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Monumental task: saving India's rich heritage

Negotiating with dacoits, unearthing medieval recipes for building material, and applying Multani mitti ‘face packs’ to the Taj are all part of the difficult effort to preserve India’s rich built heritage.
Hindustan Times | By Rana Safvi
UPDATED ON JUN 29, 2014 02:04 PM IST

India is blessed with an extraordinary wealth of architectural treasures. However, this has also made the preservation, conservation and maintenance of monuments a difficult and ongoing task. The subcontinent’s first conservationist was possibly Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who writes in Futuhat-e-Firoz Shahi: “By the guidance of God, I was led to repair and rebuild the edifices and structures of former kings and ancient nobles, which had fallen into decay from lapse of time; giving the restoration of these buildings the priority over my own building works.” Firoz Shah repaired the Qutub Minar, which had been struck by lightening and added two storeys to it. As the reigning Sultan, he could do as he wished but ordinary mortals who attempted to leave their stamp on the monument could not hope to escape public condemnation, as Major Smith learnt five centuries later.

In 1828, Major Smith, who had earlier successfully built the Kashmere Gate and St James Church, was put in charge of repairs to the minar. Smith blithely added balconies and a ‘Bengali Chatri’ too. Lord Hardinge ordered the chatri or cupola removed. The hapless Major also came in for much criticism for the inaccurate reassembly of the calligraphic verses on the minar which made it impossible to read the mismatched ayats. The ASI’s Ferguson dismissed Smith’s own redesign of the entrance doorway as “Strawberry Hill Gothic.”

Clearly, the conservation and restoration of ancient monuments is an arduous task that needs to be done under expert guidance and requires the study of the plans of the original builders and the replication of their materials.

Traditional building materials in India were mud, earth, clay and lime, which is one of the oldest binding materials to be used in construction. In fact, the longevity of many monuments is attributed to the use of soft and porous lime mortar, which allows buildings to breathe by letting trapped moisture escape from the joints rather than destroy the stonework.

In India, other indigenous materials such as surkhi (crushed bricks), batasha (sweet sugar drops), urad ki dal (white lentil), egg white, malai (cream), tambakoo sheera (juice of tobacco which, though introduced at end of Akbar’s reign, became popular as an adhesive from the period of Shah Jahan onwards), and bel giri (Aegle marmelos) were also added to the lime. Jute is used in some cases to prevent cracks.

KK Mohammed, former director of ASI, during whose tenure extensive repair work was done in Firoz Shah Kotla, confirmed that the ASI too has been using lime mixed with surkhi, bel giri, gud (jaggery), gaund (gum), urad dal, and batasha. This helps to retain the original look and increases the life of the building. Egg whites are used for surfaces which require fine polish.

The restoration of monuments often comes up against unexpected obstacles. KK Mohammed reveals that the restoration of the 1300-year-old Bateshwar temples, 40 km from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, was complicated not just because the 200 odd temples there were in ruins, but also because it involved negotiating with Chambal dacoits! And then there are the complexities of development. KK Mohammed reveals that, in 2008, he had to speak to RSS chief KS Sudarshan about the cracks that were developing in the Bateshwar temple ruins because of unabated illegal mining in the area.

Finally, to restore the glory of the temples, the wild vegetation was cleared, the foundation of each structure was strengthened and each temple was reassembled in the ongoing project.

It is important to preserve the authenticity of monuments and visitors to Alai Darwaza in the Qutub Complex and the Jamali Kamali tomb in Mehrauli Archeological park will notice that the original designs, tiles and paintings have not been replaced or restored. Instead, they have been conserved in an “as is where is condition.”

The ASI is currently preparing to give the Taj Mahal a ‘facial’ using multani mitti (Fuller’s earth) — a material that was part of medieval beauty treatments and continues to be popular in our era. The monument will be covered with the lime rich clay that will only be washed off the following day, hopefully taking with it the years of grime and pollution that have discoloured the marble.

Perhaps, the most famous conservation project in recent times has been on Humayun’s tomb. Archival research on the monument, 3D Laser Scanning and peer reviews by independent national and international experts were all part of the project that aimed to restore the ‘architectural integrity’ of the original building by using traditional skills. Earlier repairs with inappropriate modern materials had affected the World Heritage structure’s longevity. Undoing this earlier work meant removing a million kgs of concrete, 40 cms thick, from the roof of Humayun’s tomb using hand tools. 200,000 square feet of lime plaster was applied to areas where it had been lost or replaced with cement plaster that was accelerating deterioration. The stone paving of the lower platform that was covered with cement in the mid 20th century was revealed, lifted and manually reset to provide an adequate slope to drain rainwater. Master craftsmen were brought in from Uzbekistan where the art of tile making is still alive to train youth from the Nizamuddin Basti. The lost and broken glazed tiles on the canopies and the gate were replaced using hand tools, materials and building techniques. The Bu Halima gate at the entrance to the Humayun’s Tomb Complex, has been restored according to the ‘design intent’ of Mughal builders.

To some used to seeing aging, brown and black gates, the first sight of the creamy white gate was disconcerting. However, a conversation with Ratish Nanda, Project Director, Humayun’s Tomb-Sundar Nursery-Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, clears any misgivings. “The principal aim of the conservation effort has been to enhance the life of the structure as well as follow the original builders design intention to ensure integrity and authenticity of material is not compromised,” he said revealing that the cement plaster applied during earlier restoration attempts was replaced with traditional lime plaster. In keeping with the Mughal tradition, the final layer of lime plaster that gives the gate its white appearance was made by mixing marble dust and egg white with lime.

So the next time you gaze at the Taj or marvel at the superb Humayun’s Tomb, remember that much thought and even greater effort has gone into preserving these monuments that are such an integral part of our national identity.

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