisting the existing qawwal families of the area to enrich their repertoire and training skills, although there had been little success in that.31 In any case, AKTC along with

Fig. 15

other government agencies was able to sponsor some qawwali concerts for the local musicians which attracted a large audience from all over Delhi.32 Another important activity was the installation of a visual exhibit for the local residents highlighting the history and heritage of the area and how AKTC wishes to restore much of it to its lost glory.

The visual exhibit and other cultural programmes were held in the recently restored Urs mahal complex and attended by a large number of local residents and pilgrims who were able to “see” their heritage from a completely new perspective. [Figure 15 ] This visual exhibit stressed on two aspects or viewpoints of heritage which were new for the local residents: 

Fig. 16

(1) seeing the old buildings as rich and pride-worthy heritage that relates to centuries-old history rather than just a ruin that can broken down to build new homes. [Figure 16] This aspect used visual presentations that showed the imaginary development of their neighbourhood through a timeline of several centuries, using archival illustrations and photographs of the monuments which the local residents may have never seen before. (2) presenting Sufism, Sufi shrine and qawwali in certain romanticised images that present it as a rich cultural heritage rather than only a devotional space where pilgrims come for their salvation. This was done by colourful photographs (taken by well known photographers) of faqirs, flowers on the tomb, architectural motifs and other contemporary images of pilgrims. [Figure 17]

Fig. 17

Thus, the local residents and regular pilgrims were able to look at the spaces, which they had so far considered mundane, in a new perspective.They acquired at least some sense of cultural heritage about a space they have been visiting or living in everyday. To involve them further, the AKTC also employed the local youth into a practice of conducting “heritage walks” for tourists and specialized groups who regularly come to explore the area.33 For this, they were trained in the history and heritage of the area, and can now guide the visitors for a small fee. Several other activities of local involvement include healthcare and education of children besides the training of local girls and women in producing artwork that reflects Islamic heritage and so on. However, this example of AKTC’s involvement with the local heritage and social upliftment, although very unique and unprecedented, cannot be called a complete success story of heritage restoration with a happy ending. Many questions remain unanswered34 and many heritage buildings still threatened by encroachment or demolition. [Figure 18]

Fig. 18

What this restoration exercise at Nizamuddin shrine could at least do was to bring some reorientation or redefinition of the concepts of “heritage” and “devotion” for their respective practitioners about each other. While the restoration agencies could not simply land there with their tools and start polishing the walls (the way the government authorities would have normally acted) – they had to device policies of a more comprehensive social rehabilitation along with heritage restoration. Similarly, even the local residents and shrine keepers could not just remain defensive and evasive about their “control” over the buildings. They had/have to overcome their fear of the “community victimization” and appreciate the long-term benefits of the restoration efforts. More importantly, the projection of a cleaner and shinier heritage (viz. qawwali, Sufi literature and cultural heritage etc.) is also likely to present a more positive image of their culture as compared to the messy and superstitious Sufi culture that they are so far being criticised for by the neo-orthodox Muslims all over the world.

24. Roy, Siddhartha, “Games gains: Delhi gets a world-class makeover,” The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, October 15, 2010.

25. Verma, Richi, “Delhi's lesser-known monuments get facelift for Games,” The Economic Times, New Delhi, Aug 2, 2010.

26. Verma, Richi, “Mosque makeover annoys locals,” The Times of India, New Delhi, Jun 28, 2010.

27. Humayun’s Tomb - Sunder Nursery - Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Project in Delhi, Project Brief, 2010, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, New Delhi.

28. Verma, Richi, “Secret tunnel found at Nizamuddin dargah,” The Times of India, New Delhi, 24 April, 2009.

29. Verma, Richi, “Priests aware of passage existence,” The Times of India, New Delhi, April 2009.

30. Jashn e Khusrau, A Festival of Poetry and Music as Part of Delhi Urban Renewal Programme

31. Dutta, Shweta, “Plans afoot for revival of qawwali tradition in Nizamuddin,” Indian Express, New Delhi, Apr 21 2011.

32. Verma, Richi, “ASI for more qawwali nights,” The Times of India, New Delhi, Mar 15, 2009.

33. Staff Reporter, “Now take a heritage walk at Nizamuddin Basti,” The Hindu, Delhi, Dec 19, 2010.

34. Some concerned citizen, such as Dr.Farida Ali of the shrine of Sufi Inayat Khan, have questioned whether AKTC consulted any archaeologists or historians before demolishing some structures and applying some new features on many heritage buildings.


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