Conserving and Restoring India’s Ancient Monuments

In a country like India, with so many architectural treasures from ancient times till now it is a difficult task to preserve, conserve and maintain monuments. India’s first conservationist has to be 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.” He also repaired the Qutub Minar, which had been struck by lightening and added two more storeys on the top to it. As the reigning Sultan he could do whatever he desired but imagine an ordinary mortal or agency doing the same! In 1803 lightening struck the Qutub Minar once more, and in 1828 Church was put in charge of the repairs. This time around however he came in for a lot of criticism for adding some very out of sync balconies on each of the storeys and a totally out of place ‘Bengali Chatri (cupola).cupola

Photograph Syed Mohammad Qasim

This cupola was later removed on orders of Lord Hardinge and is still kept in the grounds. The hapless Major Smith also came in for criticism for the inaccurate re assembly of the calligraphic verses on the Minar. As Sir Syed complained many of the ‘ayats’ have now been mismatched and can’t be read. Mr. Ferguson of the ASI denounced his redesigning of the entrance doorway as Smith’s own design, calling it “ strawberry Hill Gothic.” The act of conservation, restoration, repairing, reconstruction and preservation of ancient monuments is a very long and arduous task and needs to be done under expert guidance. It requires studying and replicating the materials used by the original builders. Special attention has to be paid to the plans, intention, materials and tools used by the original builders. It is not an easy task and can’t be undertaken lightly. Traditional building materials were mud, earth and clay and lime. The latter is one of the oldest binding materials to be used in construction and is still primarily used for their repair. In fact the longevity of many of these monuments the world over is attributed to the use of lime mortar, as it is soft and porous thus allowing the building to breathe and allowing trapped moisture to escape from the joints rather than destroying 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 was used from Akbar’s reign onwards as an adhesive), and bel giri (Aegle marmelos) were added to the lime. If it was to be used to give a marble finish as in the interiors of the Taj Mahal only the white materials were added.

Extensive restoration work in Firoz Shah Kotla complex of its crumbling walls to strengthen the walls and prevent further collapsing, using lime, mixed with surkhi, bel giri, jiggery, gaund (gum), urad dal, batasha and egg whites. Jute was used for interlocking and for the thickness of plaster. Mr. K.K. Mohammed ex Director, ASI has restored the 1300 year old Bateshwar temples, 40 km from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh.

This restoration was complicated not just because the 200 odd temples were lying in ruins with the pieces scattered in the area, but also because it involved negotiating with the Chambal dacoits who over ran the place! He even wrote to the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) chief K S Sudarshan in 2008 raising the issue of cracks developing in Bateshwar temple ruins due to unabated illegal mining. A thorough documentation, study and numbering of the fallen architectural and sculpture temple pieces, which were strewn around in the area was undertaken. The destruction had been due to water flow from the hill side, unchecked growth of vegetation and perhaps earthquakes. To restore the glory of the temples the vegetation was cleared from the temples. Foundation of each structure was strengthened and a thorough search for the correct components of each temple was made in the precincts and then they were reassembled. It’s an ongoing task for the ASI. A video of this is available on youtube. I came across a similar story regarding the Sanchi Stupas in Madhya Pradesh in the Rare Books Society of India site with photographs from 1875 with the British Library. The photograph shows the lion capitals, torana beams and other sculpture fragments lying on the ground near the Great Stupa at Sanchi. Extensive reconstruction and restoration work was undertaken and the gateway was rebuilt by 1883 by ASI and is there for all to see even today.

019PHO000001003U01349000[SVC2](Shelfmark: Photo 1003/(1349)British Library)

Apart from conservation, restoration and reconstruction ASI whose prime concern is maintenance of ancient monuments and archaeological sites and remains of national importance also does limited/ necessary intervention to preserve authenticity and integrity of the monuments and prevent further damage, without altering its prevailing condition. This has been done in many sites a few examples of which are Alai Darwaza in the Qutub Complex and Jamali Kamali tomb in Mehrauli Archeological park, where the original designs , tiles and paintings have not been replaced or restored. Instead they have been conserved in a “ as is where is condition.” This ensures the ancient weather beaten look of the building, bearing the stamp of the vagaries of nature.jamali

Photograph by Syed Mohammad Qasim

The ASI is currently preparing to give the Taj Mahal a facial treatment based on the ‘multani mitti’ ( Fuller’s earth) face pack ( full ingredients have not been disclosed) used by ladies of the medieval era. The monument will be covered by the lime rich clay and will be left overnight. It is hoped that once it dries up and is washed the next day, years of grime and pollution, which has discoloured the marble, will also be washed away.

Perhaps, the most famous conservation project in recent times has been the conservation of Humayun’s tomb which was undertaken by Aga Khan Trust for Culture with co-funding of Sir Dorabji Trust, in partnership with the Archeological Survey of India in In 2007 -2013. It is also the first of its kind public private partnership project between ASI, MCD, CPWD,AKF and AKTC. This monument is a World Heritage Sight and so was not to be undertaken lightly. The AKTC did archival research on the monument, spanning centuries of accumulated materials so as to understand conception of the original architect and builders, which included the use of 3D Laser Scanning technology and peer review by independent national and international experts. The entire process was documented and a high level of supervision maintained throughout. The aim was to restore the ‘architectural integrity’ of the original building by the use of traditional skills. In the 20th century repairs with inappropriate modern materials in many monuments have compromised its integrity and longevity and such was the case here too. As per their flyer, a million kgs of concrete, 40 cms thick, was removed from the dome of Humayun’s tomb using hand tools. 200,000 square feet of lime plaster was applied in areas where this had either been lost or replaced in recent times with cement plaster that was accelerating deterioration. The stone paving was removed and manually reset to ensure adequate slope to drain rainwater. Conservation work was done using a craft based approach, and craftsmen were encouraged to revive their ancestral traditions using traditional tools and materials. Master Craftsmen were brought in from Uzbekistan where the art of tile making is still alive to train youth from the Nizamuddin Basti in the art. The lost and broken glazed tiles on the canopies and the gate have been replaced using hand tools, materials and building techniques. This has also generated economic opportunities for the youth of Nizamuddin Basti. The Bu Halima gate, which is the entrance to the Humayun’s Tomb Complex, has been restored as per the’ design intent’ of the architect. To some, and I must confess I was also one of them initially, used to seeing aging, brown and black gates, the first sight of the creamy white gate was a bit disconcerting. However, a conversation with Mr. Ratish Nanda, Project Director, Humayun’s Tomb-sundar Nursery-Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative, AKTC clarified my misgivings. He explained that “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.” They removed the cement plaster, which had been applied on the four facades of the gate in 2002-4 and replaced it by a traditional lime plaster layer. In keeping with the Mughal tradition, who used it to give it the marble look, the final layer of lime plaster that gives the white appearance was made using lime mixed with marble dust and egg white. I quote Mr. Nanda; “We at AKTC refuse to artificially age the plaster in order for it to look old as that seriously compromises the lime plaster – which should survive in perpetuity with only a little maintenance.”

Bu Halima Gateway West Facade BeforeBu Halima Gateway West Facade AfterThese photographs have been given to me by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and I use them with their permission.


Note : An edited version of this article was published in Hindustan Times under the heading Monumental task on Jun 29, 2014:


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