Delhi: Sabz Burj gets a new lease of life

Published on Nov 18, 2021 01:01 AM IST
Located at the busy intersection of two key arterial roads—Mathura Road and Lodhi Road— the domed tomb lies to the west of Humayun’s Tomb and serves as a gateway to the world heritage site.
The Sabz Burj, built in 1530’s, after completion of its four-year-long conservation work by Agha Khan Trust. (PTI)
The Sabz Burj, built in 1530’s, after completion of its four-year-long conservation work by Agha Khan Trust. (PTI)
BySadia Akhtar

New Delhi: It is called Sabz (green) Burj, but covered with turquoise blue tiles. The monument, counted among the earliest Mughal-era buildings, has received a new lease of life following a four-year-long conservation bid.

Located at the busy intersection of two key arterial roads—Mathura Road and Lodhi Road— the domed tomb lies to the west of Humayun’s Tomb and serves as a gateway to the world heritage site.

Though it is said to be built in the 1530s, there is no record of who built the tomb and for whom. It demonstrates Timurid architectural style synonymous with Central Asia and is double-domed like Humayun’s Tomb. The tomb’s outer dome is dotted with glazed tiles and displays unique geometric and interlacing patterns in different colours, and forms a prominent part of the neighbourhood’s skyline.

With the word “sabz” in its name means “green”, the tomb is largely covered in turquoise blue tiles. The lotus finial atop the dome and the neck, however, consist of green tiles. The incised plasterwork also gives a hint of green colour in parts. Experts say that the name of the monument might have originated through local folklores.

The monument was used as a police station in the early 20th century. During this period, the painted interiors were plastered over due to which much of the façade decoration was lost, and replaced with layers of cement. By the 1980’s, much of the tile work on the dome had fallen away and was re-tiled with modern tiles fixed with cement mortar.

Conservation work at the monument was carried out by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and funded by Havells through CSR intervention which will also be illuminating the building. The four-year long conservation project involved restoration of tiles on the dome and decorative plaster patterns on all eight sides of the facade. Tiles matching the physical and chemical properties of the 16th century tiles have now been restored on the dome as well as on the drum where pieces were missing.

A unique feature of the monument, that came to light during conservation works, was the revelation of a painted ceiling with detailed floral motifs and patterns created in real gold and lapis lazuli. Lapis lazuli, or lapis for short, is a deep-blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense color.

Taking into account the immense importance of the ceiling, no restoration of missing portions was carried out by the team.

Ratish Nanda, CEO, Aga Khan Trust for Culture India, said the ceiling of the tomb and the building was covered with cement during the time it served as a police station. “The intricate pattern on the ceiling is made of pure gold and lapiz. This is the most significant element of the tomb. However, the building was covered with cement plaster during the time it served as a police station. We tried to remove the layers and unveil the original ceiling as much as we could,” said Nanda.

He said while there was no grave at the mausoleum, one could estimate that the tomb belonged to an important nobleman since the ceiling was made of gold.

“The ceiling is sensational and of great significance. The yellow traces that we now see is pure gold. The gold painting has been done on pure blue lapiz background. This tells us that someone significant was associate with the tomb,” said Nanda.

Ujwala Menon, AKTC’s conservation architect, said over 20,000 tiles were tested for achieving the physical and chemical composition used for the original building. The new tiles were made by skilled craftspersons whereas all surviving original tiles were retained.

“The tilework on the dome and the neck, the painted ceiling that has been revealed, the incised plasterwork and the detailed ornamental work in the building that has been restored are some of the significant elements that add to the importance of the structure,” said Menon.

Historian and author Swapna Liddle said the high drum of the tomb was a typical feature of Timurid period. Liddle said the architecture made the monument unique. “The ‘Nila Gumbad’ also, to an extent, shows Timurid style,” said Liddle.

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